thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Gender, Sexuality, and Coming-of-Age in ABC Family’s “Huge”

In gender, teen soaps on August 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Sarah Todd

ABC Family’s short-lived, much-loved teen drama Huge gets camp right. Watching the show, you can practically smell the rough-hewn pine cabins and feel the rising moisture from freshly washed cafeteria dishes on your skin. The difference between camp time and regular time comes flooding back: one camp afternoon was equal to eight or so off-season ones. You may remember waiting in line to call home and pick up care packages from your parents (socks and Kleenex and stuffed animals), how friendships forged in the fires of camp shone with devotion after just a few days, how camp crushes were always big and sweet and extra-heartbreaking. In a major coup for camp-accuracy, Huge even includes a clogged toilet in the boy’s cabin that everyone kind of surreptitiously pretends isn’t happening.

But the real secret to the show’s authentic feel is the way that it quietly and respectfully explores the complex emotions of its teenage characters. Huge is all about change. Most, though not all, campers are at the wellness camp at least in part to lose weight—but the show is really about kids going through less visible, deeper transformations.

Like most adolescents, Wil, Becca, Ian, Amber, Chloe, Alistair, Trent, Piz, and company are struggling to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Camp provides them with a place to try on new identities or affirm old ones. Often, they surprise themselves. Wil, the fighter and proud feminist who initially planned to wage war against all camp activities, discovers that she actually likes basketball. Trent, the good-hearted jock, longs to be in a band, and befriends bunkmates he might never have acknowledged in high school hallways. Chloe climbs the social ladder by leaving her frizzy-haired, giggly old self—and her former BFF Becca—behind.

Huge conveys these changes not with dramatic speeches or blowout fights, but through small, carefully observed moments. The camera lingers on a character’s face after her friends walk away, or follows an exchange of gazes without tacking on an explanation. Huge isn’t afraid to leave characters and scenes open to interpretation, and it extends that approach to its complex depictions of teenagers exploring gender roles and sexual orientations.

Huge is one of the few teen shows I’ve seen that really examines the fluidity and range of sexual identities. Alistair, played by Harvey Guillen, is a sweet, funny teen who doesn’t conform to gender norms. When asked to choose a name for a group activity, Alistair selects “Athena,” earning snickers and startled looks. Trent, one of the popular kids, later asks Alistair about his choice: “It’s not exactly normal to pick a girl’s name.” In turn, Alistair explains his refusal to abide by black-and-white gender constructions in a way that Trent can understand. “What does it matter?” he asks. “I like the name. I don’t see why I should have to pick a boy’s name just because people expect me to. I’d rather do what I want.” Trent gets it—Alistair just doesn’t want to be boxed in—and the exchange marks the beginning of their friendship.

Lest this interaction seem to paint too utopian a picture of acceptance, Huge also shows kids behaving cruelly toward Alistair because they perceive him as gay. In “Birthday,” Piz—a class clown type whose antics mask his own vulnerability—accepts a dare to kiss an unknowing Alistair. As Piz prepares to kiss Alistair, he asks him if he’s gay. Alistair explains, “I don’t really think of it like that. I don’t like labels. I’d rather just be a person. And another person. And be comfortable in who I am and who we are.” Alistair’s speech throws the real awfulness of the prank into light. He wants to be seen and treated as an individual, and the root of the dare is to make him into a cartoon–to ignore his humanity and uniqueness by making his possible sexual orientation into a joke.

Huge consistently calls attention to the individuality of its characters, and makes an effort to discourage easy labeling of sexual identities. Ian mistakenly believes Wil is gay in “Letters Home,” which in turn makes Wil question her own performance of gender and sexuality. “Do I seem gay to you?” she asks a friend. She’s not worried about whether people think she’s gay generally, but she is concerned that the guy she has a crush on might think so. It’s no coincidence that Huge uses this plot line in an early episode, because it works to destabilize presumptions about the sexual orientations of the show’s characters going forward. Heteronormativity isn’t assumed, so when Piz looks sadly at Trent and Chloe canoodling, the viewer isn’t sure if he’s jealous of Trent or Chloe or just feeling left out. Sometimes it seems like Becca might have a crush on Wil, or that Trent might have a crush on Ian, and sometimes it seems otherwise. Huge also features a character, Poppy, who tells a coworker that she identifies as asexual. The show respects her enough not to treat her orientation as a joke, tragedy, or problem to be fixed.

Huge also subtly examines the intersections between prejudices. Mainstream American culture polices bodies in a number of ways, and two of the most dominant physical characteristics to which people are expected to conform are thinness and a cis-gender appearance. When Ian mentions “being called queer ‘cause you hate sports” in gym class, the line highlights bullying across multiple planes. “Being called queer cause you hate sports” assumes that there is a correlation between weight and sexuality (an overweight man is somehow less heterosexual or masculine than a thin man) and between sexuality and athletic ability. It’s only one example of the myriad ways in which body policing works across lines of weight, race, gender, class, disability, and sexuality in ways that are harmful to everyone.

It makes sense, then, that when Chloe and Amber walk around in their swimsuits and discuss how different and accepted they feel at camp, they’re not really just talking about weight. Camp Victory is a place that’s intended to allow people to be themselves without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. As Piz’s prank shows, the camp doesn’t always succeed in fulfilling that goal, but it’s certainly trying.

Similarly, Huge may not always fulfill its radical potential. (I have a soft spot for all things Winne Holzman, but I’ve heard valid criticisms of its depictions of weight and weight loss, and I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts.)  But like the camp in which the show takes place, Huge tries very hard to be a different, kinder space. Indeed, it may have been too different for ABC Family, which canceled the show after its first season. But all ten episodes are still available on Hulu, for whenever people need a good Camp Victory-style hailing.

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  1. “‘Being called queer cause you hate sports’ assumes that there is a correlation between weight and sexuality (an overweight man is somehow less heterosexual or masculine than a thin man) and between sexuality and athletic ability. It’s only one example of the myriad ways in which body policing works across lines of weight, race, gender, class, disability, and sexuality in ways that are harmful to everyone.”

    Yes. You’re really identifying the heart of (this particular) matter and, I think, also pointing to one of the reasons the show is so important. Excellent post, ST!

    I’m still so sad Huge got cancelled before it had the chance to truly come into its own. Another facet of the show that I’d like to think through more carefully is how the relationships that characters have with food are further developed through their parental and familial relationships (which, like food, are another part of the outside-of-camp world they can never fully shake). I have a feeling class would be really important to that conversation as well as to the show as a whole…

  2. I love that idea of developing the character’s relationships with food and their families, Chelsea. I can definitely see how class would come into play, particularly in discussing Amber’s disordered eating and calorie-counting, and Wil’s rebellion against the values of her gym-owning parents…

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