Skinny White Girls are Exhausting My Eyes

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.

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32 thoughts on “Skinny White Girls are Exhausting My Eyes

  1. Where is the LOVE button? You hit it, girl. This is perfect for me right now. Especially since one of the plays I’ve written got the comment, “why doesn’t the guy have more to do?” Um, because it was a female-driven piece? Anyway. Thank you!

  2. I’m currently reading My House in Umbria, which was made into a film starring Maggie Smith. I love Maggie Smith, the but book spends an entire chapter on the protagonist’s description of herself as significantly overweight. Tho I’m certain Ms Smith was terrific in the role, I’m pretty offended that one of the myriad of excellent “character” (read, not skinny) actresses could have done a fine job.

  3. patrickreid1 says:

    Everytime I read ‘skinny white girl’ I immediately added blonde…

  4. David W Liao says:

    It’d be awesome if you could convince Huffington Post to publish this essay?

  5. 1banjo says:

    Race, race, race. It’s all that black people talk about.

    • I’m not Black, but your racism is duly noted.

    • Oh, SO CLOSE. But not quite. You ARE getting warmer to my actual ethnicity.

      • cassandrattp says:

        I don’t think this person has actually read any statistics on what our breakdown of ethnicity, racial, and gender make-up in this country actually IS….but YOU, Mz. Hillman, are a superstar. Thank you so much for posting this. LOVED it,

    • Sharon Cullars says:

      how many black people have you talked to…and you mean to tell me they don’t ever talk about the weather? come talk to me and we can talk about you.

    • keepingitreal says:

      If it weren’t for racists black people wouldn’t have to think or talk about race at all. But its completely reflective of your privilege that you see race as completely unimportant, because as part of the dominant culture you don’t need to think about it all.

  6. Okay, I love this essay.

    But I wish you’d talk more, from your experience in theater, about why it doesn’t seem to happen.

    I mean, I just looked through the photos here, and it sure looks like Impact Theater casts its plays with 100% skinny people (at least, among the actors who made it into those photos) and mostly white people.

    I don’t say that to criticize you, or Impact, in any way at all. I don’t doubt your sincerity at all.

    It’s just that it frustrates me that even when there seem to be people who are well-meaning, smart, and aware of these issues in charge, it doesn’t seem to create any change in who is cast in leading roles. I think that there must be structural issues that need to fixed, but I’d appreciate an insider’s view of what those structural issues might be.

    Is it a vicious cycle – because there are fewer parts that casting directors are willing to cast fat actors in, fewer fat actors get the kind of experience and seasoning needed to carry a lead in a play, and therefore there are fewer fat actors auditioning who are as good as the thin actors? Or what?

    • Well, for starters, you’re mistaking Latino actors for white actors, since there are plenty of Latino actors in those pictures. I also encourage you to look at pictures from a larger stretch of our history, not just our last 3 shows, one of which is a two-hander (Jukebox Stories, written and performed by Thai American playwright Prince Gomolvilas and musician Brandon Patton) and the other a three hander (the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble). The next show in our line up is Thao Nguyen’s Fortunate Daughter, about being queer and Vietnamese American.

      But yes, you are correct, most actors conform to a very narrow range of body type. I think this is a vicious cycle– people don’t cast actors who do not conform, and larger people then drop out of acting, or never go into it in the first place, because they don’t get cast. I have used larger actors in quite a few roles (one of the shows pictured, As You Like It, had a larger Audrey, Touchstone, and William, an Asian Adam, a Latino Orlando, and women playing Jaques, the Dukes, and Le Beau). We have a pretty good track record at my company of casting outside the lines.

      • Vera Sloan says:

        “I think this is a vicious cycle– people don’t cast actors who do not conform, and larger people then drop out of acting, or never go into it in the first place, because they don’t get cast.”

        You hit the nail on the head here. This is definitely at least part of the problem. I was strongly discouraged from going into acting because of being even on the lower end of the plus-sized range (although a bit closer to the middle these days thanks to new motherhood), and while I didn’t follow that advice, the naysayers undoubtedly had a pragmatic point. It has absolutely hurt my ability to be cast, and I know several extremely talented full figured women who have dropped out of acting entirely because they were tried of being made to feel like shit about their body. Some of us keep on trucking and keep accepting roles that better fit people’s stereotypical ideas about larger women (best friends, moms, servants, etc.) and making the most of them just to keep working, stay in the game, and every now and then get a crack at something more. I think many companies and casting directors justify these practices by shifting the blame to audiences who they feel have expectations about how ingenues, romantic leads, badass vixens, and femme fetales are supposed to look, but the buck has to stop somewhere.

