The Sexual Politics of Kiss Me Kate

These are difficult times for Kiss Me Kate. By now we should be used to the idea that some people find the spanking scene uncomfortable and that some productions avoid releasing imagery relating to it, even when they publish pictures of seemingly everything else in the play. We’re used to some publicists’ laughably ponderous efforts to spin a light musical comedy as ‘an examination of how women are treated in our society’, and we’re used to reviewers, whose sense of the relationship between fiction and reality is less sophisticated than it should be, pontificating loftily about the scene’s ‘sexism’. We’re even used to the double standard by which there often seems to be no corresponding problem with publicity material that contains sometimes extensive illustrations of Lilli’s violence against Fred, even though it’s arguably the other side of the very same coin: a woman can be shown hitting a man, but a man can’t be shown spanking a woman. In short, we’re used to people’s attempts to marginalize and apologise for the spanking scene.

But the moral panic over sexual harassment that erupted in 2017 heralded a change of gear, which may be illustrated by two cases, both from early the following year. The first was a production in Michigan starring a women’s studies professor as Lilli, who declared in advance that she was ‘horrified’ by ‘the little fact that I will be spanked onstage in front of many friends, family members and professional colleagues’. And a high school in Illinois not only opted to play Lilli as a paragon of professional responsibility throughout, but also removed the spanking scene altogether, whilst claiming, with self-evident mendacity, that ‘the script remains the same’.

What hypocrites these people are!

I don’t say that in angry disappointment at having my peculiar pleasures frustrated. I say it because I believe that people should accept the implications and consequences of the choices they make. Nobody has an obligation to publicize their production in a particular way, nor to pose for or release a particular photograph, and it’s not as if there aren’t many other things in Kiss Me Kate to enjoy, and therefore to publicize. No spanking in the publicity: not my preference, but fair enough. But it’s a different matter when it comes to the play itself.

It isn’t unreasonable for a woman to have a serious objection to being spanked onstage, but if you do, don’t audition for the role of Lilli Vanessi! And if you have a major problem with the spanking scene, an event that is a pivotal element in the story, don’t put on Kiss Me Kate!

I don’t have the slightest problem with some people not liking Kiss Me Kate: tastes differ. But I want to argue that the modern neo-Puritan critique of the musical, which you can find exemplified in an online essay here, rests on a series of misreadings and misconceptions that lead these pseudo-progressive cultural commentators into alignment with the kind of illiberal and authoritarian positions that our culture ought to have left behind with our Victorian ancestors, but which seem dangerously buoyant as we head towards the middle of the twenty-first century. So although I’m arguing against ideas and opinions associated with one particular species of feminist ideology, a species that happens to be toxic, I hope that nobody will imagine that I do so from a culturally conservative position, or that I want to deny the importance of treating everybody well, regardless of gender, which is one of the fundamental decencies stood for by other, non-toxic kinds of feminism.

One of the unarticulated foundations of the critique I’m trying to dismantle is the notion that there is something shameful about sexuality, especially sexuality that finds its way into mainstream culture, rather than being confined in the segregated, easily despised ghetto of pornography.

Bloomers White 2

Kiss Me Kate is emphatically not a work of pornography, but it does have a risqué dimension, and that means people may respond to elements of it in a sexual way. It’s clear that, for some, this is a ‘wrong’ kind of enjoyment that must be prevented as far as possible, by limiting what imagery gets made available and even by interfering with the play itself to stop such imagery being created in the first place.

One problem with that is that many people respond to many different things in a sexual way. There is a principle known on the internet as Rule 34, which holds that if something exists, it can be made into porn. It follows that, in principle, it is possible to have Kiss Me Kate porn. And in practice, yes, that has been created, a point I’ll illustrate by showing the very mildest of examples:

But a more relevant way of expressing the point is that, if something exists, it is possible for someone to have a sexual response to it. Post a picture of yourself wearing a bikini, and people will find it stimulating. Some people will find it very stimulating indeed. Some will collect such pictures and circulate them further.

This extends beyond even mildly erotic imagery into everyday activities like doing the washing up or walking the dog or running for a bus: there will be people, in very small numbers, who are turned on by pictures of such things. It’s a wonder that large portions of every production of Kiss Me Kate don’t turn up on the Farthingale Fetish Website – or it would be if I hadn’t just made it up! (But don’t scoff: Rule 35 states that, if it doesn’t exist yet, it will be created in the future.)

So if you’re going to avoid circulating one scene because someone might enjoy it in the ‘wrong’ way, then for consistency you would have to avoid circulating anything: human diversity being what it is, it’s all just too darn hot!

But in practice, there seems to be no objection to the release of imagery relating to other obviously sexual elements of the show, such as versions of ‘Too Darn Hot’ where the women are in their underwear or are otherwise underdressed.

