This is why your TV is fat: Q & A with Savannah Dooley

By | September 20, 2010

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Savannah and the S'nalt Unless you are brand new to this blog, you’re probably aware that over the summer, ABC Family aired a series called Huge. This remarkable series portrayed a diversity of bodies and experiences from the radically size-accepting to the mundane, and did it all in a most unlikely location: a fat camp. Savannah Dooley (with help from her mom, My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman) is the the primary force behind Huge’s development and overall amazingness, not to mention being a generally awesome person besides.

Over the weekend, I had the chance to interrogate Savannah about the show. This is the result.

Lesley: Give us a little background on your relationship with size acceptance and body politics, and how this played into the development of Huge.

Savannah: I started reading size acceptance blogs when I was first writing Huge as a movie, in an effort to better understand what it was like to move through the world at a bigger size. I’ve always been roughly the size of an Amber or Chloe– feeling bigger than a girl is supposed to be, dangerously obsessed with my weight, but still with thin-person privilege. I shop at straight-size stores, bullies never targeted me for my weight, no one questions my health from looking at me. So for research I was seeking out weight-related books and articles and blogs, even during the long stretches when I wasn’t actively working on the script, and at the same time I was getting more into feminist blogs for fun (because what’s more fun than analyzing systematic oppression?!) and of course body image and size acceptance issues come up a lot in those spaces. So over the 2-3 years I was working on different drafts of Huge, I was also discovering size acceptance, and the tone of Huge and Will’s character evolved in that direction. Will was always defiant about her size but she became more radical and articulated her views more clearly. I felt a responsibility to give a voice to size acceptance, and as I grew to believe more fully in Will’s stance and her motivations, the character became stronger.

L: Fat people. On television. SO MANY OF THEM. Why? Did you wake up one day and think, “I”m putting a bunch of amazing fat people on TV! In a camp setting, so they will frequently be in varying states of undress! It will BLOW EVERYONE’S MINDS!” Did you plan to create something that overtly confronted what passes for “normal” bodies on TV? How did this happen?

S: A lot of people assume I brought this idea to ABC Family, which makes sense because it’s something I’m passionate about, but it was actually their concept. They found the book and wanted to do an original movie with two girls at weight loss camp. I see how the show looks now and it feels incredibly subversive in the way it shows bodies, but when I first signed on, I didn’t understand yet how kind of mind-blowing it would be. I guess I was protecting myself a bit by not really daring to imagine the finished product, because at that time I had no guarantee it’d be made.

But the idea of the camp setting felt incredible to me because the idea of the token chubby person would be out the window. The characters would by necessity be set apart from each other for other aspects than their size. I’m so sick of people on TV looking homogenous, and not just in terms of size.

L: Exactly. The characters on Huge are individuals. Their size almost ceases to be a factor.

S: Yeah.

L: Speaking for myself, I actually reached a point while watching Huge — and I should note that I don’t watch a lot of other television, which may be related — but it started to seem to me like the people on other shows all looked so… small.

S: Yeah, the difference is striking. I grew up in the 90s and even from then I see a visible difference in how thin, on average, girls are on TV. When I see stuff from the 90s, the actors look big compared to what we’re now used to.

L: Creating that representation is a big deal, for a lot of reasons. The initial response from a great many folks in the fat- and body-acceptance spheres was that this show had to be a fake-out — that it would turn bad at some point and everyone would be magically skinny and get makeovers and live happily-ever-after. This assumption persisted throughout the season, and I’ve heard from a surprising (though small) number of fat-accepting folks that they refuse to watch even now. ABC Family’s marketing has not done much to help this perception. Is it frustrating when people continue to get the wrong idea about Huge, or can you just let that roll off your back?

S: It wasn’t so much frustrating as nerve-wracking. I was afraid of letting people down because I look at media with the same eye. If I had just heard the pitch for Huge I would been prepared for the most worst piece of shlock ever because I’m used to seeing stuff about weight or body image that’s insulting or pandering. So I understood people’s skepticism.

