Note: I wasn’t going to recap this show. Seriously. I had explicitly decided against recapping it. I was only going to write up some generalized thoughts and criticism. But then suddenly a recap was happening.
Those of us who were around when My So-Called Life originally premiered tend to remember it. The show first appeared in late August of 1994, immediately before I was to begin my senior year of high school, and carried on through January, leaving many distressing loose ends that would never be tied up in a second season, as no second season was to come. Even as a sage eighteen-year-old, I took a philosophical view, and one worthy of Angela Chase: it’s, like, this TV show is mirroring my life, where there are always loose ends and where I don’t know what’s coming next and maybe nobody can tell me, and the next season is a mystery because I have to write it still. It was like that. It was that kind of show.
When I see episodes of the series today, I’m always surprised by how irritating and off-putting Angela Chase is to me now, when she was my damn hero back in the day. It’s her awkwardness, her insecurity, her overall teenagerness; some part of me wants to instruct her to stand up straight and speak in complete sentences, for fuck’s sake. I suspect my reaction is partly rooted in the way she reminds me of myself, of how we can all be awkward and insecure and a stupid teenager sometimes, even when we’re supposedly grown up. You build the person you are on the person you were, and that person is always still there, in your head, and in your life, like a corpse surreptitiously buried in the poured-concrete foundation of your current self. Oh, we can all be better, and we can all grow, but we can’t outrun ourselves.
My So-Called Life was more than an hour’s worth of teenaged drama served up weekly; it was a call to morose flannel-clad arms. It was a fragile hug from someone you barely knew. It was therapy. Enough that it has transcended its time to be embraced by kids who weren’t even born yet when it was first on-air. As a story, it speaks clearly and unreservedly to outsiders, and there are few pieces of mainstream media out there that have accomplished this with any success, so it’s not a surprise that My So-Called Life’s single season has been elevated to cult status. Some love it, some loathe it, but most folks I know of my generation have some kind of opinion on it.
We have Winnie Holzman to thank for My So-Called Life, and her formidable capacity for wielding an awkward silence like a massive heart-smashing sledgehammer. Huge, the fat-camp drama that premiered on ABC Family last night, is jointly written by Holzman and her 25-year-old daughter, Savannah Dooley. The similarities between the two shows are apparent: like My So-Called Life, Huge is thoughtful, critical, and occasionally difficult to watch — not because it’s bad, but because it is sometimes very true. Those who were hoping for a series that is identifiably size-positive are going to be disappointed. That’s not this show. However, this is a show that seeks to interrogate cultural ideas and assumptions about the lives of fat teens, and frankly — longtime readers will not be surprised — I think that is a more valuable contribution than a message that is purely and uncritically fat accepting.
I had come to this conclusion even before reading this interview with the writers on the Huffington Post:
Is there a message you’re trying to send with the show?
SD: The thing I really want to stress about the show, it’s really–we’re not doing this show because we are passionate about a story where at the end everyone loses weight and their whole lives are nice. We’re trying to get at the heart of, not the journey of the before-body to the after-body, just the fact that this is an endless journey of these people living their lives. Whether their bodies end up changing or not, their inner changes are what we’re really focused on. People are used to seeing some kind of a clear message–
WH: an easy answer–
SD: –an easy answer at the end. Like “Oh, the chubby girl had a sassy makeover and now really she feels good about herself and her problems are over,” or you know–
WH: We’re asking questions.
SD: What we want to do is, instead of giving easy answers, to raise questions, to challenge people to think about how they relate to their own bodies and challenge them to look at how culturally we view weight and body image.
And so we come to the show.
We begin with a “before” picture. The opening scene of the opening episode of Huge (watch it online) takes place in a sunny field populated by scores of fat kids in swimsuits, lined up to have their first weigh-in and to be photographed. Circumstances aside, the visual impression is kind of outrageously awesome. If this is how things begin, I am wondering whether this is a show that is going to numb you to fat visibility by sheer repetition. These are not a bunch of sad fats wearing coordinated and ill-fitting The Biggest Loser t-shirts and shorts — a costume, really, much like that show would have you believe fatness is a costume, one that simply needs taking off. The fat teens of Huge are individuals.
