Curtain Up! Female Bodies on the American Stage: Enter Fat Actress
I was a theater major at the University of New Hampshire for my B. A., a creative arts education major for my M. A. and a therapeutic recreation/expressive arts therapy major for my M.S. at SFSU. It wasn’t until I sank my teeth into my doctoral program at USF, that the gig was up. Despite the years of rigorous academic studies that I completed, most of my classes were experiential and textbooks just an occasional irritation.
“Why read books on ‘how to act’ when we could just be on stage learning by doing,”
I would whisper to my friend Meg in the library. Props (pun intended) to actors and authors Uta Hagen, Brian Way, and of course Viola Spolin for their genius, but when I was obligated to read their books for class assignments…well…let us just say…it was the early 70’s and I found more experiential ways to occupy my time.
Academic writing is an entirely different language. You can make it through K-12 + 4 years of undergraduate school and never have to use the words epistemology and zeitgeist in a sentence. Once you are in graduate school, however, not knowing that “data” is a plural noun is embarrassing, and using the word “since” in any context other than temporal is, as John Cleese from Monty Python would say, “right out”. Due to an inherent interest in language and blessed with a propensity for learning other languages I was up for the task. It’s a genetic thing. My sister is fluent in several languages and my son seems to have that “super power” as well. So (despite popular belief you can start a sentence with a conjunction) I was able to learn the language. I didn’t love it. It wasn’t nearly as sexy as speaking French in Paris or Creole on a Haitian beach…but I got by, aced my classes, and have avoided academic papers and textbooks ever since.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t keep up with the latest in research findings and I do subscribe to several journals in my field. It’s important to have THOSE data at your fingertips when you are trying to educate people about the fat phobic, anti-obesity zeitgeist of our times. My preference, however, is to sit down with Dr. Deb Burgard with a glass of…anything really…the beverage is inconsequential, and have her translate things for me. It is like having those United Nations earphones on…effortless understanding of what is being said about outcomes, correlations, and methodological flaws. Clearly, however, the universe has other plans. This became apparent when two textbooks came across my desk for me to review. The one I am writing about today is titled Female Bodies on the
American Stage: Enter Fat Actress, by Jennifer-Scott Mobley, published by Palgrave Macmillian 2014. (No that isn’t APA style…sue me) but all joking aside, I LOVED IT! Here’s what happened.
Before opening the book I took a quick inventory of what made me an appropriate candidate to write a review in the first place? I think I was trying to talk myself out of it so I wouldn’t have to slog through a tedious text about theater and suffer flashbacks to Dr. Bach’s class at UNH. My list included:
- I am an actress and a member of Actor’s Equity
- I have a degree in theater
- I have taught theater, improvisation, and creative dramatics to children and adults
- I have been passed over for roles entirely based on my body type
- I am on the board of the Fat Studies Journal*
Okay, why not me? Confidence bolstered, I opened the book and was immediately hooked by the dedication,
“For all of my beautiful students, especially those friends of ED, you are perfect.”
Many actors (the preferred word for any person who acts) suffer from Eating Disorders and it’s not frequently discussed openly. Because we know that correlation is not causation I am not saying that the pressure in the industry to be thin is the cause of an Eating Disorder. It’s more complicated than that. But disordered eating behaviors and restrictive dieting are the norm for actors trying to land a lead part. The majority of the “good roles” are written with a thin actor in mind and someone’s talents often take a back seat if they don’t “look the part.” Looking the part is typically based on stereotypes, and the cycle continues.
I turned the page and read the Table of Contents…okay…Dramaturgies, Subjectivities…uh oh…here it comes…this is a text book after all…must keep going…and I did. And that was a good thing! Jennifer Scott-Mobley has written a book so relate-able, so read-able, and comprehensive that it should be required reading for every theater professor and student. It would also be a great addition to syllabi in Women’s Studies, Fat Studies, and Popular Culture tracks. She covers difficult territory including Queering Fat, Fat Black Miscegenation, and Fat Phobia vis a vis the difference between an audience’s experience with fat actors on stage as opposed to in the movies or on television.
“Unlike film or television, spectators are in the presence of the performers full body. There is no directing the spectator’s gaze or disguising a performer’s shape through camera angle or artful cropping of the frame.”
We get a history lesson about the evolution of cultural attitudes toward fat women on stage including the impact of the “obesity epidemic” and the relationship between health and fat. Stereotyping and typecasting are discussed at length, and we learn about fat dramaturgy and are provided with examples of plays written specifically to show a fat woman dieting as the core plot of the script. I am not saying that Female Bodies is void of academic jargon. The author most definitely struts her stuff with observations such as:
“…Fat prejudice is a culturally constructed subjugation produced discursively and through various social practices and institutional hierarchies in American culture.”
I agree with that statement completely by the way, after reading it a few times (I told you I was rusty!) Truthfully, however, if the entire book had been written in that style, let’s just say I may not have finished it. But Female Bodies on the American Stage is written with a perfect balance of “Academicese”, English, and excerpts from an extensive collection of pertinent scripts that provide historical and current cultural examples from movies and television that allow this book to
be not just eye-opening and educational, but a damn good read!! (Oooh, that last sentence was bit long…does anyone feel like editing it? A gerund, a comma, or semicolon perhaps? Frannie Zellman?) But I digress, Jennifer Scott Mobley’s wonderful book, is really a treat for anyone in or out of Academia with an interest in the theater, popular culture, and size diversity. To find out more, CLICK HERE.
Til next time!
*I was honored to be invited to sit on the board of Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society and my first assignment is to review Body Studies, the basics by Niall Richardson and Adam Locks. I suppose this means I am about to re-enter the belly of the Academia Beast, but after reading Ms Scott-Mobley’s book, I’m feeling much LESS (cue fat actor John Goodman, “out of my element Donnie.”
P.S. The Calmanac turns one year old on December 13th! Thanks to all of you who have been a part of helping me spread the message of cultivating a positive body image. I look forward to continuing the trend in 2015!! Remember, unlike a traditional almanac, The Calmanac is not tied in to any specific calendar year. To arrange a reading or book signing event email me at firstname.lastname@example.org