L: Unfortunately, we’re used to being let down. Our expectations are so low. Like, of course, it’s impossible that a show that dares to depict a range of bodily experience could exist. It must be a trap!

S: The end of the story is so often “she finds self-acceptance” and whether that involves weight-loss or not, I think the happy ending of it is often oversimplified. Like, I have to believe the journey toward self acceptance, it has to be earned. It’s a journey that’s really never over completely.

L: Totally. I am fond of saying that self-acceptance is not a destination you reach and then you’re all good forever, just hanging out in self-acceptance land.

S: Yes. Exactly.

L: You’ve said elsewhere that you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking the actors to lose weight to reflect weight loss happening in the story. That’s pretty incredible, especially considering that these actors are already working in an industry that puts enormous emphasis on slenderness as necessary for success. I imagine this approach would also create an atmosphere of acceptance on set, which is probably pretty unusual in the entertainment industry.

S: It makes me sick that people in this industry put so much pressure on actors to lose weight or to stay thin. Especially young actors. It does so much damage. It’s a recipe for an eating disorder. Like their bodies aren’t scrutinized enough already. We made it clear to the actors that just because we were scripting people saying “I lost 5 pounds” didn’t mean we wanted them to lose weight.

I felt a lot of love on set, a lot of mutual admiration and the feeling that we were really proud of the work we were putting out.

L: The fact that not everyone loses weight, and most campers only lose a small amount of weight, is so subversive. Culturally, we tend to assume that fat people just need to get off the proverbial couch or put down the proverbial donut (or both) and the weight will fall off their bodies like magic, which is so far from reality.

S: I think it’s because we’ve gotten used to seeing weight loss in the context of dramatic “before” and “after” images, in ads or in makeover shows. It’s not like you go into camp fat and come out thin. Losing a ton of weight really fast isn’t healthy anyway. And yeah, I love how people assume a fat person isn’t currently trying or has never tried to lose weight, when so many people spend their lives obsessing over how to lose weight.

I was interviewing someone who went to camp and he told me a friend of his had only lost one or two pounds. I was like “I have to use that.” Imagine how that feels, you spend all this money on camp and there’s this expectation, and then it’s just two pounds.

L: Yeah, my own dieting days were riddled with one- or two-pound losses over months of restriction. And when you’re convinced you have fifty or a hundred more to go, it is incredibly demoralizing and painful.

I read somewhere, or saw an interview with a cast member (I’ve consumed so much Huge-related media, it’s a blur) who was asked about losing weight while on the show, and they said something to the effect of: when you see us running up a hill, we really are running up a hill, and probably doing it for multiple takes! And still the season did not end with all the actors stick thin. This itself is quite contrary to the expected outcome.

S: Yeah.

L: And personally, I so love seeing fat people be active. Because it’s not something you see, unless it’s on The Biggest Loser and Jillian Michaels is threatening them and they’re crying.

S: That was something that actually never occurred to me– I saw people very appreciative that some of the characters liked sports, and I realized I hadn’t even thought about the fact that you rarely see active fat characters.

L: You never do! The fact that Trent was portrayed as a jock — a sad jock, but a jock nevertheless — was astonishing.

S: “Sad Jock” is Trent’s autobiography.

L: Chloe’s is “Big Earrings”.

S: “Earrings as big as her heart.”

L: Huge is incredibly queer in ways both overt and encoded. Alistair is the obvious star of the queer show here, and his identity is handled with an unexpectedly light touch, without the typical emphasis on shoving him into an easily-marked box: he won’t simply tell us he’s “the gay character” or “the trans character”, etc.. I’ve read many comments across many blogs from folks who are wildly confused about how to identify Alistair’s character, both in terms of his gender identity and his sexuality. I think this is fantastic, as I love stuff that upends people’s ability to think about these subjects in straight lines (pun intended). Was his character imagined specifically for this purpose, or did he just evolve this way?

