Dear Young Actress,
When I was a teenager, acting in after-school plays taught me that the parameters for “female” included how beautiful you were. In many of the shows, one woman was “the love interest” and her qualities usually amounted to being pretty. There were variations on pretty. Sassy pretty. Virginal pretty. Strong-willed and pretty. But always pretty. This part was always the most coveted, and usually went to the most classically pretty girl in drama club.
I, being not the prettiest girl in drama club, didn’t get those parts. I played men, I played best friends, I played weirdos. I think a lot of girls involved in youth theatre can identify with this. There were always more girls than boys and there were always more parts for men than women. Some high schools work hard to make sure the girls have enough to do. My school was not one of those. For instance, our well-intentioned director inexplicably chose On the Waterfront (the play. Yeah it exists, go figure) despite it having one female role of consequence (you guessed it, a love interest). Everyone knows the school theatre BS of “put a hat on a girl and now she’s a boy.” That happened to me a ton, even through college.
Now there are a lot of reasons that happens. It’s mostly because plays that schools can get the rights to are older, and older plays have more roles for men than women, and said female roles are usually love interests, succubi, or crones. And that is because men wrote them, and for a lot of sad and shitty reasons that belong in another essay, these categories are basically how men used to sort women (and still do, to some extent).
So these plays I did as a kid taught me there is basically only one kind of woman worth being: a love interest. And you can only be one of those if you’re beautiful. And I was frequently not deemed beautiful enough to be one. Particularly in the plays where I was cast as a boy, my subconscious monologue read as such: I wasn’t even beautiful enough to be a convincing female.
Check out that nasty logic. At age 12 or 13, I was already telling myself that being female equated to being beautiful. That my femaleness and my beauty were mirrored qualities.
I believed I would be judged for the rest of my life, first and foremost, on how beautiful I was, and that if I didn’t get prettier, I wouldn’t be cast in the societal “role” I desired. Even when I had the impulse to reject that pressure, it usually involved rejecting my femininity as something “I didn’t need” or “would hold me back”. Phases where I refused to wear makeup (even though I like it) or do my hair (even though I like that too) all came from a yo-yo desire to defeminize and reclaim power in a place where I felt helpless. If I couldn’t be the prettiest woman, I figured, I was better off not being feminine at all. At least then, I could hide behind a facade of "I'm not even trying."
I had somewhat of an abusive relationship with my own femaleness. It was only worth having if it included being beautiful - specifically beautiful to men. And on the days I didn’t feel beautiful, I didn’t want to feel female either.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from a serious bout of internalized misogyny, stoked by my own insecurities and pain. And I held onto that until I was almost twenty one years old.
I went to acting school at BADA for my junior year. It’s an abroad program where college students getting BA’s in theatre take one year of conservatory training. At the end of the semester, you do a production. I was cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The way my director, Kelly, did the casting was fun and loose - we all did a bunch of different roles for the first few days, and then at the end of the week, she cast the show. This school had three women for every one man. So it was determined that the men would play their role for the entire show, and the women would switch off who would play Hermia, Helena, Titania, and Puck.
The end of the week arrived, and it was time for casting. I felt good about my work that week. I’d made people laugh no matter which role I did, but when I looked at the cast list, I was thinking Helena would probably be where I’d fit best. A small part of me dreamt about Titania, but immediately dismissed it as entirely impossible. I mean, c’mon. Maybe I was pretty enough to play the objectively less pretty girl, but not the Queen of the Faeries.
Kelly went down the list of Hermias, Helenas, Titanias, and Pucks, and didn’t call my name for any of them.
I was the last person to be cast, and I would be playing Peter Quince. I was the only woman who wasn’t playing one of the four aforementioned roles.
I can’t really describe to you how crushed I was. After years of being deemed not beautiful enough to be a woman onstage, I thought that this educational opportunity would be my chance to show people “yes, someone could in fact fall in love with me in the aspirational, sexy-fiction way we all dream about”. I was convinced that all I needed was a chance. Then, people could see I could play beautiful and that maybe, by extension, I, Julia, was beautiful.
Because of course, deep down, none of this was about the part. It wasn’t like I was dying to play the crappy love interests in my school plays because they were fantastic roles. I was in it for the validation. I wanted to be assured by strangers that I was gorgeous and wanted. And after a lifetime of narratives that told me that the only kind of woman worth being was a pretty one, could you blame me?