Nikki Blonsky’s character is Will, outspoken and sarcastic, courageous and flawed. Hayley Hasselhoff is Amber, who is incredibly earnest about dieting and totally unaware of how traditionally pretty she is. These two main characters are opposites in disposition, intention, and even physicality. Whilst awaiting the weigh-in, we also meet Becca, played by Raven Goodwin, who becomes Will’s first friend at camp. It is with no small measure of relief that I can say Becca is not cast as the stereotypical sassy fat black girl — if you’re up for some rage, make a list of all the fat black female characters you can think of and see how many qualify as “sassy” and how many qualify as anything else — but is instead quiet and bookish. When Dr. Rand, played by Gina Torres, approaches, Becca is so anxious to confess that she’s regained all the weight she lost the past summer that the admission explodes out of her. This is the first point at which I wish I could reach inside the television and hug a character: of course you gained it back, dear heart. That is what happens.
At this point, Dr. Rand instructs Will, who’s been standing in line wearing shorts and a t-shirt, to disrobe, as all campers must be photographed in swimwear, for some reason. After a failed attempt by Will to dodge the request, Dr. Rand (who, remember, is GINA TORRES) looms over Will, waiting for her to remove her clothing. And thus Rand/Will shipping is born. Y’all, I don’t even READ fanfiction, and yet I can see the fantasies spooling out on a hundred computer screens as of this moment. Will obliges with what will go down in history as the only striptease ever that I have found to be appealing. She whoops and shimmies and slaps her own ass and OH MY GOD NIKKI BLONSKY I WILL HAVE YOUR BABIES.
Ahem. Sorry. I’ll keep it professional.
The campers get settled into their cabin, and a counselor cheerily informs them that so long as they give up any food-related contraband now, they won’t get in trouble for it. Even gum. Even sugarfree gum. Amber gets to keep her toothpick — girlfriend keeps a toothpick in her mouth, I guess because she’s not old enough to smoke yet — after convincing the counselor that it’s not “flavored”. When the counselor inquires on this note, Will observes: “It’s wood. It’s wood flavored.” This show is surprisingly funny, not least because of Blonsky’s brilliantly sardonic delivery. The campers also must give up their phones and MP3 players, though the reason for this is not given. Possibly so they won’t be able to call for a pizza. Or maybe research has shown that listening to Beyoncé makes you fat. AH, IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. Beyoncé causes obesity.
Amber tapes some creepy-ass magazine clippings of models above her bunk, some of which aren’t even whole people but just stomachs and thighs. When Will makes a snarky comment, Amber turns and informs her, with extreme disdain, “They’re thinspiration.” Oh, of course. This comment has me seriously conflicted between yelling “WHAT the FUCK, HUGE?” and the reality that yes, most teenagers are likely familiar with “thinspiration” and so this is speaking to their experience in a valid way. To clarify: the concept of thinspiration originates within pro-anorexia communities as a motivational tactic to avoid eating. To further clarify: pro-anorexia communities are groups of folks who identify with anorexia not as an illness to be cured but as a positive and normalized part of their lives and self-perception. Arguably, pro-anorexia is a natural and unavoidable progression of a diet-obsessed culture, but that is another post. Already this show is complicating matters by — however subtly — pointing to the fact that what would be diagnosed as an eating disorder in anyone else is considered perfectly reasonable and appropriate behavior in a fat person.
The following day, the campers (I keep wanting to call them “HAMpers”) assemble on the big open field to meet their coaches. Coach the first is Shay, who will be playing the role of Jillian Michaels for the duration. Obvious homage is obvious. Says Chloe, the camp’s de facto Queen Bee, to Amber, with slavish devotion: “She lives to make people cry. I love her.” Shay yells and references your worst nightmare. There will be exercising. Oh, and she has help, in the form of coach the second, whom she calls “tough as nails”. It’s George, a scrawny, boyishly-handsome dude with emo hair. He looks about as tough as a baby lemur. Amber suddenly develops a thousand little hearts floating around her head at the sight of him. She even removes her ever-present toothpick.
They immediately start the fatties off with a cross-country jog, because what you want to do with your out-of-shape individuals is get them doing the most high-impact activity possible right away, with no regard for pre-existing variances in aerobic fitness or joint health. RUN, FATTIES, RUN. When one fat dude stops to catch his breath, Jillian Michaels Analogue yells at him that “can’t” is not an option, and makes him do twenty jumping jacks. Because what you want to do with your person needing to catch his breath is make him do further intense activity. You know, I was concerned that maybe this show would not speak to the large percentage of sick fucks in America who derive fetishistic pleasure from seeing fat people being “punished” and pushed past all healthy limits of comfort and safety. I’m so relieved that the sick-fuck population is being acknowledged.
