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ESSAY / The Rules of Shipoopi / Christina Larocco

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In the fall of 1998, my junior year of high school, my brother and I watched rebroadcasts of The Daily Showon Comedy Central while pretending to do our homework. This was before Jon Stewart’s tenure, when then-host Craig Kilborn rehashed with glee the latest development in the hot news story of the year: Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Kilborn showed a clip of her dancing in “Shipoopi” in her high school’s production of The Music Manalmost every day, or so it seemed. The song is about how far a woman can go without being considered a slut: “Well, a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date / Is usually a hussy / And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out / Is anything but fussy.”

It’s a bad song; don’t look it up.

“If there is one word to describe this whole affair,” Kilborn joked, “it is shipoopi.” I’m paraphrasing from memory. For some reason this joke stuck with me. Everyone on TV made fun of Lewinsky, Kilborn and Norm Macdonald and Colin Quinn and all the others, but this is the only joke that I remember. I’m sure I laughed.

There were shipoopis everywhere in 1998–99, in the news and in my life. I did not connect them then, and I probably would not do so now were we not involved in a national re-evaluation of these events. But of course we all learned lessons about what girls should and shouldn’t do, and how we would be treated if we engaged in certain behaviors, from Monica Lewinsky: how easy it was for girls to transgress the logic of shipoopi and become the butt of the joke, how something that seems fun and romantic can go wrong. How much luck it takes to avoid having the rest of your life defined by one punishingly terrible song.

 

In pictures of “Shipoopi” from my high school’s production of The Music Man the previous spring, the other Pickalittle ladies and I—the matrons and moral arbiters of River City, Iowa—stand off to the side while the boys and girls dance. We’re very upset; the children have interrupted rehearsal for our tableau interpretation of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I stand stage right of the other ladies, white sheet draped over one shoulder. We all have our hands on our hips. But it’s fine; it’s fine. Let the children dance. We can’t join in, but we can judge.

Jake, who was a junior when I was a sophomore, was our Harold Hill. I was in love with Jake, and he knew it. Everyone did. He was tawny-skinned, with light brown hair, big brown eyes, and a smile that must have benefited from braces. After school he unbuttoned his uniform shirt and rolled up the sleeves, and I stared at the veins in his forearms. Tiny beads of sweat collected on his upper lip when he was under the lights on stage. I rarely got close enough at other times to tell. I’m trying to avoid saying that he looked just like his dad, the school band director. They were both pretty corny guys. We made fun of Jake because 90 percent of his acting was clapping and pointing. He was good as Harold, though.

The boys I hung out with were genuinely nice boys, not the bullshit nice guys we didn’t yet have the language to condemn, not the obvious proto-incels Brian Krakow from My So-Called Life and Xander from Buffy. Jake and I had an acting class together my sophomore year, and we became friends playing the knee game, which was going around the drama kids that spring. One person scrunched their fingers together and opened them up on another person’s knee, almost like you’re enlarging a picture on your iPhone, if iPhones had existed in 1998. It was supposed to be arousing. Eh, I pretended it was. But it was a thing nonetheless, along with massage circles. Before the final performance of any show, a group of boys came into the girls’ dressing room in their boxers, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” 

“St. Agatha’s drama people are the most sexually perverse people you could ever meet,” Ian, a senior, told me when I was a sophomore. He sang the falsetto part in the barbershop quartet in The Music Man and had made it his goal to corrupt me by the time the show was over. I found it expedient in my relationships with Jake and the other drama guys in classes ahead of me to pretend to be young and innocent, which is exactly what I was. Pat my head, I told them with my Dorothy braids and overalls and giggle.

Ian’s proclamation wasn’t true, of course. We weren’t sexually perverse at all. Though we did play something called the penis game, it involved no actual penises and was in fact more innocent than the knee game. People took turns saying “penis” louder and louder backstage until someone chickened out. On the night Ian told me he would corrupt me, we did nothing more risqué than sing along to the Grease soundtrack at the tops of our lungs.

