Features Essays Published 19 December 2018

How can we talk about ‘thirst’ in theatre?

After #hotgate, Dr Kirsty Sedgman writes on the complex territory of gender and objectification in theatre, and why it's time for "a more radical, ethical kind of thirst".
Dr Kirsty Sedgman

‘True West’ at Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Earlier this month, in her Exeunt review of True West at the Vaudeville Theatre, Ava Wong Davies explored how finding Johnny Flynn ‘hot’ may have influenced her subjective reading of his performance. Shortly afterwards, Theatre Twitter lost its shit.

While I’m not going to make this piece about the reviewer herself (because she’s put up with so much crap with grace and aplomb and because we, quite frankly, Do Not Deserve Her), Hot-Gate raised some important questions. Namely: When does an awareness of our own subjectivity turn into sexual objectification? In a post-MeToo world, should the female-male gaze be policed as fiercely as the other way around? How can we make sense of the hypocrisy of using celebrity sex appeal to attract young women to the theatre, while simultaneously shaming them for their answering expressions of desire? And when it comes to talking about ‘thirst’, how do we draw the line between OK and not-OK?

Witnessing the (Debates About) Fitness
A term long used within Black communities, ‘thirst’ and its adjectival form ‘thirsty’ have recently risen to prominence (slash been nicked by white people) as a way to describe sensations of desire, lust, and longing. Interestingly, the adjective ‘hot’ (in its sexual-attraction sense) was an early synonym for thirsty: etymonline.com notes that calling somebody ‘hot’ originally gave them agency – “full of sexual desire, lustful” (c.1500) – while the more contemporary meaning of “inciting desire”, which took that agency away again, only came into being around the 1700s. But is it ever OK for a reviewer to talk about being hot for hotness?

On the one hand, theatre and film are visual mediums: whether onstage or onscreen, an actor’s physicality naturally plays an important part in how their performance is received. With this in mind, the rise of a new generation of (primarily female) critics has demonstrated a shared commitment to signalling awareness of the process of reception: of the ways a reviewer’s own subjectivity influences the act of reviewing itself. To borrow a description by The White Pube, the model of arts criticism as “an intellectualised objectivity” has traditionally been used to position male, white, privileged value judgements as the indisputable aesthetic standard – an orthodoxy which was foundational to the west’s nineteenth-century white-supremacist campaigns to ‘civilise’ the world through culture (a bold statement for which I provide ample evidence in here). In the work of critics like Eve Allin, Maddy Costa, Emily Garside, Ava Wong Davies, and Meg Vaughan, we can see how unveiling the subject behind the reviewing gaze (as well as breaking down ideas of ‘correct’ critical language) is a radical act. And doesn’t part of this commitment to subjectivity mean acknowledging how our responses to performance are shaped by our feelings about – and, yes, our attraction to – its performers?

On the other hand, it’s equally fair to say that actors have the right to be judged by the quality of their work, rather than by the architecture of their body. Hence the righteous outpouring of scorn earlier this year at British Theatre Guide’s Philip Fisher, whose review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie drew attention to Nicola Coughlan’s appearance for the second time. (Having previously called her character in another show “the fat girl”, this time she was supposedly playing “an overweight girl who will always be the butt of people’s jokes”.) In terms of talking about physicality, this is about as Not-OK as it comes. Women actors especially have been besieged by society’s obsession with body image: see for example the @ProResting Twitter account, which is dedicated to exposing how female characters get consistently condensed to their physical appearance. And yet, with the growth of boyeurism beginning to flip this narrative on its head, is it becoming more acceptable to talk about men in similarly aesthetic terms?

Coincidentally, one of the actors starring in True West has talked publically about the male experience of sexism in the film industry. In 2017, Kit Harington said he wanted to be seen as “more than a head of hair or a set of looks. It’s demeaning”. In the same vein, responding to the BBC’s release of himself scything topless, Poldark‘s Aidan Turner was quoted saying it’s “a bit strange. It’s not a stripper show”.

Yes, the sexualisation of male bodies is certainly something we need to think carefully about – especially in a climate where young men are becoming increasingly concerned with their physical appearance, a trend that’s been linked to issues like lower self-esteem, disordered eating, excessive exercise, and steroid use. It’s also true that two wrongs don’t make a right – we can’t fix sexism by treating men as badly as women have always been treated. And yet we do need to recognise the asymmetries here. Because as Harington himself was later forced to acknowledge, getting objectified as a man is not the same as being a women in the same position.