To press the point further, here’s a selection of pictures associated with Kiss Me Kate that have nothing to do with the spanking, but might nevertheless be ‘wrongly’ appreciated.

There are two points to make here. The first is that, if these photos give you any kind of sexual pleasure, this doesn’t mean that you have somehow changed their essential nature and made them pornographic: they are, and remain, what they are, images that record or publicize productions of a mildly raunchy musical. And that leads to the second point: all ten of them were made available by productions which, so far as I know, also chose not to release any picture of the spanking scene.

It follows that the forces of prudish intolerance haven’t yet got to the whole of Kiss Me Kate: the problem is specifically to do with the spanking, rather than any other aspect of the musical. The prejudice rests on and is expressed through a number of assumptions and statements that are worth calling out for the fallacies they are. So let’s begin…

01 KMK

FALLACY: ‘There’s nothing funny about a woman being spanked.’

Not if you’re the woman being spanked, that’s true. But comedy doesn’t work that way. You might as well say that there’s nothing funny about a fat man slipping on a banana skin and falling on his backside.

Yet this unsophisticated attitude to Kiss Me Kate is often expressed, even sometimes by people who really should know better, such as Rebecca Lock,

who played Lilli at Sheffield at the end of 2018, and told the press:

We do tackle some scenes in the show of domestic abuse; there’s a famous scene towards the end of Act One where Fred spanks Lilli – which, in past productions, has been played for laughs with the exposing of frilly bloomers, but actually, it isn’t at all hilarious that this man is hitting a woman.

So it looks as if I’ll have to make my counterpoint more fully.

Comedy typically presents situations that would be distressing if you were actually experiencing them, but which you laugh at because you are watching, as it were, from a distance, with less empathy than perhaps you might have for a real man who slipped on a banana skin in front of you.

Here we stand on the brink of one of the big philosophical debates about the nature of art: is it just an extension of reality, so that we respond to the things we are shown in plays and novels and paintings in the same way as we would if we encountered them in our day-to-day lives; or on the other hand, does art present us with an experience that’s different from our quotidian world, and so enable or expect us to react in ways that we wouldn’t countenance in actuality?

There’s no ‘right’ answer to that, because each position pertains to a different kind of art, both of which have their own validity. Maybe we need one type to engage our understanding of the world beyond our immediate experience; but surely we need the other sort too, not least because as human beings we are also full of impulses that aren’t socially useful or even ethically admirable, and that are better explored in the world of imagination. Things start to become problematic when you treat all art according to a single standard, making (for instance) our enjoyment of a Tom and Jerry cartoon no different from taking pleasure in the systematic torture of a real pussycat. The same argument can apply to less obviously stylised art forms – and it’s not much of a stretch to argue that a Broadway musical has at least as much in common with animated cartoon capers as it does with documentary realism.

Random violence isn’t usually amusing. The fat man’s downfall is funny because he is fat and because it is caused by a banana skin: gluttony has made him especially susceptible to gravity, and food makes the point. The mayhem of Tom and Jerry is funny because its context is the eternal war between cat and mouse, rendered as an escalating sequence of progressively more baroque, stylized cruelty. Likewise, Kiss Me Kate presents another conflict situation where the antagonists are thrust together in a show that is already an articulation of the battle of the sexes, as is made apparent in Lilli’s ‘I Hate Men’ number – which, never let it be forgotten, she sings in character as Kate and before the particular provocation of Fred’s flowers, delivered to her but intended for Lois Lane. She then goes off-script to express her indignation in the form of a series of physical assaults on Fred – who reciprocates with a spanking that is also off-script, but nevertheless stays cannily and wittily within the parameters of stage tradition in The Taming of the Shrew. It’s not just ‘a man hitting a woman’: that is to take it completely out of context.

So in truth, there can be plenty funny about a woman being spanked, so long as it happens onstage in a comedy, and not on your street.

And that brings us to the next proposition of the toxic critique of Kiss Me Kate.

15 KMK East Stroudsburg University rehearsal

FALLACY: Kiss Me Kate approves and recommends domestic violence.

The pat and lazy answer to that would be to point out that none of Kiss Me Kate takes place in a domestic context (even if some rehearsals may, as the photo shows). But that would no doubt result in nothing more than the substitution of the phrase ‘spousal abuse’ for ‘domestic violence’, which then invites the equally pat and lazy answer that Fred and Lilli haven’t been spouses for a year…

I don’t think it’s particularly constructive to get into this kind of terminological bidding war. The real point at issue is that Kiss Me Kate doesn’t overtly approve or recommend anything (other than that you have an enjoyable night in the theater), and that people who want every story to have an easily summed-up moral are likely to misrepresent and trivialize the vast majority of the stories they encounter.

Kiss Me Kate is a complex love story about flawed, fallible people who make serious mistakes in their relationship but end up realizing their true feelings for one another. The notion that spanking your wife, or ex-wife, or difficult professional colleague, is an act the play overtly or implicitly supports, depends on a completely one-sided reading of the characters’ relationship, in which Fred is seen in an unqualifiedly positive light.

