How New Legislation Could Redefine the Broadway Body | Playbill

Broadway News How New Legislation Could Redefine the Broadway Body

Bill INT 0209 aims to prohibit size and height discrimination in New York City, and it's welcomed by the theatre community.

As the Broadway industry continues to evolve, debates around body inclusivity and the diversity of performers seen onstage remains a hotly contested topic. Fatphobia and Achondroplasiaphobia remain prevalent, and when combined with traditional binary gender roles and their strictures, legions of talented performers are shut out of the theatre industry for not conforming.

New York City Bill INT 0209 aims to change all of that.

The bill, which would impact New York City and is put forward by the Committee on Civil and Human Rights, would "prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person's height or weight in opportunities of employment, housing, and access to public accommodation." Sponsored by 34 council members, out of 51, the bill aims to combat size-ism in order to level the playing field throughout multiple industries (with exceptions made in occupations where certain thresholds are required for safety purposes). The bill is currently in committee, a promising development.

Activists such as Stephanie Lexis see this as an opportunity to increase diversity on the Broadway stage. If Bill INT 0209 passes, it would push producers to see a wider pool of applicants, and encourage them to cast outside of the stereotypical Broadway body.

"The reality is that just because a performer is plus-size, it doesn't mean they aren't as talented as a skinny performer. When we push against fat suits, we're told that it's acting, but if I say a plus-size woman should play an ingenue, suddenly they can't suspend their disbelief," explains Lexis, who is also the founder of the Broadway Body Positivity Project, which meets with colleges and regional theatres to promote body inclusivity. The Project aims to expand the definition of diversity in the theatre to include people of different body types and physical abilities. Says Lexis, "Talent is not limited by body size. If you can believe an actor is a 16th-century king, you can also believe that king is plus size or is a little person."

Lexis spoke at the most recent committee meeting regarding INT 0209, detailing how body-based discrimination is pervasive throughout the theatre industry, leading to many performers developing disordered eating behaviors and unhealthy body image expectations in pursuit of their career.

The impact of these expectations affect a wide range of performers. Ramin Karimloo has spoken out against the term "Broadway Body." Earlier this year, Broadway actor Bonnie Milligan shared her frustrations with Playbill, stating, “so many times, a plus-size character is there because they are fat, or there’s usually something in the script that is telling the world why a fat body is on stage or on film. It’s like, ‘Can I just be here? Can I just be a human?” Indeed, Milligan's casting as a lead and a love interest in the Broadway musical Head Over Heels was deemed a surprising choice, with the New York Times remarking that she was "provocatively cast" in the role, "trampling with throwaway casualness on pretty princess stereotypes.”

As the industry waits to see if INT 0209 passes into law, inter-industry change and allyship are more important than ever. Broadway Body Positivity Project works closely with colleges across the country to combat disordered body image in students, and to break the cycle amongst teaching staff. Additionally, the Project consults with numerous regional productions to ensure equitable body diversity and to help established theatre makers adjust their ingrained bias' against performers of non standard body dimensions.

Numerous books, including Theatre While Fat by Dhafir Jackson and Broadway Bodies by Ryan Donovan, interrogate the body size conformity that has been expected of performers in the past century. Admittedly, it will take conscious effort and reflection to change these industry standards. But there is popular support for measures such as Bill INT 0209—a town hall February 28 in NYC was completely packed with supporters of the bill. 

"The previous definition of Broadway Body was someone who was either lean or muscular, depending on the gender binary, with Eurocentric features," says Lexis. "Now, all you need to have a Broadway Body is a body. We are not meant to look interchangeable; our differences are what make us special. There is so much to unlearn."

Click below to watch Lexis' testimony at the February 28 town hall, where she detailed her experience with size discrimination as an actor.

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