Katherine Alyse is an actor, writer, and improviser from Upright Citizens Brigade. She created and starred in 2 seasons of her web series The Fat One, a rom-com between a chubby girl and herself, which was featured on The Huffington Post, TimeOutLA, and Jill Soloway’s Wifey.TV. It was an absolute delight to sit down with her and discuss what we want out of the stories we tell, consume and live…
Sallie Merkel: I love The Fat One because it has representations of so many things that I don’t usually get to see in the media I consume: not only a female protagonist who is fat, but also things like multiple fat characters who have different relationships to their bodies and sexuality, a geek culture girl who is an actual person not just a male fantasy, men having their feelings hurt sexually and it being processed in both toxic and healthy ways…
Katherine Alyse: You’ve given me such goose bumps because that is very intentional in the series and it’s a thing that most people don’t talk about, so I love you for noticing that. I’ve always imagined that if I were to do any sort of marketing for The Fat One, one of the things we would do would be a slot-machine-style spinning wheel with the title, where the word fat is replaced with all of these other words.
In everything I ever write, the antagonist is almost always society, it’s almost never the individual, because that is my experience of the world. Whenever I relate to individual people, like individuals who voted for Trump per se, I can find a commonality and can really understand and have empathy for their life experience, but the moment we start talking about a group of people, even with a culture I identify with, I’m immediately distrusting and have way less faith in it. So my hope as I write a [full half-hour comedy] pilot for The Fat One, is that I want there to be at least two of any specific word that you might use to describe someone on the show. So there are two fat women, there are two black women, there are two men of color, there are two white men. Then when you’re watching their experience, and one character is heavily sexualized and the other is completely asexual, there is that conversation: Oh, do you think we could like see each other as individuals?”
And obviously the challenge of a web series is that we have to follow one character for the most part, because there’s only a certain amount of time that you can really spend with somebody. But in the [television] series we would occasionally be switching perspectives to different characters. Because the big word for me with The Fat One – I like to have a word that sort of encapsulates the series – is expansion. And that’s also expansion in your perspective.
SM: I love that. I love how each episode begins by literally putting you in Kate’s perspective, when different characters directly address the camera as her. It’s almost like the show goes beyond the female gaze in those moments, activating the viewer as Kate. You are her. It’s inarguable. I really loved that. Maybe that was just a compliment, and not a question.
KA: That’s okay, I love compliments.
SM: And I think to create something like that you have to break down all these rules that you might have internalized. Were there any beliefs that you were operating under, but then something happened and made you realize, Oh, I don’t have to play by that rule anymore?
KA: One of the things that I’ve worked on is noticing moments when I use my word – whatever word I might use to describe myself, sometimes it’s fat, sometimes it’s woman – to limit myself. That was a thing that I had to start paying attention to. And also acknowledging the moments when I was using it to my advantage, but not noticing that I was using it to my advantage.
I think the stories we tell really shape who we are as people, so I want a story that tells me how to be a better person.
Let me give an example: in relationships – I talk about relationships a lot because it’s what I think we’re put on this planet to do, to relate to one another – so in relationships I noticed myself thinking that when a guy broke up with me it was because I was overweight. But as I got older I started to think, wow, that’s really helping me to never deal with any of the other intimacy issues that I have, and also not taking any personal responsibility for what I was co-creating. It was also very important, as I started doing that work, to make sure I wasn’t letting anybody else off the hook for their part in the relationship.
And one of my big hopes with The Fat One is that it asks people to question their own notions about what’s happening in their own relationships and how they see people in their lives, because I think that’s the only way it changes, through self-curiosity. To notice those moments of like, Oh yeah, I did this. Did I do that because this person looks this particular way? Or is this just like my genuine feeling? And if you never ask that question, you’ll never know the answer. And I think that people are really afraid to ask that question, because what if the answer is like, yeah, I’m racist, or I’m sexist, or I’m bigoted, and that’s a really scary thing. But the truth is, better to know that answer so that then you can change it. Because if you don’t acknowledge it you cannot change it. So with The Fat One I hope to create this weird little safe space, where I say, it’s okay if you’re bad at this. It’s okay if you say the wrong things. It’s okay if you do the wrong things. It’s about doing something better next time.
