We can’t fight oppression until we accept that weight and height affect how we’re treated

My three rules for criticism: Is it true? Does it need to be said? And would I say it to their face?

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I knew every word of Hamilton before I ever saw it on stage. In the summer of 2016 I listened to little else except the original cast recording, soaking up the musical details of the Revolutionary War and the founding of America. Yet when I finally discovered what the musical’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda looked like, it  didn’t surprise me at all.

Miranda, as both author and actor, had written his own body into the part of Alexander Hamilton: magnetically attractive through force of personality rather than the genetic fluke of cheekbones or jawline; “scrappy” as a codeword for “not very tall”. The latter is crucial: Hamilton’s short-guy inability to walk away from a fight echoes Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, the pipsqueak who couldn’t bear to be called “chicken”. If I’d belatedly discovered that Miranda was 6ft 2in and built like Biff Tannen, it would have blown my mind. Hamilton’s size is woven into his character.

Height is an unacknowledged legislator of the world. The taller American presidential candidate almost always wins, and according to Gary Younge’s study of identity, Who Are We, being 6in taller equates to $166,000 more in earnings over 30 years. Younge noticed that we don’t talk about shortness as a source of discrimination in the way that we do with gender, race or sexual orientation. This gap in the language matters. It is impossible to fight discrimination without the vocabulary to describe it.

I thought about Hamilton when I read the actor Nicola Coughlan’s article about her character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie being described by a male theatre critic as “the kind of overweight little girl who will always become the butt of her fellows’ immature humour”. She made vital points. Having your body reviewed is painful; it happens more often, and in more sexualised terms, to women; and it is often done cruelly and unnecessarily. The boundaries of acceptable female appearance are also narrower: teeny Tom Cruise can open a film, while an actress nudging size 12 is condemned to “character” parts. But even making that comparison demonstrates where Coughlan and I part ways. Because in order to talk about why some actors get lead roles and others don’t, we have to be allowed to notice their physical forms.

Coughlan is superb in Miss Jean Brodie, and I found her depiction of Joyce Emily so affecting precisely because of how she looks; it reminded me of being a teenager. Like Coughlan’s Joyce Emily, I felt excluded from a charmed circle of girls for whom puberty had brought long necks, shiny hair and coltish limbs. (It brought me four stone and perpetual low-level anxiety about a period staining my white school uniform.) Aware of the standards of society, I felt second-rate. So, in the Donmar’s production, does Joyce Emily: she can’t be a great beauty, painted and seduced by the art master, but she can run away to the Spanish Civil War. I hope this would be an OK thing to explore in a review, but…  isn’t it just a long-winded way of saying what that male critic did? If so, why can I say it and a man can’t? Where are the rules? There ought to be rules.

As it happens, I do have some strictures when making criticisms, of both artists and politicians. Is it true? Does it need to be said? And would I say it to their face? I hope this is the difference between me unpicking the echo of my own experience, and the bluntness of the words that upset Coughlan.

Talking about height is easier, of course, because it is neutral: no one thinks you are lazy or lack self-respect because you’re 5ft 7in rather than 6ft 2in. Criticism is inevitably more fraught when a value-judgement lurks behind a physical description. But you can’t euphemise problems out of existence. 

This is why I also struggle with some gender-blind casting , or, I should say, sex-blind. (How characters identify is less important than the material reality of the bodies underneath them.) How wonderful to proclaim we are “beyond gender”, in the sense of not associating particular personality types or interests with only half of the population. But how useless that is in combating the reason gender stereotypes arose in the first place: to control female bodies, which are the only ones capable of giving birth.

It is central to the character of Lady Macbeth that she has a body that can, or once could, bear children; cast an actor who clearly has no uterus and the production has to grapple with the consequences. (Is saying that she has “given suck”, like, a metaphor?) It’s not wrong for a man to play Lady Macbeth; but his body will create a new meaning, and that cannot be ignored.

At its most extreme end, the discussion reminds me of the well-meaning people who try to stop me saying “male violence against women” because the phrase upsets the vast majority of non-violent men. But without the words to name the problem  –  that almost all violence against women is perpetrated by men  – how can we address it? If it’s just some people hurting some other people, we’re lost in a fog of inexactitude.

I feel the same when campaigns talk about “pregnant people” as if it’s a coincidence that abortion has become one of our most intractable wedge issues. Using “women”  – or “women and trans men” if inclusion is the highest goal – foregrounds the fact that restrictions on abortions are more about patriarchal control than any concern for the “unborn”. (As the family separations at the US border show, right-wing politicians lose their pious interest in babies pretty soon after they exit the vagina.)

Yes, there’s a measure of cruelty in describing reality. It’s bruising for the subjects of our gaze  –  and, as Coughlan is right to point out, that gaze is asymmetrically old, white and male. But done right, the act of noticing is progressive, even if it is painful. We can’t end oppression with the polite pretence we’re already treated equally.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit