My guest this week is the incredible film maker, speaker & activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, and she has a huge fire in her belly about how fat people are represented onstage! Fat people have been virtually invisible in the creative arts, but Kelli Jean’s mission is to bring them into the limelight! In order to combat weight stigma and create a world in which all bodies belong, it is VITAL that fat people are represented in the creative arts. And not just as a boring STEREOTYPE, but as fully rounded, amazing, positive and UNAPOLOGETIC humans! Join me for a fantastic conversation as Kelli Jean & I unpack how things are changing in the industry & what still needs to be challenged. And hear all about Kelli Jeans’ simply INCREDIBLE projects! This is a fabulous & inspiring episode from an artist who professionally BLOWS PEOPLE’S MINDS!
- My guest is Sydney based film maker, speaker and activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, who is totally fired up about fat representation in the media.
- Louise talks about how she & Kelli Jean first met several years ago on the set of Insight, a tv program in which there was an ‘ambush’ of fat activists and Kelli Jean was in the front line of host Jenny Brockie’s fatphobia.
- Her anger acts as fuel to change how fat people are being represented.
- We can get fired up in 2 ways, because although on one hand representation and casting of fat characters are getting better, there’s still a long way to go!
- There’s been a recent spate of films and tv shows especially in the USA which feature fat narratives, but they are still centred around cis gendered, white, heterosexual perspectives, and also the smaller side of fat people being cast.
- We have stories like Shrill, where the character is fat and staying fat, and Dietland, adapted from the amazing novel by Sarai Walker, where it’s still very good & fat positive but still some decisions made in that process which reflect weight bias.
- Like in both Shrill & in Dietland the main fat characters had love interests or sexual partners that were just awful men!
- In Shrill, her love interest feels ashamed of her and makes her leave out of the back door. She’s meant to be this onto it fat woman and wh????
- So eventually he comes around and says ok meet my friends, and she doesn’t dump him.
- And in Dietland the main character is a virgin, and rather than having a good experience she has this awful experience with a fetishist and a feeder who then rapes her. And it’s like – “ok, so that’s the kind of sex we’re going to see?”
- It could be done differently, and that’s frustrating.
- And then there’s the movie “Dumplin”, which Louise liked, she never saw anything like that when she was growing up. And it’s lovely to see the thin character (the mum, Jennifer Aniston), as the one always dieting, miserable and insecure. There’s some great characters in this – the fat auntie, who is always supportive of her.
- But then the aunt dies, and we’re not told why but it’s implied it’s because she was fat!?
- The love interest in Dumplin was great, he’s the hot guy and he is also lovely, he has no qualms about being attracted to her, and they just get together and it’s all ok. This is a narrative we need to see.
- Love is possible no matter what you look like. The hot guy can want to be with the fat girl.
- Kelli Jean related to her love of Dolly Parton, and the camp friends!
- Also the swimsuit scene at the end – they were in swing dresses and not bikinis???
- There are things like that that we’re still not seeing, and Kelli Jean is keen as a film maker to push things further, to include more inclusivity and positivity to fat characters.
- Having a fat character in a story is not good enough, we need to see it handled properly.
- Kelli Jean’s first documentary was Aquaporko, all about the fat women’s synchronised swimming team that she started.
- The women are all extremely smiley, and they’re all in fantastic swim hats – which she got online from Esther Williams.
- Kelli Jean loved the beach and has always loved swimming and being in the water. But for years she did not go to the beach or swimming because of how she felt about her body. It’s such a basic thing, to swim and be in water, but for fat people this can be fraught.
- Aquaporko is a beautiful, fun, unapologetic and confronting story of fat people being in their bodies and loving it. And also of being in public, and taking up space.
- It was an important and transformative film for the people who were involved.
- That’s why she did Aquaporko, she did not want other people to not do things they love for years and years.
- The film came about after Kelli Jean got some friends together and at a Sydney public pool they taught themselves synchronised swimming, just for laughs. There was no agenda, but people would clap us when we got out of the pool. It got some traction and media attention, a chapter started in Brisbane & in Melbourne.
- The Melbourne team practised & became quite good. It got to the point where they were going to do a performance at the pool, Kelli Jean thought – well, I am a film maker, and so the film was born!
- It premiered at the Mardi Gras film festival in Sydney, and everyone loved it. It won the audience award. It’s colourful, it’s different, it’s a bit camp, it’s just very joyful.
- It’s shown in 47 countries now as part of different film festivals. It still gets requests to screen.
- Now Kelli Jean has made a feature film, Nothing to Lose, this also gets attention, but Aquaporko is just loved.
