Interview by Natalie Hulla; posted by Dustin Jenkins
NH: Thanks for coming!
NH: What are you drinking?
LP: This is a spiced chai latte with soy milk.
NH: Is that your weapon of choice?
LP: Yeah, it’s kind of my go-to. Either this or the vanilla one.
NH: That’s nice.
LP: I like coffee but it doesn’t like me that much.
NH: That’s not good. Can you be a film student without having coffee? Is that a thing?
LP: I think I’m like a unicorn a little bit, in that respect… Yeah, I don’t know, I think everyone else has more or less given in to that vice.
NH: I feel like, from your Instagram and from what I’ve heard you talk about, your work in general focuses a lot on the body.
NH: So, has that always been the case? A lot of my work revolves around the female body, too, and it comes kind of sub-consciously.
LP: Right, yeah. I think it was the interest in that that came first before even making the decision to come to film school. Or, you know, to become ‘a film scholar,’ as it were and an inspiring one.
NH: As I straighten my Ray-Bans.
LP: Same. Literally. But I think what kind of came first was really getting involved in online communities that are invested in body positivity and fat activism and things of that nature, and realizing that I feel passionately about that. So I sort of had that nugget in mind, and at the time, when I was getting really involved with that, I was also teaching at my high school alma mater – and wasn’t liking it so much – but the one class that I did like teaching was film appreciation. But I realized I could be saying more about films other than, like, ‘Here’s a medium shot,’ ya know? And, ‘What year did Jaws come out?’ and all that sort of trivia. So, I wanted to sort of beef up that vocab but then also see if there was a way to really incorporate that sort of initial desire to see better representations of fat bodies, or to explore the ones that are already out there, and look at it from my background of body positivity and through that lens. So, yeah, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing and that’s what I’m interested in furthering in my research.
NH: Were you able to funnel a lot of those ideas in to your high school students, and did they respond well?
LP: I don’t know… I think I was still ruminating on it myself, just knowing that if I did get into a grad program that I would pursue that, but I more or less stuck to the traditional model of high school film appreciation.
NH: ‘Reading a Film,’ that’s what my dad took in high school.
LP: Right? I did step away from the textbook because the most recent films they referenced in it are literally Witness and Forrest Gump. And it’s so weird, and I thought they were outdated when I took it as a 17-year-old, but now those students are taking it, that book is older than they are, so I think that’s super weird… So, anyway, I didn’t find that very useful anymore and I developed my own curriculum and changed the array of films that the previous instructor had been showing. God love him, he had a lot male-dominated, mainstream films… Raiders of the Lost Ark, I actually found, when I was cleaning the desk. On Betamax. So that was extraordinary! It was kind of like that Golden Idol that he takes – that was what that was. But that had been in the film canon forever, and I remember watching Jaws and Casablanca, which have its merits, obviously – both of those do, and I actually did end up showing Jaws – but I was trying to come up with different contexts and different films for them to watch, ones that would keep their interest and be a little more relevant… And then I was just sort of shameless thinking I would just take liberties because it was also a Catholic school, so a lot of the core standards are different, so choosing films that were near and dear was part of the fun.
NH: So are you a John Waters fan?
LP: I am.
NH: With Divine.
LP: Yes, and Divine is playing a very important part in my thesis. More or less, the through-line, because even though he was a cis man in his everyday life, he often portrayed these outrageous characters who were meant to, you know, be read as women. Because the topic area of my thesis is particularly invested in fat women, so, anyway, that’s sort of how he makes the cut. And especially in the last year or two, I’ve gravitated towards those because I think it’s just a really fantastic example of this very liberatory, fat-person model that people can aspire to. I mean, some of it’s not viable – like the shop-lifting and social anarchy that kind of happen. Like, eating shit is probably not a thing people should do.
NH: Yeah, I would say it’s probably frowned upon.
LP: Yeah, certain aspects of it, I obviously acknowledge people shouldn’t adopt… But just the way Divine’s characters have owned themselves, and they don’t have to adopt these compensating personalities of ‘the jokester,’ or be really nice and accommodating – it’s very bold and brash and devil-may-care. I think it’s very inspiring. So, yeah, I think the more people adopt that sort of ethos, the better.
