The Feministing Five: Erica Watson

Erica NY.jpgErica Watson is a comedian, director and actress from Chicago. This month, Erica is performing her one-woman show Fat Bitch! at The Tank theater in New York City. In the show, Watson, a self-described “fat girl,” dissects media images of full-figured Black women, and explores how her weight has shaped her view of the world, and above all, the world’s view of her. The show also tackles how weight and self-esteem can affect women’s sexual lives, a theme Watson mainly addresses by sharing her own personal experiences.
The main goal of the show, Watson says, is to educate male audience members about women’s struggles, and to empower women to live the best, most authentic lives they can. “You leave it empowered and feeling good, no matter what your size is,” she says. “And that’s what I want women to feel. I’m tired of fat girls feeling bad about themselves. I’m tired of skinny girls feeling bad about themselves. I’m tired of the girls in between feeling bad about themselves. No matter what size you are, love your body, own your body, be true to you and love you and don’t worry about what the world says.”
If you can’t make it to Fat Bitch! be sure to catch Erica in the upcoming film Precious, which took Sundance by storm, and which Courtney talked up earlier this year.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Erica Watson.


Chloe Angyal: What led you to your work in comedy and specifically in comedy that addresses women’s bodies and sexualities?
Erica Watson: Ever since I was a little girl, people have said, “You’re so funny, you should be on stage.” But I always liked being behind the scenes, so I started directing and writing theater when I was in high school and when I was an undergrad. And when I moved to New York from Chicago and I was trying to direct projects, but getting stuck of directing stuff that really wasn’t the brand I wanted to build. I was doing hip hop music videos that were very misogynistic, and just promoting a lifestyle that I really wasn’t in. So a friend of mine suggested that I take a stand-up comedy writing class and start being a comic. And I thought, “OK, that’ll be a good way for me to make side money for my projects.” And here we are now, four years later, and comedy is my bread and butter, it’s how I make my living. And I think it’s my true calling, entertaining.
As far as talking about Black women and our bodies in particular, when you walk into a magazine shop and look around the walls, the ideal female beauty in the US is white women. And that’s OK; I love white women, and I think white women are beautiful. But I just wonder: what are the psychological effects on women like me, who grow up seeing women that look different than them being the standard of what is considered beautiful?
So I just started looking around at my friends, and the way we all act and behave, and the types of standards we all try to live up to that are not realistic for us. And it kind of made me angry, but it also made me wonder who the anger should be directed towards. Should it be directed towards the magazines and the media? Should it be directed those of us that perpetuate these images and ideals to make women feel bad about their looks and their bodies? And we all get it: even if you’re a white woman, a magazine is showing you a woman who’s been airbrushed, who doesn’t eat, who doesn’t live the same day-to-day life that we’re all living.
So I just looked at the world around me, and I thought, somebody has to say something about what’s going on. And who better to say it than a woman like me, who’s not white and not skinny, so there’s this double-whammy against me. So how do these media images affect me? I think it’s time for the world to hear about that.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?
EW: I love Wonderwoman, because I like the fact that she was such a girl, but she was tough, and she could kick your ass and fight crime, but she was a diva while she did it. So I think she’s so cool.
But believe it or not, the Mammy image is actually someone that I admire. Historically, she’s gotten a bad rap. But the fact is that there were women on some plantations during slavery who were running the household and being the backbone of the community in a lot of ways. And because of her skin color and because of her size, she’s looked down on. But I look at her as a pillar of strength and personality, and I think that there’s a lot we can learn from her. The truth of the matter is that the Mammy character is mostly fictional. She didn’t really exist on most plantations – she’s a character that was created in Gone With the Wind, this Aunt Jemima kind of character, but she’s not really true. But she’s also a part of our history, so I try to do her justice in my show. I’m not making fun of her or belittling her presence. I’m just saying, “Don’t look at me as a full-figured Black woman and think that I’m going to be the nanny of your children or that I’m going to clean your clothes, because I’m not that woman.”
CA: Who are your heroines in real life?
EW: My mother, definitely. I love her so much. She came from the South to Chicago, with my Dad, and they’re still married to this day. She really works hard to make sure that her children have the best of everything. And I didn’t really start appreciating her until my friends became mothers and I saw what they were going through, and I thought, “Wow, that’s what my mom was like all those years ago.” And everyone who comes into contact with her loves my mom; she’s everybody’s best friend. I’m so proud of the woman that she is, and I hope that I can be even an ounce of the woman that she is.
Mommies are great. Even on the days when they get on your nerves a little bit, you just have to sit back and think, “Wow, she loved me enough that she carried me to term, she gave birth to me, and stayed up all night when we were sick,” and you don’t think about the sacrifices that mothers make – all parents, really. But Mommies are very special, and I owe my mother so much. I’ll never be able to pay her back; I wouldn’t even know where to start.
CA: What recent news article or event made you want to scream?
EW: One of the things that has really pissed me off has been the handling of President Obama’s nomination of a full-figured Black woman as Surgeon General. CNN and MSNBC and Fox News and everybody have been talking about whether it’s possible for a woman to be plus size and to really care about the health of the nation, and about whether she’s a poor role model because she’s plus size. And given that C. Everett Koop, who was Surgeon General before her, looked like Santa Claus, I can’t even believe that people are talking about this as though it’s a real issue.
The other things that have really been bothering me lately were the PETA ads that were using a woman’s body and comparing it to a whale, in that Save the Whales campaign. I just couldn’t believe that an organization that cares so much about the well-being of animals wouldn’t show more care and respect towards women’s bodies. Especially when the organization is run by very strong, brilliant and intelligent women, to use a plus-size woman’s body in a bikini and compare it to a whale? I just couldn’t believe they showed such a lack of respect to women, just to prove their point. When you care more about animals than you do about humans, there’s a real problem. I’ve just given up on them. I do believe in animals being treated fairly, but I believe in humans being treated with the utmost respect, and they lost me with that ad.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
EW: There are so many challenges, but one of the things that I have struggled with myself is the feeling I get from some women who are involved in the feminist movement that we all have to think alike and be alike and want the same things. And I feel as though the whole purpose of the movement is to ensure that all women have a choice in how they can live their best life. So if someone decides that for whatever reason, they want to be a housewife, I don’t look down on them and say “Oh, you’re not doing your part,” or, “You’re setting the feminist movement back twenty years.” The point is that a woman should be able to have the choice to do that if she wants to do it. And if she doesn’t want to do that, she should be able to do whatever else she wants to do.
When I talk to some feminists, I find that they’re not willing to listen to other viewpoints. I consider myself a feminist: I’m pro-women, and I’m pro-human, above all. I want everyone to have the opportunity to live their best life, and to be authentically who they are. I don’t want to ever be in a situation I make someone feel like because they don’t think like me or live the life I want them to live, that they’re against my cause. So I think that the inner struggle among feminists is a big part of the problem, and that there are going to be some things going on where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
EW: One food?! You’re talking to a fat girl, are you kidding me!? I want to take all the food! If I had to take one food, it would be some type of fish. I can’t live without fish. The drink would be sweet tea. And the feminist would be Audre Lorde. I love her writing, and I would just love to sit down and have a conversation with her, and try to understand what makes her tick. What is it like to be her? I would love to be able to have that conversation with her.

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