Placing Fat Women on Center Stage
As much as theatre is a form of expression, it is also a visual sphere in which norms of appearance are obeyed. According to Jill Dolan and others (1991; Feuer, 1999; Mulvey, 1975), theatre has been traditionally designed for the “male gaze,” indicating both the (un)intended audience for theatre and the perspective from which much of theatre is presented. Under these conditions, it seems that there would be no place in theatre for fat women, who are neither objects of attraction nor traditionally considered beautiful (Callaghan, 1994). It is not that fat women have not had a place in theatre; it is merely that they have been relegated to the roles of the old, the ugly, or the comical. This also means that roles that do not specify the character's weight will rarely be given to fat women.
In mainstream theatre, women are often used exclusively in reference to others on stage (as mothers, wives, daughters) or they are sexualized in ways that cater to male fantasy (Dolan, 1998). Under this form of patriarchy, women can identify with the weak female (masochism), or identify with the male character and be complicit in their own objectification. Fat women are faced with slightly different options, as they can choose to either identify with the thin lead who will never really represent them, or they can choose to fight this misrepresentation of the “female.”
The concept that thin is beautiful, and that fat is not, is not an innate aspect of human culture. As Richard Klein (2001) points out, in times of famine and food shortages, the desirable shape of a woman's body was large because a larger size indicated a position of wealth and power. Icons like Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, who were considered to be among the most beautiful and desirable women of their time, would be considered fat and undesirable by current standards of beauty and size (Risch, 2003).
Although the ideals of feminine beauty have changed over time, there is no doubt that in today's society being thin is the expected norm (Cramer & Steinwert, 1998). As Millman puts it, fat women are “stereotypically viewed as unfeminine, in flight from sexuality, antisocial, out of control, hostile, and aggressive” (1981, p. xi). So what does this mean for fat women who want to find a place to express themselves and be represented in the theatre?
Hartley says, “To the extent that the fat body has been vilified as marking a woman who refuses to accept the prescribed construction [of the female body], a place must