Picking a Rose: Casting and Fatness in Pasek and Paul’s DOGFIGHT

Not too long ago, my heart stopped for a small second when Pasek and Paul sent out this tweet:

Every fan of Pasek and Paul's Dogfight will be familiar with the particularly charged and fateful conditions of this moment: a 20-year-old marine, Eddie is looking for a girl to bring to the ‘dogfight,’ a crude pre-deployment ritual where the marine who brings the ugliest girl wins. When Eddie asks Rose to the party, Rose is elated, unused as she is to this kind of attention. But watching her beam at the thought of being asked out by an attractive young marine is painful. We know that Eddie’s invitation is predicated by his judgment that Rose is unattractive enough to win him the ‘dogfight.’

I first saw Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse in 2014, and at this moment of genius storytelling, I remember wrestling with sympathy and apprehension, feeling ecstatic with Rose and feeling frustrated at Eddie as I was made to dwell in the unsettling irony of knowing Eddie’s covert intentions. 

‘What a gem! What a pick in a pinch! What a girl for this party! You’ll waltz her in, you’re set to win once you twirl her around…’

It’s 1963 and a group of US marines are playing a demeaning and devastating game by duping the ugliest ‘dogs’ in town for their ritualistic amusements. As soon as Rose finds out about the rules of the dogfight, she’s humiliated, dejected and later repulsed. In a world where a woman’s validation is still largely a matter of appealing to men’s desires, being cast as ugly is a cruel sentence. And it’s no wonder it’s still a sore matter today when casting actors to play Rose. It’s a role that is often described in casting breakdowns as ‘awkward’ and ‘innocent’ because casting someone because they’re fat or ugly would still be a bit of a kick in the teeth. We don’t want to contribute to the modes of thinking that say things like, ‘you’re only pretty if you look a certain way’ and ‘you’re only worth anything if you’re pretty.’ And it’s the right thing to do. This said, when casting directors aren’t mindful of the ways fat and ugly are used and abused in the show, they run the risk of obviating one of the most important and relevant discussions embedded in the play’s politics.

In the same way that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ ‘ugly’ is a construct. We accept and recognise this, along with fairy tale appeals to ‘inner beauty,’ as a saving grace for women who dare to live outside conventional beauty standards. Trying to convince an audience that Rose is ugly – as in physically unappealing – is tricky. The frump tactic is one option, but it’s one of the most uninspiring and tired choices a director can make. It’s part of a well-worn notion that suggests that with a little bit of effort, any woman can form fit. But for people for whom this isn’t an option – people whose size, features, disabilities, bank balances or life circumstances preclude them from becoming Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries after a few hours of spritzing, frump is not only unhelpful but also disingenuous in its representation of life on the outside of beauty norms. We no more want to see Rose with painted eye bags or comedy makeup than we do Tracy Turnblad in a fat suit. (Trust me, it’s mortifying.) Which brings me to the case for casting fat in Dogfight

Where ‘ugly’ is archaic, hackneyed and relative, fat is controversial, divisive and culturally relevant. We live in a climate of total contention surrounding fatness. For every stride made by the fat acceptance movement in dismantling discourses of shame surrounding fatness, rising obesity levels and renewed concerns over the purported health risks of weight gain continue to fuel hostility towards fat people. In cultures where fat shaming is prevalent, fat equals ugly: fat people are seen as lazy, unhealthy and undisciplined, and ‘inner beauty’ can’t save them. With this climate in mind, casting a Rose to fill costumes that run larger than a sample size could be a wise move. And I have a hunch that Pasek and Paul and Peter Duchan want to talk about this too. All the clues are there:

  • ‘You finally get what a girdle is for. Oh my gosh!’
  • ‘Thunderthighs!’
  • ‘Bigfoot alert! Beast in a skirt!’
  • ‘The game ain’t over ‘til the fat lady barks…’           
  • ‘You’ll love it, it’s all-you-can-eat!’

The size-related pejoratives the marines throw around in the first half of the play are as brutal now as they would have been in 1963. These days, a slew of weight loss reality shows and weight-obsessed tabloid headlines and online media content are turning our culture into a toxic fear-mongering machine made to sell fit, skinny and glamorous as tokens of near-unattainable acceptability. No matter the varying research and opinions on weight and wellbeing, attacking people on the basis of appearance, like Dogfight’s marines do, still seems to be the order of the day. When fat women in Dogfight are the target of abuse, it’s all too painful in its relevance.

Mindfully casting Rose within this world means calling into question the culture that gives license to people who don’t accept fat people. It means giving breath to an intelligent and courageous character whose experiences are inflected by the way her world judges her based on her appearance.

When Rose is cast without this in mind, you run the risk of skewing the play towards a trite bildungsroman about a young girl in need of owning her sexuality. It is partly this, but it’s not the whole story. If she’s only considered unattractive at the start of the show because she’s sheltered and inexperienced, you bypass a whole territory of questions that Rose’s characterisation can answer: ‘What does it feel like to live in a world that’s hostile to you because of your appearance? How does it shape your world-view? And what are you going to do now?’

If Rose is pretty but sheltered, you risk setting her up for infantilisation, and you compromise the trajectory that sees the inculcated norms of militaristic masculinity fade away as Eddie’s bond with Rose grows. And then – sin of all sins – if it’s too problematic to cast with fat or ugly in mind, you run the risk of substituting ‘conventional unattractiveness’ for frump.

It has to be said that a culture of thin privilege affects everyone and no one should be derided for their size, but it does seem odd that the act of putting fat bodies on stage in lead roles still remains a radical one. This is one case for fat but I’m sure there are cases for other less-sanctioned presentations of womanhood that can be made as well, but resorting to dowdy, frumpy and awkward (or heaven forbid, short-sighted) means losing out on engaging in something more.

As a fan from Australia, I have a feeling it’s particularly important for international productions to consider drawing issues of fat acceptance into the main storyline by casting the net wider. Diversifying choices in cultures that have no history of casting quotas, fewer plus-size role models, or particularly virulent strains of fat shaming can only help to energise conversations about what we see represented in our art. It’s a difficult conversation that could put extra strain on actors who would understandably be hesitant about politicising their bodies in this way, but it’s one that could make a real difference – particularly given the hunger for new musical theatre works as politically complex as Dogfight

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