There’s a moment in Venus where a crimson curtain, which has been covering the top third of the stage, parts and reveals an audience of mounted doll heads looking down at the actors. The heads are of identical white male faces, a slick mustache their only definable characteristic. They represent the audience of the 19th century operating theater, where surgeons gathered to observe the latest advancements in surgical procedures and medical information. Below them, the Baron Doctor (played by John Ellison Conlee) exhibits the living body of Saartjie Baartman (Zainab Jah), whose large breasts and posterior, for some reason, pose some value for biological inquiry. The doctor’s cold, scientific calculations fetishize Saartjie’s body, reducing it to mass and composition. He speaks of her maceration, or the dismemberment and measurement of her body after death, to the other doctors with hopes of the results it will yield. When she asks, he tells her the word is French for “after lunch.”
The operating theater scene reminds us that every part of our world, even the fields of science and medicine, are constantly being performed and constructed. Here, in this moment, we the audience are presented with the mirror audience of the white, male heads, whose gaze penetrates Saartjie with the full force of their socially produced authority and privilege. First, we are confronted with the fact that science is deeply rooted in social and gender constructions. It enforces these constructions under the guise of rationality and the pursuit of knowledge. Yet, its danger comes precisely from the objectivity and authority with which we endow it. For centuries, western medicine has used scientific inquiry to prove the superiority of white people over non-whites. In the same way, science has been used to silence women displaying unfeminine traits and labeling them as hysterical.
Second, by meeting our gaze with that of the mounted heads, the production forces us to be aware of the power of our own gaze in the theater. Does ours match the fetishizing gaze of the doctors’? Do we marvel, like 19th century audiences, at Saartjie’s exoticized body and the ‘otherness’ of her features?
Ben Brantley’s review of Venus suggests that he did not question the value and intent of his gaze, as this scene so distinctively begs us to do. Here’s how he opens:
“Attention, please, those of you whose greatest ambition is to acquire the traffic-stopping body of Kim Kardashian. There is a less drastic alternative to costly and dangerous buttocks implants.”
Anyone writing a review of this play with some level of critical self-awareness would have known this approach was completely and utterly wrong. Brantley chooses to open his review of a play about Western civilization’s dehumanization and fetishization of the black female body by quite lazily fetishizing a woman’s curvy bottom.
As many on Twitter already pointed out, this comparison between Kim Kardashian and Saartjie Baartman suggests that Baartman has the privilege and power of a Kardashian, when in fact, she was treated as a medical curiosity. The opening trivializes her story in favor of a overly baiting line about butts. Besides, the Kardashian/Baartman comparison has been made before, but with a criticism of Kardashian’s exploitation of exoticized bodies. The rest of the opening paragraph considers the comfort of the costume.
“To wit: the fulsomely padded body stocking that is being modeled with flair and poignancy by Zainab Jah … It’s doubtful as to how comfortable such a stocking is as 24-hour wear. But it has the great advantage of not being permanent.“
If Brantley took this opportunity to reflect on the emotional and physical distress Baartman must have felt for being inseparable from her “24-hour” body, or to consider the role of Jah as a storyteller who has the privilege of stepping in and out of Baartman’s physique at will, then that might have held something aspiring to criticism. However, Brantley only marvels at the exoticism of Baartman’s body, seeing it as an “advantage” to be able to step out of it. The objectification and evaluation of socially taboo bodies (black bodies, fat bodies, etc.) is not a mystery to contemporary readers. Neither is the power of others to step in and out of those bodies at free will without having to face the discrimination experienced when actually living day-to-day with that body. Think of skinny actors who are called brave for donning a fat suit while fat actors struggle for roles. Or white pop stars who adopt an “urban” style for their performances while calling black performers uncivilized. Or able-bodied performers who play suicidal paraplegics while disabled activists rally for more empowerment on screen. Yes, one could transfer in and out of Baartman’s body with “flair and poignancy” in order to don “traffic-stopping” curves without facing the constant struggle that those who live with that body deal with. Many women do have Baartman’s physique and they may wish it were only a costume too. But Brantley’s comments not only highlight his ignorance of the ways in which bodies are commodified for mass critique and consumption, they also shows him practicing that commodification.
And as a side note, whose attention is Brantley seeking? Women lusting after Kim K/Saartjie’s curves? Does he imagine that we women look at the show poster and see a desirable (and not, say, the dangers her body presents)? Is he aware of the character and history of the body displayed?
All this comes hot on the heels of Jesse Green’s appointment to NYT Co-Chief Theater Critic, a post that many hoped would be filled by a woman, preferably of color. Calls for a diverse candidate were widespread. The newspaper’s reviews play a deciding factor in a show’s commercial success and are an influential source for performing arts journalism.
Last year, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als reviewed The New Group’s Sweet Charity. The piece came under fire for sexist characterizations of director Leigh Silverman and star Sutton Foster. Als won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism last month.