ROSEMONT–– An overwhelming majority of Harriton High School students are opposed to school administrators’ decision to change the name of the Mr. Harriton competition to something gender non-specific, according to a survey of students. 95% of respondents to the survey said the name should not be changed. Similarly, a mere 5% feel that the name is exclusionary and disrespectful.
Eighty-two students took the survey, which was posted in a general student Facebook group. Of the students who completed the survey, 100% of students who identified as non-binary, as well as all transgender students, felt that the name should not be changed. Lindsay Sayer, co-president of Harriton’s Gender Sexuality Alliance, told us that at a recent meeting she asked the more than 20 students in attendance if they were in support of the change. All the students said they were not, according to Sayer.
In the additional comments section of the survey, students had the opportunity to submit anonymous comments. Many students highlighted their concerns about the change and its effect on the LGBTQ+ community.
“As a member of the school’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA), I see the administration falsely and unfairly blaming us for bringing up the “Mr. Harriton” controversy”
GSA leaders met with Harriton Administrators to discuss the change, which the students opposed. The club leaders then reported back the outcome of the meeting to the rest of the club. A student in GSA but not at the meeting with administrators reported the following: “Last week, they [the GSA leaders who were in attendance] gave us their reflection of the meeting, in which the most common standpoint was that the administration blatantly assumed that we were the ones all behind this.” The student later described their perceived viewpoint of the admin’s role in the meeting, stating that, “the adults [Harriton administrators and the student council sponsor] would keep talking at the students, pedantically repeating the same points, instead of giving them much of a voice.”
“the adults would keep talking at the students, pedantically repeating the same points, instead of giving them much of a voice.”
A total of 33 students, more than one-third of respondents, left additional comments on the survey. Of those respondents, all of them were against the name change, and thus there are no quotes available from the approximately five percent of students in support.
Many students took issue with how the name change shifted the message of the event to something that differed from its founding ideals. One, in the open-ended portion of the survey, wrote the following: “[C]hanging the name would change the narrative of the show, which … is to make fun of female beauty pageants. This is done by using males as contestants instead of females to express and laugh at the misogynistic and old fashioned way people thought women should act. It challenges the perception women find themselves having of themselves [and shows] that they don’t need to be perfect objects, existing to make others happy. Changing the name … changes the powerful messages that [the show] holds.”
Other data give potential insight into why there was a lack of written reasoning from students who were for the name change. One section asked students to rate their agreement with a collection of statements. Of the students who supported the name change, all but one disagreed with the statement that they would feel comfortable publically voicing their opinions.
This section of the survey also highlighted the fact that the majority of students felt that changing the name would have a potentially negative impact on the total amount of money raised. Additionally, the vast majority of students agreed that, in its current form, there are adequate opportunities for all students, regardless of gender who wish to participate to participate in the contest.
According to administrators, one of the primary reasons the name of the show was changed was because they felt that it discouraged non-males from participating. The survey found that 80% of students felt that the name did not discourage non-male students from auditioning to be contestants. As one student wrote, “Girls know that they can participate, but they choose not to.” Another student wrote, “Even though the name is gender-specific, most females do not wish to compete, and enjoy the original idea of a parodied pageant, which was the original intention of Mr. Harriton … if females did wish to compete, they would not feel discouraged by a gender-specific name.”
“Even though the name is gender-specific, most females do not wish to compete, and enjoy the original idea of a parodied pageant, which was the original intention of Mr. Harriton … if females did wish to compete, they would not feel discouraged by a gender-specific name.”
Numerous students mentioned Lower Merion High School, which has a similar competition, in their responses. Lower Merion has had female contestants compete in their fundraising event in the past. One student wrote “A girl won Mr. Lower Merion and there was no fuss about it. There is no problem here, so I don’t see why the administration is making changes.” Another pointed out that “… a girl won Mr. Lower Merion and was perfectly ok with being called ‘Mr.’ Lower Merion.”
After that competition took place, the school changed the name of their competition**. Unlike at Harriton, Lower Merion’s competition is not organized by the school’s student council. Student responses to the survey at Harriton were submitted before students learned from HHS-TV’s reporting that administrators had agreed on “Mx. Harriton” as the new name of the competition.
Some students provided additional responses too long or complicated to paraphrase. We have included a few of their comments below.
