Mae Whitman Hated High School, Too

Photo: Courtesy of CBS Films.
The high school Pygmalion story is a time-honored tradition at this point. A dorky, clueless girl gets made over by popular, self-assured guy, and in the process, it's revealed that she's obviously been intrinsically wonderful this entire time (and that overalls are an amazing fashion statement, thank you very much). He changes, too, and they fall in love, despite any lingering differences. She's All That was the gold standard for the pre-Internet version of the tale, and now The DUFF wants to take the reins for the social media mavens in high school today. 

It would be easy to reduce The DUFF to a mere Pygmalion tale, but thanks to star Mae Whitman, it becomes a much more important lesson in cyberbullying, social constructs, and how the outsider experience has evolved in the age of virality. While it pains us to see Whitman playing the "designated ugly fat friend," she fully commits to the role of Bianca Piper, which gives an otherwise fluffy high school movie — during which social network names are reeled off like buzzwords at a marketing meeting about zeitgeist — a lot more gravitas and weight than you'd think. 

We spoke to Whitman about going back to high school, the bleak reality of the designated ugly fat friend concept, and more. 


What was it about this movie and playing Bianca that interested you? 
"I related to almost the antihero situation, where you're like, ‘She's messy and kind of just does her own thing and is not really self-aware and just is sort of who she is.' I also relate to remembering the first instances of being in school and having that challenged or being made to be self-aware about things I had never had to be before. Once that kind of categorization and labeling started, it made it difficult to confidently be who you were and deal with your emotions in a healthy way. Those are your peers, and you want to be liked and have it be a good time, and it's scary when they're like, 'Well, we don't like you because of the clothes you wear.' You wonder if there's anything you can change to make it easier to not get bullied, but then you realize how ridiculous that whole concept is. I was excited to tell that story and [help] other people who feel that way feel less alone."

Do you think social media and everyone having a camera phone has exacerbated it?
"It's a nightmare. I made it out [of high school] just before that. Even just everyone having them in the real world freaks me out to no end. We don't really have a grasp yet on how to use [the technology] in a healthy way, or what the psychological effects of that surveillance are. That's another element of this I'm hoping to at least bring to life or have other people be aware of — how hurtful that is or how invasive."

No one really considers the long-term implications.
"Taking pictures or videos of people without asking; it's still so heavy or so real, and it feels like everything. There’s no kind of perspective on it yet for young people on social media. So, it will hopefully kind of get that conversation going."

Do high schoolers today really use the term 'DUFF'?
"Apparently. I hadn't heard the term, either, but I also haven't been in high school in a while. Regardless of whether it's a real term or not, it's perfect. They could have made anything up for the concept of picking something out and trying to put a label on someone to say, 'You deserve to be called this because of my subjective parameters.' That's the idea I was trying to breathe space into and understand a little better."
Photo: Guy D'Alema/CBS Films.
Advertisement
We like to think we broke down The Breakfast Club stereotypes, and that we're living in this accepting, post-Glee world, but now we're just back to making superficial judgments.
"It worries me because I feel like we're at a time when we have all these girls and boys that are so smart, who want to be free and expressive and heard, but also the downside of that is that it's a lot more judgmental and intense. The stakes are higher. I was hoping to have the message out there, 'Don't let that stuff get in the way of you being the best version of yourself. The world needs you to be who you are.'"

Did you like high school? Follow-up question: Does anyone?
"Hell no, and HELL NO. It always kinds of alarms me when people are like, 'I loved high school!' It makes me suspicious of them. I think some people just had it differently. At my school, it was not cool to want to be involved in anything. If you showed any happiness or enthusiasm about anything, you were out. If you participated in school stuff, you were out. It was just a very negative bed of eggshells in general...I eventually found the group of weird art students that sat on the bleachers during lunch, and it was better. I think once you find your group that makes you feel better about yourself, it's a lot easier. But, it definitely was not an inherently easy experience at all."

Why should someone see The DUFF as opposed to say, Fifty Shades of Grey?
"To me, it's just a whole different thing. There's something about it that I feel is very intimate — even more intimate than masked sex with silky ribbons. I think it's just a really personal and emotional story for anyone who's ever felt even slightly out of place. To me, I feel like that all the time. It's also funny, smart, and romantic...like, cozy teen stuff. I think there's a really interpersonal journey there that you'll actually walk away from feeling a sense of camaraderie with not only me and yourself, but also with other people." 

The DUFF is in theaters now.

Interview has been edited and condensed.
Advertisement