The following essay has been stewing for a while. Seattle Pacific has been having a lot of great conversations about gender and identity recently, so this essay is in part a contribution to that discussion. I write with the conviction that good things are worth working on and the knowledge that the topics I explore here are likely relevant to many other institutions. It is also the first (I hope) of several posts reflecting on the wonderful and insane four years I have spent here. It has truly been a blessing.
Added 5/21: As this has been spread around quite a bit, I would like to add that what is discussed below, while certainly concerning and warranting change, is one aspect of events like Decade Skate, which are one aspect of communal life at SPU. It is, frankly, one of the few things that have concerned me during my time here. For people who are new to my blog, it is worth adding that overall, my experience here has been overwhelmingly good, and my blog, I hope, has been a testament to the powerful community SPU is. Thank you for reading.
Dropkicking two baby dolls into the crowd of underclassmen congregated in front of the library was about par for the course. Res hall traditions are always a spectacle of excitement, nonsense, and camaraderie, all of which I definitely felt then, having just crawled out onto the stage with my dads (a name guys on 3rd Hill call each other) in a mass birth train from underneath the legs of other dads, beginning to dance, dressed mainly in makeshift diapers, watching the two dolls soar unceremoniously through the air as the beat of our chosen soundtrack—a dubstep remix of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—dropped.
When first arriving at college, a student might not know anyone else there; I did not. Even if he or she does, the new location, and all of the changes that come with it, can alter relationships. Some people just feel different in general, making it difficult for them to form friendships. The res hall floor provides, ideally, a new family with its own distinct practices, often called traditions, regardless of how long they have actually been observed. Traditions—floor themes, names, activities, and formal events—distinguish one floor from another, giving a group of hitherto unconnected people a common identity.
But these traditions, especially the activities and events, do change, sometimes frequently. The baby-dropping dance was for Fusion, a fall-quarter tradition instituted by Res Life with the goal of providing a positive, unifying experience for each residence hall. It may have also been an attempt to curb some of the more controversial floor-specific traditions that often involve(d) near or total nudity or possibly harmful behavior, which some defend by saying that they are more effective in forming intimate bonds. At any rate, Fusion is no longer. It was dropped.
Perhaps the most popular of the public traditions are those in which each floor prepares a skit that involves acting and dancing to a hodgepodge of songs, YouTube videos, movie soundtracks, and dialogue. For weeks, sometimes months, a floor will gather to choreograph and rehearse their dances and preen their soundtrack.
In my four years at SPU, I have participated in my hall’s version of this, Decade Skate, in all capacities. Freshman year, my floor did not compete, but we came and supported our sister floor. Sophomore year, we assembled a skit that we were very proud of, and, though we didn’t win, we got laughs, applause, and a sense of mutual accomplishment. Junior year, I was asked to host with a friend. This year, my senior year, hall council kindly asked me to be a judge. Having done all of this, and having attended as many Ashton Cups, I can think of a few things that tend to characterize these traditions.
Every year, at least two or three skits consist of a group of students exploring the SPU campus in some way. Another popular plot involves characters visiting various movies and TV shows.
Every year, the women tend to focus on plot, dance, and sets, while the men tend to focus on plot, dance, sets, and shocking the audience.
Every year, certain floors do certain things. Some are known for tight choreography, others for birthing scenes.
Every year, there are cringe-worthy moments, such as those birthing scenes, occasional insensitive racial caricatures, violence, and—always—over-sexed dancing from the men. Women’s floors exhibit this behavior sometimes, too, but by and large a lot less frequently.
Which leads to another observation: nearly every year, a men’s floor wins first place, even though there are far more women’s floors and even if a women’s floor has a far better skit. Going into judging this year, I had this in mind, but even then, the result was the same.
In addition to the immense creativity possible when so many people work together towards a common goal, our res hall events highlight the strange gender dynamics present at SPU:
It is no secret that college is a time during which many find their future spouse. “Ring by Spring” culture (encompassing Roomies Dates, the constant jokes during Welcome Week along the lines of “Your future husband or wife might be sitting next to you,” and the ridiculous significance given to getting coffee with someone of the opposite sex), even when participated in ironically, often makes the wedding ring, not the bachelor’s degree, seem like the real prize of four years at SPU. Combined with the infamous 68/32 women-to-men ratio, the urgency of “ring by spring” causes many of our students who don’t find their partner, women especially, I think, to feel like something is deeply wrong with them. It also is a source of distress for some LGBTQ people, who, especially at this time of life, may very well be torn about whether or not God (not to mention their university) allows their love in the first place. A final result of ring by spring and the ratio is that the vast majority of eyes on campus fall on the men; not that it makes everything easy for them, but straight guys are in high demand around here.
