‘The Skinny’s’ Jessie Kahnweiler on Bulimia, the Patriarchy, and Working with Jill Soloway

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In the very first episode of her web series The Skinny, Jessie Kahnweiler’s character binges, purges, and uses her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend as a masturbation prop. A collaboration between Wifey.TV, an online video network from Transparent‘s Jill Soloway and Rebecca Odes, and popular women’s-interest site Refinery29, the series applies a well-established format — the semi-autobiographical antihero cringe comedy — to a very new subject: a female, 20-something YouTube star struggling with her career, her mother (played by legendary comic actress Illeana Douglas), and bulimia.

The series premiered this past week at the Sundance Film Festival, and all six episodes are available to stream on Refinery29’s site. To find out more, we got Kahnweiler on the phone to talk about representing bulimia onscreen, Soloway’s mentorship, and transitioning from standalone YouTube videos — many of which are integrated into The Skinny and attributed to Kahnweiler’s character — to a serialized, episodic show.

Flavorwire: There’s some very clear autobiographical parallels between you and your character on the show. You’re a YouTube filmmaker, and some of the videos in the series are actual films you’ve posted to the site over the last couple years. Did you want to model your show after other semi-autobiographical comedian shows, like Louie or Maron?

Jessie Kahnweiler: For me personally, Louie was a huge inspiration, not only tonally, but in the way we watch these stories of Louie or Woody Allen or I Love Lucy — you have these people that take on these aspects of themselves and heighten them or mine these areas that are based on internal struggles. It was a really incredible experience to be able to have such deep — obviously, I am connected to this character [laughs]. And that was a huge catalyst for me to want to tell this story.

I am this huge feminist, and I’m really strong, but why was there this other part of me that’s like this secret self, that was totally struggling with self-hate and body stuff and shame? How do both those people exist within the same person? It’s been really awesome to have Jill Soloway and her whole team as my producers, because it can get really confusing. It’s like: OK, this is really personal, but I didn’t want to make it a documentary. I wanted to be incredibly thoughtful about how I was going to tell this story, because even though it’s deeply personal, I wanted it to connect and have an emotional through-line that was universal. Having a human experience where when you watch a show, you’re like, “Oh yeah, me too.” I wanted it to be a me-too show.

The crafting of the character is obviously really deliberate, but part of what reminded me of Louie so much is that you’re not afraid to present a very uncomplimentary version of yourself — the primary example being, perhaps, the not-quite-sex-scene in the premiere. Did you have any concerns about how the character would be perceived?

It’s funny, because this is new to me! Everyone’s like, “How do you deal with Jessie being so unlikeable?” [laughs] I’m like, “I think she’s OK!” I think what’s really freeing, working in this web space and having a lot of autonomy on the project, is that you don’t need to do any reverse engineering. My only concerns were, “Is this a real story? Is this a true story? Are we presenting characters that are complicated, flawed, and constantly making mistakes, because that’s who women are?” I’ve never met an uncomplicated woman, you know? And I mean that as a compliment. So: no.

My ex-boyfriend said it the best. He’s like, “You’re like tapioca pudding. Some people hate it, but some people fuckin’ love it.” So I have to deal with that in my own personal life, being like, “Am I too much? Am I too unlikeable?” And I think that’s an interesting point you bring up, because you’re talking about my character, but I relate that to women in general, who are constantly fighting to be likeable. There is a synapse in my brain that tells me if everyone’s not in love with me, I will die [laughs]. It very much is a part of me, even in recovery, even at 30 years old, even taking every feminist class in the world. I still want to be fucking loved by everyone.

That’s why we had a lot of fun with the YouTube space, because so much of my experience with that was getting this whole idea of intimacy and the Internet. Having such a reactive experience with your audience, where they can literally just vomit stuff back to you, and having people call you the second coming, and having people call you a genius, and having people say they want to rape you to death, and it’s all coming at you at the same time while you’re trying to process it and output your own work. I really wanted to explore that in the show, too, and how that relates to my eating disorder.

Speaking of which, the show is advertised as a series about, among other things, a woman who’s living with bulimia. But the way it’s integrated into the show is really interesting; it’s almost like background information. She doesn’t actively struggle with the disease so much as we just see it influence her behavior. How did you want to present eating disorders on the show?

It makes me so happy that you’re even saying that, because that’s what I spent so long trying to land in the script. How are we going to show this? Especially because we’re dealing with subject matter that’s not alcoholism. It’s not sex. It’s not violence. It’s not something that we’ve seen done a million times, quite frankly. How are we going to represent this? And I’m coming from the inside out. I have done ten years’ worth of research as a bulimic. How am I gonna show this in a way that’s authentic, when really it was about — the reason why I’m so excited about episodic is that you can really mine the story.

