It should come as no surprise that Penn’s founding as an all–white and all–male university still reverberates in its culture today. Two of the University’s oldest performing arts groups—the Penn Glee Club and Mask and Wig—are examples of how these traditions persist even centuries later.
As recently as last spring, neither organization was fully gender–inclusive, each holding onto different remnants of their all–male histories. While Glee has allowed non–men into its tech staff and band for decades, its singers division—who perform at Penn’s Convocation, travel the world for alumni shows, and get substantial institutional funding—did not follow suit. Mask and Wig, by contrast, has restricted all of its divisions to men since its founding in 1889.
These practices began to change after the pandemic forced a pause in typical operations. In the absence of rehearsals and tech weeks, the clubs were finally confronted with big questions about their origins and future: Why were they founded, and how could they best accomplish those goals moving forward?
It seems that the two organizations had similar, albeit slightly diverging, answers. On April 9, 2021, Penn Glee Club posted to their Instagram that the group had “officially voted to become gender inclusive beginning in the 2021–2022 school year with @pennsirens.” Months later in a September 30 press release, Mask and Wig announced that it would “open its ranks to all genders in the 2022–2023 academic year,” although notably not via a merge with Bloomers.
But for organizations with such long and storied histories, inclusion isn’t as simple as casting a wider net in auditions. Both Mask and Wig and Glee must remain committed to reforming not only their audition processes but also their internal cultures.
The Glee Club in particular has had a long history of gradual progress. Since its founding in 1862, the now–159–year–old organization continues to grapple with reforming the traditions of a formerly all–male club. While women were able to participate in Glee’s as non–singers as long ago as the 1950s, with some even rising to positions of leadership in recent years, the singers division has remained consistently male–only.
Lynn Ahrens (E ‘22), the current President of Glee, always felt frustrated by this. “It's honestly so heartbreaking to see people interested in Glee and then have to tell them, ‘oh, we only take male singers,’” she says.
Because women were still unable to join Glee as singers, Penn Sirens was founded in 2011 to provide the same opportunities for musical performance to women. However, as is the case with many sister groups to all–men’s organizations, their short history meant that they were always playing catch–up, without being able to fully access the same resources.
“There were pretty significant disparities in terms of being a newer group,” Lynn says. “So they had to work that much harder to find gigs and establish connections, and then get that institutional funding.”
A turning point came in the 2018–2019 academic year, when Susanna Jaramillo (E ‘19) became Glee’s first woman president after running on a platform of making the club gender inclusive. Around the same time in 2018, Dan Carsello (C ‘16) was brought in as the Interim Director of Glee.
Jaramillo and Carsello tossed around a few ideas ranging from a complete merge to a partial merge to remaining entirely separate. Sirens, however, wasn’t initially supportive of Glee changing its gender policy. “Sirens leadership in 2018 was not only anti–merger, but anti–Glee Club doing this,” Carsello says.
By 2020, however, the leaders of both Glee and Sirens were committed to envisioning a more inclusive future—in whatever form it would take. In an internal survey conducted in December of 2020, there was overwhelming support among current students in both clubs for opening Glee to people of all genders, and performing as a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB) choir.
Alumni were a different story. In the process of asking eight decades of Glee’s all–male alumni for their perspective on gender inclusion, “there was some negative reception from some Glee alumni who thought that this was losing the core of the club, losing its history, and really, what it was founded to be, in their opinion,” Marina Dauer (C ‘22), the current President of Sirens, says.
Ultimately, Glee was able to work out the differences in opinion and form consensus to move forward. By April, they had unanimously voted to open their membership to people of all genders, and make Sirens a subgroup within their ranks. As of this fall, the two clubs have officially begun operating as one.
An important aspect of the decision to merge was to be more inclusive of trans and nonbinary singers, who may have felt uncomfortable with the heavily gendered branding of the separate groups. While Sirens remains an a cappella subset within Glee, they don’t label themselves as the “women’s choir”—instead using terms like SSAA or soprano and alto vocal ensemble—to remove the gendered assumptions about who sings what and to make it clear that anyone can be a soprano or an alto. The same applies to Pipers, the tenor and bass subgroup within Glee.
