The two of us met the way many McGillians seem to: On a Saturday night in a poorly-lit bar, a pitcher of Sleeman between us. That evening, we had a conversation about our reservations concerning the various social events we had taken part in: Hype Week, Carnival, Science Games, and Faculty Olympics.
We both felt that these events generated an unhealthy social hierarchy, with the event organizers at the top like “party gods.” The events appeared to revolve around this group of people whom everyone, ourselves included, tried to please and impress. As trusting second years, we instantly felt compelled to befriend these older students and be liked by them. We acted this way despite the fact that they were not particularly approachable, not always helpful, or even people we necessarily liked. And yet we attended event after event, constantly trying to impress and outdo one another. Each event felt like a popularity contest on steroids.
At the time, we were embarrassed to speak so critically of these events, and to think that such hierarchies existed. What our conversation revealed was that the “VIP” culture we were trying so hard to adjust troubled us. Three years later, after finishing our undergraduate degrees and four consecutive years of fierce partying, we return to this conversation with a lot more to say.
All hail the king and queen
At McGill, multi-day organized parties (MDOPs) are annual social events, that revolve around partying, dancing, and drinking. MDOPs organized annually at McGill are Hype Week, Carnival, Science Games, and Faculty Olympics. What sets these events apart from a typical college party is their length, extensive organization, and competitive rules. Participants are separated into teams, with captains, group chants, and ridiculous team names, such as “Sriratchet” or “Deez Nuts.” During the daily events, which follow a rigid schedule, teams earn points by winning games and exhibiting team spirit. It’s hard to identify the most absurd element of these events: The comical onesies worn by team members, or how seriously people approach the whole week. Some participants and leaders, including ourselves, even spend weeks practicing in order to compete. By the end, each event crowns a winning team based on the number of points collected throughout the week, as well as the “King,” “Queen,” and “MVPs,” participants whose efforts stood out.
The bulk of the organizational tasks falls upon the event-planning team, known as “Committee.” The Committee puts in months of preparation for each event and runs them according to a clear hierarchy: Coordinators at the top, staff and leaders below, and finally participants. A position on the Committee takes a lot of work, but it comes with perks: Power, party privileges, and high social visibility. Not only do coordinators design the entire event, they also designate the games’ winners and losers, and allocate “bonus points”—earned at the sole discretion of individual Committee members, instead of by winning games. They have access to VIP lounges and backstage areas at clubs, and act as the face of the events they organize, thanks to their recognizable gear and social-media exposure.
Nepotism in the water
While the majority of coordinators do their job diligently, power abuses do occur. Some coordinators adopt arrogant behaviour toward participants, sometimes threatening to ban attendees from events without any valid reason.
This conduct creates a barrier between Committee members and participants, which is then reproduced within McGill’s social structures once the event is over. For some students at McGill, MDOPs hold a central position in campus social life.
Dhruv Janmeja, Co-Chair for the Management Undergraduate Society’s 2017 Winter Carnival and 2015 Management Frosh Coordinator, recognizes the influence the power dynamics had on his broader experience as a student at McGill.
“Committee has this [...] influence and that has for sure been abused in the past,” Janmeja said. “I’ve known previous Committee members be really mean to first years because they thought being on Committee gave them a free pass to do so. I was really afraid of going into Bronfman in my first year because [of that power dynamic]. I felt looked down upon if I didn’t know people in power or on Committee.”
This environment, one that conflates a Committee position and social worth, also raises the question of accessibility; there tends to be a culture of nepotism when Committee positions are filled.
Kieran Cousins, a 2016 Science Games Coordinator, perceives these events’ elitism as a vicious cycle.
“There’s no denying that nepotism is a huge [problem] within MDOPs,” Cousins said. “It begins [with] individuals in positions of power [hiring] friends or people they know, and then it becomes cyclical. Because they got that ‘one-shot’ [even though] they may not have deserved it, they get the experience, [and] add it to their CVs and future applications. [This] hinders [hiring opportunities] for outsiders trying to also get that ‘big break’.”
Prejudiced hiring limits the diversity of people and ideas among organizing Committees, as those recruited tend to come from the same social circles. Heterogeneity among coordinators is essential, as it ensures that the events constantly evolve, and integrate innovative ideas. Most importantly, it sends the message that MDOP Committees are accessible to everyone, and not only to the people “inside the circle.”
For the points
“Power trips” and cliquish attitudes displayed by even just a handful of people in charge can cause discomfort, particularly for younger students. Participants place these ordinary individuals on a pedestal and act in accordance with what they think the Committee will like. They will often try to earn bonus points by “sucking up” to them. Reflecting on our experiences, we remember thinking that hooking up with a Committee member or buying them drinks would somehow give us power, or at the very least earn our team points. Some Committee members would even actively ask for such favours.
