When "Sister Sings by Brother." Or Not.

by Caroline Berens | 2/26/15 8:02pm


It’s early December. You’re relieved that finals are over. You’ve been restored by a Thanksgiving feast, and you’re looking forward to gifts and family time over the coming holidays.

Like many of Dartmouth’s performance groups, the Dodecaphonics — one of the College’s coed a cappella groups — goes on tour during the early weeks of the winter interim to spread the holiday spirit by performing in various cities and towns nationwide.

Among the numerous travel considerations — including pinning down venues and sight-seeing opportunities as well as meeting Dartmouth alumni — one element remains crucial: sleeping arrangements. While some of the group’s members may have considered the coed nature at length while others have simply never given it a second thought, the prospect of traveling and living together for a short time puts this aspect of the Dodecs on the forefront. The mix of genders is accentuated during traveling as gender-specific rooms are designated for each of the members.

Rory Page ’16, a member of the Dodecs, said that this is one of the few times he sees the gender lines in the a cappella group.

“Gender comes in a lot when we’re figuring out people sleeping in the same room — sharing beds, sharing showers, things like that,” Page said. “We try to be sensitive to it.”

Although Dartmouth’s Greek life is often the first social activity that comes to mind when considering gender-specific groups on campus, other activities frequently organize themselves along the gender binary.

With the exception of many gender-specific a cappella groups, like the Dartmouth Aires or the Rockapellas, the majority of Dartmouth’s performance groups are like the Dodecs, which welcomes students of all genders. Yet, while many of these groups might be gender-inclusive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the effects of gender are erased.

“I think gender plays a role in everything we do, whether we like it or not,” Page said.

Page said that the Dodecs — currently balanced evenly between eight men and eight women — do not have a quota when admitting people to the group during auditions.

“We keep balance in mind, but mainly we assess what we need for the group and what the pool of people auditioning look like,” Page said, adding that the group typically accepts two men and two women each fall.

Page also that the Dodecs’ gender-inclusive nature was part of what initially attracted him to the group during a cappella auditions his freshman year. He said that part of the Dodecs’ pitch was their ability to provide a unique experience, as there are innumerable opportunities for all-male activities, including joining a fraternity or living with a male roommate.

It can be easy to insulate yourself with one gender, one sex and one perspective, but the Dodecs, they argued, could help.

“I got this pitch that I can have ‘bro-y’ experience with a frat. It’s easily done and there are many places to do that,” Page said. “But this would give me a chance outside of that, to get more flexibility in range and sound to build more valuable experiences.”

Max Gottschall ’15, a member of both the Aires and a single-sex fraternity, echoed the idea that all-male performance groups can be similar to fraternities and said some things are done in a “masculine” sort of way at the Aires. He cited a group within the Aires that exercises together, which he said stems from the group’s masculine identity, and he noted that members often discuss fitness and alcohol use.

“A disadvantage [of having an all-male group] is that any time you get a bunch of guys together, you probably will get some hyper-masculinization,” Gottschall said.

Chris Gallerani ’15, also a member of the Aires, had a somewhat similar opinion on how gender affects the group.

“Any time you’re in a monosexual environment, gender dynamics will play a role in your interactions,” Gallerani said. “For example, there are things males might be more comfortable speaking about with other males.”

Savannah Maher ’17 is a member of the Rockapellas, an all-female a cappella group. She said she has noticed that gender especially influences dynamics within all-female and all-male groups during the fall when they accept new members.

“From what I can tell, when all-male groups get new members it tends to be more intense — a little like a frat — whereas for us it’s very relaxed and definitely about making everyone feel welcome,” Maher said, although she noted that male groups also hope to make new members feel welcome.

Colin Walmsley ’15, a member of the all-male a cappella group the Brovertones, said gender roles will exist in almost any group. Walmsley said, however, that he believes some aspects of a cappella defy gender stereotypes, even in single-sex groups.

“A cappella provides a comfortable space to discuss and share things that you might not discuss with other guys,” Walmsley said. “Gender stereotypes exist that say that it’s not okay to say, feel or do certain things if you’re a guy, and I think a cappella brings guys closer together and loosens those stereotypes.”

Yet, while the gender makeup of a group can affect its social and personal dynamics, it’s also an important facet of the group’s musical identity. Gallerani said that the all-male aspect of the Brovertones affects its ranges of sound and sometimes campus’s perception of the group in comparison to all-female or coed groups.

“There is sometimes a stigma in a cappella that all-male groups have an advantage over all-female groups — or even sound better — because we have a wider range of sound,” Gallerani said.

Dodecs member Avery Feingold ’17 echoed a similar concern for the group’s vocal sound, and he said that the coed group must keep balance in mind when considering their sound.

“There is almost a little bias towards accepting more male members, because there is some bias for the idea that in a mixed gender group you end up with a fuller sound if there’s a stronger lower register,” he said. With this in mind, however, he noted that it rarely poses an issue for the Dodecs in considering who they will accept in each new class.

