Since 1844, Harvard University’s elite Hasty Pudding Theatricals troupe has staged its annual burlesque musicals without a single woman onstage. Women have written scores and scripts, run tech, and played in the orchestra since the 1950s, but in keeping with ye olde theater tradition, Hasty Pudding continues to cast men in drag for female roles.
That may change this year. After a group of undergraduate women announced their intent to audition for this season’s production, Hasty Pudding president Robert Fitzpatrick revealed that the troupe’s leadership has been discussing the possibility of an integrated cast since the spring. Student Megan Jones explained her reasons for joining the protest on Facebook:
It is extremely upsetting to me that women are still barred from performing in one of the most prestigious (and popular) productions on campus. The biases, power imbalances, and exclusionary tactics at play here are eerily reminiscent of a truly troubled past (when gender inequity was the norm).
But Hasty Pudding’s ties to antiquated gender politics won’t be undone by a simple shift in casting policies. Its all-male casts were born of necessity in a school that didn’t admit female students. When the troupe kept that tradition alive while killing off less convenient ones (its costumes and stage production, for instance, are contemporary and top-of-the-line), Hasty Pudding’s commitment to cross-dressing turned suspect. Allowing women to perform would undermine the very essence of what the group has become: a space for lampooning femininity and reinforcing tired gender norms. Its exclusion of women has ensured that much of its comedy rests on the shallow gag of seeing a dude in a dress.
The drag of Hasty Pudding bears little resemblance to the performative glamour of drag queens, who, through glitzy get-ups and practiced feminine gestures, reveal how much of gender is superficial, not innate. By leaning into the no-homo humor of guys playing gals—check out that bro from Parks & Recreation giving another dude a lap dance!—Hasty Pudding affirms its own masculinity at the expense of women and queer people. If women joined the cast, they could dress in drag, too, but the result wouldn’t look anything like Hasty Pudding, which has long prioritized the male perspective at the exclusion of everything else.
The Harvard women protesting for inclusion are smart to want to bust up the old boy’s club. In a school that places a premium on alumni networks, Hasty Pudding boasts one of the best, with five U.S. presidents (both John Adamses, both Roosevelts, and John F. Kennedy) and dozens of big names in the business we call show (including Jack Lemmon, Stockard Channing, Rashida Jones, and BJ Novak) on the roster. And Hasty Pudding’s annual Woman and Man of the Year awards, which bring two A-list celebrities to campus each winter for a roast and parade, have boosted its public profile since the mid-20th century. Onstage parts are a prime opportunity for aspiring actors and far more visible than the behind-the-scenes roles women currently occupy.
Even so, winning this battle would only prolong the life of an institution whose relevance petered out decades ago. Its history of racist jokes and colonialist portrayals of other cultures has survived into the new millennium along with its outdated membership practices. Where the troupe once skewered Hitler and Mussolini before World War II, it now relies on cheap parodies of pop culture ephemera (LOL—another lap dance!).
Elitist, segregated institutions all have an expiration date, and this theater troupe’s is long past. If celebrities like Amy Poehler—who has publicly ridiculed its all-male casts and lack of racial diversity—didn’t accept the troupe’s awards, and if prominent alumni took a thoughtful stand, Hasty Pudding’s prestige would lose its power. The answer to Hasty Pudding’s legacy of exclusion and cultural insensitivity isn’t co-ed casting. It’s a death blow.