the day to day of a professional actor in the San Francisco Bay Area

mostly the day to day of a professional actor in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also the home of the Counting Actors Project

Thursday, May 2, 2013

When is it okay to talk about body parts?

Let's say you live in San Francisco.  And let's say you have a female friend who is a great chef.  We'll call her Josie.  She has run her own restaurant, and is currently adjunct faculty at City College in the restaurant and hospitality program.  In her course, students run a mock restaurant  - they staff every position at that restaurant from chef to line cook to host to server to busser.  And, for 3-4 weeks, their restaurant is open to the public 3 nights a week. 

Josie is really proud of the work her students have done - she uses facebook, twitter and whatever other social media she's good at to invite her extended network to come to the restaurant.
She says things like 'the food is great!' and 'the service is exceptional' and 'the men are all wearing tight pants and their butts look a-maz-ing!'

What's your reaction in this hypothetical scenario?  Is it 'Awesome! Nothing like some well formed glutes to get the ol' salivary juices flowing! I'm booking a table for tomorrow!'  or is it 'hey wait a minute - aren't you their professor?  Josie - doesn't talking about your students bodies in this way violate a code of ethics or professional conduct or something?  As your friend, you might not want to announce that tight pants/amazing butts thing on a public forum.'

I'm hoping it's something along the lines of the 2nd response.  I'm aware that parts of the first response may also cross your mind.  I know that a lot of us like looking at well formed bodies, and that we sometimes discuss those well formed bodies with our friends. 

Here's the key differences though. 1) public forum and 2) professor student relationship and 3) did I mention public forum?

Here's a real situation - there's a community college in the Bay Area, outside of San Francisco, currently running a production of a swashbuckling play with sword fights, and from what I can gather on public forums, costuming from the era of the piece, so that means women in corsets and lots of cleavage.  The director of the piece, who I don't know personally, but we've got some mutual facebook friends, is adjunct faculty at this community college.  On a facebook group, he has described his piece thusly: 'Boobs and Swords! Send me an haiku about swashbuckling and win two comps! (limit 10 pair per performance. Ten pair of what? Comps. Pervert.)'

And with this simple phrase, he's communicating to the larger community that the men are valuable for what they do (those swords and the swashbuckling) and the women are valuable for what they look like (that's the boobs part of this whole thing).  On a 1) public forum and 2) as the director (professor) describing his actors (students).

Some people have said 'so what?' to this whole thing.  Others have sent angry emails to the director's supervisors asking for him to lose his job.

Where do you fall on this spectrum?

More importantly - if your reaction to the hypothetical scenario is different from your reaction to the real scenario - why is it different? 

I'd love to hear answers to those questions in the comments.


  1. I've been divided on this issue ever since the internets exploded with discussion about it. The restaurant example makes such a clear statement though, and I thank you for that. This is a great, simple explanation to pass on to people who thought it was "no big deal."

  2. The restaurant example is quite a bit more slanted than the Community College one. It's not apples to apples. (or Asses to Boobs) In the hypothetical scenario, the professor describes the tight pants and makes the comment that the guys asses look great in them - a statement that is completely inappropriate. "Boobs and Swords" is essentially saying the same thing as "Sex and Violence." Why does one go to see "Three Musketeers?" It's not for great insight into the human condition...

    1. Hey Jeremiad - thanks for commenting, and for saying that the hypothetical comment is inappropriate. I disagree that Boobs and Swords = Sex and Violence. They are similar, but not the same. To split this hair a little further, you're comparing a body part typically associated with women to an activity for both genders. I find the entire status update quoted above, not just the boobs and swords part, offensive not only because of the things mentioned already, but because it reduces women to a body part to be looked at (objectification).

  3. But "sex and violence" are abstract nouns, while "boobs and swords" are concrete, and also, much more explicitly refer to gender. Say "sex" and it could refer to a man or a woman; say "boobs" and you picture a buxom wench. There ought to be a way to advertise the fun, sexy, swashbuckling elements of a play like "The Three Musketeers" without making women self-conscious and uncomfortable. Hell, had the director just advertised the play with the phrase "Sex and swashbuckling!" no one would have gotten on his case.

  4. Based on the particular brand of uncritical thinking in your example, the unethical way in which you both draw the metaphor and slant the facts of the actual case, and your writing style, I'm wondering whether you are the same individual that raised this issue vociferously when the performance was promoted in a Facebook group dedicated to theatre in the bay area.

    Your imaginary restaurateur was talking unequivocably about her STUDENTS' anatomies, while the real-life professor in question was talking about the trademarks of the fictional CHARACTERS in a swashbuckler. An apt metaphor would be if the restaurateur's students specialized in creating, say, food sculptures in the images of famous sex-symbol movie stars and models, and the restaurateur had commented on the anatomies of THOSE depictions, and not on the individuals who created them: "Come to our restaurant and see the buxom ice cream sculpture that King Kong held in his hand." or "Drool over the abs of Rudolph Valentino portrayed in mashed potatoes!"

