The Audacity of Huge

The Audacity of Huge

ABC Family’s new fat camp dramedy can only be understood through a Foucaultian lens.

[Note: This article does not cover the last episode of Huge, because I haven’t seen it yet.  Feel free to discuss it in the comments section if you’ve seen it.]

So other than Louie, which was basically tailor-made for a depressive like me, my favorite new show this summer is—wait for it—on ABC Family.  Yeah, really.  I like Huge.  As far as teen dramedies go, it’s no Freaks and Geeks—what is?—but, even so, Huge makes my day.  On the surface, it seems like a standard teen drama set at a fat camp, but it’s actually more complex than it seems.  That’s because the show raises this fascinating question: Is fat camp a prison, or is it something else?  To answer that question, we’re going to have to look to our friend Michel Foucault.  Yes, that’s right.  Michel Foucault.  Hit it!

Discipline, Punish, and Fat-Shame

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault proposed four ways for a government to control the behavior of its citizens.  Early civilizations used public torture; criminals and other deviants would literally be marked as outsiders and put in public for everyone to see.  For various reasons, public torture eventually went out of fashion, yielding to gentler public spectacles of punishment.  Still, the idea was, “Don’t deviate from social norms, or you’ll get in trouble in front of all of your friends.”

With the development of representative government and the industrial capitalist economy, prisons developed, moving punishment from a public display into a private, hidden space.  Even though the government was no longer asserting its power in as obvious ways, social norms would still be enforced by authority figures like policemen, teachers, psychologists, military officers, doctors, and so on.  In his History of Sexuality, Foucault added to this theory of control his theory of biopower—the idea that societies in the West not only control citizens’ morality and behavior but also their bodies.  People would also police their own behaviors in order to feel “normal.”

Huge’s protagonist Will (Nikki Blonsky) would likely nod along if she ever read Foucault’s theories of discipline.  In the first episode of the show, Will makes it clear that she sees Camp Victory as a prison.  The first scene of the first episode shows Will standing in line, waiting to be photographed in her bathingsuit for a “before” picture.  Now place the lens of the prison over this scene.  Will has become a prisoner, the “before” picture has become her mugshot, and Dr. Rand (the camp director) has become the warden.

In keeping with Foucault’s theories, Dr. Rand, our warden, uses biopower to control the prisoners’ bodies.  Even before camp has officially begun, Dr. Rand asserts control over Will’s body by demanding that she pose for a nearly-nude photograph.  Will responds by rebelling.  She takes back control of her body by jumping on a chair and performing an extremely aggressive strip tease—all while looking directly into Dr. Rand’s eyes:

The rest of the pilot highlights the similarities between camp and prison.  Campers, like prisoners, live by a strict schedule that dictates when they can eat, sleep, and exercise.  Poppy, Will’s counselor searches the girls’ luggage for contraband and lists what can and cannot be put into each camper’s mouth.  (Flavored toothpicks are OK; gum and sugarless candies are not.)

Will’s first actions as a camper also underline her similarities to a prisoner.  On the first day of camp, she dresses like a stereotypical convict complete with sunglasses, do-rag, and lollipop “cigarette” and proceeds to sell illegal “drugs” (i.e., candy) in the black market (the bathroom).

After a fellow camper-prisoner snitches on her—the words “I’m no snitch” are literally part of the dialogue—Will plays prison break and hightails it out of camp.  Will eventually returns, silently asking the question that provides the through-line for the entire show: Can fat camp ever be more than just a prison?

Maybe not.  Camp Victory is in some ways similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a hypothetical prison that Foucault claimed was the most effective kind.  In the Panopticon, prisoners were always being watched—or, at least, they always thought they were being watched.  The prisoners could never be sure if their actions were private or not, because the guards were rarely seen.  This is the idea of the “constant gaze.”  Prisoners would begin following the rules at all times, because who knew when Big Brother was watching?  In a such a prison—or, indeed, a society—social norms would quickly be internalized.

The idea of the constant gaze is all over the first four episodes of Huge.  Each of these episodes focuses on a different kind of “gazer.”  In the first episode, the people doing the gazing were the counselors and the snitches who reported to them.  In the third episode, the gazers are the nasty tennis camp kids who cross property lines just to mock Camp Victory’s overweight inhabitants.  The tennis camp kids also represent the invisible gaze of the campers’ friends and schoolmates back home, the people who treat them as objects of disdain or humor.  In the fourth episode, the gaze comes from within; different campers read Will’s diary, invading the only private space she has left.