  7. zillah glory says:

    thank you so much.
    translation, norms in perception, and what that does to our culture, our experience of ourselves. i’m a white girl with some booty on me, and have actually been told to lose 20 or gain 50 so that i wouldn’t be such a dilemma in casting, that clearly i’m a lead actress but my body doesn’t fit the expectation as well as the whiter, skinnier girl. so amen. amen to speaking up for stories where i-we-all-of-us are more than foils and more than targets and more than prizes. and amen to the men who know deep down in their bones.

  8. Zillah Glory says:

    amen, amen, amen. as a white girl actress with some booty on me and a strong muscular body, i’ve actually been told “gain 20 or lose 50, you’re too talented to be lost in the middle.” after one casting disappointment, i was told “you were the far better audition, but she just looks like what we expect” and my take/away was that i was the better audition — and that was it. somebody mentioned structural changes in theater in order to better assist this transition of perception — and i think it inevitably must signal a focusing lens on the funders. where’s your money? and, after that, who SAYS that the backers have to back a certain look? if you can bear tracking that thought, you’ll find yourself right back out in the great big open space of media and advertising, that consistently bombards us with images that don’t reflect everyone in our culture. it’s going to take a consistent, measured, and endlessly patient move on the parts of everyone involved in storymaking and telling (which brings us full circle back to the writer’s assertion that we need to investigate ourselves, to find our relationship to the humanity in others through willingness to translate). it will be a symbiotic give and take. and it’s already happening. just that – while gains are made, backlash is immediately evident in counterpoint. we’re looking for “niche” shows and spending fortunes on remakes that takes us back into nostalgia and forgetfulness. we’re coproducing work that further narrows the actor playing field which by necessity means the money in the game is looking for the biggest bang for their buck over the broadest audience base (nevermind that the audience doesn’t look like those people!) and the pool narrows and becomes understandably constricted. it’s a simultaneous responsibility at work. i’d like to hand responsibility to the writers. to all performers actually, to begin creating the work they wish to be in. for the writers to learn how to write into their scripts different physical and visual parameters. for directors to have the value of cultural enrichment (okay, so my definition) in mind and heart before they cast . and for casting directors, who often do the first three or four cuts before whoever’s left standing can even enter a room, to be brave enough to lead the change. because unless that specific play or that specific theater is actively engaged in expanding the experience of the “norm” – those casting directors don’t have the courage or the knowledge to hold the rest of the company following them in the process to any kind of representative RANGE of capability.

  9. Susan Jonas says:

    I hope artistic directors, Especially those who claim to strive for diversity among audiences, read this article and take it take it to heart. It was warmly and humorously and well written. Thank you.

  10. Jeanie Smith says:

    My parallel exhaustion is that we were all having this exact same discussion 25 years ago and nothing has changed. Well, the girls are even skinnier. It’s a deep cultural issue, very stubborn and resistant to change.

    • I think it’s something that has to happen at all levels. I’m very aware of these issues, but the actors available to me are what they are, and that pool just isn’t as diverse as we would like. It’s something directors and casting directors talk about all the time, and we’re always strategizing about ways to defeat that. I want to cast a big girl for a lead in NEXT YEAR’S classic, and I’m already on the hunt for her. This is more than a year away. We’re not going to get a lot of body type diversity in the acting pool until these people have a reasonable expectation of getting cast. So it’s a catch 22.

  11. John I says:

    Great piece… but I’d also add middle, upper class… Class is always assumed, but the media and our stages aren’t filled with with skinny white working-class women, though the majority surely are.

  12. cassandrattp says:

    I adored this article. I run a queer and feminist company, and we strive to be fully inclusive in all we do. I’m shocked that anyone can argue with your view points. Surely they’ve seen statistics on what the racial, ethnic, and gender make-up actually is in this country. Hint: It is not 75% skinny, white people. It is also not predominately male.

  13. skinnydlk says:

    This reminded of when I used to wear nothing but T-Shirts with things written in Sharpie on them. I had one that said “I’m not really all that attracted to skinny blonde girls”. This shirt bothered people more than most of my other shirts (which said thing like “I’m ashamed to be American” and “I do drugs and I vote”). Mostly men where bothered by them. They became super defensive like I’d insulted a deeply held religious belief.

  14. Vera Sloan says:

    This is a great post, and it reminded me of a casting notice I received a few years ago. It took me a minute to dig it up in my inbox, but it really got into my head so I eventually came up with sufficient search criteria. From a very large and successful local company (name redacted, because I like working):

    “For our fabulous production of astonishingly beautiful musical, {TITLE}, {COMPANY NAME} is looking for one man and one woman for non-speaking, non-singing roles in the ensemble. Non-Equity, paid roles. Both play Italians, aged 25 to 35. The actors will play multiple characters (waiter, tourist, servant, girlfriend, priest, nun, customer, wedding guest) so we are looking for graceful performers of slim build and average height, who can make strong choices for each persona.”