And another thing that bothers me about media is not allowing characters to grow or change. We’ve been told for eons that procedurals are what sell. And yes, because it’s very hard to get a television show on the air and so it’s nice when nothing really changes and you can just tune into the same thing all the time. But I think the stories we tell really shape who we are as people, so I want a story that tells me how to be a better person. And not in this way of, you have to do X, Y and Z, it’s not that, but it’s like, How do I watch this person be comfortable with being sexy? How do I watch this person be comfortable being in a relationship and trusting someone?
SM: Sometimes when we create alternative spaces those spaces can end up replicating the very structures that we’re trying to escape in the first place. And I think what you just said is a great recipe for how to not do that. To say, it’s okay if you’re bad at this. We’re here to change. And for that to be a core storytelling value? That’s really radical.
KA: And I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention that so much of that comes from my friends who are people of color. In many instances, my ability to have conversations to make myself a better human being comes from people of color being extremely patient with me. So when I talk to men who are saying things that are making my skin crawl, I sort of try to find that patience that someone else has given me. Because maybe that person really wants to change and is struggling with something and feels embarrassed about this part of themselves. But if they can’t say it out loud, if they can’t have it be seen, then they’re always going to hide it. And shame lives in isolation, so as long as we are not being honest about our shame, it will be the thing that rules and controls us. So I’d rather hear about some stupid shit a dude thinks, so we can talk about it.
SM: That’s something I’m working on, because so often, when someone says something that is offensive or oppressive to me my impulse is to cut that person out of my life as much as possible. But that’s not the kind of conversation that we need to have, and it certainly doesn’t help to create the kind of world that I want to live in.
KA: And I think it’s up to the individual to know what they can handle in that moment. There are moments where it is not my job to educate other people, and it’s not other people’s job to educate me. Sometimes, it’s like, oh yeah, I gotta go do my own work.
Shame lives in isolation, so as long as we are not being honest about our shame, it will be the thing that rules and controls us. So I’d rather hear about some stupid shit a dude thinks, so we can talk about it.
And one of the ways that I educate myself is consuming media from people who are different than me. It is such a good way of not making someone walk you through the process of being a better person. So there’s a lot of media that I consume by people who do not look like me, and more importantly, do not think like me. Also, trying to understand viewpoints that are not my own is incredibly important to my creative process! And especially as we get more and more separated into these little bubbles, you have to be active about it. It is an exercise, to go out and find somebody who doesn’t think like you.
SM: One more direct question about your feminism. I may be making a presumption that you identify as a feminist…
KA: I do!
SM: How do you think your feminism affects your art-making process? For example, does it impact how you think about casting or how you think about leading a room full of people in production?
KA: I think, for me, feminism has really been about teaching people that they matter. Because I think when you imbue people with a sense of responsibility they behave better. That’s not always the truth. If they are egomaniacs and narcissists you have a whole different thing that you have to deal with. But for me feminism means that either we all matter the same amount or we all don’t matter the same amount.
And then as far as leading a room, The Fat One has been incredibly informative for me about the amount of ways that I give away power.
SM: Ooh! Say more about that!
KA: Because I’m not paying people outrageous sums of money, if they get paid at all, I really want to make it a good experience for them. So a lot of times I will just give them what they want, in a way to get them to stay. But I’ve realized how deeply unhelpful that is for the creative process. Because what people are signing on for is your vision. And that means that at the end of the day you have to be comfortable with saying, we’re not going to do it that way because that’s not part of my vision. And it’s okay if you leave. I don’t want you to leave and I would like you to stay and you matter to me and you matter to this project, but that’s not what we’re gonna do.
Nobody has more experience than you, in regards to being you.
Another challenge for me was being vocal about things I wasn’t happy with. Also, I foolishly expected that other people would understand my baby as much as I did. Basically all of these mistakes were different ways of saying, okay, you know better than me, you have more experience than I do. But nobody has more experience than you, in regards to being you.
I think also, ohmygosh, clarity on expectations, clarity on vision, doing all that work up front, is going to save you so much turmoil in the long run. And don’t beat yourself up if it’s not going perfectly. That is also a part of my feminism, me being kind to myself and kind to others.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.