Mr. Whitman profits using gender

Shelly Le

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Steeped in tradition, Kappa Kappa Gamma’s Mr. Whitman fundraiser has been one of the most popular philanthropy events on campus for over 10 years. Every year, Kappa Kappa Gamma chooses eight senior men: four independent men and one representative from each Whitman fraternity: to compete for the title of Mr. Whitman. The men organize and help fundraise for a cause chosen by the sorority earlier in the year.

This year’s pageant proceeds will go towards Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Heart to Heart. In their fundraising efforts, the contestants have encouraged both men and women on campus to actively contribute to a cause close to home.

“I think it brings a lot of people together. It’s not just a Greek event, and it brings the whole campus together,” said Kappa Kappa Gamma’s Philanthropy Chair, junior Jenna Fritz.

Unlike many sorority fundraisers on campus, Mr. Whitman capitalizes on the fact that men unaffiliated with the sorority contribute to raising money for the cause through organization of campus-wide events. Past Mr. Whitman charities include the Chris Elliot Fund and the Salud Juntos Project, the former of which received over $50,000 from the fundraiser. Mr. Whitman culminates in a beauty pageant that will take place on Friday, Oct. 28, in which the men compete for points and popular votes by showing off their bodies and talents.

“The guys have really become a symbol of Mr. Whitman,” Fritz said. “There’s a draw that it’s an event put on by a sorority, but it’s guys competing.”

The eight senior men competing start fundraising as early as the summer for the title of Mr. Whitman.   Senior contestant David Hancock, who originally submitted the proposal to sponsor Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, notes that competing in the event goes beyond battling for a title.

“I wouldn’t even say it’s a matter of pride,” he said. “For me it has a lot more to do with showing a certain level of commitment.”

Although due in large part to organization and work by both the sorority and the men competing in the event, the success and longevity of the fundraiser is also due to its bending of societal norms. Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Gender Studies Program Melissa Wilcox believes that the popularity of Mr. Whitman lies in its ability to show a serious and controversial issue, female beauty pageants, in a humorous manner.

“What Mr. Whitman does is it takes the standard female beauty pageant, which I think a lot of people at Whitman have critiques of, and reverses it. The reversal comes out funny because the beauty pageant is such a gendered thing,” Wilcox said. “On the one hand there’s an emphasis on traditional masculinity; on the other hand, it’s almost a kind of drag in a weird sort of way to see men doing the standard repertoire of a beauty pageant.”

Wilcox notes that she wouldn’t necessarily promote a male beauty pageant as an ideal fundraiser.

“I would caution them to think hard about why they’re doing it and the impact of it and whether it is positive,” she said. “I think there are some questions about how worthwhile it is to turn around and objectify men.”

While many other fundraisers on campus target parents and the local community with bake sales and donation bins, Mr. Whitman profits from finding a humorous commonality amongst different students on campus.

Senior contestant Noah Henry-Darwish notes that it’s the uniqueness of the event that makes it so successful.

“It has a large place at the college in terms of tradition. There’s not a lot of traditions that are so successful at fundraising. It catches the eye of a lot of students and faculty,” he said. “It’s hard to say no to something where it looks like people are having so much fun on stage.”

Wilcox doesn’t necessarily believe that the fundraiser is wrong in using gender relations to its advantage. Rather, Wilcox sees the fundraiser as valuable in bringing social experimentation of gender onto campus.

“I think you can read it as a reversal experience, which in itself tells us something about gender and which, in a way, is an important experience,” she said. “It has the ability to point out ‘look how problematic women’s beauty pageants are’ and ‘look how odd they look when you do them with men,’ and if you think about that for a while, it tells you a lot about the gender relations in our culture. So I think it’s more of a valuable experiment because it’s done in that spirit.”

Fritz acknowledges that the humor of the fundraiser comes from the gender reversal, noting that the playfulness of the event helps bring the campus together for a good cause.

“There’s a way in which [the event] is able to reach a lot more people. It’s funny and it’s silly and I think that’s a lot of the draw for it,” Fritz said.

Fritz further notes that although there is added pressure to compete with last year’s goal, she hopes that that the local community and Whitman will remember the value of fundraising for a local organization.

The majority of this year’s proceeds will go to Blue Mountain Heart to Heart’s Latino outreach program.

“Blue Mountain Heart to Heart currently has four promotores de salud, promoters of health, who directly interact with the Hispanic community in the local area, handing out brochures, offering free counseling and offering free HIV testing,” Hancock said. “The hope is that we can provide more money for outreach programs for these promotores.

Additionally, 10 percent of the total proceeds from the Mr. Whitman fundraiser will go to the National Kappa Foundation, which provides funds for emergency assistance and scholarships and leadership opportunities for women.

“Kappa is part of a larger organization, and sometimes that can be hard to recognize. We want 100 percent of the proceeds to go to Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, but we are part of a larger organization and we have to remember that [giving back to the Kappa organization] is a good thing,” Fritz said.

Because the fundraiser will be beneficial for Blue Mountain Heart to Heart and the Kappa Foundation, the participants are comfortable even knowing that they will participate in a swimsuit competition during the event.

“Making fun of yourself: you can do it in a respectful way and in respect of other gender roles,” Henry-Darwish said. “I understand what people find funny, and I’m going to do, on stage, what I find appropriate.”

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