Pudding Ritual is a Drag

Am I the only person on campus who is utterly repelled by the sight of corset-clad grotesques high-kicking in a chorus line? Apparently so, judging from the accolades which have been heaped on this year's Hasty Pudding show.

Without fail, the production is described as a wonderful tradition which "just lets boys be girls," and cathartic too, since it allows for the easy and safe expression of youthful hijinks.

It's a lark, frivolous, of no importance, say some. But much can be discerned from frivolity, and clearly, the Pudding shows with their unrelenting focus on cross-dressing, serve to reinforce crude stereotypes of women.

Almost always, male to female cross-dressers, those in it for the long term as well as collegiate dabblers, choose the mode of exaggerated femininity, with a focus on exaggerated female movements--the mincing walk, generous cleavage, the flaming lips (no subtle Prescriptives regimen here), the coquettish, come-hither glances (my God, do women still give come-hither glances?)--and a seemingly inescapable attraction to low-rent apparel from Victoria's Secret and Frederick's of Hollywood, clothing choices which reveal more than mere body parts.

The selection of this version of womanhood as worthy of caricature, serves to sustain outdated modes of thinking--where women are objectified, consigned to the margins--thinking which is clearly at odds with Harvard's strenuous repositioning of itself as a culturally inclusive meritocracy which is responsive to gender concerns.

The Pudding's annual show should not be read, in spite of various justificatory claims, as an attempt to invert the hierarchy or as an assault on the social order. These claims are particularly egregious because here at Harvard people who wield, or will wield, considerable power on popular culture or public policy, too often merely play at nonconformity, gestures often rendered meaningless simply by virtue of their presence here.

I'm not opposed to cross-dressing per se, or social uncertainty as expressed in sexual ambiguity. And androgyny, of course has its illicit appeal. The liberating possibilities of cross-dressing do not entirely escape me. I don't submit to the totalitarian stranglehold of gendered dressing. When subtly scaled and done with a degree of ingenuity and creativity, who among us--male or female, can resist the allure of gossamer--it can be interesting, even thought-provoking. But I am opposed to the institutionalization and ritualization of the practice, which serves to eradicate real possibilities for creativity and imposes instead, a massmarket sensibility.

And there has been an explosion of the acknowledgement of cross-dressing in the culture. A number of movies dealing explicitly with the subject have received both critical and popular acclaim. They include Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mrs. Doubtfire. An upcoming Patrick Swayze vehicle, will soon join their ranks. Inexplicably, the current video by a mainstream adultcontemporary pop singer, Gloria Estefan, is a paean to the thrills of crossdressing. Consequently, increased exposure to the practice means that the traditional, instinctive reaction to many public male-to-female cross dressers, usually one of laughter coupled with spasms of revulsion, has changed to one of, if not obliviousness, then almost casual acceptance.

While these cultural products provide fodder for the closer examination of a legitimately interesting sub-culture, they are all guilty of the same, a coarseness which thrives on caricature and which I no longer find remotely funny.

And yes, I have attended Pudding shows in the past and have felt equally disconcerted and amused. But now the overwhelming sensation is one of cognitive dissonance. The spectacle no longer sits well with me. I won't be complicit in what is a ritualized, institutionally sanctioned, demonization of women and, worse, pay to see bodies refracted through that prism of distortion. And besides, why look like Norma Desmond, if you don't absolutely have to?

Lorraine A. Lezama's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.