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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Oscar Soapbox

Would it be considered a lost cause to complain about the mixing of politics and the Oscars?  Is it just too late in the game for us to do anything about it?

Probably.  But every losing issue needs somebody to argue it for the last time, and on this occasion, that person might as well be me.

From this year’s Academy Awards, broadcast a week ago Sunday, arguably the most admired moment came from Patricia Arquette, the winner of Best Supporting Actress, who devoted the final chunk of her acceptance speech to call for equal pay for women.  “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” said Arquette.  “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  The remarks yielded howls of approval inside the Dolby Theatre and wide support on the interwebs in the hours and days thereafter.

Indeed, I can’t say I have any quarrel with the substance of Arquette’s remarks.  While I think the specific issue of wage equity is slightly more complicated than it appears—not every case is a matter of out-and-out discrimination by an employer—it’s just about impossible to dispute the principle of equal pay for equal work.

Here’s my question:  What does this have anything to do with the Oscars?

In theory, the Academy Awards are nothing more than the recognition of the film industry’s best work in a given year, as determined by members of the industry itself.  Acceptance speeches by the winners are meant to be exactly that:  A show of gratitude for having been singled out by one’s peers.  And—as has become the practice—an opportunity to thank everyone who helped get them there in the first place (which, as we know, tends to be everyone the honoree has ever met).

As such, Oscar speeches, at their best, are exercises in humility—ironic as that sounds, considering that the speakers are effectively being crowned kings and queens of the universe, or at least of the American culture.

To that end, my own favorite moment from last Sunday was Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Although I thought Michael Keaton slightly more deserving of the honor for his work in Birdman, I sort of hoped Redmayne would win, anyway, because I figured (from his previous wins this year) that he would react exactly as he did:  By jumping up and down like a giddy schoolgirl, completely overwhelmed.

There’s a certain feigned modesty that many British actors have turned into a shtick, but with Redmayne—33 years old, with no major starring roles until now—you sense that the gratitude is real.  That he works hard and takes his job seriously, but never in a billion years expected to wind up on the Oscar stage, and knows precisely how lucky he is.  That in a Hollywood overstuffed with jerks and prima donnas, Redmayne is one of the good ones.

That’s what the Oscars are all about:  Giving a moment in the spotlight to stars whose very existence elevates show business to something pure, noble and joyous.

And joy, it must be said, was oddly hard to come by during the balance of the Oscar telecast.  We had Best Song winners Common and John Legend lamenting the continuing racial injustices in the American legal system (and elsewhere).  We had Dana Perry, producer of the documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, invoking her son’s suicide in a plea for more public discussion of the subject.  We had Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore citing his own brush with suicide and begging today’s tortured young people not to give up hope.

Sheesh, what an unholy string of letdowns.

Surely, these are all deathly important issues that deserve a thorough public airing, as they all surely have in recent times—albeit some more visibly than others.

But is the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night really the proper setting for them?

Can’t the Oscars just be the whimsical, frivolous, bloated Hollywood orgy we all think we’re tuning in to on the last Sunday of every February—curled up, as we are, on the couch with a tub of microwave popcorn and a cosmo?

We deal with the discomforting horrors of real life at all other moments of the year.  Why can’t the Oscars, of all things, be a temporary respite?  Arguably the single central function of movies, after all, is escapism.  Shouldn’t the event that celebrates movies follow suit?

Movie stars can, and do, stake out public opinions on any issue that interests them.  But must they do so at the very moment when most of us would just as well not be reminded of the fraught and complicated real world to which we must return in the morning?

I know this is a line of reasoning with holes large enough to drive a tank through.  I know movies are not only about escape.  I know the Oscars represent the largest audience that any artist will ever have.  I know that the Academy is, itself, a highly political organization and that Oscar voting is subject to the same cynical political maneuvering as any presidential election.  I know that the gripes about sexism and racism are as germane to the film industry as to any other.

And I know that, barring a totalitarian freak-out by future Oscar producers, winners are going to continue to say whatever the hell they want when they get up on that stage, even if it means talking over that infernal orchestra and harshing the buzz of everyone at home.

