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In its typical performance of “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid, one of Princeton University’s all-male a cappella groups, the Princeton Tigertones, selects a woman from the audience.
The singers will playfully dance with her for a bit, and right before the number wraps up, they’ll pick a man from the audience, too. They might pretend to groom him, and spin him around, and then pull the duo together. And at the end, they declare that, in a node to the song's title, they should kiss -- and the couple will comply, sometimes on with a peck on the cheek, sometimes briefly on the lips.
The entire ritual appears harmless and lasts no more than three minutes, a usual and relatively well-liked selection in the group’s repertoire. But complaints over whether the encounter is consensual and appropriate has prompted the Tigertones to discontinue the song until the members can perform it in a way that’s comfortable for the entire audience, the group said.
Last week, a sophomore student, Noa Wollstein, wrote to the student newspaper The Daily Princetonian that the song was misogynistic and “dismissive” of consent. This was the first time the issue was raised publicly, though the group noted that audience members have expressed discomfort over the performance before.
Remove the context of magic and mermaids, Wollstein wrote, and the lyrics blatantly encourage a man to try to make physical advances on a woman without her consent.
The tune, which in the film is crooned mostly by Sebastian the talking crab in an attempt to unite the voiceless Ariel and the handsome prince Eric, also is a “heteronormative attack” on “women’s rights to oppose the romantic and sexual liberties taken by men,” Wollstein wrote.
As Sebastian the crab sings, “Looks like the boy is too shy” and “it’s such a shame, too bad/you’re gonna miss the girl.”
“Such expressions imply that not using aggressive physical action to secure Ariel’s sexual submission makes Eric weak -- an irrefutable scaredy-cat,” Wollstein wrote. “Applied outside of the realm of the movie, these statements suggest that masculinity is contingent on domination of women.”
Wollstein also objects to the Tigertones’ interpretation. The fervor of the members encouraging the kiss on stage enforces the song’s “toxic masculinity.” Wollstein wrote that she has witnessed queer women having to “push away” the male counterpart during the song and heard that unwilling women were subjected to their first kiss.
“Too many people have felt uncomfortable and violated by this practice to continue its justification on the basis of popularity or tradition. The fact that it has continued as long as it has is disturbing,” Wollstein wrote.
Wollstein demanded that the group remove the song from the lineup.
And the Tigertones have agreed.
Wesley Brown, president of the group, wrote to the Princetonian on Friday to say that the singers’ highest priority is creating a “positive atmosphere” and that as Wollstein’s column pointed out, not every audience member has felt at ease.
Brown wrote that performances have made previous participants “uncomfortable,” and offended observers, and so the group has tried to make sure that audience participation is voluntary -- he did not elaborate what steps the members had taken.
This has not succeeded, Brown wrote, and so the group is eliminating the song. He apologized to past participants in the skit who felt uncomfortable. He did not respond to a request for additional comment.
“Our group is always striving to impart joy and positivity through our music, and we take very seriously any indication that we fall short of this goal,” Brown wrote. “For that reason, we want to make sure that all audience members feel encouraged to reach out to the group and initiate a dialogue if they ever feel that any aspect of our show is upsetting or offensive. Our repertoire, traditions, and group as a whole are constantly evolving, and thus we value this opportunity to ensure a more comfortable performance environment moving forward.”
Tony Huerta, president of the Contemporary A Cappella Society, said he felt the group's need to connect with the audience but could see how some audience members might feel uncomfortable kissing in front of a mass group of strangers.
He suggested having one or maybe two people in the audience be a "plant" that are part of the performance, who are already willing participants -- either male or female, or a gender-neutral kissing moment could also work.
"Make it part of the show," Huerta wrote in an email. "The audience doesn't need to know that it was planned. Then it's entertainment without hurt feelings. But don't expect strangers to kiss without some pushback."
Artistic performances have faced new scrutiny on college campuses, especially in recent years, amid accusations that the content is offensive. Plays and musicals that were once considered acceptable have since been challenged over being racist or insensitive. Comedians who were once able to make certain jokes during college sets have found they need to focus more on politically correct content. At Purdue University, a female student was pulled up on stage by comic Andy Gross, who made sexual references toward her during the set. This prompted a walkout by some audience members. Gross since apologized and said he would no longer perform on campuses.