In defense of WALL•E


Okay, this is a bit much. Let us start with a simple proposition:

    Is there only one way to view art?

If we want to complicate that question, we might ask whether that one perspective properly considers all potential factors, and whether it should.

Pixar's WALL•E has received criticism for its treatment of obesity.

Pixar's WALL•E has received criticism for its treatment of obesity.

The current controversy surrounds Pixar’s latest release, Wall•E, a dazzling and charming shoe-in for the Academy’s “Best Animated Feature” award. Apparently, the film has caused something of a stir among the sensitively obese. However, as quickly becomes apparent, that complaint depends on the proposition that there is only one way to view Wall•E.

Blogger Jessica Melusine posted her objections last month in the form of a letter she sent to Pixar, which reads, in part,

The first half hour took my breath away—exquisite, beautiful, heartwrenching and full of beauty even in the midst of a nightmarish dystopia. I loved the tenderness and love that went into creating Wall-e and Eve and the hope that they had.

Then, the Axiom.

This broke my heart. Completely.

Do you know what it feels like seeing a shipfull of fat people who exist to show how dissolute and horrible and wasteful people can be? I’ve had fat jokes directed at me. I’ve had people laugh at my pictures. Since childhood, I’ve even had family members poke fun at my body, where I’m supposed to “take a joke”.

Pixar, this is one joke I don’t want to take. It is horrible when you see the only bodies shaped like you as things to laugh at, as living examples of as a culture, how shoddily we treat the earth. There’s no complexity, no understanding, just an easy punchline.

Why is it instantly funny to see people fall and struggle and be hurt?

Worst yet, I sat there watching trying to be hopeful because at least the fat couple touched hands and smiled at each other.

Unlike Wall-e and Eve, they never got to dance.

I cried at the beginning looking at Wall-e’s gnomes and spork and endless work in the midst of a desolate city. I left crying because from Pixar—a company that shows love in strange places, how everyone has a place and how love and tenderness belong to creatures as different as a plastic mermaid and a plastic snowman—showed me that it’s okay to laugh at fat people, that it’s okay to have them as the butt of a joke yet again.

Over at the New York Post, Lou Lumenick found something conspiratorial about Pixar’s pre-release campaign:

The Mouse House certainly isn’t going out of its way to reveal this snarky little surprise. There are no stills of the fat characters in the movie’s press kit, which foregoes Disney’s longstanding custom of providing art of the voice talent next to the characters they portray. The only enormous character in the trailer — the spaceship’s captain, portrayed by Hollywood’s favorite plus-size actor, Jeff Garlin — flashes by in less than a second ….

The complaints run back to last year, even. Over at The F-Word, the histrionics are impressive:

The difference I see between a movie like Idiocracy (or classics like Player Piano, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984) is that these stories are grounded in very real and tangible conflicts, like class conflicts, rapidly advancing technology, the distribution of power, and/or threats to the social and cultural orders. No one group of people are made to blame – it’s a collective human downfall.

But WALL-E specifically singles out and targets obese people as the primary cause of mankind’s demise, further perpetuating the stereotype of the gluttonous, slothful fat person. Furthermore, the film suggests that, in their exaggerated laziness, obese people disregard not only personal health, but also that of the planets, and are held up as the cause for the destruction of the environmental landscape.

Fashionista?

Over on the thread linked to above Bekki mentioned that the “villains” of Wall-e (which my partner & I have been looking forward to since the first images of the little Johnny-5 esque robot were released… we say “Wall-e” to each other in the voice and everything, it’s really quite sad) take the form of (the ever so original and not hackneyed at all) Fat! American! Couch! Potatoes! I didn’t want to believe that Pixar, the folks behind last summer’s resplendent Ratatouille, a brilliant movie about the importance of nourishment and appearance not ultimately dictating a person’s (or rat’s) skills or passions, could be capable of perpetrating some sort of heinous obesity crisis storyline but it seems the ugly rumours are true ….

How about Slate?

Wall-E is an innovative and visually stunning film, but the “satire” it draws is simple-minded. It plays off the easy analogy between obesity and ecological catastrophe, pushing the notion that Western culture has sickened both our bodies and our planet with the same disease of affluence. According to this lazy logic, a fat body stands in for a distended culture: We gain weight and the Earth suffers. If only society could get off its big, fat ass and go on a diet!

But the metaphor only works if you believe familiar myths about the overweight: They’re weak-willed, indolent, and stupid. Sure enough, that’s how Pixar depicts the future of humanity. The people in Wall-E drink “cupcakes-in-a-cup,” they never exercise, and if they happen to fall off their hovering chairs, they thrash around like babies until a robot helps them up. They watch TV all day long and can barely read.