I went into the first week of Midsummer pretty heartbroken. The sting was acute. But I was determined to be professional, hide my hurt, and do my work.
Things started to shift during the table read. I realized I was getting laughs - a lot of them. And the validation an actor feels getting a laugh is utterly intoxicating. I found myself having a ton of fun.
The next four weeks were some of the best I’ve ever had in a rehearsal process. Kelly is a badass visionary of a director, and the liberation I felt doing the slap-sticky, wondrous tragi-comedy of the mechanicals was unmatched. I loved stepping into the role of an amateur-auteur who (I and Kelly decided) secretly wished he could play every role (as only he truly knew how, of course). Gags came to me every day, my inner satirist began to take shape, and Kelly let me try new things again and again. I’ll never forget the afternoon my entire cast laughed for an hour as I let Quince get near suicidal. I owned the character's entire journey - from his dream of a moving theatrical stunner (he’s surely dreamt of his Tony speech), to the terror when his leading man disappears, to his tragic fall witnessing a complete trainwreck of a production. By the time we performed, the memory of my casting heartbreak had all but disappeared. I didn’t want anyone else’s part, because I was damn sure nobody else could have mine.
After the play closed, we each got a one-on-one conference with Kelly to reflect on what we’d learned. I’d loved working with Kelly, and felt really comfortable with her by the end of our process. So I straight up told her that I’d initially been disappointed with the casting.
“No, I could tell,” she’d said. “And I think I know why.”
Trusting that Kelly already knew what I was about to say, I opened up about how hurt I’d been seeing every other girl be cast as one of sexy parts, while I was singled out as the goofy one yet again. It had served as further evidence that I wasn’t beautiful, and therefore, wasn’t valuable. I’d desperately wanted to play ‘the pretty girl’, once again, for the pure validation of it.
Kelly shook her head and said, quite seriously, “Oh no, I wouldn’t waste you on that.”
I should preface what she said next with praise for my fellow actresses, all of whom were extremely talented. If I don’t, it might seem as though Kelly was disparaging them, which she wasn’t. “You have natural comedic gifts” she said. “And I realized, that first week, none of the other women can do what you can. Making you Helena or Titania would have been a waste of how funny you are.”
It would have been easy to dismiss this as a teacher trying to make me feel better. However, what Kelly said felt less like new information and more like something I’d always known to be true. I think we all have those revelations: something from our subconscious emerges, stares us straight in the face and refuses to retreat. From then on, the proverbial concrete sets beneath us. We acknowledge that truth, whether it be wonderful or difficult. It’s self-acceptance, or at least self-actualization.
A little bit later, I would have a casting director lead a class where we were taught to pursue our “Comet Tails”. Comet Tails were described as your innate qualities that make you perfect for certain roles and bad for others. We simply cannot play everything, and accepting this is part of maturing as an actor.
Kelly showed me my Comet Tail. It was in my ingrained comedic timing and funny faces and countless ideas for jokes (the fact that I morphed into a writer should have come as no surprise). My best gifts had nothing to do with my gentleness, my sexiness, or how much I appealed to men.
And unfortunately, that meant that I was never going to match up to all the stories and all the marketing I had to consume as a young girl. I was told by society that my best gifts are not something to which women should aspire. Hell, read this article in The Atlantic. It includes some pretty bleak studies on how men feel about funny women, and how that’s probably manufactured by society.
But guess what? Despite said studies, and despite said society, plenty of men have had sex with me. Plenty of men have fallen in love with me. Plenty of men have been attracted to me. Not all the men, of course. But I have been, since my adolescence, a real-life love interest many times. And guess what? It took me a really long time to feel this way, but I actually think I’m pretty cute.
The only thing I don’t and will never amount to is the old fashioned, fictional version of a female love interest, which is steeped in stereotype, fantasy, and bogus beauty standards. But the fact that I, as a young woman, absorbed something completely fictional and assumed it was not only real, but default, is neither surprising nor unique.
Societies are shaped by the ubiquitous qualities in their stories. That’s one reason why diversity of representation is so important. Implicit biases are influenced by fiction. Movie stars have been influencing beauty standards since movies existed.
Magazine articles say “get Scar Jo’s abs” or “Beyonce’s beauty secrets revealed” or “rock a red lip like Taylor”. Magazine articles do not say, “ladies, become funny and you will get you your dream guy”, or "getting your Master's is a one way ticket to D-Town" (if I’m wrong and you can find me one, I will be delighted by its existence). We can talk more in another essay about how makeup, fitness, and beauty CAN be empowering for women, but that we (women) have had to reclaim it.
