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.
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…
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.
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: