Amy Poehler 2015 Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year

Bad-ass college women plot infiltration of all-male theater troupe

This Saturday, a group of women will infiltrate auditions for the third-oldest theater troupe in the world. The group has excluded women from performance since 1844. 

The Hasty Pudding Theatricals is a Harvard undergraduate organization that puts on a yearly high-profile, student-written and performed, musical-burlesque-drag extravaganza. Its show is professionally directed and choreographed, has an extensive alumni network, and tours yearly — all opportunities that women performers miss out on. While women are involved in the Pudding from the production side, they aren’t permitted to act in the show.

Scene: Tess Davison, actress, college student, and generally talented lady of mystery, stands in the snow, gazing up at Amy Poehler. It’s January in Harvard Square, and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals is honoring Poehler as “Woman of the Year” in annual parade featuring a celebrity in the performing arts.

“I was looking up at this amazing woman in comedy,” Tess told me. Tess and I went to college together, and I had a lot of feelings about gender inclusion on campus — so when I heard she was helping to foment theater rebellion, of course I had to interview her and her co-conspirators.

“I was like, the only reason we can’t participate in this is gender,” she said.

So Tess and co-conspirator/bad-ass talented actor in chief and fellow Harvard student Olivia Miller spearheaded an action. They were joined quickly by a bunch of other women actresses on campus. On Saturday, at least seventeen women are slated to audition for the show. And leadership of the Hasty Pudding is taking them seriously.

A word about the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. Like many elite art forms and universities, the Theatricals has its origins in privileged masculinity. It’s a drag show, but, unlike how we often think of drag, while the Pudding cast has included many queer male performers, it doesn’t ultimately have its origins in queer culture (or maybe all its founders were totally queer and we just don’t know because the historical record is heterosexist…that would be cool, too). And like many elite art forms, the world’s third oldest theater troupe has a history of utilizing sexist and racist tropes.

Okay, so why do we care?

First, duh, these women are fomenting rebellion and that’s awesome.

Second, duh, gender-based exclusion from educational and artistic resources is TOTALLY FUCKING ABSURD.

Third: Art is important. Performance is important. Distribution of resources to make art is really fucking important. Art writes the narrative of our world and I want historically excluded people writing those narratives, performing those narratives, singing those narratives, changing those narratives.

In a broader sense, then, this particular story can help us think about the stories and artists that have been traditionally excluded from elite spaces — and of how we can fix this.

As another female actor and student infiltrator, Megan Jones, said, “This is just one fight in a series of many, many fights against the intersectional oppression and exclusion that happens in clubs and institutions all across our campus.”

Let’s think about access to the performing arts in two ways: First, of who gets access to resources to make art. Second, of who is represented within the works themselves.

At a base level, artmaking is a question of resources. And we know that, even in the performing arts, women don’t get the same resources and compensation as men. While an English study indicates that female theater performers make as much or more than male performers, female actresses in film and television still get paid a whole hell of a lot less than actors, and, oh yeah, get way less creative control and a third of the speaking parts.

Do I really think some absurdly wealthy people making $8 million and other absurdly wealthy people making $16 million is a pressing justice issue? No, I think most of their wealth should be redistributed, because I am a socialist. But this is a problem that operates at every level of the industry. We’re not just talking about wildly wealthy actresses but also about struggling female novelists with two kids, freelance writers laid off in the downturn, actresses piecing it together without health insurance, creatives who can’t catch a break.

We need to really, really care about women’s art being valued, women’s art being resourced, women’s art being invested in, and women’s art being included in organizations where they can access resources and prestige, because we really, really need women telling their stories.

Of course, gender inclusion doesn’t just mean inclusion of women: A well-resourced male-only drag show also brings up the question of trans and gender non-binary representation in the performing arts.

“I feel like for people who are less gender conforming it just sort of very much limits the performance opportunities that there are,” a friend of mine told me when we chatted about The Pudding and gender inclusion in performance opportunities. They’re trans and a classically-trained aspiring professional singer, and they are awesome.

“That’s something I think about a lot as someone who is thinking about going into music: What am I going to be doing in terms of roles – what can I audition for and feel like I can really play to the best of my abilities?”

Of course, access to resources in the performing arts, and particularly in acting, doesn’t just depend on distribution of funds: It depends on the kinds of stories we tell. In order to support and include women, people of color, and queer and trans people in the performing arts, we don’t just need more resources: We need more and better forms of representation.

This brings us back to The Pudding as an elite, exclusively male drag tradition — and to the question of creativity and social change in general.

While drag has long been a liberatory mode through which queer people have navigated and rebelled against gender roles, drag in an elite and male-dominated tradition can also easily manifest sexism and transphobia. And too often, dominant performance forms (blackface, for example) derive entertainment value from representing the very people these forms exclude — but representing them in derogatory ways.

Deep inclusion — not just token inclusion, but disruptive inclusion — is a first step.

Former Hasty Pudding theatricals actor Ethan Hardy said it nicely to me over the phone: “We can actively uphold the drag tradition, but distance ourselves from the idea that the fundamental humor is dressing in a way you don’t present. I think that is enhanced if we include women.”

That is: We can make funny drag in elite spaces wherein the funny isn’t coming from mocking women and trans people. We can make good art when this art doesn’t derive its punchline from who it’s excluding.

“Just add women” isn’t a sustainable method of social change. But “just add thoughtful, bold, creative women committed to fucking shit up” — that just might be. And here’s the exciting thing about performance: It’s all about context. Its meaning can shift in a heartbeat depending on who is performing, on where they’re performing, on who wrote a joke and how the joke was delivered and who is was delivered to. Art is a sneaky bastard. This sneakiness can lend itself to scary, ethically bankrupt representations for sure — and often has. But this also means that critical inclusion of those who have been historically excluded really can change the meaning of artforms — and fast.

The Harvard women’s activism is rad in and of itself, valid in and of itself, important in and of itself, and YAY GO THEM!

But it also gives us insight into what it means for elite art to honor — not mock, but genuinely honor — the creativity of the people whose genders and cultures it has historically excluded.

This means equality of resources and performance opportunities for queer people and women and people of color. This means narratives that are genuinely creative, and not just recapitulations of racist and sexist tropes. This means supporting artmakers who don’t have access to elite art spaces and valuing their work just as much as the work produced in elite spaces.

This means infiltration.

Header image credit: EPA

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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