HPT: Dragging Sexism Out

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A call for inclusive arts programs.

Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatrical’s have been putting on student written shows since 1844. With clever, punny titles and an over-the-top brand of humor, the annual Hasty Pudding show has become a Harvard Institution, world-renowned and uniquely Harvard.

Such a Harvard tradition naturally came from an exclusive social institution. The Hasty Pudding Club, founded in 1795, forms the route of the theatrics and exclusivity that today still define the organization. The social club itself still exists and has since gone co-ed, as has the staff of the show. However, the cast still remains firmly and exclusively male.

Drag performance itself is not out of the ordinary at Harvard. Adams House has a long tradition of annual drag nights. This developed when an Adams House student, seen in the past as the “gay house,” was very aggressively gay bashed by some other students. In response to what the house community saw as inadequate punishment, according to the Adams website, “The gay students in Adams decided a poignant statement could be made by throwing a Drag Ball – a mockery of the Formal Dances held in Kirkland and Eliot Houses (Adams did not have its own Formals at the time).” The event was attended enthusiastically by gay and straight members of the house alike, standing in solidarity.

Adams’ tradition of drag as resistance stands in stark contrast to the tradition of the Hasty Pudding. Always an elite social, gender-exclusive institution, the Hasty Pudding uses drag purely for the farce, for the cheap humor of the transphobic man-in-a-dress gag. And by casting exclusively cis men (as far as I can tell, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals have never had a trans man in their productions), the show affirms its own air of hegemonic masculinity by using drag as a joke only men can engage with.

The common response from Hasty Pudding defenders is that there are still women on the staff of the show. While ostensibly true, a quick Google search reveals that in the last five years, the main writing and music teams for the show have included only one woman. Claiming to be inclusive on paper but then failing to do so in reality does not absolve the organization of its guilt.

In response to this lack of female representation, a group of Harvard women this year auditioned for the Hasty Pudding show. This well publicized protest was hailed by many as a superb feminist stance, a grand effort by a strong group of women. Indeed, such a vocal, public stance against the Hasty Pudding’s exclusivity is an important step in combatting it, and I have nothing but respect for the woman who orchestrated it.

However, in all my reading about the protest, I found myself troubled by it. In talking to others about the Harvard theatre community, it became clear that simply combatting gender discrimination will do little to alleviate the larger issues the community has. Monita Sowapark ’18 said, “I don’t presume to speak for everybody involved in HRDC [Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club], nor do I presume that my opinion is the opinion of every POC in theater, but one of the main reasons that I quit doing theater at Harvard is because it necessitated me being in nearly, if not exclusively (and often functionally) all-white spaces.”

 

Sowapark went on further to discuss the current backlash at the UC’s decision to put a cap on HRDC funding. Though this decision has angered many in the theatre community, Sowapark pointed out that “the current backlash against the cap on funding fails to address the fact that theater at Harvard gets more funding than all cultural groups on Harvard’s campus combined. It also privileges the status of artistic freedom and doesn’t question further—who is given artistic freedom on campus?”

Sowapark isn’t alone in her feelings. Darius Johnson ’18, a writer and stage manager for this semester’s BlackC.A.S.T .production of Black Magic, said “Being black, queer, and first gen, I feel like most productions that happen in the larger theater community aren’t about/for me. I want to see my issues/struggles being cared about on stage, on important stages, not just in Adams Pool every other semester.”

Johnson describes his interest in theatre as a need—a need to talk about important issues and open dialogues. This is a great power that art has. It gets people talking and can introduce unheard, important perspectives. The Hasty Pudding’s shows do precisely the opposite. They rely on old prejudices and stereotypes for laughs, such as using the phrase “the exotic and erotic land of India” in a production’s description, and do little to advance any dialogue. While calling for more gender diversity is a start, the theatre community has far more to do in order to truly become an inclusive space.

 

Megan Sims ’18 ([email protected]) is tired of people asking what she plans to do with her concentration and is prone to angry feminist rants.