All of which was very lucky for me, because as much as I thought I wanted to be corrupted, I was entirely unprepared for someone who might actually do so.

 

In The Music Man, rumors circulate about River City’s music teacher and librarian, Marian Paroo. Upon his death, the town’s wealthiest resident and most important benefactor, “miser” Madison, left the library to the town but the books—including the dirtyones—to her. ChaucerRabelaisBal-zac. Say it with gusto, with insinuation. She must have had an affair with him, town busybodies imply. “That woman made brazen overtures with a gilt-edged guarantee / She had a golden glint in her eye / And a silver voice with a counterfeit ring / Just melt her down and you’ll reveal a lump of lead as cold as steel / Here, where’s a woman’s heart should be.” That was me, Alma. Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, the ladies sing. In the movie, they put their feathered hats together to form a circle excluding rulebreakers. 

Marian is a spinster now. But she falls for charming huckster Harold, a traveling salesman who’s been scamming Midwesterners town by town, selling parents expensive instruments he has no plans on teaching their children to play. A band will help keep the young boys pure, Harold tells the townspeople.

“Pure boys!” our characters shouted back on stage. It was a rehearsal ad lib that stuck. My friends and I thought this was hilarious, and also the exact opposite of what we (thought we) wanted our boys to be.

But Mr. Madison was like an uncle to Marian, she tells Harold, setting the record straight. Their relationship was as chaste as could be. She’s a good girl after all, worthy of a happy ending.

The musical sends some funny messages about women and virtue. Harold sings about his desire not for a “wide-eyed, eager / Wholesome innocent Sunday school teacher” but for a “sadder but wiser girl”—a girl, it seems, who will have sex with him without pressuring him to get married. Marian appears to be this “sadder but wiser girl,” but really she’s chaste. It’s the best of both worlds—a virgin without any naïve, starry-eyed ideas about romance. It’s really quite a feat, the way the musical constructs this ideal, even though it’s just another set of impossible, internally contradictory dictates for women to follow. Bravo, culture, truly.

 

Maybe Jake liked me too, at least a tiny bit, at least at first. People told me that he did. He certainly flirted with me enough, though he flirted with everyone, always. He put his arm around me at rehearsal. He asked me to go to lunch with him when we had a half-day.

“Don’t say I never invited you anywhere!” he called after me when I declined. I didn’t have a ride home. But when Ian recommended that I corrupt myself by hooking up with someone in drama, Jake shot him down.

“That’s a bad idea,” he said. I asked him to elaborate, but he wouldn’t.

So maybe not. I wasn’t his type, after all. He liked blondes, like my friend Amanda, with whom he also flirted constantly, and anyway he didn’t believe in dating actresses. Just flirting with us, I guess.

Plus he was always trying to set me up with other people. At Sarah’s house for a cast party after The Music Man, he pestered me to find out who I had a crush on. My love for Bobby, the Holdenesque genius in my English class whom I never talked to, felt simultaneously a priori and beside the point, not even worth mentioning in actual reality. Of course I couldn’t mention my crush on Jake himself. So I did what any high school girl would do: I had Nicole, my best friend, tell him.

Later, I caught him alone on the porch. It was an April evening, and chilly. Sarah, a senior alto and fellow Pickalittle lady, had asked him to her prom. Was she the sort-of girlfriend whose existence I bemoaned in my diary? Perhaps she looked through the sliding glass door and wondered what a sophomore was doing talking to her date. I was so young.

We walked inside, and he leaned against a sofa arm. It must have been loud enough that people didn’t hear us talk. Perhaps Zoot Suit Riot was on the CD player. Perhaps people danced. I apologized for embarrassing him. He responded, “Christina, don’t be sorry. If you learn one thing from me, I want it never to be sorry for how you feel about someone.” He was flattered, he told me, but he didn’t want to date me. 