That last, it should be noted, appeared under the headline “Fat-E”, and was summarized thus: “The new Pixar movie goes out of its way to equate obesity with environmental collapse”.

After all that, we should step back and take a breath. Where, we might wonder, to start?

The obvious place to start would be with the proposition that Pixar has gone out of its way to equate obesity with environmental collapse. In the first place, it is worth pointing out that the only non-obese character I recall seeing in the film is a corporate executive who seems to run the government, and whose company is responsible for trashing the Earth.

Well, there are the folks in Hello, Dolly! but they don’t count.

So there goes the Slate proposition. And The F-Word’s complaint. And Fashionista’s histrionics.

After all, the condition of the surviving humans on the gigantic space cruiser Axiom are not the villains who destroyed the Earth. Those people lived and died centuries ago, according to the story’s timeline. The obese people we see in Wall•E are as much victims of a corporate mentality as anything else. It is hard to miss the gigantic sign encouraging people to consume; the movie’s contemporaneous generations of humanity are bred to be consumers, expected to take part in a thoroughly dystopian absurdity.

Nor should Ms. Melusine be so discouraged. In the end, obese humanity overcomes its victimhood, seizes control of its own destiny, and attempts to reclaim the Earth. These people, shaken by circumstance from their consumerist daze, quickly find their individual and collective moral compasses, seize hope, and cast off their pampered shackles. Who among us would pretend that restoring an entire planet—one rendered toxically uninhabitable by apathetic greed—is an easy task?

These obese humans are heroic. They are not bloated deer in the headlights. They are not docile cows to be herded about any longer. Recognizing their opportunity to stand on their own two feet, they do exactly that.

And they are not depicted slimming down. Their moral condition is not invested in weight loss. We can presume that some will slim down, some will not, and others still will die off as the species works to rehabilitate their home. But what we see is these very same people struggling to rebuild their lives, planting and building anew. Certainly, future generations of humanity will represent a more diverse outcome, but this is a resolution within the happily-ever-after hinted at during the film’s closing credits.

“There’s no complexity,” wrote Melusine, “no understanding, just an easy punchline.”

I would propose that in the furor over Wall•E, there is no complexity. There is no understanding. There is just what seems an easy complaint.

And this leads us back to the question considered at the outset: Is there only one way to view art?

The new (improved?) Wakefield twins.

The new (improved?) Wakefield twins?

The outcry of the obese suggests that there is only one way to view Wall•E. And that way is to misconstrue the story in order to justify misdirected anger. Certainly, in our modern era of unrealistic expectations, it is easy to see how our neighbors of enhanced girth might be reaching their wits’ end. Even the notoriously perfect Wakefield twins of Sweet Valley High have shrunk, from size six to four in the updated series. (And, we might note, they’re sort of skanked out, looking more like Harlequin temptresses than icons of prudish innocence.) Lingerie models, video vixens, beer girls, coffee drinkers … the cultural expectation of Barbie-doll women is at least as disgusting as it is unhealthy. But nothing about this idiotic trend worshiping silicone and anorexia should warrant a further sacrifice of the intellect.

Compared to the actual story told in Wall•E, the condemnation from the obesity advocates just doesn’t hold up. We must overlook the presence and depiction of a real culprit—a corporate CEO who is not grotesquely overweight—in order to pronounce the descendants of those who actually trashed the planet villains. We must ignore the actions of the Axiom’s pampered interstellar outcasts in order to cast them as tools of some sinister plot by Pixar to denigrate the obese. And, certainly, we must dismiss the film’s glaring testament against unchecked consumerism in order to accept that the film simply perpetuates stereotypes.

Over at New York Magazine, Dan Koin and Lane Brown give the question what seems fair consideration:

Fat people don’t cause the destruction of Earth in Wall-E, and aren’t the villains of the movie; hundreds of years of life spent in zero-gravity space has caused the human race to be fat. But … will that make a difference to the average moviegoer, or will they just laugh at the fatties?

We’d like to think that Pixar will treat this as deftly as it’s treated previous sensitive issues in its movies, such as tragic toy-to-toy surgical grafting and anti-rodent discrimination in the kitchen. Surely we won’t find ourselves in the theater tomorrow night, feeling vaguely guilty as the audience screams with laughter during the moment when … a totally fat guy falls off his chair and rolls around like a turtle on his back, right?

And, yes, sometimes it is funny to watch hundreds of overweight people wallow around on the floor like manatees on a carnival ride as the (obese) captain fights for control of the spaceship and the very future of the human species. Especially when—as the complaint seems to ignore—amid the chaos, they manage to do the right thing, like protecting imperiled babies and the seemingly sacred evidence that it is, after seven centuries, time to go home. It’s an excellent scene that transcends the shallow and selfish complaints.

The thinnest thing about this controversy is the outrage itself.

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