Lynn recalls a friend who joined Glee after seeing then–president Jaramillo taking a prominent role in the organization. “Someone that looks like me is on stage, and that’s why I want to join this club,” she recalls her friend saying.
Mask and Wig was founded only a few decades after Glee in 1889, making it “the oldest all–male collegiate musical comedy troupe in the United States.” Today, it puts on a variety of shows every year, ranging from a bit–style "Free Show" with Bloomers during NSO to its full–length musical comedy "Annual Production" in the spring.
But as the pandemic forced the club to pause its performances, the group invested more energy into rethinking their goals. They conducted a comprehensive review of their operations and activities in 2020, which led them to the conclusion that restricting membership to men was out of sync with their goal of “justice to the stage; credit to the university.”
“What people hold on to and cherish of their experience of Mask and Wig is the excitement around performing, and fun comedy,” Undergraduate Chair Dean Jones (W ‘22) says. “We think that becoming fully gender inclusive is just a way to perpetuate that for a long term into the future.”
With its recent announcement, Mask and Wig has made a commitment to taking in new perspectives and reforming an organization that once might have balked at the presence of non–men in its ranks. However, while this decision might have been long overdue, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the club is ready to be the space that non–men deserve.
“Thinking about a historically all–male group, and the traditions, and the norms, and the history, and the culture that you create when you're in an all–male space, was something that was a point of stress and concern for a lot of people—especially people in Bloomers,” Chair of Bloomers Shriya Beesam (C, W ‘22) says.
Bloomers, which was originally founded in 1978 to provide opportunities to women interested in sketch comedy, has also had to solidify its mission statement as general understandings of gender have changed. The formerly “all–female” group now brands itself as open to ABCDs—“anyone but cis dudes”—to reaffirm that trans and nonbinary people also experience marginalization within comedy. Being a club of only cis women didn’t really accomplish their original goal of opening up that space.
Students and alumni—members of Bloomers included—have long criticized the offensive and harmful behaviors committed by Mask and Wig in past years. Previous reporting from The Daily Pennsylvanian details allegations that the troupe used blackface in early performances, and allowed racist caricatures to remain on the walls of its downtown Clubhouse. Unfortunately, for an organization founded as an all–white and all–male comedy troupe for a correspondingly all–white and all–male University, such a history doesn’t seem all that surprising.
Dean explains that “the Club’s leadership is working closely with local artists and art preservationists to cover and repaint the few caricatures … that were deemed offensive or inappropriate for today’s societal landscape,” but this begs the question: Why has it taken them so long, and who has the authority to decide what even is an “appropriate” caricature?
Perhaps it's the comfort of the institutional benefits granted to Penn’s oldest comedy troupe, or merely the privilege afforded to the overwhelmingly rich, white, and male faces of Mask and Wig’s leadership throughout the years, that has given them cover for so long. But as the pandemic provided time to reflect, the organization was faced with increasingly difficult inquiries about not only its past, but about its present role on a diversifying campus.
Acknowledging the past, however, doesn’t equate to shaping the future. There’s still a lot of work to be done in carefully considering Mask and Wig’s content, a lot of which centers around men dressing up as women. But when it can’t rely on gender norms for laughs, or when a writer challenges a transphobic joke, what will Mask and Wig do?
“I feel like this is a decision that they've been trying to come to for a while, and I'm happy because I think that all–male institutions shouldn’t exist,” Shriya says. “I think our concerns were just with the feasibility of them to be able to create a safe space if they do decide to open up.”
Only time will tell how Mask and Wig’s transition will unfold. Given their problematic history, though, it seems clear that they have a lot of work to do before they can truly call themselves an “inclusive” space. But this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.
For all the issues that might arise as Mask and Wig integrates, it’s fair to say that Glee’s initial success might signal that these issues are possible to overcome. The merge between Glee and Sirens could have easily upheld a gender binary and retained separate social cliques. Instead, the clubs remained committed to ensuring that wasn’t the case—instead facilitating a space truly bent on gender equity.
As more single–gender clubs reconsider their histories, hope remains.
Marina says that “Especially as a very historic and established group, which often is called on to represent Penn in an official capacity … [we hoped] that making this move would send a signal that everyone should be given the same opportunities, and if they work hard, are dedicated, and love what they do, have the same chance to perform."