NH: Yeah… So, you had said that you gravitate towards body positivity and representation – what do you think motivates that? I preface that with – well, footnote – I footnote that by saying that I know why I gravitate towards the female body in my work. I’m currently working on a doc about sexual violence, and two films I made last year were about the female body and I feel that a lot of what motivates me to write about that is that I’m a news junkie and it frustrates me when I’m reading the news and I’m reading commentary about women and the representation of women, and some of the misogynistic and somewhat heinous things people say about women – so my preoccupation with the existence of the female body in cinema and in culture, and media in general, comes from a political place, it comes from an angry place. If you had to choose, where does your motivation come from?
LP: I mean, at a very knee-jerk level it’s sort of just from my own experience, because I identify as fat, but a lot of it, too, is wrapped up in the larger social script that surrounds fat bodies. Fat women, in particular. The ideas like, ‘She’s let herself go,’ or that someone is ‘lazy,’ or on the flip side, they’re desexualized, or on the flip side, there’s this kinky, sequestered avenue of people who aren’t normatively attractive. And there’s a lot of tricky framing that keeps them at the margins and – well, me, keeps us – because I realize now that I’m isolating myself. It creates this sense of marginalization, too, of just the idea that we’re sitting in a relatively busy coffee shop and I feel like I’m jutting into the space. The experience of fat bodies in a world that doesn’t cater to them, that doesn’t really have them in mind when it’s being built, or when it’s discussed or framed, or what have you. It’s just really interesting to me and I like raising awareness about that. I think so much of it is, since it’s such a naked script and it’s passed off as the norm, that people have a tendency to internalize those things that it’s like, ‘There’s something wrong with you if you’re the fat one, that you should be the one changing to adapt to this.’ And that’s really damaging and it’s quite frankly false. You can’t make those sort of judgments about a person just by looking at them and by observing what sort of weight they are. So, taking those social scripts into account has really motivated me to keep working on that. So that’s what part of my project is doing, is looking at this liberatory model of Divine around the ‘70s that coincides with the LGBT activists and gay rights movement, and how a lot of it was about visibility at all costs, and how that ebbs and flows through time. From there and in the ‘80s and ‘90s and early 2000s is that, especially through fat women, their representations were in an apologetic or it’s a mocking tone, and you have people wearing fat suits –
NH: Oh god. Tyra Banks.
LP: Yeah! I forgot about that.
NH: Oh, man. ‘The Tyra Show.’
LP: Yeah! You see, talk shows became this really big thing. So this is getting into my second chapter now, I guess. But Ricki Lake. She plays the original Tracy Turnblad in John Waters’ Hairspray – which I just watched recently and it’s just so exuberant and fantastic – but then within the decade she loses a hundred pounds and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with this sort of fat icon, even though that’s how she got her original fans, and she becomes this talk show figure. Around the same time – because What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is going to be another film I analyze pretty heavily – and the main actress who plays Bonnie Grape, “Mama,” in the film, was actually discovered by appearing on The Sally Jessy Show – you know the woman with the red glasses?
NH: Oh yes, back in the day. Sally Jessy Raphael.
LP: Right! She was on there and it was one of those exploitive, human interest pieces, because she was at that point a shut-in because she was so heavy. So it was this sob story, this really pitiful framing of this woman, so that carries over into her actual portrayal into the film. So it’s just this thing where people are either apologizing for their fatness or their fatness is something that can be appropriated by thin people because it seemingly has no value, basically. And if it has any value it’s negative. So, it’s, yeah, it’s really interesting when it moves into that… I forget the original question.
NH: You know, I did, too.
NH: I think it was, ‘what do you think motivates how you gravitates towards the subject matter?’
LP: Yeah. So I was talking about how it’s charting this social script through time, starting with Divine, going through this slump as I perceive it, of framing these women as pitiful fat women, and we’re kind of moving into this time period that’s really interesting. It’s sort of a hybrid era because you have very public figures like Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy who are sort of using fat as their calling card, or at the very least if they’re not fully liberatory or liberationist fat people, as Divine’s characters would have been considered, they at least bring more positive visibility that they’re very strong-willed characters and they contribute a lot to these films and people view them in a positive light rather than this social scourge, which I think is really an important move in the right direction. But keeping in mind that they’re still trying to placate this mainstream audience that has these normative beauty standards in mind. It’s sort of keeping tabs that they both have pretty faces and they’re both white women, and all these sort of things are marks of privilege that allow them to get visibility in the first place. So, yeah, I think we’re at a really interesting flashpoint where the stigmas of fatness of a couple of decades ago are going away and we’re learning a little more. But at the same time, I think it’s a far cry from that sort of in-your-face, aggressive fatness.