    If you are the participant in the Facebook discussion who I think you are, you refused to respond to this point when I raised it on Facebook, instead preferring to tell me I had no right to comment on this because I am a man, and then ending the discussion because, if you are that individual, you had decided our "relationship" was "emotionally harmful" to you. (May I add, regarding "relationship," that I have never met or spoken with you and have had no contact with you except for a couple of postings in that public thread.)

    You (if you are she) then lectured me on the difference between "intent" and "effect" and demanded an apology of me because my logic (which you did not feel compelled to answer) had "offended" you. My understanding of your own logic is that regardless of the circumstances or the intent, if X declares herself or himself offended by Y, Y owes X an apology. When I told you I was offended by your statements, however, you ignored me.

    As for your diatribe above, you also neglect to mention that "boobs, muskets and swords" was a motto for the production which was created by THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES (both male and female) and which they circulated widely on the Internet. The professor did not invent this phrase, and I see no evidence that any of the participants who participated in the relevant threads on Tumblr and other social networking sites voiced any objection to it.

    Finally, you neglect to mention that the professor in question apologized for the posting and deleted it as soon as the very first objection was raised, long before the actual discussion on Facebook ensued.

    It is my sincere hope that you will allow viewpoints that are in opposition to your own to be heard in this discussion.

    1. Thanks for commenting Avi - I am very happy to continue to discuss this with you. I think we did talk about this on facebook last week, but I don't think I ever said that you had no right to make comments because you are male. You may be referring to another person who made comments on the same thread.

      You are correct that I didn't mention that this was a production motto - when I read the original comment I quote above, I didn't know that part of the story. I wasn't aware that it was circulated by the students, or where it had originated.

      I'm aware that the professor apologized. He actually apologized to me personally, and I thanked him for it. I do want to point out that the thread wasn't deleted at the first objection - since it's no longer up, I don't want to quote it incorrectly, but the person we're talking about initially made a comment that was not an apology.

      I thought a lot about whether or not to publish this post, and ultimately decided to put it up because I was still thinking about the issue, and appreciated the discussions that were happening because of it.

      I'd like to think a little bit more about your characters vs. students point. I'm not sure what I think about that - I remember you making a similar argument on fb. Maybe others who are reading these comments would like to say something about that?

    2. Thank you, Valerie, for your respectful response. These are touchy points, but as artists, we need to be prepared to deal with touchy points.

      Yes, you are right -- on some of the points in my comment above, I did confuse you with another participant in that discussion. My apologies for that.

      I am eager to see how the discussion proceeds. Like you, I am a passionate fan of dialogue. Thanks again for this opportunity to keep the conversation going.

    3. Thanks Avi - getting back to the characters vs. students point that you made in your original comment on this post. I know you also made this argument in a facebook thread but can't find that thread now.

      But, I've been thinking about this a bit over the weekend, and would like to comment on it.,

      Let's say that an actor from California is playing an Irish character, and speaking with an Irish accent while onstage. If the director uses an Irish ethnic slur to describe the character being played, I'd find that offensive. It doesn't matter if it's about a real person or a fictional character - it would still be offensive language. And it would become even worse to me if it were in a school situation because again, it's a faculty member promoting a culture of intolerance. Compounding the offense would be if I saw the ethnic slur used in a public forum, and I had no connection to the show and didn't know the people involved. Without the context, all I'd have would be the ethnic slur - offensive stuff.

      So, coming back to the swashbuckler situation we've been talking about, the actor is may be able to take off a costume, like they can drop an accent, but they can't 'drop' or 'take off' their own body (unless the costume is a fat suit!) so I have trouble seeing a difference between talking about the 'trademarks of a fictional character' and the actor's own body.
      What do you think?

  5. Well, that is where metaphors start to break down -- inevitably, there will be aspects of the entities being compared that simply are not comparable. "Boobs" is not a racial slur (though I understand that you find it offensive for other reasons).

    But in your example, the character (but not the actor) is Irish, so I personally would not be offended if someone used an ethnic slur in context to refer to the character. For example, I don't think it would offend me if someone discussing or promoting a production of "Chicago" said something like "What happens when a 'dumb, common criminal' meets a 'greasy Mick lawyer'?" That slur is a quote from the script, and as long as the context was clear, it wouldn't bother me -- in fact, even if the actor were actually Irish and could not shed his brogue. (I know there are people who feel very differently: I performed in a production of "Big River" where the director excised 80% of the N-words -- there are already far fewer in Roger Miller's text than in Mark Twain's original -- and spent ten minutes before the show apologizing to the audience for those instances that unavoidably remained in the script.

