The Times Still are A-Changin’
Our law school put on a show every year, spoofing the faculty. Ham that I am, I participated in all three shows. I want to tell you about one of them.
It was 1977, and I was in my second year. Two classmates and I wrote the script, and two others penned lyrics for our song parodies. Except for two that I had written. One was a parody of Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say.” It was called “Res Ipsa Loquitur,” which means “the thing speaks for itself,” riffing on accident lawyers. The lyrics were funny enough, and we had a tort professor named Robert Waters, who many students called Muddy. The other song was an original entitled, “Be My Chicken.” It was a pastiche of blues songs with risqué double-entendres. It had nothing to do with law.
I rehearsed both songs for the cast and crew. They decided that the Chicken song was too dirty. It included the word “cock,” as in rooster. But I didn’t mean rooster, Besides, rooster didn’t scan. The Chicken song was cut, but the ambulance chaser song remained, and it got lots of laughs. Did I mention that Professor Waters was African-American, and I performed in black-face? In today’s America, the reactions would be the opposite. I still do the Chicken song at parties, while the other received a suitable burial. I am embarrassed by my lack of judgment and empathy, but it was Florida in the Seventies. Red Ipsa Loquitur, y’all.
“My Fair Lady” is a 1956 musical about an uneducated Cockney girl who becomes an elegant, middle-class woman under the tutelage of a self-proclaimed misogynist and elitist. They fall in love – sort of—and she comes back to live under his aristocratic roof, the curtain falling as she retrieves his slippers. She makes this choice despite the declared affections of an idle-rich young man, who haunts the woman’s neighborhood, winsomely singing,”Let the time go by, I don’t care if I can be here on the street where you live.” In other words, a Stalker.
In the 1978 film, “Animal House,” all types of debauchery and mayhem are exploited for laughs, including a college freshman’s attempt to intoxicate and have sex with an under-age girl. Statutory Rape. Now that scene would end up on the cutting room floor.
Also in 1978, Rodney Dangerfield joked,” I have three children —one of each.” His joke about homosexuality was a harbinger for the politics of gender identity and its bathroom conundrum.
These are cultural touchstones marking the changes in sensitivity on issues of race and sexuality in American culture in the last sixty years. We can look at the past as unenlightened, but except for myself perhaps, the talents behind these celebrated works were not cave dwellers. The current outpouring of accounts of sexual assault helps us as a culture move from the theoretical to the actual. Millennials may know intuitively what we boomers had to learn.
Victims of sexual assault have broken free of repressed and suppressed recollections, many involving cultural icons. The accounts offer a look into sexual roles going back thirty or more years to the present. Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have been accused of rape. Bill O’Reilly has paid off cases of sexual assault. Kevin Spacey and Roy Moore allegedly forced themselves upon minors. Louis C.K. has admitted to exposing himself and jerking off in front of several female comics, a rumor that had circulated for years. Those women have issued reports now. At first, they did not speak up, in deference to his power in show business and that he’d been generous helping them build their careers.
The case of Al Franken raises different issues. Franken, then a comic on a 2006 USO tour, admits to aggressively kissing another entertainer in a scene calling for a “stage kiss.” This scenario was a recurring gag in 1982’s “Tootsie,” in which Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing character is repeatedly over-kissed by her soap opera co-star with a reputation for such hi-jinks. By the way, Dustin Hoffman himself stands accused of misconduct. The USO tours were enormously popular during earlier wars, when Bob Hope paraded a number of voluptuous women, immodestly dressed, in front of an audience of drooling GIs. With Franken, the kiss, which was immediately repulsed by the victim, was embellished by a photo taken of Franken fondling or appearing to fondle the victim’s breasts while she was asleep on a transport plane. The photo was included in a commemorative album distributed after the tour, to the victim’s horror.
Franken’s behavior creates a different kind of problem for the people who traditionally side with the victim. Franken is now a U.S. Senator for the State of Minnesota, and he unfailingly takes the victim’s side in these situations. His allies and constituents are forced to reconcile Franken’s private lechery with his admirable public work. Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times columnist, has called for his resignation or at least an ethics hearing. He is receiving a pass from many of his supporters.
The politics and the less invasive nature of the offense support Franken, but so do the outdated mores of earlier times. Franken grew up in the sixties and seventies. Our “take” on sexual matters was different. A male was expected to be the initiator, and the female was the boundary setter. “No” was the word when uttered in combination with a physical withdrawal. The line was thus drawn. One might say that “No” should have been sufficient. But there was countervailing part of the ritual that called for a certain amount of female protest, as if to say, “I don’t l, do this but, well, because it’s you…” Face was saved, parental encomiums heard but not always followed.
Franken and his fellow player were performers in a show. This isn’t meant to suggest that Franken was justified: it was “Tootsie” for real. As a performer, he knew better. The photo was at the least in bad taste and at worst evidence of a battery, touching without consent while the woman slept. Franken crossed the line. Yet, I can’t equate it with the other scandals because it is by degrees closer to the aggressiveness that once was condoned. However, if later we find out that Stuart Smalley really wasn’t good enough, his show will be canceled too.