Firstly, thanks to centuries of patriarchal conditioning, society’s default setting is to see men as subjects: as complex and multi-faceted human beings. Meanwhile, there’s a whole academic discipline called Objectification Theory devoted to analysing the ways women have been systematically reduced to objects – represented as the recipients of desire rather than its agents, there to be gazed upon. Whenever a critic comments on a woman’s physical appearance this taps into the powerful undertow of history, and reinforces the pervasive sense that we’re all at risk of being dragged down. This is simply not the case for men: when an individual is objectified they alone are positioned as an object for consumption, and not the entirety of mankind.

Secondly, we also need to examine what happens when men do experience sexual objectification: because in reality, objectification tends to work very differently for them than always has for us.  For example, before we get too outraged at the ‘hunkvertising’ trend – whereby beautiful men like David Gandy are pictured in their underwear to sell us stuff – it’s worth taking a closer look. As Shannon Ridgway puts it, when women are used to sell products they’re often reduced to their body parts, essentially dehumanized, their heads cut off and viewed from the back, while men are usually presented in their entirety and given a sense of agency. “Objectified men in ads seem to be saying, ‘Come hither; look what I can give you,’ while objectified women seem to be saying, ‘This is yours for the taking'”.

We can see this difference in politics, too. Just look at all the international thirsting over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. As Christopher Scanlon explains, unlike his female colleagues, Trudeau isn’t at risk of being weakened by his own attractiveness: never going to be placed in a box labelled Vapid Airhead or Manipulative Seductress. Unlike the LegsIt fiasco feat. Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, or the heinous KFC Hillary Special (“2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, one left wing”), getting objectified doesn’t diminish Trudeau’s power. If anything, it enhances it.

So: power matters. When it comes to objectification we need to think not only about what is said, but who is speaking, and about whom. Which means that we can’t avoid the racial dimension, either – namely, how the ability to be objectified without systemic harm is a privilege that tends to be applied only to white men. In reviewing terms, there’s a difference between a young Asian writer calling a white guy hot, and a white woman commenting on a Black man’s abs: because this is a dynamic historically fraught with power asymmetries, too, in which Black men are so often represented in stereotypically sexualised and uber-masculine ways. Jamie Utt explains that “we need to recognize that not all hurtful words or deeds are equal when certain ones are backed by a history and current system of domination, violence, oppression, repression, dehumanization, and degradation” – which is why it’s impossible to be racist against white people, and also why a young female critic of colour can write about finding a white bloke ‘hot’ without destroying the very essence of #MeToo.

Context matters, too. Which is why we should also note the difference between talking at length and in detail about the shape of an actor’s pectorals, and describing finding the single scribbled word “TOPLESS??” in your notebook afterwards. In terms of nuance and care, a review that insightfully compares the promise versus the payoff of hotness is a world away from Michael Billington extolling “the pleasing shape of Summer Strallen who boasts what Raymond Chandler once called ‘a well-filled stocking'”, or calling Susan Lynch ‘too attractive to be entirely plausible as a wallflower’. In fact, as Twitter was quick to point out, in his own review of True West Billington himself noted the ‘strong, highly sexualised charisma’ of both male leads! Same with Mark Shenton, whose description of “rippling, washboard stomached male flesh” was accepted as the objective musings of a legitimate reviewer – presumably because Shenton went out of his way to clarify that he himself didn’t find it sexy. Meanwhile, the phrase “I find Johnny Flynn fucking hot” led to Exeunt‘s review being dismissed as the lustful outpourings of a teenage girl. A mystery.

The Fear of Female Audiences
Actually, the real mystery is how theatres have been able to get away for so long with using the desires of girls to fill their seats while simultaneously shaming them for it. My own research has shown how courting the lusts of young women can develop a lifelong love of theatre: just last week I interviewed someone whose first taste of onstage hotness (in this case, a topless Sir Patrick Stewart in a golden wig, “striding around the stage like a god”) led to decades of theatrical engagement. And yet while the long history of theatre fandom is lined with desperate attempts by producers to provoke audience enthusiasm, at the same time we’ve seen a collective rolling of the eyes at actual theatre fan communities.