For Feingold, gender makes itself apparent once one evaluates the group’s leadership. Perhaps due to self-selection or underlying intentional bias, he said the leadership tends to appear more gendered, often with a male business manager, for example.

He also noted that men sometimes dominate discussion.

“In terms of male/female dominance, I’d say all mixed-gender groups are male dominated in conversation,” Feingold said.

He qualified his statement, adding that, “We have a lot of women who are comfortable making their voices heard in the group.”

Feingold is also a member of the Rude Mechanicals, a gender-inclusive theater group that performs Shakespearean plays. While the group is roughly two-thirds female, he said it is similarly affected by gender dynamics.

“Many people who are often comfortable speaking the loudest are males, which is true in essentially any group of men or women,” Feingold said. “It could even be the fact that there are fewer men — thus, less competition for men — that exaggerates this.”

Feingold explained that the Rude Mechanicals are subject to an interesting historical intersection with gender and performance, as Shakespearean roles were played by all males during the Elizabethan Era. Today, the group often “gender-bends,” which means that women take on male roles or (more rarely) vice versa.

Theater and women’s and gender studies lecturer Aaron Thomas explained that gender-bending is common in performances of Shakespeare’s plays and that there are three different methods of the practice.

“One way is to change the gender of a role completely — Horatio becomes Horatia, for example,” Thomas explained. “Another way is you could have a woman pretend to be a man, do drag performance — a woman pretends to be the man playing Horatio.”

The last method, Thomas explained, is less common but consists of having women play male roles but not pretending to be males at all — someone will call the actress “Father” for example, but the person is clearly presenting as a woman.

Feingold explained that he thinks it’s possible for some women in the Rude Mechanicals to feel frustrated sometimes. Shakespeare’s works tend to feature fewer strong female characters, and with a group that has more female members, that can often make the process for doling out roles very competitive.

“Although most women have no problem playing a male role, it can cause frustration if you have a senior woman who has never played a female role,” he said.

Luke Katler ’15, a member of the Rude Mechanicals, said he gives the group’s gender dynamics little thought.

“We don’t really focus on gender as much as the individual personalities of people in the group,” he explained. “I think everything is contingent on personalities of those involved — there are some people who are naturally more submissive, some who are naturally more outspoken.”

Katler also noted that the president of the group is a woman, so he feels that the influence of gender is fairly evenly dispersed.

“It’s a completely coed group, and I don’t give the ratio that much thought,” he said. “We cross-cast often — males play female roles, female play male roles. Everything is largely contingent upon the cast’s gender makeup and the play.” Katler emphasized, though, that he speaks for himself and not the entirety of the Rude Mechanicals.

Connor Lehan ’18, a member of Casual Thursday, an improv group, said he has had a similar experience with gender in his group.

“The president of the group is a girl, and a lot of the seniors are girls,” Lehan said. “I’d say it’s pretty balanced in terms of leadership and male roles.”

In fact, Casual Thursday has one more female than male in the group this term, an unusual distribution in the often male-dominated realm of improv comedy.

Lehan noted, however, that this makeup is not common for Casual Thursday — it’s the first time that there are more men than women in the group’s history.

Lehan said that gender often goes unnoticed because in improv — somewhat like Shakespearian gender-bending — females will often play male roles and vice versa.

“I play girls. Girls play boys. It’s all very spur of the moment and mixed, and all very imaginative and creative — you can be anyone,” Lehan said.

Lehan said that the only times he’s very aware of Casual Thursday’s gender-inclusive nature is when the group is spending time together socially, outside of a performance setting. He said these moments allow him to see how many different social spaces the group’s members encompass, which can often reflect the mix of genders among the students.

He also noted that the group has strong feminist views, and that overall, “there is good representation on both sides.”

Libby Goldman ’18, another member of Casual Thursday, agreed with Lehan.

“Honestly I’ve never thought about gender in Casual Thursday,” Goldman said. “I think it’s equal and balanced.”

Goldman said that the group could hypothetically be dominated by the male members as there are more upperclassmen males than females. Older members, she said, tend to be better at improv than freshman purely by virtue of having more experience in the group and thus could take more control of the group. Such a dynamic, however, doesn’t play a role in how the group functions, she said.

In terms of the humor of the group — namely, whether it can be gendered or if one gender can get away with a certain type of humor more than the other — Goldman maintained that gender has little effect on the group’s comedic style.

“We’ve definitely had instances where people make inappropriate jokes, but we try to establish what’s okay to say and what’s not, and if someone’s uncomfortable with something,” she explained.

She said that gender, though, is irrelevant to the humor.

Regardless of the role that gender plays for coed performance groups, Gottschall said performing brings about unique friendships and can even transcend gender.

“Especially when we sing the alma mater with a female group, that line, ‘stand as sister stand by brother,’ that really hits in a different way,” he said.