Seeing and being seen: an interview with Matt Barbot

For Decent Company February: BODY, Matt Barbot will be deconstructing an ill-fated men’s wear ad campaign and talking about how it made him feel about his own body. Matt sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about the failures of that campaign, the promise of people truly seeing each other in performance, and high school forensics.

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JOSH BOERMAN: You wrote the piece that A.J. performed in August, but now you’re going to be writing and performing your first piece for Decent Company as a writer/performer. So how are you feelin’ about that?

MATT BARBOT: It’ll be interesting. I have not done a lot of solo work. In high school I did original oratory for the first two years.

JB: Oh, really? Like, for forensics?

MB: For forensics. I did two original oratory pieces, my freshman and sophomore year, did pretty okay with those. But that’s the last experience I had with writing for myself.

JB: What did you speak about? What were you trying to convince people?

MB: The first one was a speech about the concept of, like, “acting white,” as that related to my ethnicity and my experience in school and things like that. And the second one was actually about—and this is talked about in the piece that I’m doing for Decent Company—a little bit about the scar that I have on my head from cancer surgery when I was a baby. It was a piece that was about growing up with this bald spot on my head, and this discussion of what it was like to be in school with other people, with kids, and the way people reacted to it, and self-image, and things like that.

So that was my second piece. And then after that I just did DI. Dramatic pieces. 

JB: ‘Cause I did extemporaneous and impromptu speaking, so that is why I am always so excited to talk about any policy topic whatsoever. Because I can easily craft a six-minute speech about it off the top of my head.

MB: I was very bad at extemp. I was not good at extemp. I don’t know whether I was not well-informed enough, a 14-year-old, or I just balked at improv-ing a persuasive argument.

JB: Well, it’s funny to go back to those kids now, because I every once in a blue moon get the opportunity to go back and see forensics again. And it’s, like, all of these kids, and they are so intellectual, and have no real-world experience whatsoever, but have read everything from, like, primary sources. And so you have this vast chasm between their knowledge base and their real-world experience. (laughs)

MB: Right. They’re 14-year-old policy wonks who can talk to you at length about, you know, Benghazi.

JB: Exactly. So then they get invited to CPAC. It’s great.

MB: Right. But they can’t talk to girls. (laughs)

JB: Of course not. Still can’t. So anyway, the piece that you’re doing for this show is about, like you said—

MB: Well, like, self-image. It’s just a topic that I’ve been turning around a lot, both with incarnations of this piece, and also in other work. I have some other pieces that ask questions about what do bodies mean to us and things like that.

So this piece is about an unfortunate PR disaster for a lingerie company last year, where they claimed that they were launching a “real men’s” body campaign. You know, body positivity for men. Because they were already a company that had sort of really pushed that message for women in that regard, that they don’t retouch their female models. And they’ve done great work, and they’ve been rightfully lauded for that.

JB: Although their female models that they’ve used have generally been pretty traditionally attractive body types.

MB: That’s fair. I think they do, but in the fashion industry, from what I understand, it seems like it was a big deal for people that they weren’t retouching models in their photos. To show that models do have cellulite, do have stretch marks. So that’s revolutionary in this way.

JB: So they claimed they’d be doing it for men.

MB: For men. And it was cool, and people reacted really well for it. And the smart thing for them to do would have been to, like, roll with it. And April 1st comes around and they put out a press release that it was kind of like a joke. But it was confusing. Like, they were into body positivity for men, but the campaign was kinda— like, they claimed a light-hearted approach.

JB: Right. And they were, like, parodying themselves? (laughs)

MB: Yeah. Which is weird, ’cause it’s not really—

JB: That’s not a thing. (laughs)

MB: (laughs) Generally not. But it’s also the idea that, like, doing that thing but for men was a parody. That was an interesting idea. And to your point about the female models, the women models, the men in these ads were not models. Or some of them were, and others of them were not. They were very diverse.

JB: But they’re still good-lookin’ dudes, was the thing. That was what struck me about it when I looked and I saw the campaign itself. I looked at all the pictures, and it was like, these are all good-looking dudes that just have a wide range of body types.

MB: Sure. A wide range of body types. Some of them are larger, you know, a little squishy in the middle. There’s one guy who just has an enormous amount of body hair. And so I think that it was well accepted. It was well received. People really were into it. And then they announced it as a joke and let a lot of people down in a way.

And so I am interested in this because the discussion of male body image is, you know, rightfully less centered in our society. I wanted to talk about the way that people receive men’s bodies and talk about the fact that there are men who think about their appearance and react to societal images of their appearance, of male appearance, or expectations for male bodies, in a similar way.

