Camryn Manheim – actress discusses society image of being overweight and being political – Interview
In the spring of 1997, a new television drama by David E. Kelley, The Practice, began airing on ABC. Critics immediately praised the show for its gritty realism, superb scripts posing tough moral dilemmas, and the high quality of the ensemble acting. But for women in particular, one actor stood out: Camryn Manheim. Manheim played Ellenor Fruit, a rough yet vulnerable attorney with a mouth on her and about twelve hoops and studs climbing up her earlobes. Manheim’s skill at moving between those poles women navigate so frequently–strength and certainty on the one end, insecurity and doubt on the other made her riveting to watch.
But there was something else crucially important about Manheim. Somehow, she had managed to get through Hollywood’s size police who dictate that only women who weigh 100 pounds or less get to have roles in film and television. Women around the country, so weary of the tyranny of the media’s anorexic ideal, connected powerfully to Ellenor, the character, and Manheim, the actor.
What people didn’t know was how many times, in her struggle to land good roles, Manheim was told she would never get work if she didn’t lose weight. When she won an Emmy in 1998 for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series against extremely stiff competition, she jubilantly held the statue aloft and proclaimed, “This is for all the fat girls!”
A year later, she published her autobiography, Wake Up, I’m Fat (Broadway Books, 2000), which the women of America turned into a bestseller. In it, Manheim attacked our culture’s still-widespread prejudices against fat people, and urged women to stop torturing themselves to become hyper-thin and, instead, to accept their bodies and get on with their lives. Mode magazine featured her as its fashion cover girl. She became, instantly, a leading voice for large women in America.
Manheim’s outspokenness about the narrow, corporate-produced ideals of thinness and beauty derives from her progressive, activist background. Her grandparents were union organizers. Her mother, Sylvia, worked as a receptionist for the Communist Party. And her father, Jerry, was blacklisted in the 1950s from any defense-related industries because someone reported to the McCarthy crowd that he owned a copy of Political Economy, by Wassily Leontief. Since then, they have participated in a range of left-liberal causes. Her brother Karl, an attorney, was deeply involved in the civil-rights and anti-war movements. Manheim herself has been especially active in promoting the rights of the disabled, particularly the deaf, and in condemning homophobia and the ongoing threats to civil liberties. She also recently became a single mother. On March 6, she gave birth to a son, Milo Jacob.
I spoke with Manheim by phone in July, and it was like plugging in to a power source. Her passion for women’s rights and social justice is galvanizing, and she is a firm believer in the power of the people. For example, Manheim insists that if we women are fed up with the sexist, retrograde images designed to corrode our self-esteem (and thus to encourage us to buy products that will allegedly restore that self-esteem), then we should just, collectively, say no to these images. She urges people to recognize the power they have if they act in concert, and feels that if people are unhappy with media imagery, or intolerance, or inequitable power relations, they should stop complaining and start resisting.
Q: Your book struck a chord with millions of women. What kinds of reactions have you gotten to it?
Camryn Manheim: The predominant reaction was one of enormous gratitude, with women saying how thankful they were that the book had given them permission to love themselves. But, you know, while I’m glad to be part of any motivation or inspiration for women to improve their lives and feel better about themselves, it is sad to me that too many women look outside themselves, to others, to improve their lives rather than looking inward.
We, we women, we have to stop the madness. It’s our responsibility to stop the competition over losing five pounds. I don’t want to be the poster child for fat acceptance. I need the women who wrote me to go out and inspire other women, to carry the torch across the country. Because it’s still true that our country is offended by fat people. We leer at them on the streets and in restaurants, we look at them and think they’re lazy, that they’re horrible people. These are probably decent, kind people who remember other people’s birthdays and love their children. Why should someone pass judgment on other people simply because they have a few extra pounds? But they do. I got letters from women crippled by the judgments against them because of their weight, women who were paralyzed by self-hatred. It makes me so sad.
The letters I took most seriously were from mothers concerned about their children. These were mothers whose children were being ridiculed because they were fat. I’m not a psychologist, I don’t know what to say, but we do have to keep reinforcing the positive about our kids.
Q: Have you noticed any changes in the entertainment industry’s pressure on actresses to be unhealthily thin? What do you think it would take to reverse or at least undermine the glamorization of anorexia?
Manheim: Is Hollywood changing its standards? Executives would say, “Oh, yes, Manheim has changed the media landscape.” But they would be hard-pressed to point to one decision they made that shows such a change.