It is no secret that people—young people in particular, men in particular—try to show off in front of potential mates.
It is no secret that a large number of current SPU students were raised in church traditions that embraced the Purity Movement, which we now know has harmed a generation of Christian women by causing them to view their body as a commodity that can be ruined after one inappropriate use, while the men are more or less rapped across the knuckles and told to man up. Purity culture’s just-cover-it-up approach to the human body and its functions, particularly sex, has also caused a number of us—men and women—to feel ashamed of our naked selves and our desires.
Nor is it a secret that this generation of Christian men is comprised mainly of porn addicts who are much more familiar with the bodies of women than the other way around. Women, too, struggle with this, but not, I believe, in such high proportions.
So, given this stew of sexual confusion and frustration, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that, taken out of their home contexts and dropped en masse onto a stage in front of their peers, young SPU men—without fail—tear their clothing off and grind on each other, almost as if you can demonstrate your masculinity by showing how far you can go with the same sex in front of the opposite sex without enjoying it, while doing it crudely. Should we find it surprising that men’s skits can demonstrate intense violence, sometimes towards women? I wonder, should we find it surprising that the audience roars with laughter and cheers in response? Should we find it surprising that these skits often win?
Perhaps some people reading this—especially underclassmen—think that I’m blowing a little bit of harmless fun way out proportion. But hear me out. I write this because I care about the SPU I am soon leaving. I worry that this pattern, along with the continued changing of individual floor traditions, the (don’t laugh) removal of the circular tables from Gwinn, the closing of Gwinn between lunch and dinner (thus making impossible the Gwinn Challenge), and other seemingly minor changes could harm (or already are harming) the number one thing people say they love about SPU: the community.
The moment that it occurred to me that the sexual and violent content of our performance-based res hall traditions can actually be harmful to SPU’s community was during this year’s Decade Skate. I was underneath a blanket at the time, which I brought in case Royal Brougham was cold. But the main function it served that night was to shield me when a few minimally dressed SPU men came unusually close to the judges’ table and began to hip-thrust violently in our faces. I didn’t think such a thing could be done so angrily, but within the context of the broader skit, which was equally angry, it felt like a thinly veiled “fuck you.” I didn’t realize until afterwards that another judge, a wonderful woman in the year below me, was also trying to get under the blanket. Looking back at this, I find this image to be a particularly revealing one about how such forceful displays of puerile heterosexual masculinity violate women, gay men, and others alike. Like a dog humping your leg.
I understand that parts of this particular skit were meant to protest the decision of Res Life to discontinue a certain tradition of theirs that involves Nerf guns. But, even though I understand the frustration behind such a protest—even though I too would be angry to lose a particularly fun floor tradition—I also know that when the context of an act or symbol changes, the way it is perceived changes as well. When a member of our community is shot to death on our campus, guns on our campus—even obviously fake ones—become symbols of the saddest and scariest moment in our community’s memory and potential triggers for horrifying episodes of PTSD. The shortsightedness or callousness of anyone who fails to see or care about that astonishes me. It is an idolatry of the self and of one’s own favorite practices over the love of neighbor.
The things we do are never neutral; they tell us about who we are, where we are going, and what we desire. And the “we” here is intentional—within the larger circle of SPU, the res halls house multiple levels of community. At every level, leaders and other community members should ask themselves those questions: Who are we? Where are we going? What do we desire?
In her essay “Imagination and Community,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She continues, “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” What are Decade Skate skits and the like if not fictions, the artistic expressions of res hall floors? Could they be an opportunity to exercise imaginative love, sympathy, and identification?
To end this essay, I don’t really have any answers. I just have hopes—high hopes. And I do have more questions for you to think about—particularly those of you who are future leaders at SPU and, potentially, other Christian colleges with analogous traditions.
What communities are you a part of?
What traditions do you value?
What do your traditions say about you and your community?
Whom do your traditions leave out or alienate?
Are there other ways in which your traditions are harmful?
Do your communities and traditions glorify God?
If you don’t like your answers to any of these questions, what can you change? What specifically can you change? Are there rules that can be rewritten? Grading sheets that can be weighted differently?