(In fairness, I don’t think this tiny scene is presenting this kind of forced-death-march exercise in a totally uncritical way. I presume most of what is happening here is setting the stage for the rest of the series. Thus I shall soldier on, applying the benefit of the doubt.)
At dinner, the campers are unthrilled by their vegetable-heavy meals. I am choosing to believe they’ve been prepared inadequately, as carrots and spinach are both perfectly capable of being delicious. When Chloe observes that Amber is “the slowest eater I’ve ever seen”, Amber says that she chews every bite thirty times. Uh, I hope we get some more overt analysis of the whole eating-disorder angle here at some point, because otherwise this shit is going to make be really uncomfortable. The table is impressed. Amber may even skip dessert! But it’s okay, Will volunteers to eat it.
Amber says, in a voice positively saturated with judgment: “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Suddenly it’s like everyone who ever said those words to the teenaged me is onscreen and speaking to me from the past. I heard that shit in regard to diet granola bars and apples, kids. Nobody ever thinks it’s a good idea for a fatty to eat. Will states that if she’s going to gain weight at camp as planned, she needs to commit from day one. Ha. Oh, Will, don’t ever change.
After dinner, Caitlin has sussed out Will’s secret and basically asks for a hook-up. Will subsequently sets up shop in a bathroom where she sells her contraband. I imagine it’s meant to be funny, and to highlight Will’s efforts to sabotage the camp, but it mostly makes me uncomfortable, because it’s playing semi-uncritically to the stereotype of the overeating fatty.
Next up, we have a Sharing Circle. Ian, played by Ari Stidham, tells a story about seeing himself in a mirror next to his school’s “fat kid” and realizing with horror that they were the same size. Oh hi, I could tell that story too; I imagine a lot of fat kids can, and thus it’s a very real and cutting scene (watch it on YouTube here). To shift away from the emo moment, I am compelled to note that throughout my viewing of this episode I kept hoping the actor who plays Ian is at least eighteen, because I think he’s seriously hot, and if he’s not eighteen I’m going to feel very dirty about that. Can anyone confirm or deny dude’s legal status?
The following scene does little to stem my possibly-immoral attraction to Ian, when Will discovers him playing guitar in a boat and they subsequently bond over their mutual love of the Pixies. FACT: at seventeen I would have been madly in love with a guy like Ian: cute, knowledgeable about music, plays guitar, funny. Actually, now that I think about it, I knew a few Ians back then, and I was by turns madly in love with all of them at one time or another. I think we are witnessing the birth of Team Ian right here, my friends. As they walk back, Ian confesses that he was scared to talk to Will, because he thought she was “too cool”. When Will asks why he’d think that, he says, “Well, you did that dance the first day…?” We don’t get to hear the rest because Amber appears to tell Will oooooooooh she’s in trooouuuuble. Poor Ian is obviously smitten with the stunning Amber (thoughout this show, my husband kept saying of Hayley Hasselhoff, “She is GORGEOUS,” with a mixture of disbelief and awe) and it’s hilarious.
Dr. Gina Torres has somehow (MYSTERY!) discovered that Will has been selling food. She stodgily threatens Will with eviction, but doesn’t carry it through, giving Will the chance to quietly ditch the hooch before the heat turns up.
Later that evening, the dude campers sit around a TV in a common area, watching a football game. Becca wants to watch a different show, but is afraid to ask. So Will does it, and the boys pretty much ignore her. Within seconds, Chloe, Caitlin, and Amber appear and ask if they can change the channel. The boys capitulate immediately, ostensibly because these are the prettier, traditionally-feminine, and smaller girls. It’s a heavy-handed display but it makes its point clear. Even at fat camp, the pretty ones rule. One of the boys invites Amber to sit on his lap, and this is clearly not something Amber’s considered possible before. She lowers herself gingerly, as though she expects to crush him — or as one does when approaching a Porta-Potty one does not want to touch any more than is absolutely necessary. She sits. He doesn’t die! It’s a wildly relatable moment for probably anyone with an awareness of weight, which is to say everyone.
Walking back with Chloe and Caitlin, Amber is amazed that she sat on a dude’s lap. She’s never had this experience before. She does what girls do and inquires if she did it right, if she should have flirted more. Caitlin tells her not to get tied down the first week: “Remember, this isn’t like the real world. You could seriously have any guy here.” Amber says, disbelieving: “This is so huge.” HA! Puns for the win. Chloe seems annoyed by all the attention Amber is getting. I am sure nothing will come of this over the course of the series.