But most synopses of the plot introduce Fred by associating him with an adjective, and it’s usually the same one: ‘egotistical Fred Graham’. So this is a character who starts out, even before you’ve seen the show, identified as, to say the least, a less than perfect human being. He is not the hero of the play, at least not in the simplistic sense that everything he does is approved and applauded. On the contrary, his actions are defined, at least in part, by his faults and limitations, in conjunction with the particular situation in which he finds himself – under financial pressure, forced into co-starring with his ex whilst eager to get off with Lois.

Recognizing that the spanking may be a moment of weakness for Fred, a moment when he finally snaps under provocation, is in no way incompatible with enjoying the scene, whether as a piece of slapstick comedy or for those supposedly ‘wrong’ reasons. There are many things, mostly a lot more serious than spanking, that we enjoy seeing on the stage or screen, but wouldn’t want to witness in reality. Ultimately, the play is simply not very interested in assessing whether actions are right or wrong, in doling out approval and disapproval. It’s much more concerned with how and why things happen between Lilli and Fred, and what the consequences are.

And the consequences are another point of contention…

FALLACY: Kiss Me Kate is a sexist story about forcing a strong woman, against her will, to become an obedient wife.

This is often asserted by embarrassed reviewers in more progressive states and papers. We’ll take for our example a review in the Boston Globe of the 2012 production at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, starring Stephen Buntrock and Susan Powell, the latter giving neither her first nor last Lilli (and getting neither her first nor last spanking in the role):

Any production of Kiss Me Kate, including this one, is marred by a troubling dimension: the fact that headstrong, independent Kate is eventually forced into a submissive posture, and is even taken over Petruchio’s knee and spanked.

But this play isn’t entitled He Spanks to Conquer any more than it’s He Who Gets Slapped. What does Fred actually achieve? Maybe spanking Lilli gives him a little temporary satisfaction, but it certainly doesn’t make her submissive and wifely (whatever that may be). On the contrary, it precipitates the crisis: she is already incensed by the misdirected flowers, and the public spanking is a further provocation that escalates their professional conflict into what seems to be its terminal phase. Even for those who are determined to extract a political or social message from the story, that moral is not going to be that domestic violence achieves anything positive, any more than one would take Macbeth as an endorsement of regicide.

So much for the immediate effects of the spanking. But what about the overall arc of the story – isn’t that about the taming of Lilli as much as of Kate? It will be useful to hear from an actress who has actually gone through the experience:

Melissa Errico, who played Lilli in 2017, was spanked onstage and even posted a photo of the event online.

Then, in July 2018, she wrote an article in the New York Times about the gender politics of classic musicals, and discussed the experience of being ‘turned over the knee of my baritone co-star to receive the famous wallops that the script dictates, becoming in an instant the iconic poster image for the show’. And that led to a slight wobble in her confidence:

Really? I thought, while prone. What will my three preteen daughters in the audience make of this?

Her first thoughts were ones that are becoming regrettably routine: she began to think of the scene as ‘a choice exhibit of the unacceptable, … the spirited woman being spanked for her spiritedness’. But these were superseded by something a lot more mature and sophisticated. ‘Having once been bent over the baritone’s knee,’ she wrote in her article, ‘I can offer a few insights not available to those who haven’t.’ And those insights were both progressive and well-thought-out:

The role is Lilli, a middle-aged actress with a faltering career who reunites with her producer/actor ex-husband to perform in a musical version of Taming of the Shrew. The chemistry in their marriage is instantly revived; the common perception is that both Shakespeare’s Kate and the equally-fiery Lilli are tamed.

Immersed in the part, I came to see the musical as a love song to a woman and her work. Lilli, like most other middle-aged actresses I know, longs to reconnect with her profession. With her former husband, Fred, involved with another woman, she does what all actors do — transfers her fury and fire into performance, speaking her truth through the words of her character.

By her final monologue, she reclaims her power by reclaiming her identity as an artist. (Of the rear-slapping, I will add that these roles are written as two mature performers with an excess of ego and bluster, and Lilli isn’t exactly unafraid to throw things, including chairs and punches. An actress and actor keeping that in mind can play it with consensual relish.)

And that eminently sensible view from the inside sets us up for our next issue.

FALLACY: Two wrongs make a right.

The director of a 2018 production in Seattle thought he’d found the perfect solution to the perceived problem of the spanking scene. He didn’t cut it out: Fred did take Lilli across his knee and spank her onstage, just as it says in the script. And Lilli immediately retaliated by taking Fred across her knee and spanking him onstage. The director congratulated himself for doing something terribly clever. But of course what he did wasn’t clever at all, in several ways.