I skipped over the second episode, because this one is perhaps the most important.  In the second episode, the gazers are the parents.  We have visible gazers—one camper’s parents literally follow her around camp for 24 hours—but most of the parents are invisible gazers like the ones in Bentham’s Panopticon.  Will writes an angry letter to her judgmental, off-screen parents.  Amber talks to her possibly-codependent mom on her cell phone.  Trent talks to his dead mother in heaven.  Even Dr. Rand spends the entire episode trying to write an e-mail to her unseen mother—and, doing so, gives in and eats a fattening muffin.  The unspoken moral of this episode is that the beliefs and hang-ups of one’s parents affects a person’s psyche and self-esteem.  The gaze of the parents (the guards; American society) always exists in the prison of fat camp, even if the parents aren’t physically there.

One final type of gaze is presented in the first four episodes of huge: the meta-gaze, the gaze of the media.  From time to time, Huge references other TV shows having to do with fat shaming and body issues.  In episode four, the campers watch a darkly hilarious parody of The Bachelor called Love Handles.  In this show, overweight women compete for the affections of an overweight man.  The show’s narrator speaks in fat-bashing puns—yet the campers love it.  In this world, the fat-shaming gaze goes both ways.  The campers watch fat people on TV, but the TV also watches them.  This scene, of course, also brings attention to the fact that we, the audience, are watching a show about fat people, maybe to make fun of them, and maybe not.   Either way, the TV is part of the meta-Panopticon we are currently living in.

Also, the camp’s coach is a clear parody of Jillian Michaels.  Make of that what you will.

These Fattening Teenagers

So the first few episodes of Huge paint Camp Victory as a prison—but that depiction is slowly changing.  If this show were about a lone rebel (Will) in a prison-like camp, it would be interesting—a M*A*S*H for fat kids, I suppose—but that’s not actually the route Huge seems to be going down.  First of all, Dr. Rand, our prison warden, is not portrayed as an evil or oppressive authority figure a la Frank Burns.  Rand is, in fact, a former Camp Victory camper herself.  She is the prisoner who grew up to run the prison, the psycho running the mental ward.  What’s more, Rand is an extremely sympathetic character.  Although she is no longer fat, she still clearly has issues with food and with her family.  She is neurotic, spending most of her time wondering what various people think of her.  Maybe Camp Victory is a Panopticon, and maybe it’s not—but it definitely is one for Rand.  She believes the invisible gazes of society—and of her campers, her employees, her parents—are on constantly set on her.

Gina Torres didn't have to deal with these problems when she lived in space.

Luckily for Rand and her campers, Camp Victory is slowly transforming from a prison into a different kind of space.  Consider the third episode, in which painfully-shy Becca finds some happiness after stumbling upon a clearing in the woods.  This place, she decides, would be a perfect spot for a live-action role play (a LARP).  To Becca, this place is her own space, a space that is not bound by the rules of Dr. Rand or society at large.  Here, Becca can make her own rules.

Within this one episode, though, Becca’s space is invaded three times.  Dr. Rand invades it with her prison-warden’s rules: Becca and her friends cannot play there.  The nasty tennis camp kids invade the space, exerting their skinny-pretty-kid authority over it and calling it their hangout.  Finally, Will invades Becca’s space by telling all of the LARPers that there are no rules to the LARP—anarchy reigns.

At the end of the episode, Becca takes back her space by standing up to Dr. Rand, the tennis camp kids, and Will.  Becca announces that this is her space, where she and the other oppressed campers can make the rules.  Here, Becca creates what Foucault would call a heterotopia—an Other space.  A fat camp is already what Foucault would call a “heterotopia of crisis”—a place that fat kids are shipped off to so the rest of society doesn’t have to see them and be anxious about them.  A fat camp is also a “heterotopia of discipline”—a place where Others go to learn the “right” way of doing things.

In episode three, though, Becca creates Foucault’s best type of heterotopia: a heterotopia of affirmation, where the Others can leave acceptable society an affirm their difference.  Becca’s heterotopia is not anarchical—she stubbornly tells Will that there must be rules here—but, in this space, the rules aren’t made by the parents, the counselors, the skinny popular kids, Jillian Michaels, or society at large.  Here, the fat kids make their own rules.  And it is awesome.

But then, when aren't LARPs awesome?

Dr. Rand is slowly developing this heterotopia, too.  In the fourth episode, a land prospector tells Rand that she needs to put fences and signs up so the tennis camp kids won’t invade her property.  This act of putting up a fence or wall could be seen as another way of making Camp Victory into a prison, but I think it’s a step in the other direction.  By putting up a fence, Dr. Rand isn’t keeping the Others (fat kids) in; she’s keeping the rest of society out.  Putting up a fence, then, can be seen as an act of affirmation: “We, the fat kids, will have our own space and will no longer allow the invisible gazes of the ‘normals’ to look upon us and judge us.’  The prison of Camp Victory is slowly morphing into the kind of liminal space found in tribal societies.  In those tribes, adolescents would leave their parents not only because their society was frightened of the crisis adolescence represents, but also for their own good.  No wonder last week’s (admittedly not so great) episode showed the campers going on a spirit quest.