“… My personal opinion on the matter is that changing ‘Mr. Harriton’ to something less gender-specific like ‘Harriton’s Finest,’ while it would defend the event’s inclusivity with respect to gender to a much larger extent, would also rub away much of the authenticity of the event because it will hinder a popular school-wide tradition. Even though the show has comedically satirized primarily female beauty pageants—namely ‘Miss America’—there was never a rule discriminating any gender from participating in the show as a contestant. There have even been female victories across the pond at ‘Mr. LM.’ Making a mountain out of a molehill about something like the title of the event years after it was put into place would be like trying to make over a historic monument like the Statue of Liberty by, say, starting a big project to remove all of the rust that gave it its signature shiny ‘coat’ of green. Not only does the government have better priorities, but doing so may drastically decrease its phenomenal trends in tourism, and the end product may be left soiled. Likewise, if all this effort, which is at the end of the day too little too late, keeps being made to tamper with the title of the show before it takes place in February, then this yearly extravaganza, which in the relative past has raised ten of thousands of dollars each individual year, may become a sellout—as in people may lose interest unless their close friends are in the show, and the contestants may put on less of a show than in previous years. As a member of the GSA, as well as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community and an avid ally to the trans and genderqueer community, I appreciate the administration’s attempt to satisfy any potential issues that may rise, but overall, the general consensus seems to have a minuscule amount of issue with the traditional ‘Mr. Harriton’ title so far, and making a scapegoat of the GSA before anything technically could have risen up will just add more pressure to this tempest in a teapot.”
“Mr. Harriton has universally been a show for guys to poke fun at beauty pageants by all high schools who have been running the show for many years. There are other opportunities for all other students at Harriton to display their talents on a more serious platform.”
“The whole point of Mr. Harriton is that it is a satire on female beauty pageants. Making it partially about women again is taking away from that satire. A girl won Mr. Lower Merion and there was no fuss about it. There is no problem here, so I don’t see why the administration is making changes. Here’s the thing: I think in this name change, the administration isn’t considering the impact this tradition has. And the reason it has an impact is not only because it’s an amazing event, but because it is tradition. It has gained name recognition, built up a reputation (a good one) and a following base, and it is tradition. Our modern society discounts tradition as being an important part of community, but it really is. Mr. Harriton is part of what makes Harriton, well, Harriton. Changing the name chips away at that part of our community.”
“Mr. Harriton has become not only a tradition but a strong way for Harriton High School to raise money to various causes. However, the amount of awareness for Mr. Harriton will decrease with the ambiguity regarding the name change, not to mention the inevitable decrease in attendance featured in future Mr. Harriton related events due to frustration within the student body.
As far as I am concerned, the Mr. Harriton name issue was not a problem until the district made it one, and the District should be spending their time focusing on more important issues rather than issues that impact a small minority of people. I myself, along with many other students had not heard of any problems with the Mr. Harriton name until District made it be one, that concerns a lot more people then meant to accommodate for.
I myself, along with the students of Harriton High School, want to see positive change in the community, not an eradication of the traditions and events that define who we (Harriton High School) are, without the scrutinization of an event with a gendered pronoun.
In fact, the gendered pronoun arguably serves to mock the gender-based stereotypes that come with pageants in the first place, which explains the lack of non-male contestants. Non-male contestants would be more likely to enforce gender stereotypes then break them in this type of event, despite the fact that it is, always was, and forever will be a gender inclusive event… ”
“Mr. Harriton in a charity first and foremost. We raise a substantial amount of money for charities that are important to the student body. The show was always meant to be a parody of a pageant show. It’s supposed to be fun. Administration shouldn’t try to make a political statement out of something that was only intended to bring the community together.”
The final sample included students ranging across all four grades at Harriton. A little more than half identified as female, 42% as male and the rest non-binary. The survey had a mix of students of numerous sexual orientations, with just over a quarter of students identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community. To reiterate, all responses were submitted anonymously, but respondents had the opportunity to provide additional written comments. There was an optional space for students to provide an email address if they were interested in possibly saying more about the topic. For additional information about the survey or other questions, please contact Harriton TV’s Co-President Sam Catania at [email protected].
Please continue to check back as this story develops. Harriton TV is a student-run news organization that has no direct affiliation with Harriton Student Council. Posts to Harriton TV’s Website do not necessarily go through an approval process by Harriton faculty.