By Dr. Roanna Mitchell AnyBody/Endangered Bodies Activist UK
Typecasting, judging on appearance, idealizing certain physical types, the morality of the disciplined body — there is a part of me that is tired of discussing these.
I have had my share of time with them: A thesis, four years working with body activists AnyBody, and many, many conversations with all kinds of people in the performance industry and in the industries surrounding that industry.
I am tired of them, because the conversation is often circular, typical when raising anything that questions the status quo: ‘hard-wiring’ versus social construction of taste; choice versus oppression; art versus business, art and business versus life. These binaries get us nowhere, and yet the temptation is to keep circling them in the hope of coming to some definite conclusion. And every now and again something happens that reminds me that the debate is worth having, such as BBC critic Philip Hensher’s review of ITV drama Prey, in which he described the actor as the ‘fat lady detective.’
Is it unfair that actors are judged on their appearance? Or is this simply part of the job? Could we do away with typecasting? Or would that only make us long for the simplification of stable signifiers? Aren’t actors simply dealing with the same pressures we all face when it comes to the presentation of, and living in, our bodies? We are all exploited for the way we feel about our bodies, in deft constructions of what is desirable, acceptable, moral and admirable. All of our bodies are mined for profit and manipulated down to the most private recesses of our lives.
So actors experience this too. So what?
One of the answers to that is of course that actors provide the furniture for our imaginations. We understand life-situations through comparing them to similar situations from our experience, and if the real thing is not available, then we draw on stories to provide a template. Actor’s bodies are often the illustration in that template. The range of bodies represented in the stories we tell each other shapes the landscape of our imagination, be that through stories on the stage, in film and TV, or in specific areas within these such as musical theatre, ballet, made-for-TV period drama, romcoms or pornography.
So the boxes that actors are asked to fit their bodies into are simplifications that do not only affect them, as individuals. They shape our — the audiences’ — brain as well. With every actor that is cast ‘to type’, the possibilities that we have to imagine a place for ourselves in the world are simplified too.
This means that while art might be reflecting life — conforming to social expectations of who will be the hero, villain, best friend, or indeed remain silent in the background — art is also reinforcing and shaping life: those social expectations are themselves shaped by what we see in the stories that we tell each other.
That in itself is depressing. With no view that typecasting will be abandoned anytime soon, we can look forward to many more years of actors torturing themselves to make their bodies suitable for certain parts (or indeed any parts) — and to many more years of the rest of us feeling under pressure to make our own bodies suitable for the places we want to go and the ways we want to be understood by the world (There is another aspect of this narrative, which is the problem of everyone wanting to be the ‘hero’ in their story, and the options for what a ‘heroic’ body is allowed to be. But I leave that for another time.).
But there are moments of subversion, and at their best they are both the exception that proves the rule, and also the exception that changes the rule — one painful moment at a time.
An example of such a moment happened last week, when Philip Hensher decided it would be appropriate to discuss Rosie Cavaliero’s performance in Prey not by her skill as an actor, but by stating his fascination with the fact that the writers chose to create her character as the ‘fat lady detective’.
He might be forgiven (if we are very generous) for thinking this focus on the actor’s physicality apt — it is done all the time. However, in this case the critic made two misjudgements: firstly, in the real world, there is no sense in which ‘fat’ is an accurate description of Cavaliero (although again, we leave for another time the discussion about why, in the first place, it is seen as so offensive to be called ‘fat’). That he deems her fat, and that this is his main fascination with her work on Prey, demonstrates how urgently he and his kind need to be exposed to a wider range of bodies in a wider range of roles.
Secondly, reactions to his comments show that audiences expect something more from a discussion of the actor’s craft than an airing of the critic’s prejudice. Even when invited at a later stage in the programme to comment on Cavaliero’s performance the best he has to offer is ‘I wanted her to have her own series called ‘fat lady inspector’’.
Outrage on Twitter against Hensher’s review, from the makers and cast of Prey as well as its audience, caused Matthew Hemley to question in The Stage whether critics should comment on an actor’s size. Hemley makes a no-nonsense dismissal of Hensher’s comment and warns that ‘Dangerously, comments like this could also force some actors, particularly young ones, who are already working in a difficult and unstable profession, to believe they need to change their appearance and conform to an image people like Hensher believe they should have.’
Crucially, Hemley points out that ‘What Hensher might have commented on is the fact Cavaliero, in Prey, is playing against type… But did Hensher notice? Did he heck. He only seemed to notice her physical appearance.’
Hemley’s article and the debate that surrounds it are a welcome public airing of a pertinent issue, and as such there is a silver lining to Henshaw’s comment as it offered a vent for this discussion. It is gratifying to see that this instance of an actor doing a sophisticated job of playing against her conventional ‘type’ has received the support that it did, particularly when comparing it with other discussions in public forums of the pressures that actor’s face. Perhaps, through this support, the notion that only certain bodies are allowed to be seen doing certain things, has been dismantled by one more little brick. And by subverting the expectations of a critic who thinks in little boxes, a further pocket of possibilities has been opened for us, the audience.
I hope that the many actors I work with have been following this debate, and that they take courage from it. These battles are fought for all of us, and they are fought on the site of actors’ bodies who — let us not forget — are people like the rest of us.