What suffers as a result of giving Lilli the last word like that is nothing less than the fundamental logic of the play. For one thing, there is an obvious practical obstacle: it is made absolutely clear in subsequent scenes that Lilli can’t sit down after the spanking. The director in question facilely smirked at the idea that, in his production, neither could Fred – but spanking someone requires you to be able to sit down, so that particular retaliation is unavailable to Lilli in any event.

This was evidently not a major consideration for a director who had started out with a conviction that the spanking was a problem that needed to be circumvented at all costs. He reasoned that this could be easily achieved by ‘balancing’ it with an equal and opposite problem – in effect, acting on the crude and fallacious principle that two wrongs make a right. I might add that the production then released only one photo of the two spankings, and you can guess which one – I shall not reproduce it here. So even on its own terms of ‘equalizing’ the scene, the production failed.

You may have seen what might be called ‘inversion versions’ of the most iconic spankings of the last century, such as the Chase and Sanborn coffee ad or the Wayne/O’Hara scene in McLintock! (I’m also not going to reproduce them here, but if you want to see them, they are easily enough found online.) They appear to be the work of different people, and if they made these images simply in order to fulfil their particular fantasy, I have no quarrel with that. But the impression given is that they exist primarily as a riposte to the familiar M/F orientation of these scenes, and have been created specifically in order to be disliked by people who enjoy the originals.

There’s a key difference here. Anyone with any sensitivity will understand that M/F spanking makes some non-spanko people, especially but not only women, feel uncomfortable, and that some feel the same way about it that some spankos feel about F/M. But Kiss Me Kate doesn’t actively set out to make people feel uncomfortable, even if that is sometimes its unintended and unwanted effect. In contrast, whether the objective of the ‘inversions’ is to retaliate in kind against the perceived affront of M/F or to make a political point – in effect, ‘see how you like it’ – the way the process operates depends on deliberately inducing discomfort.

So the Seattle production ‘solved’ the supposed problem of the spanking by assuming that people who might be inclined to enjoy the scene were moral imbeciles, unable to see the other point of view, and so in need of being taught it by graphically putting the boot on the other foot. In effect, it implicitly insulted its audience. And it also insulted Lilli Vanessi.

A tit-for-tat handling of the scene doesn’t enhance Lilli’s dignity and standing as a character, but actually reduces it. As I intimated earlier, the script already provides her with a response to being publicly spanked, not in kind but by shifting the fight onto professional ground: Fred responds to her violence with violence; she then responds to his unprofessionalism with unprofessionalism of her own – leaving the show in mid-performance. But whatever element of justification she might have for that is blown if she has already given her riposte by hitting back, so that she ends up looking more petulant and unprofessional than Fred. And that is absolutely not what anyone wants from Kiss Me Kate, whether it be women in the audience today or the show’s original creators back in 1948.

And the passage of seventy years raises another questionable proposition…

FALLACY: Kiss Me Kate is a cultural Trojan Horse from a less liberal time, preaching conservative values about gender relations.

It is undeniable that the past was different from the present, including in the typical role of women in society. But how different was it really?

It is often claimed that Kiss Me Kate is the product of a culture in which men had the legal right to spank their wives. No, they didn’t. A thorough account of the history is a subject for another time, but here I can sum up the truth in three sentences. The press sometimes reported that wife-spanking was lawful in two states, Alabama and Georgia, but these were only ever ‘believe it or not’ type stories about the curious survival of a cultural archaism. It was the case that many more wives did get spanked then than do now, but many of them sued for divorce because of it, and it seems most got their decrees because, even if a handful of judges offered a few heavily-publicized opinions to the contrary, in most states spousal spanking came within the legal definition of assault.

On the other hand, there were probably many other wives who didn’t divorce their spanking husbands, and their reasons would have ranged from merely putting up with it to actively enjoying that kind of sparky relationship in a way that is deeply unfashionable nowadays.

Arguments about sexual politics often depend on demonizing the past, pretending that our recent forebears espoused unenlightened social attitudes that we should be thankful to have outgrown. The truth is that there were many more similarities than differences, across not only generations but centuries, which is why we can still enjoy works of art even from the distant past, let alone those that also gave pleasure to our parents and grandparents, without ever imagining that their attitudes were always exactly identical with ours.

Spanking scenes were certainly far more common in the middle of the last century than they are in today’s contemporary works, but the subject of spanking has always raised different and incompatible opinions, for and against, including the censorious dislike that currently prevails in public discourse. But some responses at least were a little more sophisticated than that, as may be illustrated by this cartoon from 1945:

Here is a woman clearly drawing the distinction between art and life that I’ve been proposing here: a spanking scene is cute, whereas actually being spanked herself is not something she’d welcome. The cartoonist, Ed Dodd (who later drew a terrific spanking scene in the newspaper strip Mark Trail), seems to be suggesting that this is an example of feminine capriciousness. I’d say, on the contrary, that it’s entirely understandable and a sensible, honest approach to life, art and the complexity of one’s own emotional responses to both. We could do with more of it in our own contemporary world. And perhaps it does still exist, at least in the majority of people who still watch and enjoy Kiss Me Kate.