Back in the cabin, preparing for bed, Amber wants to know if she looks thinner. OY. Eventually Will confronts her, insinuating she ratted Will out to Dr. Gina Torres about the food-selling. Amber super-bitchily tells Will she doesn’t care what Will does and instructs her to get over herself. Amber goes back to scrutinizing her body in the mirror. As Will gets into bed, she gets this vicious look as though she is plotting to murder Amber’s whole family. Or, you know, to shrink her shorts.
OH HAY she’s shrinking Amber’s shorts! Hot water wash! Becca is concerned and says it’s “too mean”, but Will assures her it’ll be “hilarious”. Suddenly Caitlin bursts into the laundry room with an urgent look, and Will supplies her with some junk food she’s evidently buried at the base of a tree on the property. When Will asks whether Amber knows about Caitlin’s black-market binges, Caitlin says yes, and that “she’s a good person.” Will looks dubious.
Later, the campers are running an obstacle course and, predictably, Amber splits the back seam of her shorts. It’d be less humiliating if she weren’t attempting to scale a wall, and if Gorgeous George the coach weren’t supporting her bum at the time. Amber runs off, scandalized and embarrassed, and George follows. I’d like to add here that I think obstacle courses are the funnest things ever and I wish I knew of one locally I could go run right now. George and Amber bond over awkward moments: George is deaf in one ear and tells an embarrassing story of his own. I suppose this explains why he keeps getting Amber’s name wrong. There’s a brief moment in which it seems like they might kiss, which WOOHOO INAPPROPRIATE CONDUCT WITH A CAMPER! But they both pull back before anything happens.
Amber returns to the cabin in notably higher spirits, but this doesn’t last long: Caitlin’s stuff is gone. Evidently someone informed Dr. Gina Torres that Caitlin had been purging, and it turns out that Camp Victory isn’t bulimia-friendly. The rest of the girls are shocked and upset. So am I! I really liked Caitlin! There is much raging against the Camp Victory machine as Amber says: “I thought this place was about helping us. Couldn’t they have given her counseling or something?” When Will suggests that maybe it’s better the problem is out in the open so Caitlin can get help, Chloe tells her ominously: “You don’t know anything. Home is the last place she should be.” Amber implies this is Will’s fault for supplying Caitlin with food to throw up; Will retaliates by climbing up to Amber’s bunk and ripping down her thinspiration pictures. Amber yanks Will off her bunk and they struggle on the floor for a bit when Dr. Gina Torres enters and demands answers. A bunch of the girls are crying. The intensity continues as Will hyperventilates in the bathroom. Becca tries to put an arm around her but Will instantly recoils. She says she can’t stay there, and she’s busting out tonight. This is a tremendously heavy scene, thick with all the questions and confusion and helplessness that tend to surface with eating-disorder revelations. Even though they don’t all get along, there is an unmistakable camaraderie amongst these girls, bound together by their fat, and so the loss of one of the group is painful to everyone.
Will, on her way to freedom, stops by Ian’s cabin to return his mix CD. I’m presuming the scene in which he gave it to her was cut, though the day before we did see Will listening to a CD player in the cabin. This is a grand opportunity for me to lament the unfriendliness of MP3 players to sharing mixes. Now, why the campers would be relieved of iPods but allowed to keep CD players is beyond me. I am willing to suspend disbelief for this brief moment of recalling the beauty and tenderness of that ritualistic exchange of mixtapes with people you liked (and people you liked-liked). I’m not sure if this scene is really supposed to be romantic, but it hits my brain as basically the most romantic thing ever. Will tries to return the CD and Ian smilingly tells her she can keep it for longer if she wants. Then she tells him she can’t, because she’s leaving. Ian’s smile evaporates and he looks confused and distinctly disappointed. “Well,” he says, “I’m on Facebook.” LOL. Team Ian.
Will vanishes into the night and nobody really notices, except for Becca, who can’t stop crying. Finally Amber gets it out of Becca that not only has Will run away, but that Becca feels responsible because she was the one who ratted her food-selling activities out to Dr. Gina Torres. Becca says she didn’t want Will to get in trouble, “but I just couldn’t take having that stuff around anymore.” Jesus, y’all, how insane is it that we have freaking children sobbing about seeing food they’re not allowed to eat? It’s just food! We as a culture are so fucked up. In return, Amber admits that she was the one who told about Caitlin’s purging, thinking she’d get help, instead of getting kicked out.
