When Anything Goes, it’s Women who Lose: A look at Charleston Stage’s “Anything Goes”

This past weekend, I saw a production of Anything Goes put on by Charleston Stage at Dock Street Theater, in Charleston, SC. It took some time to find the theater because it looked more like a house converted into a theater, even though Dock Street is apparently the first building ever built specifically for theater in America. The venue had quite a few obstructed viewing seats that weren’t priced any differently than full viewing seats, but it also had a very cool vibe. The acting was all fantastic; the lead (Kat Liz Kramer) had been imported from Broadway, and it was obvious why. The dancing was also great; I had been watching a dance competition all day and the tap dancing in the show was still the best tap dancing I had seen all day. The singing from the sailors had some questionable harmonies at times, but other than that the music was spot-on as well (again, the Broadway import was phenomenal). In conclusion, most of the production aspects were positive. Still, I could not bring myself to give a standing ovation with the rest of the crowd. I can’t agree with everything Camille Paglia has ever said, but “when anything goes, it’s women who lose” was really proven true by this show.

I went into this knowing nothing, and after the first five minutes, I already knew that this musical was written by a bunch of men in the 1940s or earlier. If it hadn’t been, I would be even more concerned for society, but luckily I was right: Thank you, 1934 Cole Porter. The least offensive parts of the musical involved four white guys pretending to be Chinese, complete with stereotypical hats, terrible accents, and gambling problems. Every female character is entirely defined by her sexual desires. It is how the female characters all decide who they will marry, with the exception of the one who marries for money. Every female character in this play was portrayed as a complete bimbo who thinks about nothing other than sex and/or money, even the minor ones with zero lines.

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Just an example of the characterization of women and Chinese people we saw in this production

Example 1: The opening scene involves a girl sitting with her male friend at a bar. He asks her for advice with a problem he is having: a girl he loves is getting married. Her response? “What?! But I thought you were in love with me! You treat me well, you never grope me or kiss me or make any other sort of pass at me! I can’t believe you would treat me like a human being if you weren’t going to marry me!”

Example 2: We are supposed to believe that this man from scene one is entirely virtuous, chasing after a woman he loves to save her from being forced into an unhappy marriage (sounds like a Hindi movie! …but he doesn’t care to woo her parents, so it’s not). When he finally is alone with her, though, it is revealed that he is doing all of this after having a one-night stand with her. He doesn’t know her at all, but he had good sex with her once so therefore he must chase her onto a cruise ship and shave her mom’s dog so he can spend his life with her. She even thinks this is all a bit weird, but after he recounts the details of that night they spent together, she is once again head over heels.

Example 3: After intermission, the curtains opened to heavy panting and a woman exiting a lifeboat with four men, who proceeded to each beg her to marry her. The very small little girl sitting in front of me spent a few minutes whispering to her mom about this before audibly saying “OHHHH, I get it.” I have no idea what her mom said to her to make her think she “got it”, but I don’t think she did. Anyway, the woman turns the sailors down through a song, but continues to play with their hearts and talk about nothing but how much she wants to have sex with every man on the ship for the duration of the play.

Example 4: The woman from scene one has met the man from scene one’s love interest’s fiance, and she is not a fan of him, although he is quite fond of her. By now it is very clear that man one and love interest are getting together, so the two broken-hearted are drinking away their sorrows. Randomly, fiance decides to sing a song confessing his deepest darkest secret to this stranger he has met only once before. His secret is that he is part gypsy. What does being part gypsy mean? Basically, he has a wild side in the bedroom and it is implied that he also has a huge cock. After finding out he is good in bed, woman one is entirely smitten with this man she had previously held zero liking towards. They therefore get married.

Example 5: It is implied that man one’s love interest’s mother is in a bestial relationship with her tiny dog. Still, she has a rich man who is in pursuit of her. This actually happens: In the last scene, she agrees to marry him, turns him down because it is revealed he lost all his money, then agrees to marry him again once it is revealed that in reality he is still rich. This rich guy could care less that she is explicitly a gold digger, presumably because she is good in bed.

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More casual objectification of women, no biggy

Now, there are real life people who will do the things in the scenarios above, and that’s fine and awesome! The problem with this musical is not that some female characters base all their decisions on money and/or sex, it is that all of them do. There is a complete lack of diversity in female characters. There are no multidimensional characters – women or men – and no background stories that help us understand why they make the decisions they do. Every character has been developed terribly, but it is the women who are all defined by their sexual choices and nothing else. So when every single woman in the play is presented as wanting nothing but sex all the time, it is perpetuating the idea that women are not people. We are all just sexual objects to be played with. “The show is about people giving themselves permission to do what they want and to let go,” but the only things any of the women seem to want are sex and money.

I found out after the performance that Charleston Stage does a lot of educational outreach, and this production had multiple performances directed at children. I am more in favor of theater education than most people, but productions like this are living in some weird male fantasy universe where if a woman doesn’t like you now, either get rich or rape her and she’ll change her mind. I don’t care how successful and relevant Cole Porter was in the 1930’s, these productions do not need to be staged today and definitely don’t need to be shown to the young and impressionable – at least not without an open discussion following the performance that addresses the differences between 1930s society and the present.

It might be possible to produce this show in a less offensive way than Charleston Stage did. It’s also quite possible there is history behind this that I am missing that makes it the type of show everyone needs to see, but the production I saw was not suitable for people such as myself, who don’t know the historical context. I’ve read that Anything Goes is supposed to be a satire, and maybe this production just ignored the satirical aspect and took itself entirely too seriously. Regardless, I don’t really plan on seeing any future productions of this show by other companies – even if the production I saw just happened to really accentuate the “women are objects” aspects of the original a bit too much.

(The Charleston Stage website does have a section called “Parent Guide”, which mentioned that there are a number of innuendos in the show, and included the statement: “Some references to sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, racial stereotypes and cross-dressing are seen within the show.” I do appreciate the effort, but if you think cross-dressing is more potentially offensive than overt sexism and objectification of women, then we have very different moral standards for our children.)

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