I was lucky to treat myself and a friend to see a travelling performance of the Broadway musical, “Aladdin”, in Auckland earlier this year. I was super excited to attend; while I recognise how problematic Disney films are, I love them all the same and Aladdin was my favourite movie as a teenager.
I loved the sets and costumes (never have I see so much bling on stage! One review claimed the show had 337 glittering costumes including over 500,000 Swarovski crystals); the “Friend Like Me” number was the most outlandish and fantastical thing I have ever seen. Ever. The old songs were great, the new songs okay, and the call-backs to other classic Disney films of that era were fantastic (including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan).
I expected to be awed, and I was – especially during the flying carpet scene of “Whole New World”. It is truly magical. And as expected, I had to remind myself to keep my mouth shut during the show; the desire to sing along with the songs was strong.
What I did not expect, though, was the amount of fat shaming material in the show. Now, as a super fat woman who studies fat stigma, I’m aware that fat hate is all around me. In every movie I watch, television programme I view, and magazine I flip through, I’m prepared to be confronted by fat hatred. I even have a sense for it; I can almost feel it coming, like a Spidey-sense. I often hold my breath to see how bad it’s going to be. But I was not expecting as much as there was in Aladdin, and the first bit came in the opening number (“Arabian Nights”). During the opening, as the Genie extolls all the wonders about the land, he includes, “’Welcome to Agrabah – land of one percent body fat!’”
As the show moves forward, the fat shaming continues, both from the beloved Genie and all his many issues and shame around food, and from others about one of Aladdin’s friends, Babkak. Babkak is fat and food obsessed; his fatness and food obsession is frequent fodder for laughs from the audience. Aladdin is not the first musical theatre foray into fat shaming and fat jokes. And I’m not the first to lament the presence of fat hating material in any otherwise delightful trip to the theatre. Others have written about this, including a harrowing story from CeCe Olisa on her blog, and a reflective piece by Maggie Rogers in American Theatre. Maggie asks,
Fatness crosses every race, creed, and culture, and you want to tell me the only people that are worth seeing onstage are thin? Please. You can get on board with helicopters landing onstage, witches flying through the air, and puppets, but not a size 22 playing a lead?
I remember speaking with my friend Sofie Hagan (of Made of Human and Secret Dino Cult fame) about our mutual love of Hamilton. She shared that when she first heard the soundtrack, she assumed that the youngest Skylar sister, Peggy, was fat. As soon as she said it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made the same connection. Peggy, with her largely muted role and introduction of a single heavily delivered line, “And Peggy”.
Like an afterthought. Which is the common place for fat people. Both Sofie and I were relieved, in a strange way, to find the suspicion wrong. Peggy isn’t fat (of course she isn’t; she plays the love interest in the second half!), and we were glad for that. But also, a bit bummed, because how great would be to have a fat character in the new hot musical.
Because if fat performers are not allowed to play the straight sized roles (which are ALL roles unless otherwise specified, of course), then how many fat character roles are available in their fat glory in musical canon. Mama Morton in Chicago, Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, um. I’m sure there are more. Right?