by Ellie Stewart
I've just come home from one of our last rehearsals for Heathers: The Musical, where I put on my full costume for the first time. The cast looks fantastic due to the excellent efforts of costumier Stacey O'Brien (a theatre ninja who directed our last revue and is also playing Heather Duke) and the effervescent Mel Campbell, our sensational seamstress and co-designer. Playing Martha 'Dumptruck' Dunnstock, Westerburg High's naive, overweight sweetheart, who is kitted out in the most fabulously pink outfit imaginable (Elle Woods, watch out!) is proving both a delight and a challenge. The delightful part is playing the only nice character in a play rife with assholes. The challenge is more of an internal struggle. Can I play the 'fat' character... if I'm not fat?
When our director, the excellent Karen Anslow, first gave us her thoughts on how she would approach casting Heathers, she mentioned that any role could be played by anyone in our company (provided their vocal range suited the part.) Performance would prevail over appearance.
For many reasons, I'm a good choice for Martha. The extreme content of Heathers is being closely watched by our production team, and looking after the company's wellbeing is as important as protecting our audience. I've never been bullied over my appearance specifically. I have a resilient personality that can resist internalising the harsh words in the script. I felt passionate about honouring and respecting the character.
The directorial decision to physically pad out the person playing Martha, all things considered, is understandable. Because we are a small company, there is a limited pool of people to cast from. It's not believable to put a perfectly average-sized body on stage and call it fat. But I know that won't stop some people finding it problematic. And while portraying a person who has a high proportion of body fat is one thing, playing a caricature is unacceptable. How do I avoid this?
Let's get one thing straight. There is nothing wrong with fat bodies. There is nothing wrong with any body. Body policing is never going to have a positive impact on the policed. Who can ever know why someone looks the way they do? Cries of 'but, health!' ring starkly of false concern, and factors ranging from socioeconomic status to plain old genetics are all at play in myriad ways, rendering the opinions of others irrelevant. No one has the right to tell others what to do with their body. When it comes to beauty, real world definitions are endless, and individual perceptions of perfection are unique. Dismantling the strict beauty standards that put whiteness and thinness at the forefront of social values is integral to equality and the wellbeing of young people. Let's stop punishing ourselves for not fitting into the narrowest of categories.
I can say all this, and I can believe all this. I can acknowledge the hell out of the privilege I'm afforded as a fashionably proportioned (thanks, Kim K and Beyoncé!), white, cisgendered, straight person. But like most people with first world problems, I am still led to wonder, 'am I fat?' More specifically, 'if I were thinner, or smaller, or had a more delicate bone structure... would I be more loved?' My family and friends would probably be surprised to know that checking mirrors to make sure I'm not fat is a daily ritual. This self-policing can happily coincide with genuine confidence, self-acceptance and body positivity. These are not mutually exclusive feelings. But I don't want to waste time thinking about it. 'Beauty comes from within' is a resonant cliché. And I care less and less thanks to a healthy consumption of feminist think-pieces, being outwardly proud and confident my appearance, accepting and internalising compliments, remembering that 10 years and 10 kilos ago I had exactly the same perception of my body, and tentatively observing the slowly but surely changing global media.
I want to see more diversity on stage and screen – that goes for race, ability, sexuality and gender as well as size and shape. I know people need to see themselves represented. The social impact of what we watch cannot be underestimated. Every time I see a person on film who has a physical feature I share, especially if It's not considered ideal, I am elated. Seeing yourself represented is incredibly validating. We only value what we see the most of - let's see more of what people look like. When I saw the Ghostbusters reboot, I wasn't just delighted by the great jokes and funtimes. Watching four women be at the centre of a film, and smash the Bechdel test, and do fight scenes without showing their boobs and butts, was a revelation. I finally understand why people like action films – seeing yourself in a character that kicks butt is an awe-inducing treat. The significance of Melissa McCarthy's unwavering presence on the big screen as a woman of size is profound. And getting to watch women play characters who aren't primarily there for their beauty is such a rare delight. Despite knowing on an intellectual level that this kind of representation was important, and being a person who thinks every day about the way media reflect and affect the world, I still didn't quite understand how much I needed to see it. Then I saw it two more times.
But back to Heathers. Heathers centres around the worst kind of high school environment - if an overblown one, rife with extreme bullying, homophobia, fat-phobia and mental health stigma. Martha's victimisation is the same as anyone else's – supported only by the idea of 'otherness'. 'Nerds' 'cripples' and 'homos' are also maligned. This is the 80s remember, but bullying is just as prevalent in 2016, concentrated by social media and the anonymity of the internet. Let's face it – unless you are a thin, white, cisgender, straight man, being othered is a social staple. Smashing the patriarchy and pushing for social justice are battles we all need to be part of. At the end of the day, the message of Heathers is clear – no one deserves to be bullied. The othering of people is a vicious, pointless practice, whether it's brash high school bullying, or subtle digs made in public discourse. This is the message of Heathers. The butt of the joke isn't Martha's body. It's the idea of othering itself.
So what does me playing Martha mean? Well, I hope that those who care can forgive me for pretending to be something I'm not. I know it's not the same as putting on a wig, or heels, or a sparkly jumpsuit. This character has to be believed – but I want her, and people who look like her, to be respected. I hope I do Martha justice. I hope by acknowledging this burden, I can take some of the weight off.