I transcribed the entire conversation into my diary as soon as I got home, at 2:15 in the morning. “See, he is so sweet!” I gushed.

In my yearbook he promised to corrupt me the next year. “Can’t wait to see ya,” he wrote in his teen boy handwriting, his note surrounded by messages from my female friends, whose letters were so bubbly even the Ts looked somehow round. “Love,” he signed it. Love. That had to mean something, right? Even now I believe that a little bit.

 

In August, right before school started again, I sped home from the pool where I was lifeguarding to take a shower before driving to the book sale. I had just gotten my drivers license, six months after I had gotten my permit and on my third try taking the test. I just couldn’t learn how to parallel park. But I was super tan and cute and skinny, and I knew, just knew, that I would see Jake, and I did, and he seemed so happy to see me, and I was glad I had taken the time to shave my legs. 

We did hook up that year, kind of. I never kissed anyone in high school except in and after plays, at cast parties, playing truth or dare in the hot tub or spin the bottle in the living room. Once, in the hot tub, someone dared Amanda to touch Jake’s penis. She did, and he got an erection. Then someone dared Nicole to put it in her mouth. She ducked underwater and did, but when nothing happened, she came back up, offended.

“How come my mouth can’t do what her hand can?” she asked.

We called ourselves the Hot Tub Posse, or HTP so the grown-ups wouldn’t know. We thought we were wild, but we were theater kids. The next morning we sang an old Jewel song together. “Dreams last so long, even after you’re gone / I know that you love me / and soon you will see, you were meant for me / And I was meant for you.” It was Valentine’s Day, funnily enough. In my diary I called it the best night of my life.

People found out about the cast party shenanigans, of course.

“I can’t believe Christina would do anything with anyone,” my friend Erinwent around saying. I hadn’t done anything, I wanted to tell her. I hadn’t done anything

“What we did was fine,” Nicole told Erin. “I didn’t lose any self-respect or dignity.”

“I lost self-respect and dignity just being around you,” she retorted.

Erin and the other girls who judged us were just uptight, Nicole thought, and maybe a little jealous. “They automatically think that because guys were paying attention to us, we’re sluts,” she told me in a note. 

It was a stupid shipoopi world. At that same moment, a young woman was a national laughingstock because she liked a boy more than he liked her, and he happened to be the president. In the grand scheme of what can happen to girls, gossip that your dad’s rich friend left you the library books because you slept with him isn’t so bad.

 

In truth, I kissed lots of boys through cast party make-believe, including Jake, whom I also kissed on stage in Hello, Dolly! Of course we were cast opposite each other. At the first rehearsal we watched the movie version with Barbra Streisand, as we always did at the first rehearsal with whatever show we were doing. You can see what Mr. Auld, the director, was going for with a lot of the casting, including the two of us.

In the show, cantankerous bachelor and wealthy Yonkers hay and feed store owner Horace Vandergelder has hired matchmaker Dolly Levi to find him a wife. She introduces him to widow and New York City millineress Irene Molloy (me), but really Dolly has her eye on Horace for herself. People always suspect widows of being wicked. Meanwhile, Horace’s two goofy clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Jake) and Barnaby Tucker, seek adventure in New York. Dolly encourages them to visit Irene’s hat shop, where they convince Irene and her assistant, Minnie Fay, that they are wealthy playboys and arrange to take the two women out to a fancy dinner. Dolly pushes Irene and Cornelius closer by having them dance together.

Hilarity ensues that night at dinner. Horace discovers that his two clerks snuck away without his permission. Restaurant staff discover that Cornelius and Barnaby have no money to pay for the expensive meal they have ordered. Eventually, the whole gang is arrested and taken to night court.

If you’ve seen Wall-E, you know the song. Cornelius tells the judge that, even if he goes to prison, it was worth it because he met Irene. They sing “It Only Takes a Moment,” describing how they fell in love instantly. They kiss. The judge finds everyone but Horace innocent. That’s the end of the story for everyone but Horace and Dolly, who also, of course, end up together.

