The Washington Post ran a story the other day on the controversy over the recent George Mason University homecoming queen contest, the “Ms. Mason” pageant.
A gay student and drag queen performer entered “as a joke,” competing as his drag alter ego “Reann Ballslee.” He competed by wearing “a silver bra and zebra-print pants and . . . lip-syncing to Britney Spears’s ‘Womanizer.’” The other contestants included
a government and politics major from Chesapeake and a Chi Omega sorority member who told the school newspaper she should win because “I have pride in Mason to the point where my towels are green and gold.”
“Reann” won the pageant.
“It was just for fun,” Allen, 22, said over coffee at the Johnson Center, where he was congratulated by classmates with hugs and squeals. “In the larger scheme of things, winning says so much about the university. We’re one of the most diverse campuses in the country, and . . . we celebrate that.”
Apparently, the pageant had been held for five years previously with little engagement by the student body. Few students were interested in an event regarded as “the province of pretty blondes and fraternity boys.” This year, however, with Ryan Allen as a contestant, students were interested.
“I’ve never been into homecoming over here. This is the first time I’ve actually wanted to support someone,” said Melissa Benjjani, 21, from Lebanon. “He deserves to be queen. He’s already a queen for everybody.”
All was not joy in Mudville, however, when Reann won. GMU is in a years-long campaign “to revamp its image from commuter school to distinguished institution of higher learning.” Although GMU’s official statement is that the university is “very comfortable with it,” a sophomore who helps with recruiting thinks
“It’s really annoying,” said Bollinger, who works as an ambassador for the admissions office. “The game was on TV. Everyone was there. All eyes were on us. And we do something like this? It’s just stupid.”
When I read this story I did not know what to think. On the one hand, this is clearly a no-skin-off-my nose situation; who cares who the homecoming queen of George Mason University is? Why should there be any controversy? And besides, we live in a country where people are trying to keep gay men and women from getting married to the person they love, so it’s refreshing to see what looks like very public acceptance of one gay man’s lifestyle.
On the other hand, I felt bad that a benign tradition was being subverted in some sense. Wikipedia describes homecoming as a tradition that is “celebrated” by bringing together alumni and others for banquets, a football game, and a ceremony where two students who have “gone above and beyond the call of duty to contribute to their school” are crowned Homecoming King and Queen. Crowning a man homecoming queen as a “joke” seems to thwart what many people expect and enjoy about homecoming celebrations. When Ryan Allen entered the competition, he did not intend to be judged by the same standards as the other two contestants. That is, he was not trying to show school spirit, or to demonstrate that he was a good student, or even that he was the prettiest contestant. He hoped to win despite those standards; he wanted those standards to be disregarded. Put another way — there may not have been any official rule barring a drag queen from participating in George Mason University’s homecoming pageant, but it does seem that when Ryan Allen entered the pageant, he broke the spirit, if not the letter, of the “law.”
Then I remembered what Ayn Rand said about humor:
Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it? It’s the contrast of the woman’s pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That’s the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element–which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that’s fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous . . . .
I wonder: if Ryan Allen entered the pageant as a “joke,” what did he hope people would laugh at? Is the Ms. Mason homecoming pageant the proper subject of a joke? Is there something evil about it, such that it is good to deny its “metaphysical importance?” So far as I am aware, it was never any part of the GMU homecoming tradition to disparage homosexuals, such that the pageant should be considered evil for contributing to prejudice against gay men. If I’m invited to ridicule the pageant as a result of this, am I contributing to the destruction of something evil, or of a value?
Perhaps in the end, what people will take away from this episode (to the extent anyone notices) is that the-times-they-are-a-changin’ — in a good way. But that will only be in contradiction of Ryan Allen’s original intent, which was to make the pageant the subject of a joke. Which means — to destroy the pageant.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder. From where I sit this doesn’t look like a harmless joke. It looks like a spiteful prank.