State of Georgia, Race, and Weight

Gaps between white experiences and non-white experiences pop up in the strangest places.

Raven-Symoné has a new comedy on ABC Family called State of Georgia. This is her first comedy series where she will be playing an adult role and it’s been interesting watching that transition. I had planned to tune into the premiere, but it moved up in priority when I read the producer, Jennifer Weiner, talking about Raven’s weight loss in USA Today:

Q: Tell us about the show’s star, Raven-Symoné, who plays Georgia.

A: What we were looking for was a larger-than-life, bubbly, exuberant, confident young woman who was convinced of her own worth even when the world couldn’t see it. I really think that’s what we have with Raven. She’s this incredibly natural comedienne.

Q: Is Georgia a classic Jennifer Weiner character?

A: The original intention was for Georgia to be a big, curvy girl, and that would be one of the obstacles she dealt with while pursuing her acting career. She wanted to play the ingénue and the bombshell, and people would want to cast her as the funny best friend. Raven has lost a lot of weight, and that’s been a challenge we’ve been dealing with. But in terms of her sense of humor and outlook on life, Georgia’s going to feel familiar to anyone who loved Canny in Good in Bed or Becky in Little Earthquakes and Addy in Best Friends Forever.

Okay. I’m very familiar with Weiner’s work, having read most of it, and I get it – Weiner writes curvy heroines. She is most comfortable writing about larger women trying to make their way in the world. And there have been a great many discussions (like this one from Women and Hollywood) on the debates around Raven-Symoné’s weight loss and how it impacted what they were doing for the show.

But I’m puzzled. Did no one ever point out that black, thin and thick actresses face that same problem in terms of always being cast as the funny best friend? Come on, now, it’s even got a TV Tropes entry. The same jokes wouldn’t fly, but I am sure there are plenty of women who could help the writing team come up with amazing bits about how screwed up the acting world is to women of color. They could call Angela Nissel and Aisha Tyler in for writing assistance, and ask for people like Gabrielle Union and all of the women on this list to provide real life anecdotes for the show.

Or is that just too scary of a topic?

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  • HowzaKayl

    “…all she has to do is modify “State of Georgia”‘s script to reflect
    Raven’s new size–while keeping the messages of the show intact.”

    That kind of assumption reveals how disconnected the average person is with the realities of TV show production. It’s not like you wave a magic wand and POOF! instant script changes in a couple of days.

    In all likelihood, all 13 or so episodes of this entire show were carefully and painfully mapped out, written, re-written several times, semi-approved by executives, re-written again, then finally given a stamp of approval and greenlit. All of this can happen before a lead actress is ever cast.

    So the crew and writers of this entire series probably went into pre-production planning for a curvy protagonist, with most (if not all) of the storylines and the overall story arc of the entire first season, and all of the jokes and secondary characters and secondary storylines falling into the vein of Weiner’s previous work, which is what the network signed off on and bought, months if not years in advance, all focused on a big, curvy girl.

    Depending on when Raven-Symoné was cast relative to the first day of filming, to really turn this into a show truly focused on a young, skinny black woman, with the African-American female writers suggested above, would have easily meant re-writing an entire season of shows and pushing production at least six months. Which in Hollywood terms actually means, “Why bother? That’s too much work and too expensive.”

    I think the fact that any TV series gets up and on the air is a miracle. Asking for massive re-writing and re-structuring at the 11th hour by just “modifying the script” as if it’s no biggie is unrealistic and counterproductive if we want more actors of color on TV, not less.

    • Rachel Mark

      I realize the process of rewriting a script isn’t an easy one; it’d be far simpler to cast the writer’s “ideal” image of a curvy black woman in Raven’s place, rather than adapting the storylines to fit her slimmer physique…but fact is, young black actresses of Raven’s don’t have her star power or media hype, and I don’t see the writers replacing her anytime soon. Instead, I get a mental image of Weiner throwing her hands in the air and saying, “This is too much of a challenge now, scrap the show”, which is a depressing one. 

      Difficulties of casting and script changes aside, though, I don’t see what’s wrong with a network presenting the life and struggles of a black girl without depending on her body image to make or break the show. Could it be that Raven’s motivation for losing weight was because she didn’t want to be pigeonholed because of her thickness, or lack thereof?

      • HowzaKayl

        “I don’t see what’s wrong with a network presenting the life and
        struggles of a black girl without depending on her body image to make or
        break the show.”

        That’s the thing. I highly doubt, given her track record and reputation and other books and other stories, that Jennifer Weiner set out to make a show about the life and struggles of a black girl with zero body images.

        If a network worked with Weiner in the first place, it was to make a story about modern, curvy, funny/dramatic girl who was probably assumed to be white. That’s what she’s known for, that’s what you hire her for. She sold her pilot script BASED ON it being a project about a (quote) “plus-sized, exuberant” young fish-out-of-water; it was in the trades for months.

        If past production experience is any guide, then Raven-Symoné was cast at the last possible moment, after the scripts and storylines for the entire season are locked down.  After the network gave a thumbs-up to a series about a plus-sized, exuberant young woman. After the network and the marketing department and everyone associated with the production signed on and signed off on a TV series about a plus-sized, exuberant young woman. 

        So is the suggestion that overnight you just re-write a bunch of scripts or scrap the whole series and make it about a skinny woman (or turn it into a sci-fi musical or a Western drama or a Canadian period piece or, yes, a series about the life and struggles of a black girl with no body image issues) just to fit your new star is absurd. 

        • Rachel Mark

          Frankly, I’m not too worried about the state of this show; whether or not it receives a full season’s run, gets renewed, or dropped, is irrelevant to me, because I know that even if it tanks, Raven is talented and versatile enough to get picked up for other projects in a heartbeat. No, her body type might not be what Weiner is used to writing the majority of her material about, but so what? I’m absolutely confident that Raven can and will find producers who can script and write her other roles to star in.

          And when she does, I’ll be looking forward to tuning in. 

  • Ebony

    I’ve always interpreted the ubiquitous BBF as a “let’s get a POC in here to avoid lack of diversity complaints” attempt, but the reverse (as seen on State of Georgia) just says “we need a nice white face to balance out all these POC,” especially when you consider Raven’s bestie on That’s So Raven was white as well. On another note, I have no clue what to make of Loretta Divine’s character.

    I think Raven is talented, but the show is just ok. Hopefully it’ll pick up after a few eps.

  • Anonymous

    It’s probably too scary a topic.  I mean it’s ABC Family.  With the exception of the long since cancelled Lincoln Heights, anything race-y (yeah bad pun) on that network is treated like an After School or Very Special episode. I think the network is more comfortable chasing Gossip Girl-lite dramas and happy family sitcoms to tackle anything too “controversial” like race and  race-based discrimination on a regular basis.

    I tried to watch State of Georgia because I enjoy Raven’s work, but it just wasn’t funny.  I think that really speaks to that tension between it being a Weiner inspired show and the writers not dealing with the reality of who’s actually on it. 

  • Rachel Mark

    There’s no way I can say I’m a fan of the feeling she’s trying to convey, that “Raven’s decision to lose weight is making it difficult to project the image we wanted–of a black woman struggling with being curvy, among other things.”

    People lose weight. It happens. And I’m a bit disappointed that Jennifer Weiner sounds like she’s upset with this, when all she has to do is modify “State of Georgia”‘s script to reflect Raven’s new size–while keeping the messages of the show intact. Where’s the difficulty in that?