Unhealthy Fetish + Sexualised Trauma in Brett Leonard’s FEED

Feed. 2005. Directed by Brett Leonard. Screenplay by Kieran Galvin.
Starring Alex O’Loughlin, Patrick Thompson, Gabby Millgate, Jack Thompson, Matthew Le Nevez, & David Field.
Cutting Edge/Becker Films International/All At Once
Rated R. 101 minutes.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 8.49.40 PMFather Gore can guarantee you’ll never see another movie quite like Brett Leonard’s 2005 crime-horror Feed. The general consensus isn’t fantastic. A lot of people either found the movie bad, or felt it represented its themes in an offensive/exploitative sense— it’s the latter this article will dig into, given I feel Leonard actually touches on an important central idea with the themes in Kieran Galvin’s screenplay.
What exactly is so important? Feed represents the world of feeders and gainers, involving the community of fat fetishism/fat admiration. What it does so well, in all its hideous glory, is present a distinct difference between fetishism and admiration. Where many don’t see anything wrong with a fat fetish, they’re really thinking of admiration. Because to fetishise something is to treat it irrationally, usually because the focus of a fetish is an object or activity: someone with a fetish irrationally returns to this object/activity as a compulsion, belying any sense of actual care. To admire someone is to treat them as a person and an end, whereas to fetishise someone – i.e. treat someone as an object or an activity to be used – is to use them as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves. A bit Kantian.
In this vein, Leonard explores how even acceptable fetishes sometimes disguise aberrant behaviour. At their core, fetishes are not inherently unhealthy. How they’re put into practise can sometimes reveal they’re a result of trauma. Like anything, a fetish can be perverted into a destructive act, rather than one of sexual pleasure.Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 9.00.07 PM

“Consumption is evolution”

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 8.52.45 PMThe movie’s opening scenes act as a perfect thesis for Feed, in regards to destructive/unhealthy fetishes overtaking the normalisation of fetish. Leonard uses the real life case of Armin Meiwes as a template: a man who wanted to eat someone posted online and eventually found a willing partner/participant. A cyber crimes cop, Phillip (Patrick Thompson), has tracked down the fictional counterpart to Meiwes. He insists on talking a “walk into hell” outside a computer screen. Phillip sees terrifying corporeal images: a penis frying in a pan, blood stains, and a man, bleeding from his genital area, standing in a tub with his lover next to him. One man wants to eat, the other wants to be eaten. No problem, right? It’s their lives! Except it involves death. It’s no longer a fetish, transforming into a twisted erotic vision of Freud’s thanatos (the death drive). Instead of only death there’s also a sexual component, keeping it tied into fetishism. A fetish is meant for pleasure, ultimately, so the fact real violence and death become a part of the activity pushes it into an unhealthy realm.
Our serial killer, Michael (Alex O’Loughlin), is obsessed with fat women. He loves them. Or, does he? We see him go pick up bags of fast food. He brings them home, strips naked, then feeds Deirdre (Gabby Millgate)— an obese woman confined to a bed in a room surrounded by cameras. Although the setup is suspect, Michael does seem to care about Deirdre, calling her beautiful as he feeds her, and later washing her, remarking her skin resembles “crushed velvet.” His flattery and attention makes her feel like a queen. Problem is, Michael streams everything in her room to the internet advertising her as the “latest attraction,” as if she were a carnival sideshow. He’s actually feeding Deirdre to death. The livestream is a gambling forum where people place bets on when she’ll finally die from a heart attack. Again, death rears its head against sexuality.
Fetishes can, at times, be disorder. For some, it’s a method of re-living, practising, and perpetuating earlier trauma. Someone like Michael turns a fetish into a cycle of abuse and domination. He immerses himself in his trauma— we discover later his mother was obese, confined to a bed, and Michael fed her/looked after her, until the day he smothered her to death. Deirdre is a means to his end, an object allowing him a dose of pleasure + death at once, only serving to reinforce the trauma Michael experienced and not allowing him the ability to escape trauma through fetish. A normal person finds comfort and pleasure in a fetish. Michael only falls deeper into a dark pit of murderous despair rather than crawl out.

