In her new short film, Focus Group, comedian and author Sara Benincasa strips down to nothing but her underwear and stands in front of six strangers paid to evaluate her body, referred to as her "brand." Cringe. Wince. The phrase "it's funny because it's true" floated across my brain, only most women typically don't pay to have others scrutinize their hips, thighs, breasts, or hair--most women get that treatment for free.
Benincasa plays an unemployed, overweight, single, depressed aspiring food blogger who, after reaching rock bottom, takes the advice of a friend to contact a "boutique personal services agency" that promises to transform, aka "fix," her. The film is a cheeky, biting satire that takes the brutal body image regime to its logical and absurd conclusion where women seek out paid critics to dismantle them as if they were car engines or tanking software companies.
Made up of Brooklyn hipsters with hilariously stupid careers--a boutique doctor that works with high-end chefs, the owner of an artisanal fat store, the founder of Ramekin Magazine--the five people in the focus group coolly evaluate an amiable Benincasa, dressed in a tee-shirt with the word FEMINIST etched across it in bold, white capital letters. "That tee-shirt is really putting me off," says one white guy. "I feel like it's yelling at me, it just doesn't feel safe." They struggle to come up with anything positive, managing "cute ears" before Benincasa disrobes, met by audible gasps of disgust. They tell her she needs a breast lift, they deplore her three back tattoos, they conclude she'd be perfect "at that weight, but, like, five inches taller."
Comedy is strongest when its rooted in truth, and this is dark humor at its most potent, which is why the film is both funny and uncomfortable. Benincasa skewers a culture where a version of this dissection of women's bodies, of our perceived and manufactured flaws, of our failings to live up to some kind of unattainable ideal, takes place on the regular whether online, at the mall, in school, at work, or walking down a city street. The only difference is that Benincasa positions it as part of the literal economy with a company transparently designed to see women as "brands" meant for endless modification and women driven to put themselves at the mercy of institutionalized for-profit judges. Bleak, but not as Twilight Zone bananas as you might think. Any time a woman visits a cosmetic surgeon, she's inviting the same kind of sanctioned disparagement, but you know, covered by insurance...maybe.
That Benincasa can make us laugh while excavating some of the more disheartening truths around our attitudes about women's bodies and self-esteem says a lot about the power of humor to provoke dialogue about hard, complicated issues. It's a power that more and more women are harnessing to amplify their voices in ways that make them harder to dismiss and, in the case of Benincasa, definitely harder to forget.