Entering our sophomore year, the Hill Hall Council I was a part of was extremely mindful of how we might influence the hall’s culture. We did our best to bolster the idea that Hill is a place of love—a true home for those who live there. Who are we? Family. Where are we going? Into the unsure future. What do we desire? To get there together. As my four years here come to an end, it is my prayer that SPU will continue to be a place redolent of God’s love and a people who listen well, think critically, love generously, and, to do this, are ready to let some things drop.
Did you ever consider talking to the people you refer to in the article to get their sides of the story? Some of the claims you make about their intentions are far from being correct.
Hi Jysal! I think I’ve seen you around but have not had the chance to meet you yet, so, good to meet you. And thanks for commenting.
My focus for this post is not so much on people and their intentions as it is on the seemingly set-in-stone, or structural, parts of res hall traditions that are unhealthy. I do get more specific with the example of the one particular floor. But, even there, I think the only statement I make with regards to intentions is: “I understand that parts of this particular skit were meant to protest the decision of Res Life to discontinue a certain tradition of theirs that involves Nerf guns.” I think that that is a pretty fair and uncontroversial assessment of intentions. Besides that, I say that the up-close-and-personal hip-thrusting in my face felt like a “fuck you,” which is not judging intentions but a statement of perception from my end. I also suggest that taking a stand for the Nerf gun tradition in a year following a shooting is shortsighted and callous, which is also not judging intentions, but a statement of assessment—and one I stand by.
What is being judged at Decade Skate is not intentions but actions. The audience and judges only see what a performer does, not what he or she thinks. Your concern about intentions gets to the heart of this piece: our actions reveal who we are, where we are going, and what we desire. By watching what you do, I can learn these things about you. Another way of saying this is that one’s intentions are manifested in one’s actions: if one intends to make a kind or loving statement, one makes a kind or loving gesture. Conversely, if one intends to make rude or violent statement, one makes a rude or violent gesture. And, while I’m not sure exactly which claims of mine you are referring to, I recall no kind or loving gestures in that skit. I can concede that I might have missed one—that night was a bit of a blur. But the intention of the whole skit was pretty clear: to push the envelope and get disqualified.
Because I assumed that people’s intentions could be found in their actions, I didn’t consider reaching out to any of the performers. I did talk to people I know and trust who have been around for a while and who know res hall life, all of whom tended to agree on what they saw. Also, if I were to review a book, I would read the book, not interview the author. If I were to review a ballet performance, I would watch the ballet, not ask the dancers and choreographer what their intentions were. Same thing here.
If that doesn’t address your concerns, please let me know! And if anyone felt the need to explain their intentions, I would definitely welcome that.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for writing this piece. As an SPU alum, many of these issues were ones which existed in the years I attended SPU, but were mutely accepted as normal within the “SPU bubble,” by most. It gives me hope, and I am so proud, to see this generation of SPU students stepping up to challenge the mindset that these thing should not/might not ever change. It takes courage to be that voice speaking against traditions that have held sway for years. But it is ever more important to do so as the world around students (and Christians) is changing so immensely.
There is power in conversations, whatever their result. Thank you for creating a platform which (I’m already seeing!) is providing a space for these conversations to begin.
Best of luck as you step out of your student role at SPU and join the broader SPU family of alumni – we are proud to have you, and this is only the beginning of great things. 🙂
Thank you very much for your kind words Emilee! My primary goal was to generate some conversation, and I think that that is indeed happening, thanks to people like you. Best.
Well articulated Sam, thank you. Brings us back to the great message that transcends all tradition and that trumps all celebration – that love is uncompromisingly ultimate. PTL
YES—and, as the body of Christ, we are to model that love and be an outpouring of that love in all things.
Definitely appreciate this sobering critique of gender identity in university res life. While the university I am at doesn’t really have the same issues on the surface, some of the administration’s decisions lately have been fomenting a lot of discussion about sexuality and gender issues.
More importantly, though, I love your points on community and the important questions you ask. One of the saddest things about my university is that in too many ways the incredible community we had when I arrived has been slowly degenerating. A lot of alumni and older students love to gripe about how the previous Dean of Students and certain other faculty and Res Life staff made life hard for them, but with the advent of the new Dean and multiple professors and staff members, I have been seeing a steady decline in community. Floors and dorms are losing much of their sense of identity, and multiple cracks in the unity of the student body (students from different disciplines, international students, and gender identity/sexual orientation, to name a few) are starting to appear. I just wish that these questions you pose were asked by more students and more members of the administration…
Thank you for your thoughts! I think all institutions must have similar problems. The difference is, as you say, whether or not people ask questions about it.