S: I always knew I wanted the character to be really ambiguous. Well, I wanted two things. To reveal Alistair’s queerness slowly, in pieces, and for him to resist being labeled. I was that way as a teenager. And I guess I still am.

L: That kind of ambiguity is so rare in television; I know a lot of folks were almost in denial that it was really happening. We get so accustomed to hunting down scraps of queerness whereever we can find them, so have something so quiet and subtle but so clear was totally unexpected.

S: I know exactly what you mean about hunting for scraps. And reading queerness into things where it wasn’t intended. Or where it was intended but incredibly watered down.

L: Queerness in TV is either completely under the radar, or we’re beaten over the head with it. Huge is unique in that it actually presents it in a very real way.

S: Thanks! I wanted to let people get to know the character before getting into his sexuality so that wouldn’t seem like his primary trait.

L: That was really, really clever. As it stands, a lot of people fell in love with Alistair as an individual before he could be pigeonholed.

S: He’s dangerously adorable.

L: Another queer character is Poppy, (who explains to George that she identifies as asexual). I’m pretty sure Poppy is the first out asexual character in the history of television! That was such an amazing thing, to hear someone use the term “asexual” in a value-free context.

S: My mom and I both thought it was an interesting trait to give someone. And I had seen this YouTube video of this asexual girl describing her experience of asexuality and she had this nerdy earnestness that was Poppy-ish. I resisted making one of the campers asexual because that’s already sort of ascribed to fat people in a negative way.

L: It is! Which actually segues into my next question! I’ve long argued in favor of the notion that fatness has a queering effect on bodies, mostly because fat bodies are culturally marked as anti-sexual, and because any attraction to a fat body is considered deviant and unnatural. Since we have no “normal” way of relating to fat bodies in a sexual way, any sexuality applied to them, even if it’s hetero, tends to be a bit queer. Huge doesn’t shy away from making its characters be physical (and emotional) with each other in very raw and honest ways, and I think this creates an atmosphere in which pretty much all the characters could be read as queer at one point or another. Was there a plan in using the characters’ (and actors’) bodies to make this series extra extra queer, or was it just a happy coincidence?

S: I’d actually never thought of fat bodies as a type of queerness before I read your writing… this is a really interesting question. I do like to use bodies, gestures like reaching out to touch someone… or now I’m thinking of the beat in Spirit Quest where Trent is shirtless and sees Alistair looking at him… It’s definitely influenced by my queerness but it’s also rooted in their being teenagers and how aware you are of your body at that age. I guess that’s also heightened when you’re struggling with being bigger or just feeling like it.

L: In the recap comments, I swear, every single character was indentified as queer at some point. Possibly excepting George.

S: That makes sense. Maybe every character IS queer. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Queers.

L: MARVELOUS. Your point of being hyper-aware of your body at that age is really critical, though. So often in teenager-centric shows, everyone acts like they’re in their thirties and there’s no uncertainty about their physical bodies. But at that age, that awareness is real and omnipresent.

S: You’re right. They hardly ever seem awkward.

L: Whenever we saw various campers engaging in body-checking, it was a little like a knife in my gut, because I remember scrutinizing my body like that.

S: Me too. That was my biggest hobby as a teenager. We wanted to get at that real, horrible awkwardness.

L: I’m trying really hard to get through this whole interview without referencing My So-Called Life but I have FAILED because that commitment to awkwardness was one of the things that has made MSCL a legendary series.

S: Totally! That’s one of the things I love about it.

L: And I haven’t seen it on TV since then! Which is partly why I fell so in love with Huge.

S: My mom and I were both painfully self conscious growing up, that’s probably we write that way.