Will turns up at a diner, where she instructs the waitress that she will start with fries and a chocolate shake. In an unexpected subplot, Dr. Gina Torres comes in as well, and sits down at a table with the camp’s new cook, who turns out to also be her dad. They seem to have a troubled relationship. I’m sure this won’t have any bearing on events in the rest of the series.
When Will realizes Dr. Gina Torres is in the diner, she tries to make a quick exit but is foiled by a waitress who loudly asks if she still wants her french fries. Busted! Again. Dr. Gina Torres tells the waitress, in a patient and disappointed-parent voice, with regard to the fries: “She does.” Will comes back and sits down, and Dr. Gina Torres sits down with her. The doctor surmises that since all the buses have stopped running, Will plans on hitchhiking, “which means you’d rather risk your life than change it.” Good morning, reductive reasoning and oversimplification of some complex circumstances! The hell of it is, weight loss is never simply about eating less and dropping pounds, and anyone who says different either has no relevant experience on the matter or is living a life of extraordinary privilege. It is about pressure, about negotiating the boundaries of what we want and want other people want for us. It is about the constant coercion to just do it, just lose weight, because culture and people we know and people we don’t all say we should, and everyone just knows that, and your individual experience and mine, and what you want and what I want, and what you know and what I know — none of it matters in the rush to fit a standardized ideal. Losing weight will not change you: if you hate yourself as a fat person, you will hate yourself at any size, until you address what’s within and not just what’s without.
Dr. Gina Torres tells Will to eat her fries before they get cold, and Will refuses. Dudes, I wouldn’t eat under that Judgy McJudgerson stare either. I have known so many women in my life who were unable to eat in front of people, because they were ashamed to be seen consuming food, and imagined that anyone who saw them eating was judging them for doing so. Of course Will won’t eat. Will asks why she should change, “because my parents are embarrassed of the way I look?” Dr. Gina tries to get tender and quiet-voiced, saying she knows Will is scared, but Will stops her: “I’m not scared. I just think everything you stand for is crap.” Beat. “No offense.”
Back at camp, the doctor is calling Will’s parents, who tell her to go stay with her uncle. Damn, this poor kid. While Dr. Gina talks on the phone, Will watches the girls in her cabin a little ways off get ready for bed. Though the over-arching purpose of fat camp may be not much fun, there’s something to be said for the rare opportunity to engage in some fat comradeship with people who understand a piece of you. Poor Becca looks lonely.
When the doctor gets off the phone, she looks wistfully at the railing outside the cabin, carved all over with campers’ names and initials. One that stands out says “DR 1985″. Dr. Gina Torres says, “I remember the day I carved that. I wanted to go home so badly.” REDEEMED FATTY REVELATION. Will tells the doctor she wants to stay, and she “vows” not to sell food anymore. Whether she’s staying because she’s decided to lose weight, because she wants to feel the fatty love, or because this joint is simply preferable to her uncle’s place, is unsaid. Inside the cabin, Amber eavesdrops on their conversation.
Will reenters the cabin to an overjoyed reception by Becca, to whom she tells an elaborate lie about being dragged back to camp against her will. Becca is basically my favorite. Amber is trying to sew up her split shorts, and Will semi-apologizes. Then she asks Amber for a toothpick. NO WILL NO. Will says: “I’ve only been off sugar for three hours and I already feel like defacing public property.” She asks Amber if it gets easier, and Amber’s look says no.
Soon it’s lights-out, and Amber whispers to Will in the bunk below: “It never gets easier. But you start wanting it.” What she’s referring to is not specified. You start wanting… to lose weight? Or the heady sensation of being hungry all the time? Hunger makes you keen as mustard, and there’s almost an adrenaline rush to it — I remember craving that feeling in middle school, that trembling and electrical nervous insanity that meant it had been far too long since I’d eaten anything, that gratification of being able to punish my horrible body for failing to look the way I wanted it to. You want food, body, I know: fuck you.
Somehow I doubt that this is what Amber means. But it’s what I thought about.
Will whispers to no one in particular that she should have eaten that chocolate shake when she had the chance. She and Amber discuss the exact parameters of the lost shake in whispers, with a reverent ardor, like prayers before bed. So ends the day, and the episode, both rife with missed opportunities.
Now that Will has pledged herself to Camp Victory’s bosom, where do we go from here? If next week’s trailer is any indication, Will wants to know if she seems gay, “like on a scale of one to Ellen,” Amber unwittingly threatens Chloe’s reign as fat camp queen, and her mutual attraction with George draws some attention.
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