- Nothing to lose is Kelli Jean’s first feature film. She co-directed it, without funding. It’s the story – in 2013 she was approached by Kate Champion, a very well known choreographer and theatre director for Force Majeur. She wanted to a dance theatre production exploring the fat dancing body, body politics and explore why this is such a taboo subject.
- In clubs, Kate’s eye was always drawn to bigger people dancing. Realising that she is a very slim, trained dancer, Kate realised she needed to collaborate with a fat artist who understands not just the performance but also the politics. Kelli Jean was the perfect choice!
- Kelli Jean offered artistic direction on the production, and decided to make a film about it on the way.
- It took 3 years off and on to make the show, and the film goes from the auditions to opening night.
- The show and the film explore not just the choreography and what fat bodies can do, but also about the people involved and their relationship to their bodies.
- It was amazing to have this show, commissioned by the Sydney Festival, choreographed by an accomplished person like Kate Champion. This really is ‘mainstream’ art in Sydney!
- At the time, nothing like it had been done. Dance theatre isn’t just dance, it’s theatre as well. It was very well received, and there was lots of media attention on it from all over the world. Just the concept of fat people dancing blew people’s minds.
- In the film they talked about the level of interest – is that just ‘the freak show’ or are people genuinely interested? But it got really positive reviews, almost all positive. Which was a bit disappointing as no piece of art is perfect.
- On Kate’s advice Kelli Jean and the cast decided during the performance time not to read comments or reviews. To allow themselves to just do the shows without worrying about how it was being received.
- Which is a good idea – there is an underground, Reddit based group of people who almost professionally hate fat people for no apparent reason.
- The show toured to Melbourne but not internationally. It’s almost like the people putting on these shows are ok with it because it is very ‘of the moment’ – it is controversial, which gets attention and therefore money.
- But they are still very cautious about it. Which is why it was good to work with Kate because she is not cautious!
- So it’s the same thing: yes, you can do a fat story – BUT, it has to be a white woman, and fat but not massively fat – and not TOO happy. And of course that is part of the story – you don’t just go I’m fat & I’m happy about that, we carry all of this baggage around with us all of the time. And so it makes sense that the characters who are written also carry this around – it would be weird if they didn’t.
- But there is ways we can push. And to not tour internationally is a shame, because it would have gone off!
- But this is why it’s great that Kelli Jean made the film.
- Everyone who worked on the film did it for free, for years. Because they believed this story needed to get out, and because the show did not tour.
- The film premiered at a queer film festival in San Francisco in 2018 and a massive premiere at Quuer screen at Mardi Gras in 2018. It has gone on to have a number of international screenings too, so it is getting seen!
- Also SBS on Demand bought it, so Australians can view it for free (link in resources).
- The film is the legacy of the show, and they’re all so glad it’s having success.
- Louise was in the audience (again) for Kelli Jean’s TED Talk which she gave at the Opera House. That came about from a funny story: Kelli Jean was in the audience at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House in Sydney, listening to Sarai Walker, author of Dietland, who was talking about radical fat acceptance. Her talk was all about the need to stop distracting from ideas of pure, radical acceptance by talking about ‘health’. At the end of her talk all of the questions were about health!
- Kelli Jean got up and caused a scene! She got up and said – I don’t have a question, but I just want to say I am embarrassed that here we are at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and here we are again talking about health!
- It was very triggering for Kelli Jean, because of the Insight experience and how she was hijacked there.
- Kelli Jean was like, “oh my god it’s happening again”.
- Afterwards, Edwina Throsby who was the head of TEDx Sydney, came up and said I want you to do a TED talk.
- Kelli Jean got a standing ovation for her comment at Sarai’s talk (Louise was not brave enough to get up!). For Kelli Jean, it’s not a choice. “I can’t not say something.”
- Kelli Jean felt bad for getting a standing ovation and taking the focus off Sarai, but she thanked her later for saving her.
- Here we are, Festival of Dangerous Ideas, with an accomplished novelist with some amazing ideas. And people still could not let go of their bullshit around health.? The entitlement of that – the idea that they can say “no you’re wrong, this is a wrong idea” – rather than “I’m really challenged by what you’re saying”.
- It’s just “No, you’re wrong, and you’re going to die because you’re fat”. People cannot let that go, because letting that go challenges and threatens their whole way of being in their own bodies, and their own relationships with their bodies. If we go “Hey, we’re fat, we’re going to live in our bodies and wear bikinis and show our bodies and love them and have sexy time and eat whatever the fuck we want”, people can’t deal. A lot of people invest so much time into trying to maintain a thin body, that to suggest that time could be better spent is too much.
