Zonker Harris wears a faded green button down T-shirt with orange embellishments. His shaggy mullet haircut matches nicely with the facial hair around his mouth and his half-shut eyes—a result of too much dope-smoking this morning. In other words, if the comic strip character Zonker Harris attended Wesleyan, he would be a WestCo boy. And the politics of being a “WestCo boy” were never so prevalent than on Saturday, April 21 at WestCo’s annually held Zonker Harris Day. This festival of music and sun quickly transformed into further evidence of Wesleyan’s social stratification and the superficial nature of these community politics.
Zonker Harris Day began in the 1970s with Harris, from Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, selected as its mascot. According to an Argus article explaining the origins of the event, the “hippie-druggie persona” of Harris represented the “ethos of Wesleyan in the 1970s.” This countercultural identity that Zonker Harris stems from has, in many ways, come to define Wesleyan, or at least its reputation. And yes, there is a difference.
Advertised as a campus-wide event, it became clear during Saturday’s festivities that not everyone was included. While perhaps not intentionally exclusive, Zonker Harris Day works to further divide the campus into “hipsters” and “normies,” with only the hipster crowd participating.
The social divide at Wesleyan is not new and has only grown more distinct with the emphasis president Michael Roth has placed on campus athletics. This is evident in every aspect of campus culture: where students eat, who they’re friends with, and where they go out. But on Saturday, the divide felt fiercer and, beyond this, even more harmful.
In some ways, participation or lack of participation in Zonker Harris Day seemed like a declaration of social standing. It served as more of a performance than a casual event. There was an aura of self-consciousness present that probably always exists but was particularly pertinent in the Saturday sun. In other words, students acted in a performative way, and perhaps not authentically, in order to be perceived as a member of one social group or another.
Being “weird” has become an aesthetic, one that dominates half of the campus social scene. But this wackiness is often disingenuous. Like the word “aesthetic” suggests, it’s often a superficial image of artsiness with no genuine creativity behind the look. The aesthetic must be “performed” each day, which is reflected in whom people choose to interact with and the events in which they choose to participate. This is often reminiscent of the middle school phenomenon of “social climbing,” in which students only talk to people who socially benefit them. In reality, the “too cool to care” attitude is only a mask to cover individual insecurities about social status.
Some students claim to be afraid to show up to class in their workout clothes since that automatically places them in an arbitrary social category. Similarly, others refuse to sit on the loud side of Usdan, which I’d argue is not because they feel like the ambiance is unbearable, but because they feel less aligned with their preferred social association. There is an extreme desire to fit in, a conformity that contradicts the free-spirited attitude boasted in Wesleyan’s reputation.
The daytime concerts on Zonker were tainted with this self-consciousness, muddied by people too concerned with their image to actually enjoy the music. Foss Hill exhibited this phenomenon as well, with normies and hipsters divided and groups constantly shifting around in an attempt to find more people like them to converse with.
What Zonker Harris Day lacked was the carefree attitude everyone is striving for. The social state of Wesleyan is not indicative of people’s active judgments about others, but instead a result of a student body too concerned with themselves.
When Zonker Harris Day began, it embodied a popular slogan of the time, “Keep Wes Weird.” At that time, however, being a weirdo was about going against the grain and rejecting conformity. Today, it seems like conforming to a hipster aesthetic has replaced this notion. At times, Zonker Harris Day seemed oddly forced, filled with people trying too hard to uphold an image of Wesleyan that seemingly no longer exists. Then again, perhaps it never existed at Wes in the first place.
Jodie Kahan is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at email@example.com.