HBS Scales Back Its Wildest Party

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One of the few photos of the Priscilla Ball from a few years back

One of the most widely attended and wildest celebrations at Harvard Business School every year is the Priscilla Ball, a theme party inspired by a 1994 Australian movie about two drag queens and a transgender woman on a journey through the Australian outback.

priscilla-ball“The party has earned a reputation as an off-the-wall celebration that embraces individual expression and Australia’s live-out-loud culture,” according to its student organizers this year. “At the same time, however, the event has attracted legitimate criticism – for encouraging excess, reinforcing gender stereotypes, and mandating cross-dressing.”

So in the wake of a New York Times‘ story two weeks ago on gender inequality, it looks like the organizers are scaling back the more flamboyant and wild elements of the party. In an article in The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard, the organizers said they will be “managing costume themes to ensure that they are not degrading, removing cross-dressing from the event’s branding, educating students about the event’s history and contextualizing the event within the range of diversity activities taking place on campus this month.”

The organizers of the Oct. 18th event-Michaela Alhadeff, Tristan Webster and Michael D’Onofrio–say they were planning the changes well before the publication of the New York Times story. They took the actions after consulting with the leaders of the LGBT Student Association and the Women’s Student Association on how to improve the event. “With invaluable input from both organizations, we crafted a series of important changes to this year’s event – changes which have their full support,” they said. Among the changes, the group said it will host a school-wide screening of the comedy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, “with members of the LGBT community available afterwards for a discussion of the movies themes.”

The party has drawn unwanted attention in the past. In his 2008 book, Ahead of the Curve, HBS alum Philip Delves Broughton wrote about the mid-semester event this way:  “The men were to dress as women and the women as sluts. . . . One man looked like Virginia Woolf in a white boa and black wig . . . while another wore a skimpy Heidi outfit and women’s underwear, which failed to contain his errant . . . ”  Now, in the aftermath of the controversial article in the Times, which described some unseemly conduct on campus, the leaders of the event apparently thought it wise to clamp down on the excess.

“When we took on the leadership of the Australia & New Zealand Club in May, we were determined to ensure that this year’s Priscilla Ball would be different,” wrote the organizers. “We wanted to share with our classmates the true spirit of Priscilla, without the problematic elements that have been associated with the event.”

“HBS is a place that celebrates difference. We value the richness that comes from a community made up of individuals from all walks of life. As students, we feel privileged to sit side by side with classmates from across the globe, and to build close friendships with individuals of different genders, sexual orientations, races and religions. In this spirit, we resolved early on to take Priscilla Ball back to its original well of inspiration – the movie after which it was named – and to host an event that the HBS community could feel proud to support.”

The ball’s organizers went on to report that the  LGBTSA Board is proud of this year’s changes. “On October 11, LGBTQ people celebrate National Coming Out Day (NCOD) – an opportunity to raise awareness of LGBTQ issues and to celebrate individuals who identify as LGBTQ,” said Presidents Ana Mendy and Andrew Holmberg. “This year, Priscilla Ball is scheduled a week after NCOD. We are pleased that the ANZ leadership has sought our Club’s input and we are excited about the changes being made (e.g., commitment to de-emphasize cross-dressing, emphasis on raising awareness about the true intent of the party) so that all individuals feel welcome and are able to express the diversity embodied by NCOD.”

The article also included comments from WSA Presidents Amanda Burlison and Alexandra Daum who added: “We’re happy that the ANZ Presidents proactively reached out to us to discuss making changes to this year’s Priscilla Ball. We believe that screening for themes that reinforce negative gender stereotypes will create a better environment where students of all genders can bond with each other.”

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