- Small people don’t have it easy either: they may feel they have to invest a lot into maintaining it, because of a belief that it maintains happiness or acceptance or health. Engaging in diet culture is tiring for all of us.
- If you challenge that, they freak out.
- People get defensive and don’t want to listen. Kelli Jean gets it – it’s a massive capitalist machine. There’s a lot of money to be made by making sure women hate their bodies. The sexist, [atriarchal structure of capitalism is a lot to challenge. But come on – if you’re paying for a talk which is specifically to challenge you, be challenged!
- Kelli Jean is sure that if TED talks had a question time, the exact same thing would have happened.
- The TED talk was one of the scariest things Kelli Jean has ever done. But if someone says to you hey, do you want to talk to potentially millions of people on the main stage of the Opera House about something that you love – you’re not going to say no!
- There were 2500 people at the Opera House, but there were also 20 000 people watching live around the world! And no auto cue – Kelli Jean had to remember the whole thing off by heart. She did have notes stuffed down her bra.
- This was also one of the first TED talks to ever address the topic of fat positivity. So it got picked up by TED.com – they call it “Big Ted” in the USA & put on their platform.
- So now nearly 2 million people have watched it!
- Of course, when the talk went up there was a huge number of hateful comments. Kelli Jean spoke to the TED people to say that this is really damaging for fat people who might read these comments, so they actually disabled the comments both here and in the USA. Kelli Jean never read them, but heard how awful and violent they were, and she didn’t want people exposed to that.
- Kelli Jean knows how awful it can be, and knows it’s coming if she puts something out there. But she feels for the people who may not know and be impacted by the vitriol and outright hatred.
- It’s awful to think there are people out there who have nothing better to do than hate on people, especially women, who are ok with themselves.
- That threatens the patriarchy, the status quo, and it freaks people out.
- Some people (??Dylan Meryn?) meet people who troll them & find out they are just sad or have difficult lives or whatever. Kelli Jean does not want to do that! But she does want people to understand that people who troll like that are sad & have their own issues.
- So the resistance to fat representation centres on 2 main ‘arguments’: 1) “but what about health”, and 2) hatred.
- Without doubt the most vitriol comes from straight men. But as a queer woman, Kelli Jean could not care less if they find her attractive or if she offends them visually. Which is possibly why they find people like her threatening!
- This trolling and hatred fuels Kelli Jean’s fat activist fire. And it doesn’t feel like a choice for Kelli Jean. and it’s wonderful to see how far activism has come. There are some really popular and mainstream artists, like Lizzo, and this is very different from when she grew up.
- Kelli Jean loves the fact that so many fat younger people are owning it, wearing crop tops etc and just unapologetic about their size. As a teenager she never ever saw stuff like that! She bought into it for ages – and then, just got jack of it!
- Although she’s been in this thinking and activism space for a long time, it is still a process. There are still hard times.
- Kelli Jean is now directing a short film called “The Rainbow Passage”, it’s about Cadence Autumn-Bell. It’s her story about her transition, and her girlfriend is also transitioning, and they’re in Bathurst (small NSW country town). While fat positivity is important, Kelli jean also wants to focus on body positivity overall, and all of the intersections and layers of this, affirming gender diversity, differently abled bodies, being intergenerational, holding space for people of colour and their stories. Because it’s all interconnected. Intersectional feminism is the only way really!
- The other project is top secret, and we’re super excited about it!
- All of these ideas of loving who you are and pushing back against the dominant narrative are interconnected.
- We talk about the Insight show & how people questioned whether or not Kelli Jean was a swimmer. She just is! At the end of the Insight taping, kelli Jean told them that they could not show any of the scenes from Aquaporko on the show, because they’d treated her so awfully.
- Kelli Jean is often asked to take part in shows like this and she usually says no, because she will not set herself up for another ambush.
- It’s understandable that many fat activists are wary about appearing in the media, because they are so often ambushed with the interviewer’s own internalised weight stigma.
- The host of Insight, Jenny Brockie, obviously has her own issues with weight, because we’d never seen her so un-objective and accusatory towards a guest on the show.
- Jenny Brockie really went for Kelli Jean, but as usual she handled it like a champ!
A link to the SBS Insight show which they called “Fat Fighters” (we did not know this was going to be the title, another aspect of the ambush)
The transcript from the SBS show Insight
Sarai Walker’s (author of Dietland) talk at the Festival of Dangerous ideas on radical Fat Acceptance
Shrill by Lindy West – the book.
Shrill the tv series.
Aussie people can watch Nothing to Lose on SBS on Demand
Watch Kelli Jean’s Ted Talk
Find out more about Kelli Jean here