When we see ourselves in art

Those who control art control how the world sees us and how we see the world

Mr T and I saw an amazing play last week: The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter.

The story itself is good, but what’s really wonderful is that the lead is a middle-aged woman who GETS NAKED ON STAGE.


It gets better.

She gets naked on stage and SHE HAS A NORMAL BODY.

Tara Mullan plays the lead, Della.

Della and her husband, Tim, have not gotten busy for a long time, so Della tries to spice things up by covering her essential bits with buttercream frosting and telling Tim to meet her after hours in the bakery she owns.

We see Della naked except for strategically-placed buttercream.

We see a normal, middle-aged woman naked.

They did not cast someone who looks like Christy Brinkley or Brooke Shields.

They cast a normal, middle-aged woman.

Don’t get me wrong: Tara Mullan is very very pretty, but she has the body of a 50something woman in the upper Midwest, a body that says, “I live in a place that has really good food and that happens to get ice cold in the winters and we are into the second year of a global pandemic where all the rules changed, so you bet your bippie I’m going to eat.”

That is, she is normal.

She is us.

I think we are all there right now. We are all at, Seriously, why did we ever think dieting was important?

She gets naked.

And I saw myself in her.

I have been watching a lot of TV and movies during all this and what I have noticed is that even without makeup (or makeup made to look like they’re not wearing makeup), almost all of the the young female cops on Chicago PD and the female firefighters on Chicago Fire are all stunningly beautiful with super-firm, slim bodies.

I don’t begrudge this of them – they look wonderful – but the only female character on Chicago PD who makes me nod my head and say, “You are my people” is Trudy Platt, played by Amy Morton.

If Trudy Platt is not your favorite character on Chicago PD, we cannot be friends. Also, I love her hair.

Coincidentally, both Amy and Tara are from Chicago. Maybe this is a Chicago thing?

Don’t get me wrong: I love what Reese Witherspoon is doing and I love her work. There are other amazing actresses out there as well, but when I do see a Hollywood actress in her 50s or older, it’s Nicole Kidman and Viola Davis and Jennifer Aniston and Kyra Sedgwick and Salma Hayak and Jennifer Lopez and Emma Thompson and Laura Linney.

These are all lovely lovely women.

But – dang. Even on my best day in my 20s, I don’t look as good as they do in their 50s.

The nurse who gave me my covid booster shot last week had beautiful silver hair. When I complimented her on it, she answered, “For the longest time, I thought my hair was an ugly yellowish gray, even though my daughter kept telling me it was pretty. I thought she was saying that just because she’s my daughter.”

“But then, I had my cataracts done. After the first one, I got home and closed the other eye – and suddenly, my hair was a pretty color!”

“I closed that eye and looked with the cataract eye. My hair was ugly again!”

All along, it was the filter she was using that told her that her hair was not pretty.

I don’t want this to sound like I think Amy Morton and Tara Mullan are unattractive because that’s not the case at all. I think they are both super attractive. But they are normal attractive and they draw me into the story in a way that Hollywood perfect never can.

And they make me feel like our stories matter – the stories of women who are no longer 21.

Most importantly, Tara’s nakedness made me think that maybe I, too, look good naked even though I am no longer 21.

In Blonde Roots, by Bernadine Evaristo, the protagonist is a white woman who has been enslaved by the powerful Africans. The white woman laments her limp, colorless hair, her thin lips, her pallid skin, and longs to have full, dark hair, lush lips, and rich, dark, warm skin.

The dominant culture decides what’s beautiful and what’s not.

Even when I was 21, on my very best day, I never looked as good as a woman in Hollywood. This, I think, is the reality for most of us.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t look good. It just means that we are told we don’t look good.

Someone is trying to make money off our insecurities looking at you beauty industry.

I watched Mare of Eastown. There is no way to make Kate Winslet unattractive.

Mr T (Kate W is on his List and you know what I mean by that): Would I like that show?

Me: Maybe? She is not glamorous – no makeup, doesn’t even comb her hair.

Mr T: What about anything in my past would make you think I care if a woman wears makeup or looks glamorous?

Me: Oh. Right. I mean, you married ME.

Geena Davis produced a documentary, This Changes Everything, about how women are shut out of producing and directing in Hollywood and how this lack of representation shows in the stories Hollywood tells.

The best part of the documentary is how many well-known actresses are trying to fight the system. And I have started to notice the little things – like in on-screen sex scenes, women wear bras.

That’s not, if my experience is any guide, how real life works.

But women in Hollywood are pushing back and they are starting to win.

Tara Mullan is fighting back, too. She founded an entire theatre company dedicated to telling women’s stories.

I founded Rivendell Theatre Ensemble with the specific goal of expanding the role of women in theater. I knew that society could come to view women differently only if our real struggles and experiences were reflected on stage, not just the two-dimensional versions Hollywood spits out.

Tara Mullan (read the full interview here)

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is dedicated to advancing the lives of women through theatre….An award winning, critically acclaimed professional theatre company Rivendell’s productions explore the unique female perspectives of everyday stories in an intimate, salon environment. Since our inception, Rivendell has grown to fill an important role in the Chicago theatre community as the only Equity theatre in Chicago committed to women’s stories. Rivendell has become a leader in new play development, a major port for new writers, and today, offers a brick and mortar artistic home for women theater artists to develop their work.

Rivendell Theatre

When women are the storytellers, the human story changes.

Elizabeth Lesser

2 thoughts on “When we see ourselves in art

  1. Right on topic, yet again! During the first year of pandemic (can you believe I just said “first year”?) I quit wearing a bra – like …. why? and now I find it nearly impossible to put one on. I bought a couple of those new style with no wires, but they aren’t any more comfortable, so nowadays it’s only the two half days a month when I go in to work that I bother. Relief!!

    We need to all stand firm and do away with all those (male) expectations!


    1. Webb, we’re on vacation and I have had to shower and wear Hard Clothes every day for over a week now. It’s killing me. I want to get home and put on my gym clothes. No, I don’t want to work out. I just want to wear Lycra.


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