“This is power”

Feed4Michael’s trauma is an interesting component on its own. On the one hand his fat fetish is driven by the abusive, dominant relationship he had with his mother. Her control is what drove him to madness, and later he perpetuates the control via his own unhealthy fetish. On the other hand, Michael was also treated harshly by religion: one foster home’s way of trying to ‘cure’ him. What’s interesting are the demarcating lines between religion, obsession, and fetish, all of which can be similar under the right circumstances.
Fetish can become a religion through ritualism, as can any sort of activity. Like religion, fetish can become unhealthy, depending on the way it’s enacted through corporeal means. Michael perverts fetish and religion together. The Eucharist (aka communion) is akin to his mantra: “The body of Christ.” The transubstantiation of communion wafer into the actual body of Christ becomes ingrained in Michael’s psyche— he sees food as part of faith, simultaneously confused by the fact Jesus is dead/his flesh is dead. Once more, death is tangled up with pleasure.
Most interesting is the deterioration of Michael as his trauma(s) unravel. This helps us understand how fetish can warp into a spectacle of abuse and dominance. Earlier in the movie, Michael admires Deirdre. As the plot wears on, his behaviour becomes less reverent of her and more dominant. He starts lashing out at Deirdre, blaming her for things not her fault, like all abusive men do in relationships. After that, Michael dances to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over the bed. Deirdre smiles and laughs at his silliness. The song alone is a power move. When he’s done, he jumps down on top of her and bites her belly, hard, prompting Deirdre to wonder what’s “gotten into” him lately. Quickly, he devolves further, forcing a feeding tube into her throat unworried about hurting her, after which the admiration has all but wholly disappeared.
Just as an abusive significant other degrades their partner over time, Michael does the same with the supposed object of his fetishistic affection— once more, ‘object’ is of significance. Michael uses Deirdre, and previous other fat women, as a way of revenge. He exerts cathartic dominance over others in order to combat the trauma of the abusive, dominant relationship his mother forced on him as a boy. There’s an interesting inclusion of his father, as well. When cop Phillip infiltrates Michael’s hideout, he finds the killer’s father kept in a decaying room of an already dilapidated house, apparently not having “moved in 20 years.” Another reinforcement of the power and dominance Michael seeks. He wants his so-called loved ones incapacitated, immobile, and totally reliant on him, which is how he felt under the thumb of his mother.
Feed5There are plenty of articles and reviews calling Feed too exploitative, and that its treatment of fat fetishism is negative, somehow making people with fat fetishes look like abhorrent monsters. When, in reality, Leonard’s movie makes the case fetishism is fine, so long as it doesn’t reduce people to mere objects. Because, by doing so, we eliminate the humanity of those we fetishise, and not in a sexy way.
Those who admire fat men and women are healthy individuals— their treatment of fatness isn’t unhealthy, nor is it abusive. The difference being, those who admire fat people don’t fetishise fatness as a commodity, they don’t treat the person they admire as an object. Whereas a fat fetish runs the risk of becoming less about pleasure, more about spectacle. Same as how some men genuinely love fat women – they’re attracted to big bodies(etc) – and other men will seek out fat women to have sex with solely as an exploitative act, totally obliterating any positivity in attraction which comes with genuine admiration. Michael’s the serial killer equivalent of those latter men, abusing and dominating fat women while pretending to revere them— the epitome of an unhealthy, and in this case deadly, fetish.
Feed‘s last third is most certainly wild, even getting downright gross. Doesn’t mean it’s an exploitative use of fat fetishism. Leonard gives us an illustration of the danger in treating PEOPLE as fetishes, as opposed to body parts (i.e. feet) or activities (i.e. BDSM), by creating a horror movie allegory. To each their own. For Father Gore, this movie doesn’t intentionally paint fat fetishes as abnormal, gross, or anything derogatory. There are characters who don’t necessarily understand it, and that’s how life goes. There are also characters who do understand it, such as Phillip. His main drive in the plot is to stop the killer, recognising Michael is not a fetishist and actually a manipulative murderer. A deep reading of Feed only attempts to dig into transgresive topics, going places even other horror movies refuse to go. For all these reasons, this could be Leonard’s best work.

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