In his famous book Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins – the grandfather of fan studies – explains how the word ‘fan’ was originally used to describe female theatregoers: the 20th century ‘Matinee Girls’, “who male critics claimed had come to admire the actors rather than the plays”. This urge to sneer at fans persists today – anyone else remember when Andrew Lloyd Webber dismissed his entire Phantom of the Opera ‘phandom’ as “a whole sad culture”? When theatre fans “do emerge from the darkness of the auditorium they are often viewed with suspicion”, I have previously said: “an indistinct and homogenized mass, seen to access the wrong kind of culture or to enjoy it in the wrong way”.

This phenomenon tends to be intensely gendered. In a brilliant article on Wicked girl-fans, Stacy Wolf explains how teenagers were frequently represented in the media as silly, immature ‘cultural dupes’. The fear of female audiences reached its peak recently in the handsome-celebrities-onstage trend – like when the theatresphere nervously anticipated how swarms of Benedict Cumberbatch fans might ruin the star’s 2015 Hamlet with their tardiness and addiction to instagram, or when Tom Hiddleston’s fans were criticized for “colonizing the pavement” after Coriolanus, “as if a girls’ school has emptied onto the street”. Thinking again about The Discourse™, one of the most interesting recent examples is the live stage show of Magic Mike. Take for instance Tanya Gold’s review in The Guardian, which calls this event “an opportunity for women” – one where “Groups of women, some old but mostly young, sit waiting with cocktails the size of cauldrons. Their screams are barely suppressed. Because it’s their turn now – this is a form of revenge”.

So let’s get this straight. It’s ok for theatres to use stars’ sex appeal to fill seats. It’s ok for directors to make creative decisions that place this sex appeal centre-stage – up to and including doing a literal shower scene in the Donmar. It’s ok for critics to comment on how staging sex appeal impacts on the performance, as long as this is done (preferably by a man) in a factual or dismissive tone (“Oh do put it away, dearie!” sneered the Daily Mail). But it’s not ok for women to say, you know what? I found all that sexiness appealing.

Thirst can be Radical, Too
While there’s a really important discussion that needs to happen here about male objectification, if we’re going to do this responsibly, we simply can’t ignore the power dynamics at play. The #MeToo movement wasn’t simply a puritanical ban on men expressing attraction. It was a long-overdue acknowledgement of the ways male desire gets weaponised against women, and of the negative ways this impacts on our bodies, our minds, our careers.

When we talk about women using objectification to ‘turn the tables on men’, we’re ignoring a key issue – which is that while male thirst is dangerous because of how it keeps women down, female thirst almost always operates to build men up. Even in Magic Mike Live! audiences are asked to respond to men not simply as bodies, but as people: a distinction that Tanya Gold’s Guardian review points us toward and yet doesn’t acknowledge. Here, men are more than strippers. They are “a sexy CEO who pays women as much as men… a bad boy who actually responds to texts… a vet, a teacher and a man holding a fake baby.”

This is just like how fans turned Benedict Cumberbatch into “the internet’s favourite boyfriend”, or how Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins use the Thirst Aid Kit podcast to give underappreciated actors of colour the attention they deserve. Talking about the Asian American actor John Cho, they say at that time he was “flying under the radar a little bit. But every time we saw him, we’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s so amazing, he’s so hot.’ We really wanted to give him some shine. We see you””not just because you’re beautiful, but because we see what you’re doing on and off screen, and we want to amplify that”. If male thirst simplifies women to bits of flesh, then female thirst tends to be all about fleshing out the person inside.

Instead of denying desire altogether, maybe we need a more radical, ethical kind of thirst: a thirst that seeks to give shine to people; a thirst that says ‘you’re beautiful, not just because of what you look like but what you do’; a thirst that recognises hotness as radiating from people rather than skin? I for one think we need more reviews that read like a teenage girl’s diary. In fact, perhaps this could be what it takes to get men to review women in a way that builds them up, rather than tearing them down.


Dr Kirsty Sedgman

Kirsty Sedgman is a theatre lecturer at the University of Bristol specialising in audience research. Her new book The Reasonable Audience, on audience behaviour and the theatre etiquette debates, is due to be published by Palgrave very soon. She is currently engaged in a three-year British Academy postdoctoral research fellowship investigating regional theatre audience engagement through time. www.kirstysedgman.com, @KirstySedgman