There is no escape from facing the hard facts of life—not even at silly award shows, which you’d think would be immune to them.  Apparently they’re not.

So instead, we are left with the second-best option:  Awarding trophies only to artists intelligent enough to climb on their political soapboxes in an articulate and entertaining fashion, as (it must be said) nearly all of them did last week.

Or we could just give everything to Eddie Redmayne.

Walled Off

When I was in Israel last December, my tour group made a stop at the Western Wall.  After we passed through security, we were left to roam the plaza and approach the Wall itself, dividing into two groups:  Men to the left, women to the right.

I had not been aware such a system existed, but indeed it does:  The Western Wall Plaza is partitioned so that men and women pray in separate quarters.

Can you guess which area is bigger?

As we face a changing of the guard in the Vatican with the pending retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, it is worth reflecting that the Catholic Church is hardly alone among the world’s monotheisms in treating its womenfolk like dirt.

Since 1988, the Western Wall Plaza has fallen under the jurisdiction of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, itself a wing of the Israeli government.  In addition to its policy of physically (and inequitably) dividing the sexes, the foundation maintains a dress code within the plaza’s perimeter whereby women are forbidden from wearing the traditionally male prayer shawl known as a “talit.”

As reported in the New York Times this week, a group that calls itself “Women of the Wall” is seeking to ensure that this is no longer so.

Last Monday, ten members of this renegade group were detained by Israeli police after praying at the Wall decked in the aforementioned illicit garb, as the organization has done regularly since its formation in 1988.

The battle for gender equality is decidedly uphill.  In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to prohibit women from enjoying the praying privileges extended to men.

The court’s rationale, interestingly enough, was one of keeping the peace.  In past incidents, “Women of the Wall” representatives were met with physical intimidation and howls of protest from ultra-Orthodox men who were praying nearby.  Suppressing women’s dress, the argument goes, would prevent such outbursts in the future.

You heard right:  The high court of the Middle East’s only stable democracy ruled that the unregulated presence of women at the Western Wall was a provocation and, in effect, an infringement of the men’s right to not have to pray alongside women.

Indeed, this line of reasoning is perfectly consistent with the traditions of Orthodox Judaism.  Most Orthodox synagogues—in Israel, the United States and everywhere else—contain some form of mechitza, or division, to separate the sexes during services.  Some mechitzot place women in the back of the sanctuary while others simply split the room into left and right halves, but the principle is the same:  Men cannot be made to catch women’s cooties.

One is reminded, for instance, of the way various organized religions attempt to frame themselves as the oppressed party whenever the threat of gay equality pops up.  This week, when the Illinois State Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage, it included the proviso that, should the bill be endorsed by the State Legislature and become law, Illinois houses of worship would retain the right to deny such unions under their roofs.

Most pro-gay marriage bills have included such a provision as a way to neutralize a clash with clergy who view gay equality as an infringement upon their right to practice and preach gay inequality.

Natan Sharansky, a government official tasked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to resolve the “Women of the Wall” conundrum, expressed genuine ambivalence as to which side—the women or the Orthodox men—presents the stronger argument.  Sharansky implored that, in any case, “We do have to find a solution in which nobody will feel discriminated against.”

In my own experience, I have found the most effective way to ensure nobody feels discriminated against is not to discriminate against anybody.  The ultra-Orthodox community can rationalize from here to kingdom come, but prohibiting women from wearing prayer shawls that are freely worn by men is discrimination in its very design.

If avoiding discrimination is truly the goal in this case—“if” is indeed the key word—there is only one possible resolution, and that is for the Israeli Supreme Court to reverse its 2003 decision and acknowledge that a democratic state cannot favor one gender over the other so far as the law is concerned.

Would such an eventuality annoy the ultra-Orthodox powers that be, leaving them feeling their way of life is being trampled?  I suppose it would.  In 1960, the white folks in Greensboro, North Carolina could not have been terribly pleased to learn they would henceforth need to share Woolworth’s lunch counter with patrons who were black.

In a free society, some things are more important than tradition.