Now, take this logic and factor in the desire to fit in and receive social validation. Then place this mix into an environment where being the craziest partier warrants the crowning title of “King” or “Queen.” When students feel compelled to impress one another for points, dangerous situations may arise.
Bess Zafran, U3 Arts, who has taken part in several MDOPs, acknowledges the incredibly commanding force of these structures.
“Most people have a hard time resisting the pressure and say[ing] ‘this isn’t for me,’” Zafran said. “Because of the nature of the peer pressure, you can be tangibly punished for [not participating in] something that ‘isn’t for you.’ If you don’t [take part in a certain challenge], your team may lose points for it.”
For us, the problem wasn’t only being encouraged to perform stupid party stunts, but that we valued Committee members and prioritized their opinion and attention over others solely because of their position for a week. To many at these events—particularly newcomers—even the subtle glamorization of Committee members can have a pronounced effect on how they interact with others. We both felt that we would have had a much better time if we stopped trying to prove that we were having fun—at least not according to the rules of these random senior students, but on our own terms.
Positively changing the culture
Still, not every MDOP coordinator at McGill is a power-hungry, attention-seeking drama king or queen. Lately, more and more coordinators are striving to make events fairer and more inclusive every year.
Frosh presents many similarities with MDOPs in its hierarchical organization, and has led the way in mitigating unhealthy power dynamics between organizers and participants by developing extensive training for staff and coordinators. One of the most notable changes is the implementation of the “Golden Rule,” which prohibits any leader, staff, or coordinator from engaging in sexual activity with Froshies, or coordinators with leaders and staff. Moreover, coordinator trainings have progressively integrated discussions about “VIP” Culture and how to avoid projecting an image of exclusivity.
Frosh Coordinators are not the only ones aware of the necessity of change. Janmeja believes that the culture has been changing in all events in the past few years. Carnival organizers in particular made a point to minimize the systemic pressures behind non-consensual behaviour, and instead promote positive role-modelling, camaraderie, and spirit. All participants now have to complete online consent training before the event.
“The reason for being on Committee across McGill has changed.” Janmeja said. “I feel people are more doing it selflessly. They do it because they wanna change the culture [....] One of our biggest changes [...] was changing the nature of bonus points. In the past they had been used as a way to get extra benefits for Committee [...] This year, we made it clear to all captains, who then relayed it to participants, that bonus points would be given out for [...] teams that demonstrated creativity and enthusiasm, [or who] helped us and our staff [or other participants].”
Ultimately, according to Janmeja, VIP culture and nepotism are strongly based on the perception coordinators project through their individual behaviour—both during and outside of events. He believes it is every Committee member’s job to be aware of these perceptions and to work to mitigate them.
“I don’t think there is a bad intention with [cliquish] attitudes, you naturally become close with people,” Janmeja said. “But what we need to work on is [for] that attitude [not to be] perceived as hostile. People on Committee need to understand how they can be perceived. [...] Once this awareness is [raised], we can work on that. We have the opportunity to run this event, [...] but not for us, [...] for everyone. We need to check our privilege in that way.”
The power to create good
After our first conversation three years ago, both of us kept on participating in MDOPs. From our perspective, it is hard to tell whether the culture has truly changed or if we came to feel more included, as we became closer to people in power after taking up leadership positions ourselves. Many coordinators remain committed to changing the culture.
Stratified levels of authority will always be necessary in order to fulfill logistical requirements and bring MDOPs to life. These structures bring with them power dynamics and social hierarchies, opening the door to authority abuse and peer pressure. Raising awareness of these dynamics presents the opportunity to reduce and reverse negative effects, as well as to promote an environment of inclusivity.
Of course, inclusivity and accessibility should be fostered from the top down, as exemplified by the changes implemented in Frosh training. It is the responsibility of those in charge to insist on fair interview procedures, hire competent people, and communicate appropriate norms of conduct to their coordinators. But first and foremost, inclusivity can—and should—be personified by individual coordinators, regardless of their portfolio.
Don’t get us wrong; we are both extremely grateful to have been able to take part in these events, and their specific organization is also what makes them fun. Rather, taking oneself too seriously in the context of these structures is what can trigger harm, whether it is as a Committee member overplaying their position and engaging in conscious or subconscious power tripping, or as a participant shaping their experience around gaining approval. MDOPs are becoming spaces where everyone is truly free to define their own fun. And we can only encourage everyone involved to keep on going down that path. Because, ultimately, such change is dependent on each and every individual.