NH: Yeah, and I’m really interested to know how, from your perspective, how you think the Internet and social media plays into this. Because after we left the reality TV era we moved into social media. I hate saying ‘narcissism’ – it’s the selfie era. It’s kind of, in a way, living our own reality shows online. So how do you think that contributes to body positivity? I would imagine it really gives it a lot of momentum.
LP: I definitely, definitely think it does. Because my brother gives me shit all the time for, like, posting selfies all the time and he thinks they’re so unnecessary and gratuitous, or whatever, and maybe they are… I actually went a conference over the summer in Detroit and they had a whole course track devoted to fat activism and the one panel was all about selfies, and what does it mean to be taking selfies while fat? And it was really great to talk to those people about it because, for me, and some of them too, it’s sort of being in control of your own image and putting it out there and making people take notice. Because it’s weird, especially when you occupy a fat body you’re either overly marked and people can’t stop looking at you even though they want to, or you’re just being difficult and they try to keep you that way, so I’m all about making my own form of visibility and putting it out there. And, too, I’m a big proponent – because body positivity should cover a whole spectrum, whether I’m posting a selfie because I think my outfit looks really bangin’ or, ‘Look how crazy my hair is when I wake up!’ I think both of those sorts of things are really important. And, too, I just like the experience of cataloging those moments when I’m reflecting on my appearance, good or bad, and tracking how I feel about myself. It’s sort of like a journaling thing, it’s sort of therapeutic. Yeah, having that archive and being able to look through those things and relive those experiences is really an important tool to owning one’s self.
NH: Well, it’s about ownership.
LP: Right, definitely.
NH: I remember when Dove launched their real beauty campaign, a lot of the pushback, a lot of the anger came from a place of, ‘I don’t want to see that when I’m looking through a magazine.’ I don’t think people realized, it’s not about you! I think men are not really conditioned to think that. Then you get these nut jobs on Fox News who are saying things like, ‘Well, this is displeasing to me!’
LP: That’s really just regressive and hurtful and kind of makes me want to through the table across the room!
LP: Because the bodies in magazines – the people who presumably have these bodies – they don’t exist because they’re Photoshopped beyond recognition and they’re manipulated in ways that are not proportionate or possible by human nature. And maybe, too, because I make a point to inundate myself with very particular media that caters to my interest in seeing diverse body types, that people who don’t do that and they’re used to consuming the mainstream media, it is going to be very shocking and displeasing if they’re on the outside, particularly if they are part of the normative – if they could pass as this normatively attractive person, then to see these bodies that would otherwise be marginalized would be like, ‘Oh no!’ Very disrupting to that norm. But I think that’s particularly why it should be done! Just like, make them eat it, I guess. Because it’s not about them. And that’s a thing – that particular phrasing – I don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, but it cycles well on the Internet, so Latrice Royale is this big, black drag queen, and her coin phrase is, ‘If you fall down, get back up and make them eat it.’ She was just very body and confident, so I guess, no wonder why I liked it because it’s very close to Divine’s ethos, this concept of, ‘So what if they don’t like it? You’re going to put it out there anyway, and that should still be done.’
NH: Do you think we’ll ever be able to escape the politics of representation?
LP: I don’t know… If we’re looking at roles of fat women and everything, just the way I think more roles for women portraying ‘bitches’ or ‘slobs,’ or these negative, or so-called ‘negative,’ just as I think they should be doing those things, I think an important and progressive way to move with fat characters is to show them just in a myriad ways. Like I said, so often it is this compensating trope that they’re the overly funny one in the group, or they’re never the romantic lead, and if they’re slobby it’s only to accentuate the properness of other people. And there’s always sort of a counter to those things, and really I think the move should be to make them autonomous and make them all of those things instead of making them a foil for the one that you’re supposed to be rooting for. And, yeah, any sort of move towards a character who’s not just supposed to be playing off ‘acceptability’ ideas is just… a-okay.
NH: A-okay. It works.