Lizzo’s ‘Big Grrrls’ Asks Big Questions

Lizzo would have preferred to hire her dancers through an agency. But, as she says in the first episode of her new show which aired on Amazon Prime Video last month, “Girls who look like me just aren’t shown.”

She speaks of “representation” in the professional sense. But broader questions of representation loom on “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.” The eight-episode show follows a group of aspiring plus-size dancers who recently competed for the chance to support Lizzo on stage and possibly join her tour as one of her “Big Grrrl” dancers.

Lizzo tells the dancers that if they don’t perform, she’ll send them home – or maybe not. A few episodes later, she tells them they could all stay.

“The #1 thing is I didn’t want to eliminate every week,” Lizzo said in a Zoom interview.

“I’m looking for dancers, not dancers,” she says, emphasizing the plural. If she eliminated a woman every week, she says, she wouldn’t have anyone left in the end.

A reality TV contest that doesn’t cut contestants may seem paradoxical. But Lizzo’s career has always had surprising and somewhat contradictory combinations. She regularly appears naked and bristles at being called “brave” for it. She insists on the intrinsic value of fatty substances and has launched a line of shapewear. She twerks and she plays the flute.

“I don’t have to fit into archetypes that have been created before like Tyra Banks or Puff Daddy,” Lizzo said. “They all did it in their own way, and that’s what I do.” Lizzo’s character as a TV host is both a demanding queen and a nurturing mentor. Several times throughout the show, she delivers imperious one-liners to the camera, holds on for a few seconds and then bursts out laughing.

Lizzo’s warmer, more encouraging moments are tempered by her choreographer Tanisha Scott, who brings tough love and exacting rigor to her rehearsals.

“I’m able to talk to them about my own personal experience, not giving up and not feeling sorry for myself in any way,” Ms Scott said in a Zoom interview. Ms. Scott began her career as an untrained dancer with a larger than average body and became a rare success in her industry. She said she had to work 10 times harder than other dancers to get where she is.

“So I wasn’t going to be sweet and easy and ‘it’s a bouquet of roses’ and ‘we all have that,'” she said. “No. You have to work for it.

Ms. Scott credits Lizzo with opening the door to greater commercial viability for top dancers. “She doesn’t make it a trend or a novelty, she makes it a business,” she said.

One of the unique elements of Lizzo’s show is how seriously she takes both the talents and struggles of her wannabe “Big Grrrls.” Each episode features athletic feats performed by larger-than-average bodies, including particularly jaw-dropping acrobatics from Jayla Sullivan, one of the contestants. But the show doesn’t shy away from dancers’ injuries, insecurities and occasional eating issues.

Tonally, the show sits somewhere between body positivity — a concept that has fully penetrated some corners of marketing — and body neutrality, a newer idea that encourages people to accept and respect their bodies. The entertainment and dance industries are also at a time of transition in their attitudes towards big bodies.

“There’s a movement of tall women coming to the fore as leads, as stars,” said Nneka Onuorah, who directed the series and appears in one episode. “This show is just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.”

Lizzo said she saw the change “on a business level, where taller girls are being welcomed into casting rooms.” “I’ll even hear things about ‘Oh, we need a Lizzo guy,’ which is really inspiring,” she said.

Still, Lizzo said there are still far fewer casting opportunities for great dancers. “I’ve seen tall girls being cast in music videos almost as a joke, not being taken seriously,” she said. “So I think it hasn’t infiltrated the current dance industry.”

Jessica Judd, who runs an organization in the Bay Area called Big Moves which aims to make dance accessible to people of all sizes, agrees. His group worked closely with choreographers in the traditional dance world for years until they were let down by a pattern of grossophobic comments and empty words around body diversity.

“They absolutely know what to say – they absolutely know they probably shouldn’t say out loud that they only want a size 4 or less,” Ms. Judd said, “but then you look at who gets chosen.

She recalled people’s comments about tall dancers being “brave” to take the stage (“it’s not the compliment you think it is,” she said) and the sense that traditional producers or choreographers were working with them to tick a diversity box, then returning to their uniform casts.

“I don’t want to be a perpetual prop to the traditional dance world trying to fix their fat and body issues,” Ms. Judd said.

For Ms. Judd, Lizzo’s show is a major win for representation, but doesn’t necessarily bode well for the wider dance world, where she’s seen plenty of body positivity praise but little substantial changes.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “few broadcasters, directors, producers, and choreographers are necessarily invested in involving fat people in their organization.”

Lizzo agrees that there is a long way to go for great dancers to be taken seriously and treated well in the dance industry. In the meantime, she concentrates on her own work.

“I just want people to know that more than anything, this is an amazing TV show,” she said, rattling off a list of the crew members she’s worked with.

“I’m just fat,” she added. “And I just do a show about what I need.”

Colleen D. Ervin