Camp Victory is also changing because the types of gazes within the prison are changing.  In episode four, Ian found Will’s diary, read one of her poems, and turned it into a song.  Will became furious, because she thought he was gazing upon her innermost secrets with judgment and discipline.  But that wasn’t what Ian was doing at all.  He gazed upon her innermost secrets and recognized himself in her words.  When society looks at the Other with judgment, it makes the Other feel like a prisoner, alienated.  But when one Other looks at another with understanding, it creates the opposite of alienation: understanding and connection.  Now, Will and Ian are creating a band together, singing together about their common problems and worries.

I think this is the ultimate point of Huge.  The writers want to turn us, the audience, from judgmental gazers (“Ha ha, look at the fatties!”  “Oh, they should lose weight; it’s not healthy!”) into more honest gazers.  Huge doesn’t want us to be the tennis camp kids, watching Will and Becca and Amber as if they’re criminals or part of a sideshow.  Huge wants us to be like Ian.  We gaze on these characters to see ourselves, to realize, hopefully, that we are all part of the same prison.

7 Comments on “The Audacity of Huge”

  1. Tom Houseman #

    Run away with me, Mlawski. I love this post and I love you.
    The reason Huge is so good is because it makes you uncomfortable. Most shows about teenagers don’t idealize teenage life, but they do idealize teenagers. They’re good looking, smart, funny and, if not necessarily popular, their lives are exciting and dramatic. This is true of most shows, but I think in particular shows about teenagers.
    But when I’m watching Huge, I don’t want to be any of the characters. I don’t even want to hang out with some of them, as they run the gammit from socially awkward to excessively bitter to just kind of annoying. But because they feel so real I do sympathize with every character on the show, and that’s why it’s so good. Also, as a former fat kid I can attest to the honesty of the show’s depiction of how the fat kids see themselves and other fatties.


  2. Valatan #

    Can I say that I’m just amazed that they actually cast fat people, rather than putting skinny model-types in fat suits, like they seem to do for any role that requires “ugly” characters?


  3. AsWicked #

    @mlawski: “In his History of Sexuality, Foucault added to this theory of control his theory of biopower—the idea that societies in the West not only control citizens’ morality and behavior but also their bodies. People would also police their own behaviors in order to feel “normal.””

    Did Foucault make this statement because he was only considering societies “in the West,” or are they doing something different in the East? Maybe I have a hidden, unfortunate Orientalist bias, but whenever I think of traditional Eastern societies I think of massive conformism (bound feet, uniform hair styles and dress, etc). Am I missing the point of biopower?


    • mlawski OTI Staff #

      No, you’re right, as far as I can tell. I just added “in the West” because Foucault’s History of Sexuality focused on Western civilizations, not Eastern ones. I would guess that if he ever finished writing his History of Sexuality he might have turned his critical lens on the traditions you cite.


  4. Ezra #

    Re: Dr. Rand:

    I met [a man] at Findhorn who said to me: “Where are you from?” And I said: “New York.” He said: “Ah, New York! Yes, that’s a very interesting place. Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave but never do?” And I said: “Oh, yes!” And he said: “Why do you think they don’t leave?” I gave him different banal theories. He said: “Oh, I don’t think it’s that way at all.” He said: “I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates *are* the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built, they’ve built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison.

    from My Dinner with Andre


  5. Sillyweasel #

    I had a conversation along a similar line of thought as this today, though not about weight but the choice of how one person chooses to express themselves in public through dress (or rather, outward appearance since this also would include stickers on someone’s car for example.) I was asked if I would be annoyed if a police officer spent extra time questioning me simply because of the way I dress. (I wear clothing that does not match purposefully, children’s programming t-shirts, men’s pants in any color BUT blue, mens shoes, rarely remove my spiked collar and have a pink mohawk and rarely if ever wear makeup outside of a club. I am female in my mid twenties.)
    My reply was that I EXPECTED such a thing to happen, and whether or not I was annoyed with it it would happen. I walk outside of (the southern American) social norm. I am very aware of it and do not care. I am more offended by the people I love asking me to dress differently when I’m in public with them than by complete strangers yelling obscene things in my general direction.
    In every society in order to be normal there HAS to be someone who isn’t, whether that less than or more than average person is outside the perceived normal is fat or another religion, or another race or below the poverty level, or dresses “funny” or chooses to express their sexual preference outwardly or whatever the witch hunt is for at the time, there will always NEED to be someone outside of “Normal” to MAKE what “normal” encompasses. Average.
    There will always be tribal-like clusters of people outside the average social group, what’s sad is we probably actually outnumber what is considered to be “normal” and are in actuality the true average. If everyone feels like an outsider, due to labels and cliche’s and slander and shame, isn’t being an outsider normal? If it’s normal to be an outsider, are you even still outside?


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