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Have we lost track of time? It feels like some of our baby steps toward lasting social progress are years or decades overdue. If you want a convincing example of why this is the case, you don’t need to look any further than a certain Wisconsin high school and its annual cheerleading awards banquet.
Here’s a question: What could the coaches at Tremper High School in the Kenosha Unified School District possibly have in common with a butcher at a meat market or a salesman at a slave auction? The answer involves the dissolution of a body into pleasurable or useful parts.
What’s Wrong at Tremper High School?
It’s only right to call attention to youth who distinguish themselves with the quality of their schoolwork, or the beauty of their art, or at sporting exhibitions, or in debate club. But the cheerleading teams at Tremper High School in Wisconsin reportedly spent years taking this very common and very basic concept to a place that should feel extreme in any political climate.
The school’s cheerleading awards banquet hosts team members and their families each year, bringing together the community to shine a spotlight on outstanding individual performers and on the team as a whole. Team members who show the most improvement or give the most impressive performances at sporting events receive well-earned awards each year and enjoy bragging rights until the next “class” of athletes has their turn.
But some of these awards are not like the others. Among other things, the young women on the team have spent years competing for awards like: “Biggest Booty”, “Biggest Boobie” and “String Bean”.
It’s true. As some parents sat at their banquet tables applauding young athletes who outperformed the competition or secured a scholarship based on their athleticism, other families received the singular kind of pride that accompanies raising the high school cheerleader with the biggest breasts.
It’s surprising enough that awards like this are handed to young women who’ve yet to graduate from high school — and almost all of whom are minors. Even levelled at mature and consenting women, “titles” like these are manifestly degrading. The even more surprising thing is how long it went on before somebody in the community registered a public complaint and the school district decided to lurch into motion to address the problem.
Tremper High School has since agreed to discontinue giving out the most provocative of its awards. But that shouldn’t dull their sense of shame or embarrassment, given the lateness of the hour and the intensity of the political and socio-sexual climate in the U.S. And more than that, the tone-deafness of the coaches’ and principal’s responses, and the long years it took for public backlash to reach this level says a lot about America as a whole.
How’d This Come to Light?
It took a series of complaints from parents and a former district cheerleading coach to raise this issue into the public spotlight. The situation picked up steam from there, with the American Civil Liberties Union eventually stepping in and launching a year-long investigation.
Based on documents and emails uncovered during this investigation, the Union found that these objectifying awards had been handed out for at least five years. Each cheerleading awards banquet is attended by 100 people or more — including peers, friends, family members, coaches and other faculty members.
The former coach who raised the alarm was one Patt Hupp, whose words are best left to speak for themselves:
“I’m disgusted with the cheer coaches and with the Kenosha parents that sat there and said and did nothing … I don’t think it takes much to see that this is extremely degrading to women.”
Indeed, it does not. The very first instalment of these awards should’ve been met with palpable tension and stony silence from the audience. But at least five years passed without any of that tension boiling over into a scandal.
The principal of the high school, Steve Knecht, when Hupp and others complained to him about the awards, responded in no fewer than three different ways:
First, Knecht promised he would launch an investigation.
When concerned parents ran out of patience and pressed him for an update, Knecht said he had found “no evidence” of wrongdoing.
Later still, as pressure from district parents mounted, Knecht gave his weakest justification yet. According to him, the awards were “meant to be funny.”
Generally speaking, the ACLU doesn’t receive summonses for hilarious jokes. They’re called in to investigate and help address insults against various kinds of human dignity. But for a short time, even the ACLU weighing in didn’t provoke the changes these concerned parents were looking for. It took multiple complaints over time for the awards to be discontinued.
America: A Place Where ‘Civil Liberties’ Are Controversial
Said Hupp in one of her emails:
“The last thing these high school girls need is a fellow woman in their lives communicating to them that they are objects or that their appearance is something to be gawked at, demeaned, laughed at or even awarded for that matter.”
But this is not how some of the school’s representatives see things.
One of the coaches responsible for these awards, Patti Uttech, remained unrepentant as Hupp and others took her to task. In fact, Uttech, as of February 2019, was still the cheerleading coach at Tremper High School. In her immediate response to Hupp, she didn’t seem to even understand why her actions could be controversial:
“I honestly don’t feel that I need to explain myself about how we ran our banquet … actually, we have run it this way for years and have never had a problem.”
Is there a universe in which “nobody had caught me yet” is a satisfying defense?
If American history has anything to teach the world, it’s that we can’t wait until the breaking point to take common-sense actions against injustice and ideas whose time came and went hundreds of years ago.
And speaking of which, Tremper High is far from the only school in America that seems to have buried its head in hundred-year-old sand. In Mount Vernon, Georgia, as recently as 2009, local high schools were still holding segregated proms. Jim Crow was shown the door in 1965. Did Georgia school officials not get the message? It took documentaries and art installations to bring the public’s attention to this matter. One school in Wilcox County, Georgia, didn’t integrate its proms until 2014.
This is absolutely worthy of outrage — even if you’re not ready to raise your hackles about “gag awards” handed out at American high school cheerleading events. Maybe some students did find that particular joke funny. Perhaps some of the parents even chuckled along.
But isn’t there something horrifying about reducing a human being — any human being, much less a minor — to a collection of body parts? We all fixate on the superficial to some degree because it’s in our nature. But the sight of grown men and women sitting in a banquet celebrating the size and shapeliness of a young woman’s bosom, or butt, or how militant she’s been about carving calories from her diet, is a grotesquery.