I’m sitting in The Music Box theatre on Broadway, halfway through Act 1 of Shuffle Along, and it suddenly strikes me that Audra McDonald (Godra McDonald, am I right?!) is clearly pregnant, but her character is not. We as characters and audience, haven’t talked about the fact that she’s pregnant because it has nothing to do with the plot of the show. My fellow audience members are suspending their disbelief, focusing on the personality, talent, and embodiment of Lottie Gee that Audra brings to the stage.
I grew up internalizing the mantra that actresses are supposed to find out The Size that the ladies on Broadway currently are, as a collective, and do whatever it takes to achieve it, because, as time and time again has shown, if you fit the costume, you get the part, especially when auditioning to replace someone. But Audra wasn’t this pregnant at the beginning of the run, so I have to assume that the costume designer accommodated her in some way. I thought about this the entire Greyhound bus trip back to Boston, especially after I opened my journal to write about the phenomenal piece of theatre I had just experienced. As I was flipping to the next blank page, i stumbled upon this drawing, and, in doing so, a conversation about body image and theatre.
The reality is simple:
“You’d make a great Tracy Turnblad” is never going to feel like a compliment.
For those uninitiated, Tracy Turnblad is the protagonist of the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, a “pleasantly plump” teenager (according to the libretto) who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show in 1960s Baltimore. She faces obstacles because of her outward appearance, but her plucky personality and positive perseverance land her a spot on the council. After dancing her way onto the show, however, she becomes aware of the inequalities faced by her African American friends as their “Negro Day” segment is cut and they are no longer allowed to dance on TV despite their obvious talent. Along the way, she attracts the romantic attentions of a boy, Link Larkin, and the antagonistic attentions of Velma and Amber Von Tussle, a skinny and blonde mother-daughter duo whose outward beauty barely masks their inner meanness. Tracy eventually becomes involved in an effort to integrate the show, all while balancing her love life and her shot at the crown in the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant. The show, which won Best Musical in 2003, is an adaptation of the John Waters film of the same name.
Hairspray itself, which is the iconic show centered on an actress larger than the average Broadway leading lady, is ultimately not “positive representation” for fat girls everywhere. Frankly, young me, who watched eagerly as Zac Efron eked out the patented ‘Link Wink’ and fell in love with the short and stout high schooler, would find that description a bit harsh. To this day, I love Hairspray. It makes me happy, and the positive, fun songs and upbeat spirit of the show are still something I often turn to when I’m feeling blue. Nonetheless, in terms of a positive movie about a plus-sized protagonist, it leaves something to be desired, and, given the media drought for those sorts of characters, this took me some time to notice and accept.
Taken with a pinch of salt due to the show’s larger-than-life, John Waters-esque heightened reality, it’s still difficult to ignore the way Tracy Turnblad is placed in the spotlight and is consistently made the butt of jokes:
and outright insulted ,
and time again.
A majority of the above statements are made by mean, antagonistic characters, not so much to point out these characters’ nastiness, but to give the audience permission to laugh at unkind jokes that play on unspoken assumptions or stereotypes about the overweight character. It’s okay when a mean character says a mean thing, because they’re mean. And overall, audiences are usually able to laugh at these things if they’re clever or witty, because they didn’t make the unkind joke themselves, so their laughter is not, in their minds, a reflection of their values. Thus, Hairspray contains constant ridicule of its protagonist from mean characters whose statements are often jokes eliciting audience laughter; though Velma and Amber Von Tussle’s heightened ‘mean girl’ venom is certainly funny, it is ultimately difficult to discern whether the audience is laughing at them or, more likely, Tracy.
In addition to those direct comments on her appearance, Tracy often embodies tired stereotypes of plus-size female characters. In the film adaptation, Link sings his portion of the musical’s love ballad “Without Love” in Tracy’s room, alone. Throughout his verse, he adoringly runs his hand over the obvious valley left by her presumably massive body in her slept-in bed, finds a half-eaten candy bar under her pillow, and sings into it like a microphone. I honestly shouldn’t have to explain the problems with all that, but the insulting and tiring stereotype that someone who looks like Tracy Turnblad must look that way because they have innumerable candy bars stashed, partially consumed, in their bed, is overplayed and inaccurate. Frankly, media, we can do better. The stage version of the musical gives Tracy this line, which has been met, every time I’ve seen the show, with a hearty laugh from the audience:
Get it? It’s funny!! The fat girl isn’t even surprised by the fact that he couldn’t sing or concentrate, because her mind is so thoroughly boggled by the idea that he couldn’t eat??!??!?!?!?!?!?!? It might seem subtle, but if you’re watching for these kinds of things in media concerning women larger than a size 6, it’s remarkably easy to spot.
