I have nothing against skinny white girls. I really, really do not. I know and love many of them. I cast them all the time, which is not surprising, since the nonunion acting pool anywhere in the US is made up of something like 65% skinny white girls. And even lumping them all together in one group is needlessly reductive– they are as varied as any other group of humans.
But but but.
My eyes are exhausted from looking at skinny white girls and ONLY skinny white girls.
In nearly every representational context, “female” = “skinny white girls.” We, as a culture, are forcing the female experience, in all its variety, to be almost ALWAYS represented by and contained within the body of a skinny white girl. Skinny white girls are not seen as particular; they are seen as general, as “the female.”
In our culture, we posit the stories of straight able-bodied white people, especially of straight able-bodied white men, as universal, and the stories of everyone else as marked by difference. A romantic comedy starring a straight, white, able-bodied couple is just a romcom; but change any one of those characteristics and it becomes a genre film: a Black film, a gay film, a disability “issue” film. You wouldn’t need to change a single word of dialogue to change the perception of the film– just the casting.
What is considered “universal” in representational media is actually reflective of a particular experience– the experience of privilege, usually straight white able-bodied male privilege. Those of us who do not share that experience are always expected to translate– to find and relate to the humanity within the experiences of people unlike us. But those privileged people are rarely expected to do the opposite. Men are rarely expected to relate to plays or films about women, but women are ALWAYS expected to relate to plays or films about men. A film centered around the story of a white man is just a film culturally positioned with the expectation that all will enjoy it in its universality, but a film centered around the story of a Black woman is culturally positioned with the expectation that only Black women will relate to it.
This is a potent issue resulting in a paucity of variation in the portrayal of women. In American mainstream film, TV, and, unfortunately, theatre, what’s positioned as a “normal” and “universal” portrayal of a woman is skinny and white. All women everywhere are expected to see ourselves, find our humanity, and relate our experiences to the experiences of skinny white girls, most of whom (let’s be realistic) are under the age of 40. AND WE DO. We do it all the time. We do it so well we don’t even think about it most of the time.
I didn’t even realize how exhausted I was by this until I started going to shows at African American Shakespeare Company. As I was watching Merry Wives of Windsor, it slowly dawned on me that I had a level of buy-in to the three lead female characters in the show that I hadn’t had in quite some time. I found myself wondering why. Was it the fantastic acting? Well, sure, but I see fantastic acting all the time. Was it the solid directing or the midcentury costumes (I’m such a sucker for vintage)? I turned it over and over in my mind. And then I realized: Because the three lead women were not all skinny white girls, I felt a level of comfort with them and, by extension, with the narrative, that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. By seeing women who were outside the circle of mainstream privilege, even though they were outside it in a different (and, I would say, more deeply meaningful) way than I am, I felt . . . welcomed. I felt like I could relax. I felt like there was a level of implied judgment that was left outside.
So what does this mean? I’m not saying we should stop casting skinny white girls. Of course not. They’re talented, wonderful human beings who deserve roles and love and cupcakes and all the good things in life, just like anyone else. But clearly we need to step away from the formula “normal = skinny and white.”
I think we all, as a culture, need to look at the ways in which we portray women. While we always portray men in specific ways (the attorney, the action hero, the troubled scoundrel, the cop, the bad guy), we all too often portray women in generalized ways (“the woman”) connected only to their relationship with the men, or to the male-driven narrative. When we step out of that, we fear scaring away potential audience by stepping outside of the “universal” when we step outside the portrayal of privilege.
If you’re a skinny white woman, or a white man, you represent an ever-shrinking segment of the population, but the bulk of representational media still posits you as “normal” and everyone outside of you as marked by difference– the further the difference, the deeper the marking.
Here’s what you can do– here’s what we ALL can do– to have the greatest impact on creating real diversity in our representational media.
If you ever find yourself thinking, “That play/film/show/book isn’t for me,” STOP YOURSELF and ask yourself why you think that. Is it because it has a central female character? A central non-white female character? What is it about her experience or humanity that you find so foreign to your own human experience you feel like her story ISN’T EVEN POSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND? Yes, you will need to do some work to find YOUR humanity in HER story, but I promise you that you can do it, because SHE does it for YOUR stories every day of her life.
I have heard, dozens and dozens of times, smart, educated, awesome men say about plays with female-driven narratives, “I think this play is well-written, but I don’t get it.” They see the difference and stop there, because they’ve never learned to translate. They’ve never had to.
This is a learned skill. You have to TRY to do it if you don’t already know how. It has to be a conscious choice to step over your privilege and learn to translate the experiences of people who do not share your privilege, finding your own humanity within them. Will you understand every nuance? Of course not. I don’t understand every nuance of every play about the male experience. I’ve never been a closeted boy on a chicken farm, I’ve never been kicked in the balls, I’ve never been on a professional sports team. BUT NEITHER HAVE YOU. Well, maybe the balls part (sorry, that must have sucked), but certainly not the other two. Yet, because the protagonists of Joshua Conkel‘s MilkMilkLemonade and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out (both wonderful plays) are male, I’ve seen men relate to those characters and effortlessly see their own humanity in them, even while claiming not to understand plays with female central characters whose stories more closely match their own experience.
I firmly believe that being able to have a theatre community that stages work with female protagonists– or, hell, even with female supporting characters– who are as diverse in as many ways as women actually are RELIES on having translation buy-in from the resistant members of our potential audiences AND from the resistant members of our own community– two groups, by the way, with significant overlap.
Skinny white girls are cast in almost all our female roles, and have become associated with “normal woman,” because our culture equates whiteness and thinness with beauty (an extremely problematic notion in and of itself), and the body of the actress is there to be looked at– the actress is all too often there to be “the female” in a man’s story rather than there to inhabit a particular story about a particular woman. We can change this in two ways: by expanding the concept of desirable beauty to include more types of women (good) and (even better) we can stop positioning women all the damn time as “desired object,” start staging work that features stories about different kinds of women, and stop pretending that any play that doesn’t conform to “normal woman = skinny white girl as object of desire” is some kind of crazy deviation from the norm.
In order to do this, to achieve diversity, especially a realistic diversity of women on our stages, those who are unused to translating must make a commitment to learn how to translate the experiences of others unlike themselves and see their own humanity therein. But this must be a conscious CHOICE and an ongoing process, or it’s not going to happen.
I know this is not only possible, but happening right now, because I see it myself. Not every white guy is mystified by translation. We’re in a cultural moment where everything is shifting, and our kids are growing up in a world that values diversity in ways never before seen in the history of the world. This is an achievable goal. But we must consciously CHOOSE to achieve it.
Once that choice is made, we’ll start to see more work wherein women aren’t there as decorative objects and events in the lives of men, and we’ll start to see more women on our stages who do not conform to mainstream images of beauty, because their primary function will be telling a story, a story the entire audience will be able to relate to, empathize with, see themselves in because they have chosen to. Our stages will still have room for skinny white girls, but they will also have room for every other kind of woman, and, for that matter, every other kind of man.
We just have to all make the choice, together, to see the humanity in others.