Something that I wanted to show is that eating disorders are not about being thin. That’s a certain aspect of it, but that’s the Lifetime version. It’s not, “I want to be skinny so I can fit into this dress.” Like, no. This is like any other addiction. It’s about control. For me, I think bulimia was a lot about killing off parts of myself, and controlling and containing and therefore presenting a version of myself to the world which was perfect, and always happy, and always fun, and making myself smaller, both visibly and emotionally. Because I’m sensitive, and I have that feeling very strongly. I have anxiety, so bulimia was just this great way to control things. When I first started when I was 16, it was really like, “Oh my God, I’ve got it figured out! I know how to win at life!” And that’s not really the story that you see a lot.

A lot of eating disorder narratives are, “A girl gets an eating disorder, she loses all her friends and family, she gets hospitalized, she almost dies, and then in the third act, she’s better.” That is not my experience, and that is not the experience of so many men and women that I know. Really, I wanted to paint a fuller picture. And by the way, huge moments of joy within it, too. That it wasn’t about, “OK, I have this thing.” I was also a girlfriend, and a filmmaker, and a daughter, and a friend. I have this beautiful life within this thing that was also really hard.

You mentioned the benefits of having an episodic series. Because it’s hosted on a platform like Refinery29, it’s somewhere in between a standalone YouTube video and a full-length television series. Had you wanted to tell a longer, serialized narrative before? What was it like transitioning from one format to the other?

I feel like I’m dropping the Jill Soloway bomb a lot, but it was having her help that was like, let’s not worry about making these standalone episodes, and let’s look at it like it’s a movie. Let’s look at it like something we want people to watch as a whole, back to back, and let’s look at it like, how can we tell this story and really build an arc?

For me, as someone who does comedy a lot, there’s that new thing to make it all funny right now. Everything’s a joke, we’re so used to everything paying off right away. I think the exciting thing about doing the series, and also a huge struggle, was, “Oh, how am I gonna make this stuff pay off?” How am I gonna build a character and make it meaningful, but also ten to 15 minutes is not that long of a time. I think the whole series is, like, an hour. That was a big challenge, and it was awesome.

It was a huge learning curve for me. I fucked up a lot, but I had a lot of help. I had so much help. That’s something that’s so awesome about being at Refinery and working with Jill is that it was all about experimentation and play. I’m at Sundance right now, and so much of it is about your big break, and doing it right, and nailing the shot. I think that’s so counterintuitive to filmmaking. It’s not about getting it perfect. I’m already watching The Skinny and I’m like, “Oh, I want to try to do that better,” you know?

You’ve brought up Jill Soloway a few times. She’s credited as an executive producer on the show, and there are obvious (and complimentary!) parallels between your bodies of work. How did you guys link up originally?

Basically, I stalked her on Facebook a few years ago. I was like, “Here’s my film.” She was working on Six Feet Under. I think I was just seeking out female mentors. I was starving for it. We met up, and she was like, “Quit your job! Make your art!” I was like, “How do you get into this business?” She’s like, “You just make your art. Stop what you’re doing and make your art.” That’s how we hooked up. She has a whole crew of women that she mentors. She’s just one of those people that’s constantly giving back.

How did it get from there to helping with the series?

I made a spec pilot. Nobody wanted to make the show. I wrote the pilot, and everyone in Hollywood was like, “Bulimia isn’t sexy.” So I did a Kickstarter for it and shot a spec pilot. I got Ileana Douglas on board, and then I sent it to Jill and Rebecca at Wifey. They hooked me up with Refinery, and then Refinery ordered the first season of the show.

Showbiz comedies are obviously a really reliable template, but your series is the first show I’ve seen that applies that to YouTube and Vine stars. Did you see any opportunities in dramatizing that particular corner of entertainment, or were you drawn to it because that’s where your experience is?

It wasn’t my initial plan to put the business of it in the story, but I was really excited about including the YouTube videos, because making those videos, for me personally, is like, when I have an itch or I have a question or I have something that makes me uncomfortable or I’m hurting in my own personal life, I make a YouTube video. I get out into the world, I relate to other people, I get out of my comfort zone. That is how I learn how to be a human being. We wanted to apply that logic to the character in that she’s dealing with all these interpersonal things and boy issues and body and sex and her mom, but really how she processes it is her going out into the world. I think it opens up the world of the show in a way that’s really exciting to me.

Showing the business part of it is a really fun way to show a character who is battling the patriarchy while still trying to exist inside of it. Because for me, yes, I’m a feminist, and yes, the female gaze, but I’m not gonna go move to a feminist farm in Idyllwild. I am living in LA, and I think for a lot of women, we’re trying to exist in the workplace, we are trying to exist in the home, we are trying to be women, but also live in the world, you know? I’m like, “Oh, fuck men,” but I fuckin’ love men, you know what I mean? They kill me. I hate them and I love them. That’s been the YouTube world in my experience. Trying to make it in this business is really feeling like you’re too much and you’re not enough at the same time. And it’s fun to explore that.

All six episodes of The Skinny are available to stream at Refinery29.