It’s all supply and demand. The women I know all blame some other entity for where women are and how women feel about themselves and their bodies. But I’ve developed a new philosophy in the past few years: It’s not “their” fault, it’s our fault. We need to resist, to fight back, to take control of the direction our lives go. There are multibillion dollar industries invested in our hating our bodies, our faces, our wrinkles–this self-hatred is enormously profitable. Women have to take responsibility. You can’t blame “the men” or “the advertisers.” Of course, I can believe that they are trying to make you buy their products, buy the self-loathing. What I can’t believe is that women are buying it.
Q: OK, but let me be devil’s advocate here. I have a twelve-year-old, and she and her generation are bombarded everywhere they look by images of hyper-thinness. For me, as an individual mother, it’s a daily campaign to try to counteract these images, and it’s not a very evenly matched battle.
Manheim: You can’t do it alone; you have to get together with the schools, with other mothers. We have to fight this together.
Let’s be clear–this is a war, a war against our children so they will feel bad about themselves so they’ll become consumers. This has got to be a group effort; we can’t just do it by ourselves in our homes. My first child is a son, but when I have a girl, you bet I’ll be in the schools working with others to counteract these images of thinness surrounding girls.
Q: What kinds of collective actions should parents coordinate?
Manheim. Well, I haven’t thought about this much, but I’d have kids make their own media. They could create their own ads, and you could have the whole school get into an ad campaign about, say, good health. They could learn how ads are made and learn to challenge what they see. Schools need classes on resisting the media. If you show kids some commercials for toys, commercials filled with promises, and then bring the product in and show how it falls short, kids see how they’re lying to us, and if anyone understands lying, it’s kids! If we aren’t dealing with kids’ psychological development and making them feel confident, then we’ve missed the boat.
Q: So you’d like to see more media literacy programs in the schools?
Manheim: Yes, I’d love to see media literacy classes, to bring in a range of products and show kids how they’re being duped every day. We need to be concerned about what they see on TV.
Q: Do actresses get together and talk about these pressures to be thin, about the sexism and ageism in the industry?
Manheim: Everyone I know is concerned about how they look. I try to teach by example. My home is a fat-free-hating zone. You can’t talk about how bad you look or how much weight you need to lose. This is such negative female energy, and too much of it is spent on concerns about appearance.
Q: You have friends or co-workers–Calista Flockhart, Laura Flynn Boyle–who’ve been criticized for being too thin, for competing on the set over who will fit into the size two or the size zero.
Manheim: We’re all pitted against each other. It’s a great pain for those women to be in the news, picked apart for their weight. I’m trying to offer a different role model, but these are my friends. I’m in pain for them when they’re attacked by the media.
Q: Which women in the industry do you admire the most?
Manheim: I really admire Emma Thompson. I admire her work very much, and while she doesn’t advertise her politics, she is clearly a very decent, principled person. I admire Susan Sarandon for being so feisty, for showing us that her politics are as important as her career. I very much admire Rosie O’Donnell, especially what she’s done for theater, and for how fierce she is in her beliefs. I admire her for going after the NRA. You know, she lost the title of “America’s Sweetheart” when she went political, and I don’t think that was easy, but it showed a lot of guts. I admire Oprah, I have to say. She decided along the way that she wouldn’t have just some fluff show but that she’d have a show that helps people feel better about themselves.
Q: I loved the photo of you and Milo on the motorcycle, a photo that goes against the grain of how celebrity moms are usually photographed. I’d like to hear your reactions to how celebrity moms are portrayed, and what you see as the gaps between images and reality.
Manheim: How do you think celebrity moms are portrayed?
Q: Well, there seems to be a very narrow ideal of perfection that they represent, and have to conform to. They’re perfect mothers: “sexy,” spontaneous, fun-loving, devoted and dedicated to addressing their child’s every cognitive, emotional, developmental need while also sustaining a successful career.
