We have some serious problems at BYU, and I’m not talking about the rats in Lee Bartlett’s office. I’m talking about people who draw too much attention to themselves in public.
Of course you remember that I addressed this issue a few weeks ago. You probably took notes, in fact. But I have more examples to share. I feel that the more we discuss this important issue, the greater the level of awareness we’ll have, and the sooner we’ll be able to get back to addressing such weighty issues as Lee Bartlett’s office, which as you know is infested with rats.
When I wrote on this topic before, I mentioned the Stereo Girls, who forced everyone to listen to their music at the pool this summer. I forgot to mention, though, that there were also two girls at the pool who wore bikinis. Now, really. Who at BYU actually wears a bikini? From a societal standpoint, you might just as well show up with pierced nipples and a Mohawk. I’m not saying wearing a bikini is necessarily WRONG — although in the case of one of these girls, it definitely was — I’m just saying that around here, where it’s against the Honor Code, and against the rules that were posted at this particular pool, how could you possibly have enough self-confidence to wear one? Surely these girls knew that all the guys would be staring at them (except for one of them, whom we all tried not to look at); did they really want all the GIRLS staring, too, wondering why they were wearing bikinis? What possible advantage is there to wearing a bikini that would outweigh the disadvantage of being stared at the entire time? Maybe some people like being stared at, but I don’t. When I see someone staring at me, I assume there’s something wrong with either me or them, and it’s usually me.
I used to work at Denny’s, so of course I’m used to seeing odd-looking people. There is nothing inherently wrong with looking different from everyone else. One of the great things about this country is that you can do whatever you want and, provided you don’t go to the University of Wyoming, no one will harass you. I have no problem with people who want to look different.
The problem is when those people go out of their way to look strange, and then get upset when people stare at them. If you’re going to look like a freak, you have to expect to be treated like a freak. It’s one of the basic laws of life. I remember one night at Denny’s, a group of six guys came in dressed as women. These were scrawny, pasty-faced guys to begin with; as women, they were even more unappealing. The fact that they were dressed as TRASHY women did not help any. They wore black nail-polish and fish-net stockings and reeked of K-Mart perfume. I tried to imagine where they had been before coming to Denny’s — where does a guy go dressed like a cheap woman? — and then I tried NOT to imagine it, because some of the things I was imagining were bothering me.
I knew the guys, sort of; they came to Denny’s frequently, though they had always been men before. So I knew they were relatively nice people, and reasonable tippers. And yet seeing them like this really, REALLY disturbed me. It’s not that I was afraid of them now — I knew they were the same guys as before, and that they put on their fish-net stockings one leg at a time like every other guy — but their appearance affected my attitude toward them. They were so eerie-looking that I honestly couldn’t look at them for more than a few seconds at a time, in much the same way I can’t watch Adam Sandler for very long.
But it wasn’t just me. Everyone in the place was giving them funny looks. Even people who knew them well (though apparently not as well as they thought!) regarded them differently. I’m not saying we were right or wrong in thinking of someone differently based on the way they looked in public; I’m just saying that’s what happened, and that it’s human nature to do it.
My main point is that the guys were bothered by everyone looking at them like they were weirdos. But why? Surely they realized that dressing like women was different from the social norm. I suspect that to look different was one of the main reasons they dressed that way in the first place — or at least one of the reasons they came to Denny’s, instead of just going straight home from wherever they had been (I am NOT thinking about that, I am NOT thinking about that, I am NOT thinking about that….). I’m not denying their right to dress like women; I’m just saying that in so doing, they HAD to expect to be looked at funny. If you choose to do something weird, you have to expect weirdness in return. And frankly, you shouldn’t choose weirdness in public, because it makes you the center of attention when you have no reason to be.
And it’s not just dress and grooming that people use to draw attention to themselves. They also do it through their actions. In an example that may or may not be related to the last one, there are two guys in the Smith Fieldhouse weightroom who are always dancing. Not the Macarena or anything — it’s more of a fruity Broadway musical type of dancing, with actual steps that they seem to have picked up somewhere. One minute they’re doing manly things like squatting and benching; the next minute they’re prancing around like they’re in “Joseph and His Freakin’ Dreamcoat,” or whatever. Now, in other contexts, two guys dancing like pixies would be OK. For example, in a dance class, or at certain clubs in West Hollywood. But not in a weightroom. There’s a social protocol we have to follow here: You just don’t dance in a weightroom. Period.
It’s not that men shouldn’t dance (although a case could be made for that); it’s just that they shouldn’t do it in the weightroom. And it’s not that men shouldn’t dress like women (although a case could be made for THAT); it’s just that they shouldn’t do it at Denny’s. And it’s not that women shouldn’t wear bikinis (although a case could be made for that, very strongly with some of them); it’s just that they shouldn’t do it at a BYU-approved apartment complex.
And why shouldn’t they do these things? Because in so doing, they draw attention to themselves that doesn’t need to be drawn. They make other people HAVE to notice them. And I don’t know about you, but I already have enough things to notice and consider and think about, not the least of which is the army of belligerent rats that has taken control of Lee Bartlett’s office.
OK, OK, I'll explain the rat thing. BYU offers every student a free e-mail account, through a system called Route Y. In theory, the only person has access to send a mass e-mail to every student is relatively high-ranking BYU official Lee Bartlett, who is the Assistant to the President, University Communications.