But in the current climate, this often needs to be spelled out. The director of a 2018 production in Texas made a well-meaning attempt to deflect controversy by observing, quite rightly, that Kiss Me Kate is not a new play but a classic, and so can’t be judged entirely by contemporary standards. Here’s what he had to say:

A Note on Misogyny: Both “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Kiss Me, Kate” feature mindsets from other times. “Shrew” has a central theme of “women should know their place,” which was actually the accepted world view in 1590 when it was written. “Kate” is set in the early 1950s when it was within societal norms for husbands to spank their wives. The director of this production believes that the “actions of yesterday can’t be judged by the views of today” and as a result this production will not shy away from the more uncomfortable aspects of this show, but will also be sure to be respectful of boundaries and sensibilities at the same time. The only societal or political statement that this production aims to make is that “theatre is for everyone.”

And in the spirit of not shying away, he put the spanking on the poster for the show:

In contrast, the pseudo-progressive response to Kiss Me Kate starts from the first principle that a man spanking a woman is obscene, in the literal sense of something that must never be represented on stage. It is, ironically, exactly the position of the authorities that governed the British stage in the mid-1930s, which I have described elsewhere. And that says something about how feminism, which has such fine principles and objectives in respect of society, has been turned into something much more sinister in respect of the arts and free speech in general, in the process misrepresenting plays, telling lies about history and, by seeking to banish some forms of sexuality from mainstream discourse, facilitating the creation and consumption of pornography.

After several thousand words, it bears repeating: I’m all for social justice (and I hate the fact that I feel obliged to spell that out). I just don’t think that social justice is best achieved by censorship and other intolerant, authoritarian curtailments of human liberty.

I’ll add something that is angry and personal, but I hope not self-indulgent: I also hate the fact that, even though I don’t self-identify as a sadist and have no wish to spank anybody myself, consensually or otherwise, and even though I don’t want to live in a world where either half of humanity is treated as inferior to the other half merely because of gender, I’m still frowned upon, even despised, for enjoying a scene like this:

Time’s up? ‘You’re unlikely to get a chance to see Kiss Me Kate again,’ wrote a British reviewer in June 2018.  But perhaps that report of its imminent demise is premature. At the time of this article’s publication, previews are about to begin of a major Broadway revival starring Kelli O’Hara as Lilli,

and smaller productions continue to proliferate across the Western and English-speaking worlds. I only hope they still have room for:

I’m not saying that plays should never be cut. I’m not even saying that spanking scenes should never be cut: obviously I’d prefer them to be left in, but some plays, such as Pippin, can do perfectly well without them. But there are some scenes, occasionally involving spanking, which are essential to a play’s story and structure, and the spanking in Kiss Me Kate is one of them. So if we’re going to continue reviving the musical, let’s stop making the spanking scene some kind of guilty secret, and embrace it as an indispensable part of the action, even though it is a moment about which people can, in good faith, have legitimately different opinions.

And in the spirit of acknowledging the validity of diverse opinion, here’s something for anyone who really objects to the spanking scene and badly wants Lilli to get her own back on Fred:

6 thoughts on “The Sexual Politics of Kiss Me Kate

  1. Neo says:

    I am an old man. I have watched over the years as the rift between men and women has grown. What I see is a strict preference in women for what is termed the Alpha male. Said Alpha is allowed to do many things which women otherwise would scornfully disdain if a Beta male tried.
    Some would claim that feminism is to blame, and it does play a role in developing this rift. I don’t see feminism as THE cause, for there are other factors in the decline of males which don’t stem from feminism.
    I have two sons. I was not allowed by their mother to raise them as I saw fit. Both now sit in their rooms at ages where they should have their own lives underway, pursuing fantasies which can never be realized because both have been coddled and kept away from the world. They never got to explore the world and discover how to fit in with it. Neither has any interest in the women their age, and likely never will.
    I have two daughters. Only one launched well. The other doesn’t like men, and likely never will.
    It isn’t just in the US where such a social deficit can be seen. The Japanese authorities complain about “herbivores” who would rather play video games than enter the arena of gender conflict. Similar issues abound in Scandinavia and Germany, and probably more nations of which I have not yet discovered.
    In part, I do see a cause as the huge numbers of people trying to live decent lives on this planet. It is easy to see just how difficult it is to have a comfortable life on it, and many people are now trying to keep it simple and lessen the difficulties by avoiding relationships. Those beaten down by the daily grind know better than to add to their problems by taking up residence with someone who will NOT make their lives better.
    Kiss Me Kate reminds people of a way of life which no longer CAN exist, and the reminder of that change is very uncomfortable. Any appreciation of this must be rejected angrily – and is. It isn’t the spanking scene. It’s the idea that two people who really aren’t suitable for each other by today’s standards can actually form a relationship at all. And that reminds people of just how isolated and alone they will be for the rest of their lives.

