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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Theatre Thursday: Images

It has been a couple of weeks since Alastair Macauley's New York Times review of The Nutcracker sparked off controversy with his assessment that ballerina Jennifer Ringer "looked as though she'd eaten one sugar plum too many." This was further exacerbated by Macauley's response to the backlash that "If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career," and his refusal to apologize for his words - even after being reminded that Ms. Ringer had battled eating disorders.
I think enough people have taken their shots at Alastair Macauley's behavior on this issue, so I'm just going to say that - if you've read this blog or know me at all - I think you all probably know what I think of Mr. Macauley.
I would like to add something in rebuttal to Mr. Macauley's statement about a ballerina's appearance not being irrelevant to criticism, and that is simply a photo of Jenifer Ringer, the "fat" ballerina he criticized:
Billie Piper
Really, Mr. Macauley? You don't think you were just being mean for the sake of being able to make a pun in your column? If she danced poorly, then say she danced poorly. I understand that a dancer's "line" is very important in ballet, and I suppose that a significantly overweight ballet dancer might have a very contrasting "line." (Though the comment would still have been nasty.) However, that does not appear to be the case here, and requires a level of scrutiny that - with what we now know about healthy body types - really needs to now belong to another era.
Hilary Swank
I realize that I must temper my frustration with Mr. Macauley with the realization that he, like many people, is the product of some unhealthy ideas about beauty that tend to perpetuate themselves in the media. When a Hollywood actress or pop star puts on a few pounds, she is savaged by unkind gossip columnists and even more so on internet forums. Seldom does an actress with curves play a romantic lead on television or film, and, if she does, it is hit with a spotlight for being so out of the ordinary. People use phrases like "a breath of fresh air" or "isn't that great?" as though they want credit for being enlightened enough to see beauty in a non-stereo-typical body type, and maybe they do. In many ways, this almost over-the-top attention kind of perpetuates the stereotype.
Indira Varma

Jennifer Love Hewitt
I will not claim to be particularly enlightened in this area myself. I have been subjected to the same images and stereotypes for the last 37 years that all of you have. I don't think I would have had the same assessment of Jenifer Ringer as Mr. Macauley, but it's possible that I might have been distracted if she had been significantly heavier. I wouldn't have made fun of her in publication, however. I would have, as I often find myself doing as an audience member and as a director and, frankly, as a heterosexual, red-blooded American male, asking myself, "Do I really think she is somehow less beautiful, or am I reacting to years of visual programming?" Often, the answer is the latter. Actually, the answer is almost always the latter. I love women. (I really, really love women.)
Sarah Parish
I still know, though, that I am often influenced in my choices in women by what I have been told through the media is beautiful or ideal.
I have a sister, Ashley, who is younger than me by 15 years. As I watched her grow up, I often wondered about how she  saw herself in the mirror compared to the images she saw on television and movies and in the Barbie dolls she played with - some of which I bought for her. 
Jewel Staite
When I cast one of my first shows as a director, Ashley was about four, and, after the auditions, I was going over my notes and assigning roles in the living room while Ashley played with her dolls. At some point, Ashley got up and left the room, leaving a half-dozen naked Barbies lying on the floor, and I was struck by their uniformity: all the same shape, and height, and size, and measurements - physically impossible measurements at that. My little sister was play-acting little stories with figures of women who all looked the same. I think at that point, I crumpled up the rough cast list I had made and started over. I decided in that moment that - as a storyteller - I was going to tell stories in which the beautiful princess doesn't have to be the skinny princess, where the guy falls head-over-heels in love with the girl who isn't 5'9" and built like a supermodel.
Kate Winslet
Have I always succeeded in this? No. Sometimes I succumb to pressure from producers, though a lot of times I do fight with producers who want their musical to look like the movie or Broadway version, or who have a particular actress in mind for the lead.
I have an idea for The Music Man which throws out a lot of the conventions often associated with the musical (though not inherent to the story). Some of the ideas are about the characterizations and "look" of the show, but some do have to do with stereotypical body types. I think it makes the story more rich and poignant. Will I ever get to make this musical? So far, nobody's been interested. If I do find a producer, will audiences respond to the show the way that I hope? Who knows? I'll be working against a lot of ingrained imagery.
Katy Perry
Let me leave you with a few sobering statistics that I will preface by saying that not every person who has body-image concerns has an eating disorder. I think that makes these statistics all the more sobering. 
Ten million women battle eating disorders in America, and so do one million men. Almost seventeen thousand people die every year from eating disorders. If you break it down, that's over three hundred per week and roughly two every hour. Forget swine flu or E. coli or Mad Cow disease. Eating disorders are the deadly epidemic in this country.
Kristin Chenoweth
Given the topic, I hope you will forgive the following metaphor, but I often hear about how we are "force-fed" these images by the media. I don't think that's entirely true. The media may often try to direct us toward certain things it wants to sell us, but, ultimately, they're going to spend the majority of their efforts selling us more of what we tell them we want to buy. The power - and the responsibility - of changing unhealthy ideas about body-image and beauty and what a ballet dancer should look like is in our hands.
Now, you may be wondering why I have peppered this column with images of celebrities. Do they have eating disorders? I have no idea. Do they have body-image issues? Probably. They live on this planet. They're human. But, again, I honestly don't know.
Sophia Myles
Their significance is that they are all women I find very attractive. I just sat down and wrote down the first ten names that came to mind without trying to pick a "variety" of types. (For bandwidth reasons, I limited myself to ten.) I put their pictures on this blog so that we can look at them and think about our personal ideas about beauty and body-image. What do my choices say about me in regard to a stereotype of beauty? What does your personal assessment of each woman say about yours?
This is not about throwing around judgments or trying to make you or myself feel guilty for harboring stereotypes. It's about acknowledging that they exist and thinking about what we can do to change them.
Finally, I will leave you with the story of Andrea Smeltzer:

Eating Disorders Can Be Deadly--But Healing IS possible!  Become a Friend of Andrea's Voice from Doris Smeltzer on Vimeo.

Andrea's Voice.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, here's a number you can call:
National Eating

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