Editorial: Sonoma High’s ‘Mr. Dragon’ feels the heat

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The Sonoma Valley High School “Mr. Dragon” contest has been the subject of recent criticism after several students decried the event for a lack of gender inclusivity.

The issue first came to the attention of the Index-Tribune in a student article we published by SVHS senior Ava Rognlien on Feb. 4. In it, Rognlien wrote that the student body was grappling over the “Mr.” part of “Mr. Dragon” – and whether the name of the event left female and non-binary students uncomfortable in participating.

Index-Tribune reporter Anne Ward Ernst followed up with a March 4 article featuring other students voicing similar qualms with the contest.

The “Mr. Dragon” contest, held March 7 in Goltan Hall, is something of a burlesque, in which a handful of male student contestants take part in a mock beauty pageant – it’s intended to be funny and outrageous. The boys wear women’s bathing suit tops and cheerleader skirts; they eat large quantities of pie or syrup in short amounts of time.

It’s typical high school humor. And, for the most part, it’s pretty harmless.

But more than a few students are pointing out that the school-sanctioned event – it’s staged by students, but takes place on campus and the prizes are prom tickets – discourages participation by non-binary and female students. Aside from the fact that its derision is aimed largely at traditions associated with female beauty contests – there are male versions after all – they say the very fact that it’s called the “Mr. Dragon” contest lends the impression that it’s a boys-only show.

As senior class president Sebastian Lopez put it in a recent I-T article: “Although people were trying to say that the event was not meant to be exclusive it still was that way just because of the name. I wasn’t even against the event, I was only against the name.”

The contest is technically open to all and, in fact, a female student on rare occasion has been a contestant, though contestants at last week’s event were all male. But, unless one holds that only boys enjoy goofing around on stage, the fact that girls and transgender students aren’t taking part makes it clear that something about the contest is disenfranchising to anyone not a boy.

The Sonoma Valley High School student population, to its credit, took the matter to heart prior to the March 7 contest when a congregation of student leaders discussed the issue and gave consideration to a name change of the event that wouldn’t define the contest so much by gender.

According to a letter to the Index-Tribune from Audrey Castillo and Madison Schiffman, both members of the Mr. Dragon Committee which stages the contest, a vote on changing the contest name was held last month by members of the “student forum,” a collection of more than 50 representatives from campus advisory classes. They said forum members voted convincingly to keep the name as it is.

“This vote accurately represents a decision made by the students, for the students,” said Castillo and Schiffman.

Gavin Lehane, Student Voice for the Associated Student Body, described the results of the survey as narrow and that a follow-up class vote on the name resulted in a tie.

Ultimately, however, the majority of students voted to keep the name.

That said, history has been filled with various votes that have allowed a majority to uphold the disenfranchisement of a minority – often at the expense of women and other marginalized groups – and such decisions don’t often age well under the harsh light of progress.

The gender codes of the past – those that have seemed so natural and harmless – are breaking down at a generational rate. Today, girls and boys play on the same Little League and Pop Warner teams; check out the front page of today’s I-T and you’ll read about the Boy Scouts of America inviting girls to join – and changing its official name to BSA, to temper down its boys-only brand.

High schools in the Bay Area have active LGBTQ clubs – and while challenges and exclusions are still very real to their members, they’ve become mainstream in ways that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.

Gender and orientation barriers are finally beginning to teeter – but they haven’t crashed yet.

One of the reasons put forth by students who voted to keep the “Mr. Dragon” name was that confusion over a new name might lower event attendance in an amount that would be greater than those who don’t attend because they felt excluded.

We wonder if that conclusion requires further introspection – not only by students, but by the SVHS administration, which provided the venue for the show.

Few argue there’s any malicious intent in Mr. Dragon, neither in the name nor in the students who put on the show.

But meaning no harm isn’t what this is about.

Clearly it’s important for the Sonoma Valley High School community to have a contest in which students goof off on stage.

But maybe Sonoma Valley High School should consider whether there’s something even more important at stake.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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