Diner,’ a cupcake, and the male gaze

Diner: The Musical’ by Levinson and Crow

5 minute read
The popcorn box is front and center in the musical. (Photo by Joe del Tufo, Mobius New Media)
The popcorn box is front and center in the musical. (Photo by Joe del Tufo, Mobius New Media)

A funny thing happened on my way to see Delaware Theatre Company’s production of Diner: The Musical.

Many will remember Diner the film, Barry Levinson’s tale of six best friends beginning their adult lives in late-1950s Baltimore. But more will probably recall one scene: when Boogie (Mickey Rourke) took a girl to the movies and put his penis in the popcorn.

Boogie, a nascent gambling addict, did this both to win a bet and because it was hilarious; everyone had a laugh, and Carol Heathrow, the target? He convinced her he was the helpless victim of his desires and asked her out again to fulfill another bet. I remember watching that scene as a kid and wondering why he’d resort to tricking her, because it seemed like a great idea, a consensual way for horny teenagers to get away with murder. Now that I’m older, I know why: These were adults, and the lack of consent was the point. Our hero wanted immediate sexual compliance, not a shared experience; her humiliation was just icing — which brings me back to what happened on my way to the show.

A quickie cupcake

I stopped at a café to buy a chocolate raspberry cupcake, one I was eyeing all week, and sat by myself enjoying it. A moment later, an older man who eyed me when I first walked in sidled over, said, “You’ll get fat,” and walked away. His tone was friendly, and my first instinct was to laugh along, because I was raised to be polite and respectful, particularly to my elders. My second instinct was to recoil at all those unspoken assumptions and fume that since he was gone, I couldn’t even explain I’d logged a 10-mile run the day before. My third instinct was to throw away the cupcake. My fourth instinct was to make an excuse for him: Perhaps he was lonely and just wanted, in his clumsy way, to connect.

Except, as my husband later pointed out, he didn’t stick around to chat. He chastised me, and, figuring he did his duty as protector of the male gaze and master of women’s bodies everywhere, all the time, he carried on, unburdened. He stuck his penis in my popcorn.

I was left fuming alone, at his behavior, at my own powerlessness, at the sheer weight of internalized sexism that would continue to make me, at my age, despite accomplishments and feminist convictions, feel I must justify a snack to a male stranger anywhere, at any time. I drove the hour to Wilmington accompanied by a frustrated internal dialogue of snappy comebacks.

Voices supported, voices denied

This is not a review of Diner: The Musical. I’m not reflecting on its technical merits, commenting on the skill of its director, performers, the quality of Sheryl Crow’s songs, or the fidelity of Barry Levinson’s book to its 1982 source. My purpose here is to highlight the way life imitates art imitates life, and the way that cycle is reinforced for good or ill by the voices we support and those we deny.

Diner: The Musical, which saw its world premiere a year ago at Signature Theatre, arrived in Delaware with Broadway aspirations. I arrived at the theater with my blood still boiling. As I watched, I wondered who was clamoring for a musical version of Diner? To be sure, the film had a level of close-up nuance that, perhaps owing to the nature of broad-appeal musical theater, is absent from its staged counterpart.

I also wondered who insisted the voices of six white, male baby boomers needed to be heard among Broadway’s groundbreaking new musical arrivals, all groundbreaking because they stepped away from Diner’s regressive model: Allegiance, Hamilton, The Color Purple, Fun Home, On Your Feet!, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical. Wasn’t Jersey Boys still playing? Didn’t Hairspray already tell the story of Baltimore during this period, and with a wider lens?

Only one black woman: Jacqueline Beatrice Arnold and cast. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
Only one black woman: Jacqueline Beatrice Arnold and cast. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

And who decided the only African-American woman in the cast should play a smiling stripper surrounded by six white men? There’s nuance, and then there’s privilege; it seemed awfully privileged to ignore the oppressive implications in this scene, which ostensibly occurred amidst a deeply racially divided city in the throes of desegregation.

“Don’t Give It All Away”

The film’s women received greater attention in Levinson and Crow’s musical (though their autonomy mostly did not), but the popcorn scene remained, as it must, paired with a song called “Don’t Give It All Away,” which implied either the impossible situation in which women of the 1950s found themselves — denying their own desires while grappling with men hellbent on gratifying themselves at those same women’s expense — or condemning women who engage in sexual activity, whether or not they’re willing partners. But actually, who cares?

I don’t have anything against Delaware Theatre Company, Levinson, Crow, or even the film, which was seminal in its day. What really gets under my skin is their romanticizing of the good old days (bolstered by several positive reviews), in which some Americans were more equal than others — a sentiment that’s enjoying an open airing during the current political cycle.

It’s a vestigial look back at a time when boys would be boys, so long as they looked white, didn’t act “too Jewish,” and weren’t gay or different in any way that threatened the social order, and girls got their attention only if they were white, attractive, or angry — and maybe not even then. The cupcake incident only served to underscore the two-act anachronism that followed, and while Diner: The Musical may indeed find an appreciative audience, I didn’t want to let it get away without telling it exactly how I felt about what it just said to me.

What, When, Where

Diner: The Musical. Book by Barry Levinson; music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow; Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed. Through January 3 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. 302-594-1100 or

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