JB: And that’s one thing that I don’t know that it gets a ton of play, generally. And obviously, our society is one where female body image is the biggest thing that is— if you wanna talk about what has the most strongly normative expectations about what attractiveness is? Female bodies, hands down, traditionally the idea of female bodies is the thing. But I feel like oftentimes we don’t talk about what it means for those who identify as male and what it means for us.

MB: Right. And the expectations are different, and the societal impact is different, but there is a very interesting— something that feminists talk about is that the patriarchy is damaging for men as well, right? And so ideas of masculinity, ideas of that sort of ideal manhood, ideas of, like, what is— although male bodies are privileged, there are expectations, there are ideas, and they mean different things, and for different reasons.

This is a discussion that comes up a lot, for example, when you talk about character design.

JB: Character design in, like, video games and stuff like that?

MB: In video games and comic books and stuff like that, where it’s like, female characters are supposed to be strong, but they’re sexualized, whereas male characters are big and bulky. But those are men’s power fantasies, right? Those are men creating male power fantasies.

And so the ways that we sort of navigate those media representations, and alongside that, there’s an expectation that men don’t— how can I say this? So there’s a photo project called the Bare Men Project by a photographer named Abigail Ekue where she photographs male nudes, and she talks about how it seems to her that her subjects are interested in being seen as beautiful, and are interested in being, she says, objectified in some ways.

But it’s this [idea] that there’s a separation in men from their bodies in that way. And that’s associated with a certain softness or a certain femininity that’s not masculine or something like that.

JB: Right, because the idea being that maleness, whatever that means, is connected with dominance or with control.

MB: Yeah, like harshness.

JB: Harshness, and oftentimes being the one who is doing the— I don’t know, sometimes it’s just nice to have somebody look at you in a way that is like, “Wow, I feel like you are looking at me in a way that you see me as attractive right now.” That’s nice. That’s a nice thing. (laughs)

MB: Yeah, yeah. Agreed. And then that’s something that I think men are sort of trained to dissociate themselves from.

JB: Right. We are the ones who must objectify, not the ones who should be objectified.

MB: Absolutely. Right. And if you fall short of that, you’re a sissy. (laughs) Right? And these things have fascinated me in terms of looking at this piece, in terms of thinking about my own body image, in terms of writing a play about the Garden of Eden and how suddenly bodies are new.

Like, what is this thing? What am I? And the ways that we’re seen. Particularly since the Trump thing, I’ve become more and more aware of how other people sort of perceive me racially. I think I’ve become more aware of the ways that I perceive other people, and I think that’s purely tied to the physical and purely tied to what are the semiotics of bodies.

JB: Well, and it’s interesting to me that you use the phrase “being seen,” because that’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. How do we want to be seen? In an ideal world, how do you want to be seen? What does that mean to you?

MB: I don’t know. I think there is a comfort in knowing that when you’re seen, that people are seeing your humanity. I think that there’s a comfort. I think it’s one of the things that’s kind of intimidating about doing a solo piece that’s confessional, which is that people are taking you in and they are trusting. That the audience isn’t judging, trusting that the audience is receiving, that your words and your performance are being taken in in the spirit that you’re offering.

I think that we often get hung up in thinking about how other people will look at us. I think we sometimes have a tendency to see ourselves from the outside, and often judge ourselves harsher than other people do. And so I think ultimately in performance, the major goal is to just be expressive of humanity and to have people see that.

JB: And what do you want for you specifically?

MB: For me specifically? I think I have some trepidation and some anxiety that my discussion of these issues will be seen as self-indulgent or not relatable. I think that ultimately when you’re doing a piece that’s based on your personal experience, it’s like, are people hearing what I’m saying and thinking? Like, “Yeah, I get that,” even if it’s not a one-to-one.

So my hope is to present this piece in a human way, and to maybe help someone to realize something, or put into words, or experience something that they didn’t previously have the words or experience for.

JB: Has it been helpful for you to sort of put this experience to words, for yourself?

MB: I think it has. I think I’ve made connections between things and thought more deeply about it. I think that it’s been helpful to force myself to explore things, force myself to think about things and to put them down, and to be willing to share them as opposed to stew on them or wonder if I’m being stupid. (laughs) I think that the willingness to explore it in a way that’s meant to be shared has been helpful, and I hope it will be helpful in performance for someone.

To buy tickets for Decent Company February: BODY, click here.

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