Tracy and her friends ultimately prevail in integrating the Corny Collins Show, and she “gets the guy”, but her entire story revolves around her appearance, and not only her appearance, but her size. She’s a caricature, and Hairspray is, at its core, satire; thus, as a larger than average women, she falls into the line of comedy fire, albeit subtly. Tracy’s story is almost a meta-commentary on the show itself, and certainly on the career of the actress portraying her. Against all odds, she auditions (in a cruel environment where they dismiss her based on her size rather than genuinely considering her based on abilities, personality, or enthusiasm) and get a part in a hit show.
I recently saw that a former cast mate of mine, a girl of average size, portrayed Tracy in a summer stock production of the show, wearing a fat suit. Selecting an average-sized actress, one who is not stuck in an endless stream of coded language about “not looking the part”/”fitting our vision” and being relentlessly marginalized and dehumanized, and putting her in a fat suit perfectly demonstrates a problem in the theatre community. Putting an actress in a fat suit to play a fat character not only takes away one of the rare roles specifically intended for a plus size actress, but it says, to me, the following: we looked at this average-sized human being, and we saw her talent, personality, and light; we saw her soul as an actress, and that was so important that we didn’t care that she didn’t quite look like the character- that we can fix, and no one will bat an eye. They’ll suspend their disbelief to believe that this Person is actually a Fat Girl.
Two things are worth pointing out here, the first being the idea of a fat body as a costume. It’s… nice, that the actress in question got to sing “You Can’t Stop The Beat” and twist her way onto the Corny Collins Show; it’s great that she got to enjoy playing what may have been in her pantheon of dream roles. But at the end of the show, she gets to take off the skin so consistently ridiculed on stage. She unzips the layer her (unprecedented) on-stage love interest heroically ignores, even though during the show, Tracy sings “everybody warns that he won’t like what he sees/ but I know that he’ll look inside of me!”. Every part of the narrative surrounding her and Link’s love story involves ignoring/ looking past the hideous exterior to see the shining soul inside, perpetuating the idea that Tracy is undesirable and physically unattractive but her spirit is so wonderful that Link heroically declares, “Tracy, I’m in love with you- no matter what you weigh.” She peels off the skin her mother wouldn’t leave the house in for ten years for fear of what the neighbours might think, and what the world might say. She gets to step out of what makes her, in the words of Amber VonTussle, “a fat, ugly thing.” She gets to strip down to the human being within the flesh vessel.
When I leave the theatre after a show, I don’t.
I’m not privy to every aspect of a casting decision and I don’t presume to know what goes through a director’s head, but I feel comfortable stating that there are instances in casting where I have been immediately written off because of the way I look. Based on my body type, I have an incredibly strong feeling that my huge vocal range and decade and a half of dance experience have been irrelevant or “not enough” to get my headshot into the pile of girls considered for a role. The aforementioned actress, the one who stepped into a fat suit for the role of Tracy Turnblad, is probably never going to walk into an audition with the full knowledge that her skill and who she is as a person are likely going to be insignificant details when met with her outward appearance. She is unlikely to walk into an audition holding room and see 40 girls who are at least four dress sizes smaller who, despite the fact that their vocal ranges and acting prowess match her own, have a much stronger chance of being even considered for the role she wants.
If it were the rule, across the board, that what mattered in an actress was her talent, personality, and ability, not her physical form, size 14+ actresses would be out there consistently bringing down the house in Annie Get Your Gun, Wicked, and The Last Five Years. Hair and Anything Goes would have much more size-diverse ensembles. The title princess of Cinderella might look a bit more like my friends and I did at prom, or Grease’s Pink Ladies might need bigger jackets. But clearly, this isn’t the case.
Theatre casting has arbitrarily defined the default as thin. Unless a role is specifically, explicitly intended for a plus size actress, characters are lithe and lean by an unspoken rule, and have the Broadway Leading Lady Body. Sophie in Mamma Mia, Marian Paroo in The Music Man, Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls... I could go on, but the list of shows where the size of characters is not a central, referenced element of the plot but the characters are still consistently cast in a single actress body type is staggeringly long. Obviously, in Hairspray, it is imperative that the protagonist be a plus-size actress, because it is literally written into the plot of the show: “pleasantly plump” Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins Show is Hairspray’s basic premise. She does not fit the societal norms for appearance and yet she prevails. Her size, whether for comedic value or self-acceptance messages, is frequently referenced in the script. Similarly, there’s a clear in-plot reason for maintaining Mimi Marquez’s scrawny, drug-addled body when casting a production of Rent.
But what about the shows where characters’ body type isn’t a central plot point?