Manheim: Celebrity moms are portrayed as perfect moms, you’re right. You know, “although they have help, they’re very involved.” That’s bullshit! You can’t be as involved with your child when you have twenty-four-hour nanny care as when you don’t. There is an unfair standard that celebrity moms reinforce. But again, the reason why Redbook sold so many copies of Kelly Preston [John Travolta’s wife] with her baby on the cover is because mothers bought it. Again, it’s supply and demand. Redbook’s not stupid. They know their readers want to hear about the fantasy life of perfect motherhood. When you’re reading about a celebrity, it’s like a first date: The celebrity wants to make a good impression. Redbook might not be a best-selling magazine if it told the truth about motherhood. Our culture likes to glorify our celebrities, to make them out to be great people for everyone to emulate. So it happens with motherhood, too.
Q: How much opportunity do you have to get some of your political concerns into The Practice? For example, I was very taken with the portrayal of the friendship between Ellenor on The Practice and Gideon on Gideon’s Crossing when Ellenor was having a tough pregnancy, because it’s so rare to see that kind of friendship between a white woman and an African American man. To what extent can actors shape the politics of the show?
Manheim: Well, David Kelley is a genius machine, and the scripts for The Practice are rarely changed. We each have our own issues–I stick up for Jews, fat girls, choice [laughing]–and his door is always open. But I work for a man with a consciousness the size of the globe, and I think he fairly gives different sides their day in court. I did fight for Marlee [Marlin] to be in the show, so that was one battle I won. But I am astounded by how unique each script is, time after time, and how wonderful they are. And it was great to work with Andre Braugher. He’s an old friend and a wonderful actor, and I had wanted to work with him for a long time, but that cross-writing between the two shows came from the producers.
Q: Your parents, Sylvia and Jerry, have been leftist activists for decades, and you’re an activist too.
Manheim: My parents are activists, and through them I learned to fight for others. But then I learned to fight for myself. Most Americans don’t fight for themselves. But we all deserve the same things; we’re all equal. You do deserve to be treated with respect. This is not about being entitled. When you’re not getting what you deserve, you need to fight for yourself.
I live by the speech Nelson Mandela gave at his inauguration. I have it right here: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most
frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Q: What issues are especially pressing to you now?
Manheim: My family has always been very philanthropic, donating time and money to charities. But when you become a celebrity, you become inundated with requests to be on their boards, be on their letterheads. When you get honored by a charity, they’re choosing you because of how much money you can bring in. Let’s call a spade a spade: It’s how many tables can you fill at an event. Charities are businesses; it’s a racket [laughing]. Of course, they’re all trying to do something very good. But I had my name on a slew of letterheads, and I eventually learned that I had to make some choices. Certain charities, like those for AIDS, are very popular, very in. I had to ask myself which charities I really wanted to be associated with.
So, I decided to support those organizations that focus on people’s civil liberties, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. I’m a huge advocate of tolerance for all kinds of people. And since the character I play is a lawyer, it also makes sense to support groups that seek to protect our civil liberties. You know, I love being a celebrity, I’ve worked hard toward it for a long time, and I thrive in this community. But two things are really hard about being a celebrity. One is the threat to your personal safety–and I can blame the Christian Right for that!–and the other is how often I disappoint people and organizations that are meaningful to me.
But I do have to choose very carefully. So I did go to Outfest, I’m speaking at Deaf West, an organization for deaf kids who want to be actors, and I’m hosting an ACLU dinner. I’m also involved in a movie about the murder of Matthew Shepard, in part because I wanted to do the movie, but also because doing it will give me a platform to talk about tolerance and the wages of homophobia.
Q: When you won the Golden Globe in 1999, you added a political note to your acceptance speech. Tell me about that.
Manheim: It was shortly before the vote to impeach Clinton. I planned to say something but I also figured everyone else–you know, folks like Warren Beatty or Dustin Hoffman–would have already said something. But by the time I got to the stage, no one had said anything yet. So I dedicated the award to all the Senators who would vote to dismiss the case. Now, if I said that at, say, 7:30 Pacific time, by 7:32 Pacific time my e-mail box was full of hate mail–really hostile letters–from Republicans attacking me. It wasn’t until weeks, even months, later that mail would trickle in from liberals saying they had liked what I did. The Republicans win because they’re meaner and they’re greedier. The Democrats are too laissez-faire; they just don’t fight back in the same way.
Q: Which brings me full circle to your idea about fighting back for our kids.
Manheim: We do have to think of this as a war against our children, because if we do we’ll start fighting harder. We’ve got the power. We have to pick up our weapons and get together. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, that we have to work, and make a home, and go out in the streets to fight for our kids. But that is how it is.
Susan Douglas teaches Communication Studies at the University of Michigan.
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