Every year, the Student Council at my high school, Harriton, puts on a fundraiser called Mr. Harriton. The event is essentially a beauty pageant, but with a twist: as a satire of America’s traditional beauty pageants and their misogynistic connotations, male students compete in a dance and talent competition in place of scantily clad women. I think it’s a pretty clever and compelling concept, and the student community evidently agrees; Mr. Harriton is easily the biggest school event of the year, and its ticket sales raise tens of thousands of dollars for various charities.
However, the event’s satirical roots pose a significant problem for inclusion in the Harriton community. Students who do not identify as male are technically allowed to compete, but none ever have. Few have even tried out. The founding satire of the event has given rise to a cultural opposition to non-males participating as contestants.
The school administration recognizes this problem. They considered changing Mr. Harriton’s name in the interest of gender inclusion several times in recent years, and earlier this month, they finally took the necessary step, ordering the Student Council to change the name to emphasize that students of all gender identities are welcome to participate.
It was not a popular move. From conversations I’ve had with friends in the weeks since, it seems that the majority of the student body disapproves of the administration’s decision. I, however, support the change. Here’s why.
A common argument I’ve heard in opposition to the rebranding is that Mr. Harriton is a satire of traditional beauty pageants, and that its satirical nature only works if the contestants are male. I understand their thinking, but more than that, I think it’s sexist to claim that the show can only be comical if all its contestants are male. I can see plenty of ways that people of other gender identities can make fun of traditional beauty pageants. Injecting Mr. Harriton with a fresh dose of creativity would make the competition more funny, not less.
My peers often complain about Harriton’s lack of traditional, rah-rah school spirit. One consequence of that deficit is that Mr. Harriton is our sole big, all-school event. The fact that half (or more) of the student population is excluded from participating is a big problem.
Those in opposition to changing the event’s name have pointed out that students of all gender identities are technically welcome to compete, according to the official rules. But one cannot deny that the event’s history, tradition and reputation discourage non-males from participating.
Only one woman has tried out for Mr. Harriton in the past several years, and no non-males have ever been selected to compete.
Changing the name of the event to something gender-neutral is the best way to reverse that culture of exclusion. Even if the name were to retain the “Mr.” title and the school heavily emphasized that students of every gender identity are allowed to participate, the same degree of inclusivity will not be achieved.
Another option is to create a Ms. Harriton event to go along with Mr. Harriton. But that would involve an enormous and unnecessary workload, requiring the Student Council to organize two massive events per year rather than one. More importantly, it would imply that gender is a binary concept, which is just as antiquated as requiring all contestants to be men.
Many of my peers oppose the decision to change Mr. Harriton’s name. But this time, the popular sentiment is wrong. This is a necessary step in crafting a more inclusive culture at our school.