Oh Priscilla, Priscilla: A Reconsideration of Priscilla Ball

In front of 90 people, I described a time at work when I disagreed strongly about something, yet did not speak up. In true case-method fashion, my LEAD professor pressed, “why didn’t you speak up?”

I feared marginalization.

I still fear marginalization. But I have a greater fear.

A thought experiment: it’s the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, a week-long salon of the world’s most respected champions in business, government, and academia. Back-to-back discussions. Power handshakes. Name tags. Spotlights, PowerPoints, charts, and more charts.

When nightfall signals time for partying, these leaders – mostly men – metamorphose from their boring grey suits into scantily clad stewardesses, school girls, French maids, Bond girls, and Princess Leia sans Jabba. Stilettos, mascara, cheap wigs, latex-breasts, and misapplied lipstick galore.

What does it mean?

To some, this imaginary jamboree means a hell of a lot of fun. It means getting out of one’s comfort zone by dressing as the opposite sex. It also means a rare opportunity to let go of the need to look invincible all the time, and just be a bit more vulnerable and human.

But this can mean something else, too. As the whole world is inevitably watching – and judging – it is quite possible for one to wonder: why do these macho, high-octane men don erotic outfits in channeling their idea of a woman? What do these sexually objectified, and sometimes freakish-looking characters say about women? Can this no-photo event be seen as liberating, mocking, or both?

When Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party seven years ago, despite his innocent intentions the act was dismissed as insensitive. Lately, I’ve been feeling helpless because I really don’t know what a racy cross-dress party at HBS might mean to different people in and outside of HBS. What impact would the Priscilla Ball have on girls and women, including those who are transgendered, in their struggle against negative stereotypes?

As we prepare ourselves today to shoulder the responsibilities of our world tomorrow, perhaps we ought to pause and ponder for a moment: what kind of message do our actions send to others, shaping the way HBS students are perceived – and how we perceive each other? How will the message change if we replace the cheerleaders and chamber maids with decently dressed Florence Nightingale, Hillary Clinton, Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Mary Poppins, Sacagawea, and perhaps The Bride from Kill Bill?

Pursuing amusement and fun does not have to come at the expense of perpetuating a limiting representation of women. Fifty year ago, traditions at HBS changed and women were allowed into the program. The question we ought to ask ourselves is, what does it take for this annual cross-dressing tradition to change into a gracious celebration of women and LGBTs everywhere?

While the vast majority of us are neither royals nor World Economic Forum attendees (at least not yet), we do stand on the shoulders of giants – our alumni, the faculty, and staff. We are unequivocally responsible for both the pride of our achievements and the price of our actions. What’s more, we all own a small but real piece of the public relations problem for Wall Street, the so-called 1%, and in particular, a corporate world still moving away from its patriarchal past. Gender bias is neither a women problem nor a men problem. It is a human problem.

In penning this article, I was advised many times not to “take it so seriously.” Asking these hard questions about a party tradition so near and dear to many of my classmates, I do fear marginalization. Yet if I remain silent on an issue as serious as the unconscious misrepresentation of women, my greater fear is the marginalization of women.