L: I want to talk a bit about Huge’s portrayal of eating disorders. Dr. Rand attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings throughout the series, and following the final episode there was a post on the Huge website that outed Amber, of the many ritualistic eating habits, as specifically having anorexia — I’m not sure if this is canon. Caitlin, in the first episode, gets booted from camp for purging, and there may be other campers, male and female, with unspecified eating issues, alongside campers whose relationships with food are relatively normal. This is very different from the standard portrayal of all fat people as necessarily food-obsessed, and of eating-disordered people as skinny white women surrounded by people who are worried about them and want to help.

S: I don’t think of Amber as anorexic per se but I do think of her as eating-disordered, or at least headed down a dark path.

L: I was startled to see her pinpointed as “anorexic”, as my impression was the same; she might be headed that way but she isn’t totally there yet.

Caitlin’s fate was especially moving, as it speaks to the sad fact that eating disorders are not always greeted with loving hair-strokes and sympathy, but that often they are as shameful to the people witnessing them as they are to the people suffering from them.

S: The Caitlin story was based on something that happened at a camp I went to, where a girl was sent home. It really shook me up, and it was so upsetting because it felt to me like she was being punished instead of helped. I wanted to capture the feeling of being a kid and being powerless and suddenly realizing someone you thought you knew has this deep problem… that’s why I was militant about not tipping off Caitlin’s secret [in the episode].

L: The event in the show was deeply upsetting! I was actually in denial that Caitlin wouldn’t be back. Her character was so complete and felt so permanent, I was sure she was a regular cast member. So when she disappeared I honestly felt let down!

S: We love her. That actress Molly Tarlov, is brilliant. She and I went to college together but didn’t really know each other til she came in to audition. Ashley Holliday, Chloe, was in my high school class.

L: One of my Twitter followers wanted to know about the auditions process, “How did you find all these actors?” I think people assume fat actors are on a level with unicorns in terms of rarity.

S: They are not totally wrong about that. It was a small casting pool. so small that we opened up a nationwide open call. The trick was finding actors who were really good in a certain style, and who looked the right age. And for Amber, there was sort of a window of the size she could be, because she had to be smaller than the other girls but bigger than the girl we’re used to seeing on TV.

L: Okay. So, I have had my problems with Amber throughout the season, and then we get to the last two episodes and we meet her mom. This woman is a distinctive (and upsetting!) force of personality. She unpredictably vacillates between bubbly and terrifying in seconds, and is clearly abusive toward Amber even though it’s not a form of abuse many people tend to immediately recognize, insofar as not manifesting as physical violence. Her influence makes Amber’s personality and behavior much more clear, but it was a gigantic risk to hold back this reveal until the last two episodes!

S: I didn’t see it as a risk… if we come back there are giant secrets we still haven’t revealed!

L: I think I saw it as risky because I wanted to like all of these characters so much, and Amber made it difficult!

S: Yeah, I love Teal. As in, she feels so much like a real, terrifying person you’ve met.

L: She IS. And the actress who plays her is incredible.

S: I get you. A lot of people like Amber more than Will, though!

L: I know! They have told me so in comments to my recaps. But with Amber, it was almost as if I felt slightly guilty — like we meet her mom and I realize, OH! Wow. Okay. I get it now.

S: Yeah, I see that too. I loved the idea of Parents Weekend and having a few moments like that — because that’s something I remember about being a kid, when you get to know someone and them see them in the context of their parents, and suddenly understand something more about them. I guess that’s true for adults too. But you realize Amber still has to live with her mom and Ian with his parents and all that.

L: Part of what consistently amazed me about how the characters developed was that… we’re used to meeting a character, particularly in a TV format, and then being given all the pertinent information about them right away. Huge was positively stingy with everyone’s backgrounds and complexities, revealing them slowly, just like it happens when you meet someone in real life. Dr. Rand is probably the most dramatic example of this. So we meet them, and we make assumptions, and then ten episodes later we realize they’re nothing like we thought they were at first blush. That is SO incredibly true to life, it’s mind-boggling.

S: Yeah, that’s the kind of storytelling I like in general, and I was trying to get at the unique aspects and feelings of being at camp. We were even more stingy than you know, there is stuff we never got to revealing.

