Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls has an understated start, at least as understated as is possible for Lizzo, and fans of Lizzo’s who are surprised to learn they’re meeting with her one-on-one for their audition.
The Amazon Prime Video competition begins in a literal tent in the yard of a Los Angeles house that has been barely transformed into a dance studio: some curtains, a couch, chairs. The potential contestants chat with Lizzo and then dance for her alone.
What this feels like is a low-budget, mid-2000s reality competition—except an 2000s-era reality competition would not have a cast consisting of women of color in larger bodies.
For far too long, people with bigger bodies haven’t been an on-screen presence, and if they were, they were treated as outsiders and other.
America’s Next Top Model had a”plus-size” winner, who was a size 10. Oxygen’s 2009 series Dance Your Ass Off was cast with plus-sized women who danced with pros—but were trying to lose weight. The show even used The Biggest Loser’s doctor.
Their bodies were pathologized, as big bodies have been on so many shows.
They’re not just embraced, they’re celebrated on Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls, a show that is energetic and refreshing in many ways.
Watch Out For The Big Grrrls: sometimes revelatory, sometimes routine
While it’s not reinventing the reality talent competition, or even the dance competition, Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls does have several other things going for it.
Most importantly, of course, is Lizzo, whose presence and personality drives the show. She’s clearly invested, not just stopping by sometimes to read off a prompter. While there are other people who come in to work with the dancers, like choreographers, Lizzo is in charge—and believably so, not just as an obvious mouthpiece for producers like other shows I won’t mention.
The competition is not for cash or a made-up title, but to find actual back-up dancers for Lizzo, whose dancers are known as the titular Big Grrrls.
More specifically, they’re being cast for a performance at Bonnaroo, where Lizzo “was set to make history as the festival’s first-ever female headliner,” Billboard reported. (Alas, weather intervened.)
The 10 contestants—who are different from each other in many ways, from background—learn choreography for actual performances, so they’re competing but also rehearsing.
And there’s not a panel of judges, just Lizzo making decisions. While it’s a bit of a trope now that anything could happen!, Lizzo makes some decisions that are surprising but also feel legitimate and earned.
The combination of vulnerability and dance made me think of HBO Max’s great Finding Magic Mike, a show that premiered with a whimper at the end of last year but was really surprising in its focus.
Into these refreshing waters, Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls drops in some pretty standard reality TV stuff. (The show is produced by Bunim-Murray Productions, the progenitors of reality television, whose work ranges from The Real World to Bad Girls Club to Project Runway.)
The potential Big Grrrls’ challenges include performances, and also a makeover and a nude photo shoot.
Yet even then, Lizzo’s presence and empowering messages elevate what we’re seeing. She uses her life and experiences to coach the contestants, and, of course, people who are watching.
“Face good. Body bad,” she writes on a glass dry erase board, explaining how she used to feel. “Fuck that,” Lizzo says, taking off one of her heels. “I’m sick of these words, I’m sick of these people, I’m sick of these memories.” She then smashes the glass.
This is the kind of mentorship and training that shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race don’t have; they expect people to be fully formed upon arrival.
A few minutes later, she notices one contestant is crying, worried about the nude photos. “We respect your boundaries every step of the way,” Lizzo says, “and the only voice I want you to listen to is your own.”
That’s remarkable to hear on a reality TV show; it’s usually the opposite, a demand that someone embrace what’s being put before them.
Every time Lizzo said something like that, I wanted to stand up and cheer. And every time the show tipped into standard reality TV fare, I honestly got a little bored, and the episodes felt a little long.
At SXSW, Lizzo said “It was important that I changed the narrative of what a reality competition television show looks like. We don’t always to be cruel. We can be kind, and we don’t have to pit people against each other. I feel like it’s hard enough in the dance world already for girls who look like me, so why would I create that environment in my space? If I have the power to change that, why not change that?”
I’m so glad that was her goal. I’m not sure the producers got the memo, like when the editing pits some of the women against each other in their confessional interviews.
But Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls offers a welcoming environment for both its contestants and viewers, and is a welcome entry into the reality TV competition space.
Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls
Lizzo grounds Watch Out For The Big Grrrls in her empathy, enthusiasm, and experiences, which is enough to overcome the more standard reality TV tropes. B+
What works for me:
- The focus on a real-world goal
- The messages and representation
What could be better:
- A quicker pace
- Less attempt to create drama
- Fewer stock reality TV challenges