Every Spring at Amherst College, students enter room draw, which means they are sorted into a random ranking system, determining the order in which they get to choose their housing for the following year. They are ranked first according to class year and then within class year, an algorithm determines their position on the ranking. Student Housing at Amherst College (SHAC) offers an opportunity for students given the unfortunate lot of being placed at near the bottom of the list to compete their way for a top spot—a lip sync competition in which they and all members of their room group must choreograph a three minute number. The idea is that no one actually sings, simply mimes singing, and supplements it with hyperbolic choreography and eye-catching costumes and props. A winner for each class year is chosen by a group of staff members, selected by the student SHAC employees.
One of my friends was musing about his plans for next year, saying that he and his friends have ideas in mind for their performance and are really excited to put something together. They want to live in Lipton their senior year, also they are an eclectic group of comedians and musicians who just really enjoy performing. One of my friends quipped, “Just make sure you don’t have a woman in your room group, otherwise you won’t win”. We all laughed uneasily as the truth of her words sank in. Indeed, the last time a group fully comprised of woman won the lip synch competition was in 2014, the year the current Seniors were first-years. The question that came to mind for me, however, was whether or not her commiserations were commiserations that could be applied to gender bias in competition in general, or if there was something specific to the nature of the lip sync that made this especially the case. However, I would like to argue that the unique nature of the lip sync performance breeds a more particular, insidious form of gender bias, stemming directly from the expectations that masculinity and femininity impose upon performance.
This year, there were two groups contending for victory from the rising senior class. The first of which to take the stage made sure that the audience knew they were on the football team—were it not already clear from their physiques and the startling uproar of applause from the several dozen players sprinkled throughout the audience; they emerged in full uniform. The laughter began almost instantly—admittedly, the sight of five burly men lumbering about on a small chapel stage on which they barely fit was jarring in and of itself. When it became clear that they had opted for a “Beauty and the Beast” plotline, the laughter only grew– football players and Disney princesses! Killer combo. What followed was three minutes of the thunderous sound of uncoordinated kick lines, extravagant arm flourishes, and the grand finale, which, if you hadn’t already guessed it, consisted of a man in a yellow spaghetti strap dress. The audience was, at this point, in split. It was clear they’d be hard to beat, and when at the very end, the ostensive Belle and Beast characters shared a kiss, square on the mouth, earning them another round of applause, the deal was, as they say, “sealed”.
Admittedly, the laughs came easily. There was something familiar about it that allowed me to sort of wallow in the mindless entertainment of it all. I’d seen these jokes before—on this very stage, in fact. I was distinctly reminded of my freshman year, when one of the highlights of the victor’s performance for the freshman class was the moment when one of my floor-mates, tall, lumbering and bearded, emerged wearing an ill-fitting pink frilly dress, accompanied by high-pitched voice recordings provided by one of my girlfriends. This, too, earned an almost unanimous uproar of laughter. Different large man, different ill-fitting dress, same rhetorical appeal – a rhetorical appeal that I believe is worth probing.
The juxtaposition of burly men outfitted in their football uniforms with dresses, with kissing, with Disney princesses, the hyper-masculine miming the feminine. In many ways, the jokes write themselves. Unfortunately, what underpins this sort of humor is not quite so benign. For one thing, the reverse dynamic — the feminine mocking the masculine — is not quite so amusing to us, for the simple fact that as a society, we aspire towards masculinity. We render the masculine desirable, while continuing to regard femininity as a weakness, a lack, an object of disdain. Thus, by falling into these comedic tropes, we essentially enable this sort of trivialization of femininity. This becomes clear as the more hyper-masculine the man is, the more humorous the effect of performing feminine.
Not only is lip sync a platform for gender bias in housing selection, but it also creates the conditions enabling transphobic and homophobic humor. As long as we are willing to deploy men kissing, men in dresses, as a tactic to earn laughs, rather than as something to be read seriously, we cannot claim that we aren’t to some extent mocking the experiences of queer and trans people. Moreover, regardless of how the men on stage actually identify, both in terms of their sexuality and their gender identity, they are undoubtedly capitalizing upon the fact that our normative frame of mind “reads” them as straight, cis-men. They play up their heteronormativity in order to polarize it with their performance of femininity, creating the most humorous effect possible.
I would argue that the nature of the lip sync competition itself in some way invites this this sort of humor. Lip-sync, by definition, is mimicry of performance rather than performance itself. It, in fact, works to your benefit to establish yourself as someone who “doesn’t usually perform,” but is willing to do it, because “why the heck not.” It is not talent itself that earns the laughs, rather, the mockery of talent. So a group of lumbering football players, scrambling to organize themselves haphazardly into a kickline is not perceived as a bad performance, but rather, as the willingness of a non-vulnerable population to make themselves vulnerable in an extremely palatable way. The same opportunity does not present itself for women or gender non-conforming individuals, since constant performance and vulnerability are what we unwittingly expect of these populations.
There is something, in fact, feminized about making oneself vulnerable upon a stage, and therefore, something decidedly unfunny and “normal” about a group of women dancing in unison. I have more than once sat in discomfort as a group of well-rehearsed, well-choreographed women take the lip sync stage and struggle to understand why I feel this way. I am reminded of the Cheetah Girls, the Rockettes, and other groups of women putting themselves in the public eye. It’s always either too sexy, or too showy, too self-confident or too self-conscious, almost always unfunny and always for “someone else.” It is seemingly impossible to extract the male gaze from this equation, seemingly impossible to read these women as performers on their own terms. Instead, we unwittingly ascribe to them a desire to be seen, a lack of respect for themselves, overconfidence (which is irritating on a woman) or crippling insecurity (which is simply unattractive). Likewise, a group of hyper-masculine men, willing to put themselves on a stage, wear a dress, kiss a teammate, twirl around a bit—it’s empowering because their willingness to do such things implies that they don’t care who sees, what you or anyone else thinks. Now unless you secretly harbor the belief that women are simply less funny than men (I am simply going to operate on my naive assumption of the humanity of Amherst Indicator readers), you can see how the structures at play in the lip sync competition make it almost impossible to judge performance at face value. My aim is not to make a value judgment on one performance over another. I would venture to say that lip sync can’t be fairly arbitrated a competition of this nature with all of the various power differentials at play. There remains something undeniably palatable about someone willing to take the stage “while masculine,” a palatability that requires access to the hyper-masculine. Moreover, riding this sort of humor towards your victory necessarily perpetuates the valorization of masculinity over femininity in society, as well as ignores the realities of performance for queer and trans communities. I ask that SHAC and Amherst Office of Residential Life consider reformatting this competition vis-á-vis this societal inequity.