    Like

  2. maitrefesseur says:

    I agree with you almost completely. My only dissent would be, that it is not feminism (toxic or not) that is the problem here – and I’m saying this as a liberal with decidedly leftist views.

    The problem is that many people tend to underestimate “Kiss me Kate”, often because of its age, and make assumptions on the first impulse without thinking – which happens to be a great mistake. Because Bella and Sam Spewack in their libretto built in a lot of elements, that, if staged correctly, inadvertently give the play a spin away from dull sexism.

    If one takes a closer look at the dramaturgy of the libretto, this becomes plainly visible.

    The spanking is not something that stands for itself it is embedded in a two-folded context: It’s the climax of a physical fight between Lilli and Fred – within their roles as Kate and Petruccio, a fight in which both opponents are on par and it’s part of a slapstick comedy sequence (in which beating has always been an integral element, dating back to Moliere and beyond); it’s both stylized in that fashion and realistic in the suppressed level of the private actors’ feud.

    And it’s treated differently on both levels. It’s okay and un-apologetic in the realm of the pre-Shakespearean world in which the “Shrew”-story is taking place – because of the stylization and the different world view of that ancient time, it is absolutely not in the real world of Lili and Fred. There it is treated, as we would still see it today, as a highly unprofessional, illegal transgression by Fred.

    Lilli threatens to sue him at Actors’ Equity and he almost loses her because of that spanking. And let’s not forget the line “This is the last time you’ll ever lay hands on me” demonstrates that this a first time.

    Fred is not a regularly abusive husband. Although all of this is told in the lighthearted language of musical comedy – it IS told and therefore the real-life-level of the play does not condone spanking women. It shows it as something you can end up in court for, that can have your play ruined and have disastrous effects on personal relationships.

    But yes, this is told in a manner that can amuse us. Because as Shakespeare said “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people” and as Mike Nichols much later said “in the land of funny, the laugh is king”.

    We laugh about that spanking the same way (well, us spankos probably a bit differently) we laugh about Oliver Hardy getting his backside burned with a candle in “Bonnie Scotland”. It does not mean that we condone torturing men with fire.

    Another aspect that is worth a look is the element of the “taming”. If “Kiss me Kate” would tell the story of a man who overbears the will of his lover by spanking her, a story of subjugation, and advise this as a normal practice, that musical would be, without question sexist. But it decidedly does not.

    To see that you have to separate the (in the musical) fictitious Kate character and the (in the musical) real person Lilli and compare their arcs. Because, as with Fred and Petruccio, those arcs are contrasting each other in reverse – like mirrored.

    Kate at the beginning of the play is a shrew – Lilli is not, she just acts unfriendly to her ex because he is her ex. But by the beginning of the “shrew” she is madly in love with him again.

    Kate does not want to marry and has to be forced into it – Lilli on the other hand gets justifiably angry because Fred’s cheap trick on her amounts to something like cheating on her.

    Kate gets tamed and her will is overborne by Petruccio, but, as the play within the play was originally meant, not through violence but intelligent maneuvers. Since the spanking technically happens out of character, Kate NEVER gets spanked at all. Lilli – in costume, but Lilli, however gets spanked, yet is not tamed through it – on the contrary she is almost driven out of the production and Fred’s Life but her character or independence is not changed. Her mind is changed for others’ reasons, mainly that she sees that there is still so much love for her in Fred (and so little of it in Harrison).

    Kate in the end is submissive and obeys her husband. Lilli does the opposite. When she comes back she enacts her power – she saves the production, Fred’s career and their relationship, because she decides to, because it’s her will; she does so, ironically, by playing the submissive Kate. In reality she is in high status and decides the fate of everything by the powerful act of forgiving. It’s a great gesture from the one in charge.

    So in short: Kate gets tamed, but not spanked, but that’s on a fictitious level. Lilli, in her reality, gets spanked but never tamed.

    On the other hand a closer look at Fred’s and Petruccio’s arcs leads to a surprising discovery, that many tend to overlook (and which can be easily overlooked if directed clumsily or amateurishly):

    Petruccio in the beginning of the shrew part, is only after Kate’s money, but he is honest about it. Fred however is in love with Lilli again, but because he is philandering with other women he has a disaster coming, knows it, and tries to prevent it. He is in low status.

    Petruccio tries to tame Kate and force or – more precisely – trick her into marriage. Fred, in a panicky dealing with Lilli’s anger and her own transgressions, gives the improvised spanking. The only part during the run of the “shrew” that he is actually in high status.

    Petruccio goes on with the taming (high status) while Fred at the same time is in complete panic, since Lilli threatens to leave in mid-show, so he goes as far as employing the help of two gangsters, to keep the show going (low status).