Did it ever say in the character description of Jo March, or most musical theatre ladies, that they couldn’t be a size 14? Does it canonically ruin 80% of Broadway musicals if the heroine looks like I do?
Were my friends asked to describe me, their answers would contain things like smart, full of chutzpah, loyal, confident, fun, happy, kind, witty, weird, hilarious, nerdy, dorky, strong, and independent. Broadway heroines are all of those things. But I often feel that casting directors look at me, and they don’t see a girl writer who fiercely loves and fiercely fights for what she wants, like Jo March. They don’t see all of these characters I saw myself in and whom I dreamed of playing while growing up. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t or didn’t embody everything needed to bring those women to life.
I sang “Astonishing” from Little Women for the first audition of my high school career, and I felt illuminated and empowered. I felt a fire in my heart that commanded attention. When I don’t “look right” for Jo March, what you’re really saying is, a girl who looks like that can’t feel those things.
I danced to “Roxie” from Chicago for my senior solo at my studio, and I picked it because I wanted every single person in that theatre to know I was going to college to study theatre because my name was going to be the name on everybody’s lips, and up in lights. But I have yet to meet a casting director who, upon seeing my physical appearance, would cast me in that role.
Whether casting directors are aware of their biases or not, the point is this: Based on the ways I’ve seen shows cast, and the experiences I’ve had in the casting process, I’ve learned that people see me as a mother, or as an old woman, or as a goofy, non-threatening mayor, or even a promiscuous bird showgirl (thank you, 8th grade Seussical), but that being a romantic lead is out of the realm of believability. I had a director tell me, at the age of 15, that to get the kinds of parts I wanted I had to lose weight, because no one would put me in those roles looking like I look. Looking like I look, it’s not believable that someone would fall in love with me, or that I would be a universal object of desire, or even that I could seduce one person and not be the punchline of a joke. My bright smile, big brown eyes, and special sparkle just “don’t fit the look” they had in mind.
People will sit in a theatre and suspend their disbelief enough to believe that if I drink milk from a cow that ate hair, a cloak, and a shoe that I will become young again and cure some woman of her barrenness. That giant puppets on stage are really lions and giraffes. That thirtysomethings are children at a spelling bee. That a green sorceress can fly. Still, it’s too much to ask them to believe that someone would fall in love with the fat girl, or to believe she might just… look like that, and to make no reference to it in the plot or character description. To believe the fat girl has hopes and ambitions and dreams and chutzpah and charm and wit and strength and lights up a room, just by being herself.
Theatre is what connects me to the soul of the world. Theatre makes me more human. It is my passion and my lifeblood. But more often than not, theatre also tells me that people will not look at me and see me; they will only see the physical package I come in.
I remember looking in the mirror one day during rehearsal, at the age of 16, and thinking:
Given the choice between two equally talented girls at an audition, why would you ever pick the fat one?
So, given all this, it’s not that I would turn down an opportunity to play Tracy Turnblad. It’s that whenever people say “you’d make a great Tracy Turnblad”, it serves as a confirmation that the person telling me this saw me exclusively based on my physical appearance as a Fat Girl and not for the person I am, and that, plus Broadway, equals Tracy Turnblad.
I’m incredibly talented. I mean that as an affirmation of worth, not as a conceited affectation. I’m so much more than “you’d make a great Tracy Turnblad”, and it cuts me to my core every time someone gives me that backhanded pseudo-compliment. It’s another confrontation with a concerning reality across media, that women who are larger than the average Leading Lady Size are a punchline, or an exception, or a token character whose story or value or comedic purpose is intrinsically interwoven with their physical appearance. To put it simply: they are not treated like people, or given the storylines, development, and inner life to be fully-fledged people.
Look, I know I would make a great Tracy Turnblad. I can belt crazy high, and my strong, beautiful, powerful voice busting out verses of “Good Morning Baltimore” and “I Can Hear The Bells” would be magical. I’m plucky, bright-eyed, and idealistic, but I’m loyal and I fight hard for what I believe in and what’s right. I’m hysterically funny, and I light up the stage when I dance with my personality and pizzazz. But “you’d make a great Tracy Turnblad” isn’t about seeing the vibrant, funny, talented person I am, and commenting genuinely on my abilities… it’s about the fat suit I can’t unzip and its sudden connection to musical theatre.
There are other characters with similar chutzpah and sparkle- Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, to name a few- but the effusive suggestions I play those roles are few and far between in comparison to my standing hypothetical booking as Hairspray's leading lady. It’s a clear indicator that this oft-uttered phrase is a reference to my appearance and my chosen field of work.
I know every step, I know every song, and I know theatre’s the place where I belong… but I don’t see actresses who look like I do living my dream.
That’s precisely why “you’d make a great Tracy Turnblad” is never going to feel like a compliment.