Many people asked why I wasn’t going to Hoedown last week, so I found myself thinking about why the dances at Deerfield haven’t been a source of excitement for me in the same way they are for other people. It’s no secret that Deerfield dances are a huge part of the Deerfield experience. As the first dance of the new school year, Disco offers students a chance to reconnect with old friends and gear up for a new year. Just a month or so later, the buzz is all about “mystery dates” for Sadie’s. Then, campus discussions shift to Hoedown in April, and pretty soon students are obsessed with whom to ask, how to ask them, and what to wear.
These dances are a common link between Deerfield students. The bonding that happens as a result of these dances is significant; however, while most of us don’t see a problem with any of the dances, I think each one is problematic in its own way.
Let’s look at Disco. As the first dance of the year, Disco serves as an initiation into what Deerfield values. Freshmen, in particular, are bombarded with information about what to wear, often before they even arrive on campus. The self-imposed “dress code” for girls at Disco–bright, tight, and short–leaves no room for girls to express themselves in any other way. Why does the culture of the student body emphasize skirts so short that faculty and administrators feel the need to remind us to wear Spandex?
Next up is Sadie’s, in which upperclassmen are matched with underclassmen of the opposite gender. As is tradition, the upperclassmen determine the themed costume choices for themselves and their younger date. Having senior boys choosing costumes for freshman girls is inherently problematic. It can put a girl in an awkward position when her “date” chooses a costume she doesn’t feel comfortable wearing. And it’s not just about discomfort: Some costumes chosen by upperclassmen boys for Sadie’s have been sexist and stereotypical, and some reflect a problematic power imbalance. The boys’ costumes sometimes place them as a figure of power or control and their younger date in a position of subservience–think pilots and flight attendants, sports stars and cheerleaders, etc. Of course, this isn’t true of all the costumes at Sadie’s, and my concerns here are specific to the role of senior boys choosing costumes for freshman girls. But the very structure for the dance encourages sexist tropes and fuels the belief that all students are heterosexual.
This brings us to Hoedown, which follows the typical “Sadie Hawkins” dance set-up, promoting the idea that girls asking boys to a dance is “different” and “unusual,” and that it needs to happen at a separate dance. The inspiration for Sadie Hawkins dances was an overtly sexist comic premised on the idea that if a woman who was ugly and unappealing to men could catch herself a bachelor at a race and pull him across the finish line, then he would be forced to marry her.
The Deerfield dances–and Hoedown in particular–perpetuate the notion that it’s okay for boys to constantly have the power in a dating dynamic. Hoedown offers girls the opportunity to reverse this dynamic, but ultimately, it’s really just a big joke. Girls are “allowed” to “choose” their date, yet it really just serves as a reminder to the community that the status quo remains intact for the rest of the year. Like Sadie’s, Hoedown reiterates a heteronormative ideology in the community. There is no flexibility in this current structure for students who identify as gay or bi to invite a same-sex date. Why does the very structure of the dance have to continually emphasize a heterosexual norm?
Likewise, the fact that boys are in the center of the “mosh pit” is problematic, even if one argues that girls are allowed if they want to join. Making something “allowed” versus making someone feel “welcome” are two very different things.
I don’t mean to suggest that the dances don’t serve an important purpose for building community. Some students and faculty have pointed out that the pairing of upperclassmen with younger students encourages all students to get to know people throughout the school. It’s something that Deerfield emphasizes–through sit-down meals, cross-age advisories, and co-curriculars–and there is no denying that we are all the better for it. But isn’t there some way to achieve the same goals without veering dangerously into the realm of stereotypes and heterosexism?
So how do we solve these problems? Taking away what makes Deerfield the place it is won’t work. Changing the culture of these dances will take courage. Let’s start small. Let’s ensure the girls are welcome in the “mosh pit.” Let’s reimagine what a dance should look like in the 21st century. Let’s reimagine a dance where both boys and girls feel comfortable asking each other out (and, for that matter, boys and boys and girls and girls) and wearing clothing that is fun but encourages individuality. These changes won’t make Deerfield any less wonderful, but we will finally have the courage to reimagine what social events could be… what they can be, here, today: a place of inclusiveness with dances that are fun for everybody.