    Petruccio triumphs in the end, because his wife submits to him, the taming was successful. Fred, however, is saved by Lilli, at a point when he despairs and has actually given up. He clearly understands that he was in the wrong by then. And it’s his behavior that will be changed from now on.

    In Short: Petruccio tames Kate and she submits to him, but Fred does not do that. At the realist level of “Kiss me Kate” it’s the “one who get’s slapped” that gets tamed. Fred, not Lilli, is the shrew who has been tamed.

    Because “Kiss me Kate” as a whole does not, as many mistakenly think, parallel the action of the play-within-the—play “Taming of the Shrew”, but is actually telling the “Shrew” story in reverse (!), the other way round, any sexist reading forbids itself – as much as any attempt to direct and stage “Kiss me Kate” as a sexist play forbids itself.

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    • Harry says:

      Thank you for that rich and thoughtful response.

      It is worth my reiterating that I don’t believe the anti-KMK arguments I’m trying to dismantle have anything at all to do with feminism understood as an egalitarian social movement. It is important to say that because of the hateful attitudes that are bandied about on a few other spanking sites, apparently on the assumption that anyone interested in M/F spanking must also have a vested interest in ‘teaching women their place’. I have no wish to be associated with that.

      But it is also undeniable that many modern critics of KMK, including Kendra James in the online essay I linked to, define what they are doing in terms of feminism.

      That’s partly because there’s an inherent potential for misunderstanding in a movement for gender equality that is named in terms of only one gender, allowing less thoughtful adherents (and opponents) to suppose it to be about promoting and privileging the interests of that gender over the other. It’s partly because any movement that is political, in the sense that it seeks to effect change, risks getting preoccupied with the means and losing sight of the end, so that a lot of feminists, in common with a lot of other politicians, prove to be much more interested in power than in liberty. And it’s also because any established movement is going to attract people who want to use it as a way of pursuing their own agendas, some of which are more socially conservative than the movement itself.

      So we shouldn’t see feminism as a monolithic force for good in the world, and we shouldn’t construe attempts to identify and neutralize its abuses as acts of misogyny. That is why I find it useful to differentiate between liberal and illiberal feminism: I identify with the objectives of the former but characterize the latter as toxic.

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  3. Sagebrush says:

    I wasn’t aware of the Seattle Kiss Me Kate production with the gender switching spankings until I saw your article. I live in the Pacific Northwest, but not that close to Seattle.

    I decided to investigate the local articles leading up to the play, and the aftermath. The Director is well known for his involvement with theater around the country and has produced the play in the past. Apparently he was quite affected by the #MeToo movement and continued violence against women in our society. In articles discussing the play before it was staged, he emphasized he wanted to empower Kate/Lilli and the women in the play, indicating he wanted everyone to recognize Lilli would be the winner in the battle of the sexes.

    In discussing the spanking scene and how he was going to handle it, he said he was going to make changes, but at the time of the article wasn’t sure how as yet. “some interesting comic reversals,” but wouldn’t say if he’s cutting the spanking, amping up the spanking, or maintaining current spanking levels but changing the context. “You’ll have to buy a ticket to find out, ” he says. “To be honest, I’d never produce – even two years ago – a musical that ended on his side.” He however insisted the show was not going to be “politically correct.”

    The Choreographer of the show stated she would never give power to a man in any of her choreography. Remember, gender equality.

    Apparently the cast put on a superb performance and got rave reviews. I couldn’t find one that mentioned the spankings, by either performer, or any publicity stills of the action. The only possible mention of the fight scene was one of the reviewers thought the play “went a step too far in their gender equality efforts.”

    The actress who played Kate/Lilli was interviewed and asked if any changes had been made to the play.
    “There are quite a few little tweaks but nothing super major. We just changed the end of Act 1 a little bit today … Tightened up some lines and what not. It’s been an exciting week, but not too crazy.
    Well, me spanking Fred is not in the original version. That was all the genius of …our wonderful director … He’s found some really clever ways to navigate what can certainly be viewed as some of the more difficult aspects of the show.”

    I know in this day and age, recognizing how women have been treated in the past, and too often even today, Kiss Me Kate can fire up a lot of controversy. To me, what was advertised as a gender equality production turned into a feminist wet dream. The physical abuse Fred suffers at the hands of Lilli before he administers the paddling, was apparently alright with the director. In the original script he warns her a number of times before taking action. When he does spank her, it’s more comedic than brutal, and historically the audience, women included, laugh.

    I’m sure we’ll see more of this kind of thing in future producions of the musical. Some high school stagings of the play are cutting the spanking entirely. I’m all for the empowerment of women and support the #MeToo movement as well, but I think this kind of overreaction to a show that’s been around for some 70 years is sad. If Kate can bite, slap, hit and kick Fred, I, and I’m sure most people, think he’s entitled to a little reaction in the context of the play..

