Guy Branum isn’t used to seeing himself as the protagonist of the story. He says he has an “interesting perspective” as a fat gay man, two marginalized identities that are more likely to see him cast in the role of the sassy sidekick.
But in his new book, My Life As a Goddess, the stand-up comedian and writer for “The Mindy Project” and “Chelsea Lately” explores his own story through the lens of pop culture and mythology, ultimately rewriting the rules about who gets to wield power.
“I am very fat. I am bald. I have a faggy voice. My family is poor,” he writes in the prologue. “I’m not supposed to like myself, and I’m certainly not supposed to think that I should matter.”
He goes on to invoke the refrain: “Then I remembered that I was a goddess.” He is, and his book reminds you that you can be, too. We sat down for coffee to talk about body positivity, fat and queer representation in pop culture and, of course, goddessry.
What motivated you to tell your story and to get so honest about topics like depression, body image and sexuality?
I was raised to lie about a huge chunk of myself for a huge part of time, and getting rid of that is hard. And there’s the idea that for gays ― particularly white cisgender gay men ― if we don’t make noise, there are so many benefits that come with it. As long as we play the game, we get this conditional junior partner status at the table as long as we keep everything secret and prop up a system that fundamentally wants to hate and destroy us. And so it’s hard, but we all need to try to in our way make noise and become part of the conversation and get better at being honest.
There’s an amazing chapter in the book, which was excerpted on Vulture, about how you want to see more realistic fat people on TV. Can you talk about that?
It’s interesting hearing people talk about it from a perspective of body positivity or whatever because all I was really talking about was just media. After the thing ran in Vulture, there were all these people tweeting at me, “What about your health? What about your health?” And I didn’t say one goddamn thing about health. I didn’t say one goddamn thing about whether we should be trying to be healthier or lose weight or anything about that. It was just why must we be humiliated regularly? Or dehumanized regularly?
I could fight my biology and inclinations with every fiber of my being, and I could make that all of my business and I would maybe be medium successful, and then who would be happy? Who would be getting something out of that? At the end of the day, I think for me it’s just realizing this shit is meant to keep me quiet and in my place. This shit is built to keep me scared. And more than anything it’s meant to keep me scared of using my body ― sexually, athletically...
People will lead better lives if they like themselves. We have this very American notion that self-hatred is a part of work ethic and that people will only be pushing themselves to be better people if they don’t like who they are. Guy Branum
What do you think about the body positivity movement today?
First of all, I’m a man so the whole game is played differently. I respect that. But also I love it when people challenge me to see myself differently. Like when I see fat gay guys who are super fashionable on Instagram and stuff like that. That’s a thing that I’ve always felt powerless to do. Because I don’t know if you’ve been into a gigantic man store but they have a very clear idea of who you are and that is limited. And then I see these people who are existing outside of these boundaries and I’m like, How do they do it? It’s wonderful and it’s a challenge to me to see myself differently, which is super liberating.
People will lead better lives if they like themselves. We have this very American notion that self-hatred is a part of work ethic and that people will only be pushing themselves to be better people if they don’t like who they are. We have this fear of complacency and I don’t think pride is the antithesis of aspiration. I’m better to my body when I’m not mad at it.
Sometimes there’s this idea that we’re all supposed to love our bodies. I thought it was interesting you wrote that you don’t necessarily.
I don’t because I grew up with the world defining what good and bad bodies are, and I internalized those things. And I have to deal with gay guys who are terrified of their own identity and are managing their own appearances in a way that I wish I could. And I have to deal with their reactions to me.
And also it takes a fair amount of effort to keep me like this and I’m annoyed that it doesn’t come easily to me. Last night a friend of mine who has a ridiculously good body asked, “Is writing a book the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” And I was like, “No.” He said, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” I said, “Losing 100 pounds.” I lost 100 pounds! I was still very fat. I was still too fat to be functionally gay. But I did and it was very hard.
It’s something I have to think about so much. The world is giving you bad messages about your body and you yourself are judging your body. … I’m not fixed. I’m not perfect. I’m just trying to be happy and functional which is hard enough.
Do you have advice for someone who is trying to learn to like themselves?
Start by being nice to yourself. And giving yourself things that delight you. Put yourself into places of happiness. Expose yourself to things that you love and try to see yourself in them. Oh, and do things you’re good at. Coming out of law school, I came out of a very real depression and I did not know where to go and so I went and did stand-up. Letting myself follow a thing I loved even though it wasn’t something that the world around me was supporting or endorsing was wonderful, and letting yourself do that is a good start to saying I’m worthwhile and the powers I have are important and lovely.
What do you think about how LGBTQ+ characters are being written today?
I think it’s very cool when they are written by either queer people or people who have spent a moment thinking about how queer people work. Because so frequently we just assume that a straight white guy is capable of writing about anyone and understanding their perspective. And gay stories, queer stories, trans stories are constantly being taken by straight people and told by straight men without any real regard.
The gayness can be a bell or a whistle to make sure everyone knows it’s an Oscar movie, but then it never comes up in ways that make them uncomfortable. When you think about “The Imitation Game” or “Dallas Buyers Club” or any of the stories where they said, “Well, we don’t think his sexuality really mattered to him” or “That wasn’t really a part of who he was,” it’s hard because part of it is that we had to say politically for such a long time, “We’re just like everybody else.” And when it comes to art, there are those ways that we are different, that we have different perspectives.
I’m tired of watching straight guys’ best estimation of how gay sex works. Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet are both adorable but it might be nice to watch somebody who has had a dick in their ass ― and is willing to admit it in public ― show us what gay sex or gay sexuality or just the experience of being gay is like.
We aren’t protagonists. The only time we get to be protagonists is in niche art films where we are by and large portrayed by creative teams that are largely heterosexual. In stand-up, watching over the past 15 years, it’s just been so true that straight people think they have authority and ownership over queer stories. If you look at the Netflix specials over the course of the last year, it’s every straight guy over 40 giving you a piece of their mind about transness ― and it’s like, do we need this? Why is your voice here? Especially when the only queer voice we’ve had in a Netflix special was Hannah Gadsby and she quit comedy halfway through.
I just think us having a little bit more space to be ourselves for ourselves. And that’s one of the things that’s really hard because we have such limited representation and we want to be marketable there is a trepidation about being specific in the way that we are specific.
What makes representation so important?
Because we are always looking through the eyes of the people who are at the center of things. And everyone who has had to spend their entire life looking through white straight guys’ eyes is a little bit fucked up by that if they’re not white straight guys. It’s the double consciousness idea of you’re always perceiving yourself through the mainstream culture and through your own existence. I’ve always had to understand myself as a sassy side character, which I love and it’s built me into who I am, but also it would be better to have more than that.
That goes back to the idea of being a goddess.
Well, that’s the thing. Gods are telling their own stories. Gods are going about and fooling around with nymphs and ruining people’s lives. They’re starting stories going. Goddesses are stuck in other people’s stories but they have enough power to at least be heard.
How can you take steps toward becoming a goddess?
Using your powers and getting yourself involved in situations. People ask me, “Were you funny growing up?” Yes, but I was making jokes only in my head because nobody would have liked the jokes that I was making. An important part of goddesshood is worshipping yourself, respecting yourself, but also getting involved. Do something, say something, use your powers. I’m not asking you to use them for good. Just use them.