There’s a picture of the two of us right after the kiss in one of the performances. You can tell my face is flushed, even under layers of stage makeup and the auspices of pre-digital, no-flash photography. It almost looks like a couple’s prom picture. It’s obvious that for me it was real, which is probably why one day at rehearsal I forgot the “no tongue in stage kisses” rule. So embarrassing, omg lol lol lol. I looked at him that same way in the curtain call and in the pictures our parents took afterwards, smushed together and looking so happy.

Sometimes that spring I left rehearsal and shouted “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” over and over again in my car on the way home.

At a cast meeting before the last performance, the other juniors and I took turns reading a list we’d written for the seniors of the top ten ways to know you’d been in St. Agatha’s drama for too long. One of mine was “You’ve corrupted a sweet, innocent girl.”

It was more for us than it was for them. We sobbed. The seniors, Jake included, seemed mostly over it. 

“What am I going to do without you?” I asked Jake when we hugged. Once he had told me he would rescue me whenever I needed it, and I liked that.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. (I was.)

“Go fix your makeup,” Mr. Auld said kindly. He had seen this all before.

Luckily, I had plenty of time to fix my makeup. I was the very last one to make an entrance.

I debated asking Jake to junior prom. Everyone told me that I should. It was all people talked to him about, he told me on the phone one night when I had called him in tears. I knew he would have said yes if I asked. He told my friends he would. But I didn’t want a pity date, so I asked someone else, a friend in the class below mine. That same day, Jake asked me to go to dinner with him, but I had to go to a college fair at another school.

My diary that spring was reversible, with one cover labeled “loves me” and the other “loves me not.” I must have been thinking about Jake when I bought it.

In retrospect, by not asking him to prom, I probably missed out on a chance to have fun with a boy I liked. Maybe they would even have played that one Mazzy Star song, and—

No, I mustn’t go there, not even twenty years later.

“I want to hold the hand inside you / I want to take a breath that’s true.”

He was hooking up with my friend Lisa by that point, anyway, and how awkward would that have been?

 

At one point that spring, Jake told me that he did like me, but he wanted to go through his senior year without a girlfriend, and so he was avoiding people that he felt he could have a real relationship with. Nothing could ever happen between us because he cared about me too much. That . . . may have been some creative teen boy equivocation to spare my feelings, but I believed it at the time. It did happen to seniors, that feeling of being done with it. It happened to me the next year.

I went to his house for a party once. It rained so hard that day that Katie and I had to stop at the TJ Maxx up by the hospital to get drier (and cuter) clothes to change into. That night I drank so many vodka cranberries that I yelled at Jake over and over again that I loved him and passed out on the couch in the living room and yet was able to sound perfectly sober—or so I thought—when I called my parents to ask if I could crash there.

 “You can stay if I can talk to his parents right now,” my mom said. She was on the old rotary phone in her bedroom. I could tell because it jangled when she picked it up.

“They’re asleep,” I said. They weren’t home. I stayed anyway. Jake brought me water. The next morning Katie drove me home, where my mom waited for me with pursed lips. I was super grounded.

I did plenty of stupid things. Sometimes I was caught, but mostly I wasn’t. I got away with things I shouldn’t have gotten away with; I got out of situations I shouldn’t have gotten out of.

But I also got in trouble for things I didn’t do. I didn’t tear the wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom when I was eight or nine. I wasn’t going to sneak out to Jake’s graduation party. I wasn’t lying about that. Nicole and Katie had stopped by the house to give me something on their way there, and my mom thought I was going to leave with them. But I wasn’t. I hadn’t been invited.

His words in my yearbook were generic that year. He left his email address, a Yahoo address when most of us were still on AOL. He signed it love again. But this time I could tell he didn’t mean it.

