Body Shaming Apparently Isn't Beneath NY Times Theatre Criticism

  Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Dionne D. Figgins, and Alysha Umphress (Joan Marcus)

Emma Degerstedt, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Dionne D. Figgins, and Alysha Umphress (Joan Marcus)


Last year, Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss, was rightfully criticized for her review of Mamma Mia where when mentioning the costume design, she said the following: 

"Theresa Ham’s character-defining costumes make the most of the many “real women” figures on stage, just as the gold and silver spandex outfits outline the perfect bodies of the terrific chorus dancers"

Obviously, the fact that Weiss made a point to emphasize "real women" figures in contrast to the "perfect bodies" of the dancers, was met with harsh backlash and accusations of body shaming. 

On her part, and per usual for Weiss' need for attention, she didn't apologize for her comments. Less than a year later, the Sun-Times let her go as their theatre critic. 

At the time, what stood out to me was that such comments were included in reviews from major publications such as the Sun-Times. But in an era where mainstream journalists are fighting for clicks and views, foolhardy comments like these seem to be slipping through more and more. 

Thinking that we were past issues like these in theatrical criticism was apparently naive of me. Because this week the venerable New York Times is under fire for the same exact issue. 

In her review of Smokey Joe's Cafe, critic Laura Collins-Hughes felt that commenting on an actress' size was appropriate when critiquing the costume designer. Here is what she said: 

Nicole Vanessa Ortiz is a terrifically cool customer in her dry take on “Hound Dog,” while Alysha Umphress is at her best with the mournful, country-flavored “Pearl’s a Singer.”

Ms. Umphress, by the way, is bigger than the other women onstage, and the costume designer, Alejo Vietti, doesn’t seem to have known how to work with that, dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way.

It doesn't take a lot of consideration to understand that Collins' remarks are awful. While her comment was intended to criticize the costume designer, the mentioning of Ms. Umphress' size and appearance as "unflattering" is a step way too far. 

I guess to Laura Collins-Hughes, non-sample size women should only be dressed in certain ways. 

Umphress responded with a lengthy comment on Twitter Monday morning.

“It is shocking to see a woman (especially a woman whose social would suggest she is pro-woman) body shame an actress who isn’t a size 0 and praise one that is. Her wording wasn’t constructive. It was full on mean girl,” Umphress wrote. “It’s 2018. We should be celebrating women’s diversity in the arts, not shaming them, by the way, for being the biggest of the girls. And while the overall point was to malign the costume designer, her phrasing made me the sacrificial ‘fat’ lamb. Truly disappointed and saddened by her ugly and pointless description. Also, I think I look pretty ferosh.”

Not surprisingly, Collins hasn't apologized for her comments. Instead, she's tried to explain them:

“It is in no way shameful to be big, let alone bigger than the other women onstage. My remark about the costuming reflects on the designer. This is not the first time I’ve noticed a designer seemingly at a loss about how to dress a larger woman well,” she explained on Twitter.

Yeah, her comments don't make anything better. What Collins isn't understanding is that no one case about her perception of what is or isn't flattering on non-sample size women. And therefore, it should never have been mentioned in the review. 

Sadly, this isn't the first time a critic has unnecessarily commented on a performers size in their review, it's just the latest. 

British Theatre Guide critic Philip Fisher was called out last month for body shaming the same actress in two separate productions. When reviewing The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Fisher referred to Nicola Coughlin's character as “ the overweight little girl”, despite the fact that her size has nothing to do with the character and is nowhere mentioned in the show. It was then discovered that the previous year that Fisher mentioned Coughlin's size again in his review of Jess And Joe Forever where he referred to Coughlin's character with  "Jess is a fat girl".

Normally you would think comments like these would be caught by editors and deems unacceptable for publication. Except that Philip Fisher is the editor for the London region for the British Theatre Guide and the rest of the editing staff is also male. 

In the instance with the New York Times, it's surprising that a female critic would find it okay to body shame a female performer. But what's not surprising is that the comments weren't picked out and removed by the NY Time's Arts editing staff of Scott Heller and Jake Silverstein. The Chicago Sun-Times had a female critic and a female arts editor, so the decision process on that one is beyond me. 

There are hundreds of ways to criticize the job of a costume designer without commenting on the size of the performers. You would expect a critic from the New York Times to be better than that. You'd expect everyone to be better than that. 

I would encourage critics at the New York Times and other publications to heed these words,

"There is a body of evidence showing that the effects of fat shaming and stigmatizing go far beyond such remarks, beyond the stares fat people get on the street, the cutting comments strangers make about their weight and the “funny” greeting cards featuring overweight people. It turns out that fat prejudice differs from other forms in ways that make it especially difficult to overcome." 

This appeared in the New York Times in 2016.