Cracking Nuts: Body image, ballet, and the New York Times

While I’m painfully aware that I’m weeks behind on an educated, opinionated, and possibly eviscerating take on the new Cher-Aguilera vehicle that dares to call itself “Burlesque,” I couldn’t help but notice the flap in the past week about a NY Times critic who slammed a ballerina for being overweight. If anyone’s upset about it, it’s certainly not the ballerina—the hubbub landed her a spot on the Today Show. But if this doesn’t just ring all the bells of body image, fashionable body types, female empowerment and comment backlash that pervades the burlesque scene… well then it must just be my tinnitus.

The quick rundown:

New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay—and people tell me “Oxblood” sounds like a made-up name.  Seriously, a cross between a crusty English sorcerer and a translucent ghost-white child actor?—covered a current production of “The Nutcracker” by saying:

This didn’t feel, however, like an opening night. Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm. They’re among the few City Ballet principals who dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity.

The blogosphere blew up.  Ringer went on the Today show and (this is according to Yahoo) said, “It did make me feel bad about myself, but I really had to tell myself it was one person’s opinion out of the 2,000 people that were there last night,” and admidded that she had previously suffered a bout with anorexia.

In a follow-up article in the Times, Macaulay defended himself thusly:

No one took issue with what might be considered a much more severe criticism, that the two danced “without adult depth or complexity.” And though I was much harder on Mr. Angle’s appearance, scarcely a reader objected.

I can’t help but respond as someone who’s stepped over the line and had his ass handed to him in the past.  And I never got somebody saying my name on the Today Show, which is just straight-up publicity, and we know there’s only one kind of that.  No, I got real-life women up in my real-life face telling me to eat it, so, young Alaistair, it’s hard to have any sympathy for you.

1.  So you’re taking the feminism vs. sexism angle, and wondering why no one takes you to task for calling a man fat?  Sorry, we’re not buying it.  No one cares if you call a man fat.  The man doesn’t care if you call him fat.  No man ever got slapped for calling another man fat—not since 8th grade, anyway.  Social mores being what they are, calling a woman fat is simply not done.  Sorry you missed the memo, not to mention every stand-up comic in the past 20 years.

2.  You also took the angle of social norms, referencing the Rubenesque stature that passed as classically beautiful hundreds of years ago versus now, which I dig, but it has almost no reflection on your original comment, let alone the pressure on certain types of artists in TODAY’S society receiving incredible pressure to stay thinner than thin.

3.  If you wanted to get yourself out of the doghouse, my suggestion would have been to say you were quoted out of context.  Because you were.  Most of the echospere’s repeats said only, “she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.”  Deprived of the following scathing account of her actual performance, one might think it’s a fat crack, but in truth, you were merely calling her performance woozy, childish, and hopped up on sugar.  Mr. Angle, “sampling half the Sweet realm,” was even worse.  You didn’t call ANYone “fat.”

Bottom line, Alastairing made the same mistake I’ve been rolled over for, which is making a body comment WITHOUT tying it to performance.  He cracked about her body, and THEN criticized her performance.  If he had actually gone whole hog, and said something like “she’s too out of shape to perform the role,” or “too fat to be believable in the role,” he would have taken even more grief but been in a more defensible position.   Or if he’d simply admitted to being stoned out of his gourd and finding Ms. Ringer desirable as a snack herself—coz you gotta be high to find her overweight.

But as one smart-ass writer looking over the shoulder of another, I think I know WHY he wrote what he wrote, and it’s far simpler than anyone would expect:  He thought it was cute, he thought it was funny, he thought it was clever. “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many”  So bitchy, so catty, so fucking EASY.  These easy, bitchy lines are so wonderful and satisfying to roll off the fingertips on the keyboard, you feel like you actually did something.  But like any fast-food meal, you’re hunger half an hour later, a little nauseous, and having added nothing to the zeitgeist of humanity.  To actually do his JOB, Alastair would have needed to build in some of his follow-up article into his original critique, posing the question: is Ms. Ringer well-cast in this role to begin with, considering her figure, and is she pulling it off?

For what it’s worth, Alaistair, no, you don’t have to know all the personal history of every performer you see, but you are the NYTimes dance critic, she is part of the New York City Ballet, you should know her history, and even if you didn’t mean to be insensitive, it doesn’t mean you’re not a dick.

And Ms. Ringer, congratulations on kicking that monkey, congrats on the baby, and you should know better than to ever read reviews.

To my burlesquers, I give you Alaistair’s final words:

“Some correspondents have argued that the body in ballet is “irrelevant.” Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion.”

Chew it over.

Kiss kiss,


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