    I am not offended by the name of character Cripple Billy in "The Cripple of Inishmaan," nor by the title of the play, nor would I be if in a particular production the role of Billy happened to be played by an actor with a disability.

    I did say in the Facebook discussion that upon reflection, perhaps the professor in question should have erred on the side of caution, and I still believe that. I think he should have reasonably foreseen that some people might be offended, but I also believe, speaking for myself, that the professor's language was not prohibitively offensive.

    I do, of course, understand that there is a very thin line between a reference to a character's anatomy and one to an actor's, but I don't think it was crossed in this case. (I can think of examples where it could have been, but I don't think it was here.) Finally, I cannot help wondering why none of the people who were offended by the slogan seem to have been offended by the production itself. None of those who bought tickets and praised the play seem to have minded that the swashbucklers' wenches were dressed as swashbucklers' wenches, and neither do the actors who performed thus dressed.

    While I understand that people do have a perfect right to be offended by things which I personally do not find offensive, I don't think they have a right to suggest that those who disagree with them are ipso facto proponents and participants in "rape culture."

  6. thanks Avi - some point by point here to respond - what I find offensive is the entire facebook status quoted in the post at the top of this whole thing, not merely the use of the word 'boobs' - not sure if you're shortening at this point for convenience.

    From your second paragraph, something we agree on is context - when the context is clearer, when we understand the reasons why certain words are chosen (it's a quote from the script, it's been a rallying cry for the cast since early rehearsals, etc.), the potential for feeling offended is often decreased. But when there's no context there's a much stronger likelihood of finding something offensive.

    I am glad that you brought up where you got to in your thinking during the fb discussion on this topic. I am confused when you say that 'none of the people who were offended by the slogan seem to have been offended by the production itself' How do you know that folks who were offended by the slogan attended the production? How do you know that people who praised the production even saw the slogan or facebook post that I'm referring to in my blog post?

    I have never said that someone who disagreed with me or wasn't offended by the facebook post was a proponent of or participant in rape culture.

    What this whole incident has brought up for me and made me more curious about is this: sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are becoming less and less overt (especially in the SF Bay Area), but are not gone. How do we as citizens recognize when one of these kinds of discrimination is happening? How do we talk to others who may not see what we see (perhaps because they are not in the discriminated group)? How do we move forward as allies instead of adversaries?

    Thanks again for this conversation Avi. If others have read this far and want to jump in, please do.

    1. Thank YOU, Valerie. Just a couple of quick responses:

      >>>>>not sure if you're shortening at this point for convenience.<<<<< Yes, for convenience, and also based on the assumption that if the status had just said "Come see the production of Blah Blah Blah -- Muskets and Swords!" you would not have been offended.

      >>>>>How do you know that folks who were offended by the slogan attended the production?<<<<< What I meant to say was that while I have heard objections to the Professor's use of the slogan "muskets, boobs, and swords," I have not heard any objection to the show itself or to its portrayal of women as sultry, seductive wenches in costumes that accentuated their anatomy for that effect (presumably - I don't know the show but I know the genre). I am wondering why there was such a strong objection to a WORD used to describe what was actually DONE in the show, yet not to the show itself. I don't know if I am expressing this clearly. I did not intend to imply that the same people who complained about the word had actually seen the show, or that the people who praised the production had seen or heard the slogan.

      >>>>>I have never said that someone who disagreed with me or wasn't offended by the facebook post was a proponent of or participant in rape culture. <<<<< I know. I was referring to another participant in that conversation.

      Thank you again for your cogent, thoughtful and respectful input. I really appreciate this opportunity for constructive discourse.

  7. Thanks Avi - not having seen the show, I can't say if I would've found the way the female characters were written or portrayed (or the way the male characters were written or portrayed) offensive. Did you see the production?

    To think about your question - why was there such a strong objection to a WORD used to describe what was actually DONE in the show, yet not to the show itself? Again, not having seen the show, it's hard to say concretely why this happened, but here's a few speculations.

    1) folks who were turned off by the post they saw on facebook maybe didn't go to the show at all, and therefore weren't available to object to the show's content.
    2) Possibly in the show there were female characters who were valued for their actions in addition to their physical appearance.
    3) perhaps seeing the show provided more context for the audience than the isolated facebook post, and with that context their opinions changed
    4) maybe people really were offended and just didn't voice it in the moment of seeing the show - hissing, booing, catcalling are really big actions - perhaps they kept their feelings to themselves and will pursue a different way to express offense at a later date, like writing a letter to the college, or choosing not to buy tickets there in the future.

    Again, not having seen the show, it's all speculation.

    For me personally, my recent advocacy work around gender parity in theater making was 20+ years of experience in the making. It took me that long to realize that it was a systemic issue, and one that I could do something about.

    Would love to get input from you and from any others who've read this far in the comments on the questions I posed in the last paragraph of my last comment - how do we notice? how do we talk to each other? how do we move forward and make change?