When I was growing up (ten years ago), there weren’t enough female roles in school plays that told women they should be anything more than pretty. That should change. It must be even harder for gay men, who also populate youth theatre. If you can even find a gay character in a play for a school, he’s usually a joke or a nasty stereotype. But I think a gay man would be a better fit to write on this subject, so once again, saving it for another essay (not written by me).
What sucks is that, for sheer lack of roles suited for me, I spent a decade thinking I was an ugly failure when I was actually a pretty cute success. When there’s only one good female role, and it’s the pretty love interest, we tell women that the only woman worth having around is the most beautiful one. And when we do that, we say that if women want to be validated, that is where they should put their energy.
I am here to say that being beautiful according to what men want is the LAST place women should put our energy.
If you are a young woman in a theatre program who feels passed over because you’re not “pretty” or you’re not “that type”, please know that you
A.) are probably gorgeous to many people and
B.) have more than that to offer this world.
That does not mean that overnight, people will stop judging you for how you look. That does not mean that you won’t need to doll yourself up for auditions while your male counterparts barely shave. This does not mean that you will not be called in for sexist, shallow, shitty roles over and over and over again. All of this will happen. And all of it is wrong.
But please. Do not make the mistake I did, and waste nearly a decade believing you’re not beautiful. Or worse, that beauty should be valued above all else.
Listen to your gifts, whatever they are. Listen to your intelligence, your creativity, your sense of humor, your drive, your empathy, your activism, your athleticism, your gregariousness, your negotiation skills, your voice, your bravery, your writing, your vision, your art. Do NOT push them down because you worry they’re the bastard step-siblings of beauty.
Your talent and self-acceptance is sexy. If you like men, don’t freak out about what men want, because all the men worth having will want you just the way you are. You may miss out on bad relationships with losers, but hey, you’ll have a ton of fun calling them out on their shit during your first and last date.
And if acting is your calling, and you worry there won’t be a place for you, worry not. Because I, and women like me (and men and non-gendered folk) are working to change our stories and change our culture, and you can be a part of that if you want to be. We’re the creators, and we’re in charge: the stories do not make us, we make the stories.
I hope you have a teacher or a mentor who does for you what Kelly did for me. And if you are a teacher or a mentor, I encourage you to find the young women in your program who need their talents championed, and champion them. Don’t do plays with only one woman. Don’t do plays with only pretty women. Don’t do plays where women exist to inspire or catalyze the men. Don’t do plays that fall into the virgin/whore/crone trifecta. Don’t you dare write plays that fall into any of those categories. And it’s not enough to just cast women in the boy parts, no matter how wonderful the roles are. Because if you do that, you’ll eventually teach the girls that “the men parts are better” and they will internalize “because men are better”. These stories don’t have enough roles for our modern world because they are old and they are wrong. Which is not to say they are not important or moving. But let’s get one thing straight: Hamlet is a masterpiece. Keeping Up With the Kardashians is more feminist.
The stories are wrong, not women. The stories are wrong, not queerness. The stories are wrong, not blackness or brownness or Jewishness or Muslimness or transness or whatever "ness" your students might identify as and not see reflected back at them as valid, good, or worthy. Teach that, teach that, teach that.
Stories are not self-evident truth simply because they are old or written down on paper or performed for an audience.
From this point forward, I will be redefining “beautiful” for the sake of this essay. “Beautiful” now only refers to being comfortable in your own skin. “Beautiful” means not constantly berating yourself for so-called “flaws” that correspond to a stranger's’ visual assessment of you compared to the societal standard.
By this new definition, I am beautiful simply because I say I am. And if some people don’t agree, they’re factually wrong. Because I am the sole arbiter of my own beauty. I rescinded that power from any high school teacher, any casting director, or any man, woman, or magazine. When you tell me I’m beautiful, I will hear “I think you’re beautiful”. And when you say I’m not, I will hear “I’m not worth your time”.
Young actress, or whoever is reading this, find the place where you feel beautiful. Find the place where your gift cannot be wasted. Maybe it’s not your high school, or your college. Believe me, for a lot of the coolest people, it isn’t. But your place is out there. Work hard. Find your gifts. And hold out.
Kick ass, my fellow artist.
Not a Pretty Girl