    Because that, right there, is the problem. I never did figure out if the actors needed to be slim because they were Italian, or young, or if it’s because clearly people’s girlfriends are never fat and fat people never go to weddings, but it was depressing as shit. I guess it helped me to not waste my time, because it’s certainly worse for large women and women of color to invest their energies into an audition where the person behind the table is unwilling to envision them in the role but will never say so, but the fact the people are willing to state this so openly also indicated how widespread the problem really is.

  15. choppy says:

    It`s simple really- people wanna cast others they can better relate to.

    • Are you a casting director, “choppy”? Is that how you cast, people you can “better relate to”?

      Just curious. Way back when, when I was casting with the hubby (a long time ago now), we cast to talent, not looks. Are you suggesting that casting to talent is no longer something casting directors do in the theater?

    • Zillah Glory says:

      none of it is simple unless we acknowledge that it is driven by advertising, by the inculcated pursuit of “perfection,” and by all the choices made that make up what we call society or current culture. that in turn makes me curious about who the taste-makers are — begging the questions “since when?” and “to what end?” the acceptance of anything with a “that’s just how it is, that’s who i relate to, that’s the way we are” gets very hazy before any kind of discernment or any kind of scientific mind that asks “because why?” and holds the construct accountable for the effects it lends itself to. if it’s easier not to think of something, not to examine it, not to care, then it’s incredibly simple indeed.

    • Amanda says:

      I think you’re right. People do want to cast people they can better relate to. That must be why theater attendance is so high these days, because it completely reflects the communities in which we live. Seriously, I think you’re correct, I just don’t know where you live that reflects casting trends. In reality, media that reaches out to diverse demographics tends to do pretty well.

      I used to think it was about audiences going to see idealized versions of themselves, but it’s not that either or we would see parity in male casting. But we don’t. Women, regardless of size and color, outnumber men and yet we are expected to identify with male characters in addition to the female ones. Male ensembles are marketed to all audiences while female ensembles or ethnically diverse shows are labeled as other. White men are not expected to identify with women or people of color.

  16. George says:

    Sexiness is in the personality. Beauty in in the soul. There’s a good reason why these are universal and a bit hackneyed: they’ve been true forever. If you think about it (key word being “if”), idealizations are created to limit our range of judgment and destroy our capacity to explore alternative possibilities. Conform or be penalized.

  17. I love this post. It is also exceptional in that it offers a solution to the problem it points out. Thank you!

  18. Anopenedmindisorgasmic says:

    My only question is what are these people who are so unwilling to expand their creative and intellectual horizons so afraid of?

    How can you even call yourself an intellectual and great purveyor of the dramatic arts if you can’t even grasp the virtue of diversity represented media? Some individuals opposed to the ideas written here in your graciously presented, honest and non-conformist post, seem to speak as if they have never in their lives mingled with those of another race, shape, or gender. I mean you have to be some type of person to have lived your life 100% under a rock and have never cared to explore other worlds. How is that a fulfilling life? For a person to say “I can’t relate to another race/size/gender, then go and yell “Blasphemy!” when blatant racism, or sexism showcases itself throughout various institutions in our society of that which is brought to the forefront, is hypocritical at its lowest. “No, it’s not racist of me to only associate with people of my skin color or make movies about “us” because people of darker skins/bigger sizes/different sexual orientations, deal with issues that I could never in a day relate to,” and in the same breath “Why do they have television shows, magazines, content geared towards ethnic groups?” O_o

    Go count the number of skinny models in the first 20 pages of Elle, Lucky, or Marie Claire. Now, how many of those models are non-white? Exactly. But the non-white population is supposed to just stuff their mouths with white-privelage and never bat an eye because it is the norm, and all else is dirty, less than, not beautiful and worthless (or a point for trite, slap-stick poorly executed humor). Non-whites should hate themselves and aspire to be the “norm” is the message. Not only is it disgusting and condescending to assume that they WANT to be something they are not and are not proud of their own heritage or lifestyle, they can physically never be anything other then who they are. I don’t care if these people puff themselves as the “norm.” Senseless fear and ignorance is the ugliest characteristic of them all and speaks VOLUMES about the self righteous people contributing to these societal ills. Bravo on this post!

  19. Luanne says:

    You’re not only right, but I LOVE your writing.

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