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July 21, 2008

Weighing In: Wall-E Movie Equates Enviromental Decline with Fat People

The hero of Pixar's new film.Pixar's new animated movie Wall-E has received rave reviews, but is it a fair social commentary to equate obesity with environmental destruction?

The world of robot Wall-E is a dry, desolate future Earth, stripped of its ability to sustain life. The guilty carbon-based lifeforms responsible for this mess have retreated to an intergalactic lifeboat.  Diabolically designed by mega-corporation "Buy N Large" to promote consumer dependency, the flying space oasis inevitably result of making Earth's refugees morbidly obese.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich lauds the film for "in touch with what troubles America," and providing "a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out." But other critics aren't so fast to buy into this bloated message. Daniel Engber is one such dissenting voice:

"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!"

Movie buys into into myths about fat people.

"The metaphor only works if you believe familiar myths about the overweight: They're weak-willed, indolent, and stupid," writes Engber at Slate.com. "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."

What makes this message all the more objectionable is the fact that it's being sent to kids.  Do we really need to reinforce fat-a-phobia?  Do we need to make kids doubly stressed with the fear of getting fat plus the anxiety about global warming?  Already younger and younger children are developing eating disorders and now there's a new psychological problem: eco-phobia, or the fear of ecological problems. For example, a high school student in Australia became afraid to drink water because he was obsessed with the fear of the planet running out of water.  I've also read online about teaching plans called "How to Deal with the Panicky Child" when discussing shrinking habitat, pollution and global warming. Here's a poem written by a 10 year old:

I am dying.

My blue ice caps are melting away like ice cubes on concrete.

My water is rising as if it were a stalking tsunami.

There is nowhere for my polar bears to rest.

The skin of my continents is cracking

Like feet that have gone too far.

Soon when you look at my coasts, you will find bodies,

Floating in the sea with broken cities.

Would you help me?

I'm all for teaching about environmental responsibility and addressing global warming issues, but it's just not emotionally healthy for our kids to feel such a bleak helplessness and sense of doom. Nor is making fat people the scapegoats for hurting our planet. My own niece and nephew described Wall-E as a 'lonely' movie.  What does that say about how these apocalyptic scenarios make our children feel?

Daniel Engber: "...There's an endless appetite for stories linking obesity and environmental collapse. Pounds of fat and pounds of carbon are routinely made to seem interchangeable. Two months ago, the Washington Post compared childhood obesity to global warming. Last year, an AP story called "Fighting Fat and Climate Change" claimed that we could cut annual CO2-emissions by 64 million tons if every American just got out of his car to walk for half an hour a day. (The nation would also burn 10.5 trillion calories!) The New York Times has reported that obese Americans make air travel less efficient, and that our extra pounds cost us 1 billion gallons of gasoline per year. And we didn't just figure this out, either: During the oil crisis of the 1970s, a pair of economists calculated that we could save 1.3 billion gallons by getting all overweight Americans to "optimum body weight."

I wonder if overweight folks leaving Wall-E suffer dirty looks from the skinnies, or if they internalize any guilt. And what about the fat kid at school? Will he or she be bullied now for being fat AND wrecking the planet?

Global warming is a GLOBAL problem.

Adults need to take care when addressing environmental problems with children and stop blaming fat people. If we don't keep perspective, our kids certainly won't. And, after all, a world with more fat prejudice isn't such a rosy future, either.

Posted by Laura on July 21, 2008 | Permalink


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Well written article. But isn't global warming only a problem if it is actually happening? Given that there is no overwhelming evidence that anthropogenic climate change is real then surely there is no problem as yet?

Posted by: Lawrence Newman | Jul 22, 2008 1:20:56 PM

First of all, I don't agree that the movie painted fat people as the bad guys. Those people were victims of the big bad mega corporation just as much as the planet was.

That aside, I thought you should know that your article has been scraped and is now being used to hawk weight-loss miracle drugs over on theweightlossmanager dot com.

Posted by: Andi | Jul 22, 2008 3:40:23 PM

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