Stirring the Pudding Pot

Is it finally time to let boys be girls and girls be boys?

That question has been wafting across the culture for a while now.  Last week, it made it all the way to Harvard.

Or, more precisely, to a beloved Harvard institution called Hasty Pudding Theatricals.  In this case, the question is:  Can women perform in a comedy show whose entire appeal depends on its total lack of women?

To explain:  Hasty Pudding Theatricals—Hasty Pudding for short, “The Pudding” for shorter—is a 220-year-old troupe of Harvard undergrads who every year write, direct and perform an original musical farce, complete with dazzling costumes and sets, knockout song-and-dance numbers and the sorts of juvenile puns and double entendres that one can expect from America’s greatest university.  The show runs in Cambridge six days a week from early February through early March, followed by a brief tour in New York and Bermuda.

The catch—or should I say, the draw—is that, although roughly half the characters in the show are women, all of the performers are men.  Basically, it’s a drag show with a storyline and a full orchestra, and however the plot unfolds, it always ends with the entire cast in matching dresses and heels, flawlessly pulling off elaborate dance formations and Rockette-style high kicks.

In short, it’s a grand old time at the theater.  When I first experienced it in 2003, I thought it was just about the funniest damn thing I’d ever seen on the stage.  A dozen years later, my enthusiasm has waned barely at all.  For sheer cheeky ridiculousness, it’s still one of the best shows in town.

Today, however, change is in the air.  In our 21st century culture of gender equality and limitless opportunity for all, the elephant in the theater has finally been addressed:  Shouldn’t we get a few women up there on the Hasty Pudding stage?

That’s what 17 women in particular wondered this past week when they turned up to audition for roles in this year’s production.  However serious some of them might have been, several made it plain that their presence at the auditions was largely symbolic—a means of forcing the issue as to how much longer Hasty Pudding can remain a male-only clique before modernity catches up with it.

To be clear:  Hasty Pudding Theatricals is not actually an all-male organization.  For decades, female students have been equal partners in the show’s writing, music, costumes, set design and every other component of the technical and creative process.  It is only in the casting that the “no girls allowed” rule takes effect, and the reasons for this—up until now, at least—have made absolutely perfect sense.

To wit:  If the whole joke is that men are pretending to be women, how can you toss actual women into the mix while still making the joke work?  If Hasty Pudding is to welcome women into its cast, won’t it require changing the very nature of Hasty Pudding itself?

Neither of those is any great mystery.  In reverse order, the answers are “sort of” and “fairly easily.”

I mentioned how, in a typical Pudding production, half the characters are male and the other half are female.  Well, then:  Why not cast men to play the women, as usual, and then cast women to play the men?  If cross-dressing is the show’s core competence, why not take it to the max?  Why subvert the conventions of one sex when you could just as easily subvert both?

Through the prism of today’s sensibilities, it becomes evident that, by restricting its cast to only men, Hasty Pudding may well have deprived itself of a great deal of priceless comedic material during the 167 productions it has created thus far.  After all, is there any reason to think that a woman dressed as a man would be any less funny than a man dressed as a woman?

To the extent that we don’t know this already—i.e. we don’t have too many examples to draw from—we can blame several millennia of sexism that allowed men to do whatever the heck they wanted and women to do very little at all.  (In Shakespeare’s time, for instance, it was perfectly normal for male actors to play Juliet and Lady Macbeth, while female actors weren’t even a thing.)

And sure, expanding the Pudding cast would alter the club’s identity a bit and cause a certain chunk of Harvard traditionalists to bow their heads in mourning over the death of a tradition that has existed since the Van Buren administration.

But once that happens, it will almost surely give way—as every other ceiling-breaking moment has—to the collective realization that we should’ve taken care of this years ago and there’s really no excuse for why it took so damned long.

The more difficult issue, though, is whether there are instances—even today—in which discrimination based on gender is justified.  Even if Hasty Pudding doesn’t qualify, its continued existence demonstrates how the imperative of gender equality is not always as black and white as it seems.

In the 1970s, there was a prolonged, highly contentious showdown on this subject in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment.  This proposal—first introduced in 1923, shortly after women secured voting rights— stipulated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

It sounds innocuous enough—a no-brainer if there ever was one—but opponents of the ERA quickly alerted the public to various unintended consequences that such a law would, or might, create.  Among these were the end of certain special protections traditionally afforded women, such as alimony and child custody, as well as the integration of all the country’s women-only colleges and universities.  After all, what are Wellesley and Bryn Mawr if not institutions that deny admission to male applicants on account of sex?  In 2015, does this really make any more sense than a college that denies admission to girls?

Then there are sports.  Professional leagues like the NFL and Major League Baseball currently contain no female players, but we all know it’s only a matter of time before they do.  Now that Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver have become the first women to survive Army Ranger School—a feat that will likely accelerate the integration of the Armed Forces themselves—systematically shunning female athletes from traditionally male sports leagues will increasingly be seen as quaint, pointless and unacceptable, as it already has in the fields of business, politics, science and the arts.

Or perhaps not.  In the end, it all depends on whether we think men and women are more different than they are similar, and whether the differences are significant enough that they need to continue to be enshrined in law.

Or, in this case, the Harvard student handbook.

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