 

That’s all. That’s the whole story. I had a crush, he didn’t reciprocate, I got over it. I didn’t think much about Jake after high school, or even in the year after he graduated, when he was in college just down the street. I don’t remember if he came to see any of the plays my senior year. I don’t remember caring if he did or not. So why have I started dreaming about him all of a sudden? We’re in a play together in an amusement park-lake-museum, or we’re operatives in Afghanistan. Why am I imagining what it would have been like to be his girlfriend? Would we have stayed together when he started college? Would I have gone to his dorm room? Would we have had sex, and would it have been awkward?

More than anything, why did I start writing this essay and barely stop until the first draft was done, alternating between Broadway musical soundtracks and that one Mazzy Star song over and over again as I wrote? “Fade into you / Strange you never knew.” Usually it’s all I can do to peel myself off the couch and eke out a couple of paragraphs. It can’t just be the new, higher dose of Lexapro my doctor put me on, though that certainly helps. 

Occasionally, when I do have to take a break from writing, I run into actual teenage girls. Last night I walked down the block to get cheesesteaks from the pizza place on the corner, where the cashiers are always super young girls, like fifteen or sixteen. It shocks me to see them, to realize, Oh, that’s what I looked like. Their faces are so smooth, like their features haven’t settled into place yet. But I guess that’s just their lack of wrinkles. They call me ma’am, like they would any of the other weird old neighborhood ladies going to pick up pizza in their pajamas on a Saturday night.

It’s been twenty years since I was that young, which I suppose occasions remembrance, and October, when I’m writing this, is the best month for wallowing in nostalgia. Those long shadows and all. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a midlife crisis, or perhaps it was an exorcism. But mostly I think it’s just, like, the dumpster fire world, and being reminded of how easily the hot tub or the party at Jake’s house or a hundred other fun, stupid evenings could have gone terribly wrong. But they didn’t.

 

The same is true of Lady Bird, writer and director Greta Gerwig’s 2017 nostalgia piece, and for that reason, among others, it almost feels like one of my own memories. Theater kids flirt and sing showtunes and hang out at diners, and nothing much happens beyond that. It is achingly familiar, achingly ordinary.

It’s such a relief. I’m grateful for cultural products like Lady Bird, like Eighth Grade, where the girl gets to just live, where the filmmakers revel in the ordinary messiness of girlhood, where characters experience the basic humiliations of adolescence but everyone gets to be basically okay. Situations go sidewise in both films—a boy has sex with Lady Bird under false pretenses; Elsie is almost assaulted—but both girls make it out okay in the end. What a rare thing to see a female character who isn’t defined by trauma, whose unadorned life is enough to anchor drama, who isn’t Offred or Jessica Jones or Sansa Stark. 

Lady Bird says, “I wish I could live through something.” But what a privilege to be ordinary, to be okay, to nothave a story to tell. What luck. Luck, in this case, has the power to delineate genre. It’s why Lady Birdand Eighth Grade are primarily comedies, not torture pornprestige television dramas; it’s why this is a jokey essay, not a Senate testimony.

 

Two days before the hot tub cast party, on February 12, 1999, the Senate acquitted the president on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. “I leave you now a wiser, but not a sadder man,” William Rehnquist said in his closing remarks. An aficionado of musicals, the chief justice had designed his own judicial robes with four gold stripes on each sleeve, modeled after a costume he had admired in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Then-senator John Edwards, who certainly left some sadder but wiser girls in his wake, once witnessed Rehnquist leading a sing-along at a judicial conference. Rehnquist probably should have known that the moral lexicon of classic American musicals didn’t allow for the possibility of a sadder but wiser man. The lessons of “Shipoopi” are only for girls to learn.


Christina Larocco is a writer and historian based in Philadelphia, where she is the editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal and a prose editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Avidly, Feminine Collective, and elsewhere. She is writing a biography-in-essays of nineteenth-century abolitionist and feminist Martha Schofield.