The Guide #63: How vomiting became Hollywood’s favourite party trick

<span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

A small content warning before we press ahead: this newsletter, or at least its opening portion, contains a LOT of mentions of vomiting. So if you’re emetophobic or trying to enjoy your lunch in peace, you might to scroll down to the Take Five section about a third of the way down this email.

A couple of months ago I received an email from a reader named Valerie. “I can’t believe how almost every show has characters vomiting in it,” she wrote. “I’m fortunate that I don’t vomit just hearing someone vomit. I’ve thought of inviting friends over to play a game of downing shots each time someone vomits. We’d be drinking so much we’d end up vomiting.”

I hadn’t really noticed the trend before Valerie pointed it out, but ever since she did, TV and film seems to throw up (sorry) new examples on an almost daily basis. Look, there’s Connor Swindells chucking up over a balcony on SAS Rogue Heroes. Oh, and there’s Will Sharpe hovering over the bowl after a heavy night on The White Lotus. Oh and there’s a kid happily projectiling into another kid’s face on Netflix’s Wednesday. There’s Ana de Armas chucking up directly into the camera itself in Blonde. Yellowjackets, as well as featuring endless vomit scenes, even includes a quick shot of someone being sick in its opening credits (now there’s a motivation for pressing that “skip intro” button). Oh, and don’t forget that notorious hot-tub hurling horror show in Euphoria.

None of the above, though, could hold a sick bag to 2022’s most retch-inducing moment. In Ruben Östlund’s scathing big-screen satire Triangle of Sadness, a load of super-rich types embark upon a luxury cruise (above). Those familiar with Östlund’s work will guess that things don’t run all that smoothly, and that’s most literally the case in a scene where the guests encounter extremely choppy waters in the middle of an opulent multi-course meal. The 15-minute communal vomiting scene that follows is not for the weak-of-stomach, though deserves props for its technical impressiveness, as well as the actor tasked with doing the bulk of the boking. (It turns out she’s a natural, having played over 100 performances on stage where she was tasked with throwing up).

Anyone who has encountered a John Waters movie will know that onscreen vomiting isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. But it’s striking just how ubiquitous it seems to be in 2022. In the real world, for most of us at least, vomiting is a thankfully occasional occurrence. But in film and TV it seems to be practically every day. (Hollywood might want to book a GP appointment).

So, why is there so much vomiting about in film and TV? Perhaps the most straightforward reason is its effectiveness. A throwing-up scene is often sudden, shocking and visceral, though not in a way that is likely to get you rapped on the knuckles by the censors, unlike the spilling of other bodily fluids. There’s no BBFC warning for “scenes of mild vomit”, in the same way there would be for sex, swearing or violence.

What’s more, vomiting serves as a direct and useful shorthand for excesses of various stripes. Its victims are usually people living life to the extreme: indulging themselves too much; pushing their bodies to the limit; reacting intense levels of stress or shock. In Triangle of Sadness it is used as a blunt instrument to comment on rapacious greed: the guests continue to force down their luxurious meal even as they are throwing it back up.

For all its metaphorical effectiveness, you do wonder if the sheer amount of gastro-intestinal episodes is dulling the impact a bit. You can practically time your watch to it, and its shock factor has long since turned to weary resignation. It has become a lazy trope, a dramatic dry heave.

So in 2023 I’m hoping film and TV can find a way to settle its stomach a little, and tone down the chucking up. At least for the sake of Valerie – and that drinking game.

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