To be honest, male pageants like the annual Mr. Jewell normalize laughter at gender non-conformity.
On Nov. 1, Zeta Tau Alpha of William Jewell College hosted its annual Mr. Jewell Pageant. Although the event raised money to help combat breast cancer (not through Susan G. Komen, thank God), male pageants in general still present a problem. Namely, male pageants provide a space in which one is expected to laugh at gender non-conformity. Laughing at men doing traditionally “feminine” things during a pageant helps to reinforce and normalize laughing at this in the real world, which is not okay.
Ultimately, male pageants embody society’s inability to grapple with individuals or behaviors that don’t fit into our constructions of masculinity and femininity. Many believe that there are only two genders: male and female. This belief, however, is false. Male and female are simply social constructions created in order to control people. Gender non-conformity is when an individual doesn’t conform to their assigned gender. Because, in reality, the idea that men are supposed to do one thing and women are supposed to do another is just because of convention, not biology.
On stage, many find it funny when people cross these “boundaries,” but it is perfectly appropriate and acceptable to cross these “boundaries” in real life as well because, as we’ve determined, these boundaries are merely societal conventions into which each of us has been inculcated. Jewell, other educational institutions and society in general need to be more understanding of individuals who break typical gender conventions because—hot take—gender is fake!
Mr. Jewell, in addition to showing a slightly homophobic video and featuring a problematic culturally-appropriative rap performance (white guy rapping about being “nubian” and “dark as cocoa” while wearing traditional rastafarian colors), exemplified the problem that society has with gender non-conformity. It’s funny how people laugh when Kappa Alpha frat brothers “dance like girls,” but in real life those same people would be disgusted at a man or a masculine-presenting individual doing those same dance moves. When participants in male pageants make a mock of gender non-conformity, it solidifies in the audience’s mind that when these boundaries are crossed, it is unserious and laughable. Pageants like these serve to reinforce these societally constructed boundaries when what we need is for them to be dismantled.
Men playing women or gender neutral characters on stage is not a new thing. Numerous Shakespeare plays, notably “Twelfth Night,” include characters masquerading as other genders, and over the years, actors of different genders have played roles written for other genders. This gender bending also is prominent in opera with the so-called “pants role,” in which women or transmasculine individuals play roles written for men or boys. In these instances, however, the movement between genders is not meant for just laughs but instead can be valuable in changing people’s societally-created gender constructions. In the case of male pageants, however, the men do conventionally feminine dances/sketches solely for comedy, which is where the problem lies.
Recently, someone I follow on Facebook shared the results from a survey put out by Attitude magazine: approximately 71 percent of gay men find “effeminate” men a turn-off. This problem doesn’t just present itself in straight communities. Femmephobia and transphobia are alive in queer communities, which is seen through the presentation of cisgender white men as the definition of “gay.”
Overall, I believe that male pageants are detrimental to societal progress, as they merely reinforce existing constructed categories and normalize laughter at those who break with those categories. And that’s what men and women are, categories invented by humans in an attempt to control people’s lives. Gender non-conformity is beautiful, desirable and completely legitimate. In reality, gay covers an infinite number of possibilities. And none of these possibilities should be reduced to comedy.