L: By the end of the series, almost every single character — with the possible exception of Shay, though that could be my anti-Jillian-Michaels rage talking — has demonstrated redeeming qualities and faults in equal measures, even characters I never thought I could forgive. Still: do you have a favorite character, or a character you’re most proud of, or a character you relate to most?

S: This is a totally boring answer, but the truth is I love writing and watching all these characters for different reasons. I’ve said I am most like Becca or Will, but I relate to all of them. I feel like they’re all different parts of me. I’m talking more about the kids here than Shay, Salty and Rand, who my mom writes more of.

With Will I can let myself come out in an unfiltered way sometimes. Like “I’m a rage-filled donut right now!” That’s just writing what I would say.

L: “Rage-filled donut” is seriously one of my favorite expressions from the show.

S: WHY AM I NOT SURPRISED? Will should have a Fat Satan shirt.

L: She totally should! Or a shirt with two whole cakes on it. Or a gnome.

S: I had a shirt that said Hurry Up The Cakes.

L: Okay, before we finish up, I have a few quick questions from some of my Twitter followers:. @JonelB asks: Was there anything the network wanted you to do that you disagreed with as far as the direction of the show?

S: I’m happy to say that was never the case. You rarely hear this about a network, but they’ve really let us be free creatively.

L: @SabrinaSpiher says: I want her thoughts on Huge’s “eating cookies when you’re sad is bad” policy. (Cuz my policy is, “sometimes cookies help.”)

S: No one loves cookies more than me. In fact, I am eating a fresh baked plate of them right now! Seriously, I’m not making that up.

L: …Some of your best friends are cookies? Is that what you’re saying?

S: Haha! Dr. Rand’s issue with the cookies is she’s an overeater. She’s abstinent from sugar. For her they’re an emotional threat. For Ian and Amber, the cookies represent this setback on their way to being thin… if Will or Trent encountered the cookies, it’s not the same loaded threat to them.

L: Fair enough. I think some folks took issue with the suggestion — intentional or not — that all emotionally-driven eating is bad.

S: I definitely didn’t intend that. For Amber and Ian, I don’t see either of them as compulsive overeaters, for whom eating emotionally can spiral out of control. But they are doing what they’re taught is the right thing. To not give in to temptation.

L: @nicolelorenz inquires: What TV shows, movies, and/or books have been most influential for you as a writer?

S: The movie that made me fall in love with movies was about a fat kid actually. Angus from 1994. It’s all about being different and I could obviously relate to that even as a little kid. I’m also a big Cameron Crowe fan. As for TV, My So-Called Life and Sex and the City might be my two biggest influences. That’s an odd pairing. Also I gotta give a shout out to the original camp show, Salute Your Shorts. I grew up on those old Nickelodeon shows that were so weird and smart.

L: Finally, because people are dying to know: is there any word yet on a second season? If a second season happens, where do you see the show going next? (The answer had better include Will and Ian making out.)

S: How about Ian and the new chef, Lesley Kinzel, making out?

L: I AM DEAD NOW. I HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY. I could probably clear my schedule enough to make that happen. You know. If the public demanded it.

S: We still haven’t heard word about coming back. But I’m dying to go back because I feel like we left each of the characters poised at a turning point. I’m afraid I CAN’T REVEAL the SHOCKING TWISTS we’ve schemed up… you’ll just have to write some fanfic.

Huge’s future continues to be unclear. If you want to help ensure a speedy return, please let ABC Family know you want more fat on your television by contacting them directly:

Send an email through the ABC Family feedback form letting them know how much you dig the show, and that you want a second season.

Hit ABC Family with your Twitter-based demands for more Huge at @ABCFHuge and at @ABCFamily. Or give them a shout on the Huge Facebook page.

Send a dump truck of mini-muffins to ABC Family’s physical address at:
ABC Family
500 South Buena Vista St.
Burbank, CA 91521-6078

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