    Taking issue with the actress in question, it was a major change to the show, and made a farce of the fight scene just to make a political point.

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  4. Harry says:

    Thank you for that careful fleshing-out of the Seattle case. Alas, you’re right when you say that we’re headed for more of this sort of thing. Performances of the Broadway revival have begun, and it’s not good news: the fight scene is now minus the spanking.

    I kinda thought we were likely headed that way when I read an online preview stating, with the familiar icy, judgmental primness, that ‘some of the famous scenes, like when Fred puts Lilli over his knee and spanks her, require review in 2019’, and that consequently Amanda Green had been hired to revise the book.

    And yet, it looks as though the spanking wasn’t always going to be for the chop: early in rehearsals, Kelli O’Hara said she was going to play the part on the basis of ‘If you’re gonna spank my bottom, I’m gonna kick your balls.’ Fair enough, it’s an interpretation. And it seems that subsequently they considered the ‘Seattle solution’, since the line about Lilli being unable to sit on the mule has been changed so that it now says both she and Fred (Will Chase) can’t sit down – which makes no sense at all now that nobody gets spanked.

    Amanda Green’s revised book is said, with misplaced pride, to be a feminist version that a nine-year-old girl could watch and feel empowered by – which arguably has a helluva lot wrong with it as an artistic objective. Should we define the limits of acceptable cultural expression in terms of what is suitable for nine-year-old girls? And given that power is a relative condition, so that nobody has power unless they have it in relation to somebody else who doesn’t, should we in fact be seeking to empower anybody at all, as opposed to the fine and laudable objective of giving people (of all ages and genders) self-confidence? OK, maybe that’s just a quibble about semantics.

    What this production has done is bad for us, but that doesn’t particularly matter to anyone except us. More importantly, it is bad for KMK, tinkering with its fundamental structure and integrity – which amounts to artistic dishonesty, and that, most important of all, is bad for our culture and our society.

    So shame on Scott Ellis, the director. Shame on Amanda Green. Shame on the production company, Roundabout Theatre. But I’ll stop short of calling shame on Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase, who after all are only doing their jobs.

    Even so, the show is still in preview: it doesn’t actually open until March 14, so there is still time for them to think again and do the right thing. Sadly, I bet they won’t.

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  5. Sagebrush says:

    I also saw the new production of Kiss Me Kate on Broadway didn’t include the spanking at the end of the fight scene. They apparently pummel each other, with, according to one reviewer, Lilli getting in about four times as many blows as Fred. Both complaining about sore bottoms in the next scene could allude to the swats he gives her and the kicks she gives him.

    I agree, it doesn’t matter as much to others as much as it does to us, who want the integrity of the orginal play to be preserved. To end the fight scene without the spanking, changes the context of the action, and the dialogue that follows.

    At least they didn’t go as far as the Seattle production which made a complete mockery of the scene with her spanking him. The Seattle actress wasn’t all that smaller than her co-star, but considering his strength against hers, it would have been difficult for her to do that reversal if he didn’t go along with it. There is a strength difference between the genders, like it or not. If the Seattle production is going to be an alternate choice for future Kiss Me Kates, it should be interesting to see 5-2 Lillis manhandling 6-2 Freds.

    I really liked your well thought out message on how we’re looking at a scene in a play. It doesn’t advocate anything, any more than murder or rape in a play advocates those actions. He’s reacting to the physcial violence she’s been dealing out to him, and it’s his retribution for that, and that’s all it is. It fits into the context of the fight scene. There’s no message for the men in the audience to go home and do the same to their wives and girlfriends. As you said, any that did would probably wind up in divorce court.

    I know it’s hard to argue with those who want to change the play because of their strong and legitimate feelings about the #MeToo movement, and about violence against women in our society. I agree, and support their efforts on those concerns, but I’m also against censorship, and to me, this is what’s happening to Kiss Me Kate. I can only imagine how well anyone in Seattle fared if they brought up any questions to changing the fight scene so dramatically when it was first proposed. Hopefully, someone did.

    I was also surprised when I looked into the articles and reviews of the Seattle play that none had any mentions of the spankings at all. I couldn’t find one mention of them anywhere. The audience seemed to love the play as it was presented. Apparently, the photo you mentioned, wasn’t used to any great extent. I couldn’t find it in any publicity done to advertise the show. Everyone just seemed to ignore the dramatic historical changes in the production. I don’t know if that was just because they didn’t want to address the situation, or saw no reason to.

    I had friends who traveled to see the Seattle play. I didn’t know at the time it had been changed. They loved it. No mention was made of the reverse spanking, as it apparently meant little to them. That only tells me we’ll be seeing more and more of the new feminist versions of Kiss Me Kate in the future. The general public doesn’t care enough about the change, or even know enough about the play, to know how the politically correct forces have so dramatically re-done the action to fit today’s mores.

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