A few weeks before this column was published, Lee Bartlett sent an e-mail to every student, encouraging them to wear blue to that Saturday's football game. I'm not kidding: THAT was the urgent message that had to be delivered to every student. (BYU President Merrill J. Bateman was on some kind of "blue" kick that week.) After that message was sent, someone realized that all you had to do was copy the "To" line in the e-mail -- something like "firstname.lastname@example.org" -- and ANYONE could send a message to every student. So that's what this person did. He sent three e-mails, two of which said nonsense things like "I like butter," and the last of which contained detailed instructions concerning the upcoming extermination. According to the e-mail, some offices in the administration building had a lot of rats, and so all the employees were being warned about the exterminators' visit and how to prepare their offices, etc.
A few funny things resulted. First of all, this fake e-mail was made to look like it was from Lee Bartlett, which means the poor guy's name was attached to something stupid, making him look a little bad. Second, approximately 2,600 students read the e-mail and DIDN'T REALIZE IT WAS A PRANK. So they replied to it -- the replies went to Lee Bartlett, too -- and asked what was going on. That's right, 2,600 students were dumb enough not to realize it was a prank. These people made it to college.
Anyway, the whole rat thing was quite the joke for a while, and it was a delightful little piece of BYU pop culture. I was glad to find an excuse to mention it -- especially after my previous run-in with Lee Bartlett.
In publication, the part about the University of Wyoming did not appear. At the weekly "Snide Remarks" meeting, where the column was read by the Review Committee and analyzed and discussed and rehashed and manipulated and fondled, half the people there did not realize at first what I was referring to. They thought it was a simple little joke about the backwardness of Wyoming. Then they caught it: I was referring to the gay student, Matthew Shepard, who was killed there a couple months earlier. Or more accurately, I was referring to the mindset responsible for the murder.
After much discussion, it was determined that I couldn't refer to that incident in "Snide Remarks." Everyone realized I wasn't making fun of it, and that I was in fact making fun of the bigotry responsible for it. But some people felt the thing was just too horrible to even refer to it in the context of a humor column -- that is, writing an editorial would be one thing; but writing a humor column in which I referred to it in passing would be another.
I pointed out that this wasn't just a silly little humor column, and that I usually make some kind of social commentary in it. Isn't this social commentary? I admit it's biting and jarring, but it's commentary nonetheless. I didn't like the precedent being set here: I'm supposed to comment on society and life in general, and do so in a funny way -- but there are some things I CAN'T comment about. Some things are too serious to be mentioned in as lowly a thing as a humor column, even if the humor column is mentioning them in order to make a point, and not just to be funny.
It reminded me of the difficulty Handel faced in performing his famous "Messiah" oratorio. (Not that I am a genius like Handel, nor is "Snide Remarks" in any way comparable to "Messiah.") Certain religious people of the day felt it was blasphemous to put the words of scripture to music. Reading and reciting the Bible was OK -- but to associate it with something as filthy as "popular" music was inappropriate. Similarly, to write an editorial about the hatred in Wyoming is OK -- but to associate it with something as trivial as a humor column was inappropriate.
Nonetheless, I agreed to remove the reference. One of the people at the meeting (besides me) thought it should stay, but everyone else thought it should go. I figured if that many of them didn't like it, there would be quite a few of the readers who would take it the wrong way as well.
There's a reference in this column to the Honor Code. For those not in the know, the Honor Code is a policy of behavior and general demeanor for BYU students. It basically admonishes everyone to live moral lives, not to smoke and drink, and to dress modestly. Bikinis don't qualify as modest, so nearly all BYU-approved apartment complexes have "no bikini" rules posted at their pools. And it's just as well, because I frankly can name maybe two people I know personally who have any business wearing a bikini anyway.
The folks in the Review Process and I liked to predict what would prompt angry letters, and we all called this one, from a female BYU student, without any trouble.
I am writing in response to your column "Intrusions are still obnoxious." Althought I usually find your columns very funny, and read them regularly (as does most of campus), I found today's column to be in poor taste. Not only did it seem hurriedly thought-out, but the comments about women in bikinis were offensive and unnecessary. Many females (and males) are self-conscious about wearing swimsuits and, even if the girls you mention were less than bashful, comments such as "I'm not saying wearing a bikini is necessarily WRONG, although in the case of one of these girls, it definitely was . . ." show thoughtless and crude criticism, a mindset that most people fear they will also be subject to if they wear swimwear. Lack of self-esteem is not a quality that needs added support from our material society. I felt that your article failed in making any true points, since you followed up any claims with poor excuses for disclaimers ("I'm not saying we were right or wrong in thinking of someone differently based on the way they looked in public; I'm just saying that's what happened, and that it's human nature to do it.") In the future, I encourage you to be more thoughtful about what and how you criticize. Your humor does not need such ugly embellishments.
Her comments about my failing to make any true points are worth considering; her comments about the bikini issue, not so much. I didn't say they didn't belong in bathing suits; I said they didn't belong in BIKINIS. If you wear a bikini in public, you are making yourself a public figure, inviting people to notice you and form opinions. Certainly people can wear regular bathing suits without drawing attention to themselves -- but if it's a bikini, you're out there, baby, and you can't complain if people think you look bad in it. That's like entering a beauty pageant and getting upset when the judges keep "judging" you. If you're concerned about the possibility of people thinking you look gross in a bikini, don't wear a bikini.
With the benefit of hindsight, I'm not comfortable with the way I talked about the two guys dancing in the weightroom. I stand by my basic position -- that you shouldn't dance in a weightroom -- and I have no problem with making fun of people who do. But I think I played up the gay thing more than I should have. Maybe one reference ("fruity") would have been sufficient.