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“Venus,” the Gaze, and What Brantley Gets Wrong About Bodies

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?

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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?

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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.

To the Rude, Old, White Man Who Ruined “The Antipodes” For Me on April 6

Sir?…Excuse me, sir? Can you hear me? Sir?

Oh, good. I see you put your hearing aids back in your ears.  I saw you in the first row, taking them out 45 minutes through the show, presumably so you could sleep undisturbed.

In the first row.

So you wouldn’t have to hear the actors… despite sitting in the first row.

Everyone saw you do that. At least, everyone on my side of the theater. The theater is set up so that one half of the audience is seated facing the other.

And you, sir, were seated in the first freaking row.

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We also saw you poke, pester, and complain to the woman seated next to you, presumably your wife–someone obliged to put up with your childish bullshit. She smiled at your snarky eye-rolls, your audible sighs and groans, your angry shrugs and leg-crossing. The person on your other side also seemed to patiently endure your immature antics. You likely felt it more important for them to hear your reckless displays of old-man annoyance than the dialogue on stage.

And to top it all off, during a quiet moment just 20 seconds before the play’s final line, you loudly stated, “This is Hell!” for the whole theater to hear. My mouth went wide. You were a mere two feet away from the actors. You made their bows very uncomfortable.

At no point did anyone in the audience tap you on the shoulder and ask you to be more respectful. At no point did the Signature Theater staff find your behavior worth noting. If you were a person of color, a 35 year old woman, or a teenager, your actions would have been met with more policing.  That, sir, to use the million dollar buzzword, is privilege.

When I arrived to my seat in the theater that evening, an elderly couple to my right was in the middle of a conversation about how young people have no theater etiquette. “It’s a shame,” the husband said. “No one teaches them how to behave anymore.” Woe to us, the lost generation! Alas, the under-30 audiences who just can’t seem to understand that live performance entails shutting your trap for 90 minutes and putting away your phones!

Never mind that every time a cell phone goes off during a performance, I can safely bet that the culprit’s a Blanche Devereaux look-alike with brightly-hued hair, or a large Rex Tillerson type with one of those snap phone cases attached to his belt. Never mind that I’ve seen middle school groups behave with more courtesy and enthusiasm than some season subscribers.  No, it’s the young ones who ruin it all.

Everyone was talking about your rude behavior on their way out of the theater, but to my surprise they didn’t condemn it. A group of friends nearly jumped at each other with big smiles and jaws dropped, recapping the awkward final moments of the show. I saw a chance to commiserate and quickly summed up my thoughts (a basic 10-second summary of this article). They replied, “Well I thought it was hilarious.”

It takes a village to ruin a curtain call.

Now look, sir. I know what it’s like to hate a show. You just happened to attend a play by the notoriously divisive Annie Baker. Her stuff’s not for everyone. But that’s the extent of my sympathy for you here. Unlike her longer plays, “The Antipodes” clocks in at a mere 90 minutes, so let’s not presume that it was a terrible test of your stamina. That shouldn’t matter. I’ve longed for many an hour of my life back, finding the dirt under my fingernails far more attractive than whatever plodding development was happening on stage.  But I’ve maintained a semblance of adult composure, at least until intermission when I wake myself up with some candy, or in worst cases, quietly leave the show.

If there are rules to spectatorship, and I want as few of them as possible, they would be: 1) respect the rest of the audience and 2) respect the actors. You got away with breaking both of these rules because your behavior was perceived as entertaining. Because you’re in a position of power to judge others and not turn that judgment on yourself. Because the staff and audience of the theater doesn’t see your presence in the theater as an anomaly or an intrusion.

I hope your future experiences at the theater are happier, for your sake and mine…and the actors’. In the mean time, I hope I’ll have something ready to say the next time some old, white person complains about my generation’s rude, undignified behavior.

Update: I’m shutting down comments after leaving them open for about a week. I started feeling like they were a bit repetitive and some were quite hateful. I took them seriously, even the hateful ones, and responded to them with as much seriousness and thought as I could muster.

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