Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


BOOK & FILM REVIEWS

"Weight." Written and Performed by Melanie Hoopes. Directed by Jamie Sherman. The People's Improv Theater (The PIT), 154 W. 29th Street, New York City. Fridays, April 2-30, 2004.

Reviewed by David Kornhaber, Columbia University

Melanie Hoopes has the kind of transformative ability that most actors dream about. With little more than a dress or a wig, she morphs from an affluent suburban housewife to a lonely African American divorcee to a hypertalkative Latina at her high school reunion. Until recently, Hoopes' talents have mostly been on display on the silver screen, in movies like Twister or on HBO's popular series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But with her recent one-woman show in New York City, audiences have been able to see her at her finest: catapulting over boundaries of class, race, and background with a carefully studied repertoire of vocal inflections and body mannerisms. The subject matter of her show may have proved the most difficult hurdle of all: in the course of only 45 minutes, Hoopes had to embody three characters with body weights ranging from the low 100s to over 400 pounds.

To say that weight is inimitably tied-in to disability is nothing new: conditions like anorexia or compulsive overeating can, at the very least, severely limit one's ability to function in society. In extreme cases, they can be life-threatening. Anorexia is fatal in 10 percent of cases, and obesity will soon overtake tobacco use as America's leading cause of preventable death. These statistics are certainly no surprise to Hoopes. Weight grew out of her Masters thesis at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she gained a degree in Education, Performance, and Food Studies/Nutrition. Hoopes' dramatic mission has long been to proselytize. One recent work focused on exposing to urban theatre-goers the mentality of evangelicalism so prevalent in middle America, and Weight itself was originally formulated as an educational piece for high schools, though administrators grew concerned that mere exposure to the subject of eating disorders might encourage them in teenagers.

To the author's credit, Weight at no point slides into the didactic. In interviews, Hoopes (2004) has said that the show is meant to expose "the humanity behind the diagnostic criteria for these illnesses," and the performance does mostly achieve her goal. At the expense of narrative, Hoopes presents three short, unconnected portraits of individuals facing eating disorders: the confrontation between a therapist and the mother of a hospitalized seventy-pound teenager, the loneliness of an obese homebound divorcee, and the anxieties of young woman who underwent gastric bypass surgery to deal with chronic obesity. With subtlety and compassion, Hoopes brings to the forefront the personal struggles associated with eating disorders, putting a human face on subjects that are too often conveyed only by statistics in the media.

And yet, the concerns voiced by the school administrators over Hoopes' project have some validity—not that Weight in any way encourages eating disorders but that in the absence of narrative and the isolation of the three portraits, Hoopes inadvertently creates a scenario in which the disabling aspects of eating disorders become the norm. There is no consideration of, let alone reference to, those individuals who are not hospital inpatients, homebound invalids, or recipients of dangerous surgeries. Weight problems are here associated with disability in the extreme. Hoopes (2004) says that she wants to make people challenge "the conclusions they come to when they see someone who is either very thin or very fat," but this does not seem to be the ultimate result of her piece. She may add humanity to the stereotypes of the disablingly skinny or the disablingly obese, but she offers no alternatives to these stereotypes. Here the obese are only figured as incapacitated, the underweight only psychologically damaged. In her attempt to offer sympathy to those with atypical body types, Hoopes appears to be reinforcing cultural body norms.

This does not, of course, invalidate Hoopes' work. Adding humanity to the dehumanized other, whether figured in terms of race, class, or body type, is by all means an admirable project. But to be truly effective, such projects require at least a modicum of context, an admission that the idea of the Other is not only inaccurate in its lack of a human face but also in its totalizing impact. To focus exclusively on the severely incapacitated is to ignore the fact that such a project, while commendable for what it includes, can be damaging in what it leaves out.

Bibliography

Hoopes, Melanie. (2004, April 28). Interview, Culturebot.org. Retrieved May 12, 2004, from http://www.culturebot.org/archives/2004/04/28/Weight.php





Copyright (c) 2004 David Kornhaber



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