Only boys tell jokes, and other lies I learned at MUN

The first time I ever ran a newspaper, I was given the job because I was a woman. The boys’ school next door ran a yearly Model United Nations Conference, and traditionally the Head of Press was harvested from the girls’ school. Since there were apparently no records of any previous edition whatsoever, I had to create an entirely new paper from scratch, with three editions to be distributed over the course of the conference. As you can imagine, the boundaries of ‘professionalism’ were stretched beyond recognition.

It would not be a lie to say it was this experience that prepared me for setting up ‘The Dodo’, an entirely new creation conceived to replace the apparently barely missed ‘The Sex’. Once again, time is always tight, though that tends to be a combination of work taking over the term, and freak wormholes interfering with setting. Once more, articles are heavily context based, full of in-jokes, and combine a mixture of seriousness and light-hearted to the point of silly. But the fact that I am a woman has little to do with how ‘The Dodo’ operates, although of course I am pleased by the proliferation of women involved, and Eloise is doing a splendid job as the new editor. To be honest, women at Cambridge seem to be doing alright in journalism. The Tab obviously still has its problems, but it also has a constant level of feminist debate, rape culture awareness, and the opportunity to respond to pieces which are felt to be problematic.

The reason I mention Model United Nations (or MUN to those lucky enough to be in the know), is because certainly at a secondary school level, and certainly at my school, it managed to contain the most interestingly paradoxical combination of progressiveness and ingrained misogyny that I have ever experienced, at virtually every level of the conference. (Just in case you missed out on this kind of pretentious roleplay, essentially each school puts forward a number of delegations who, as a country, must submit resolutions, debate them, and try to have them passed. This happens in committee, and then on the third day those passed are debated at general assembly. There are prizes for best delegate, best delegation, etc, etc.)

As this was a boys’ school, most of the committee chairs were men, but they were actually very good at selecting girls to be guest chairs: most had one woman, two men. Furthermore, there was no shortage of female delegates – but here we find the first paradox. Women participated, yes, but were far less likely to win prizes. You have to be pushy in order to get chosen to speak, and again we find the ‘women reluctant to put their hands up’ problem. What’s more, when we girls were coached my older girls, we were actually told to avoid being funny. The boys were good at being funny, and their speeches were often laced with puns, whereas the girls were serious, and therefore less memorable. So lots of women, but no prizes.

I was a terrible delegate, the one time I tried it. I did not have the confidence I would later gain, to push myself forward, but more crucially, I was a terrible flirt. And MUN is all about flirting to get what you want. The delegates have the ability to send each other notes, and alliances are formed essentially over terrible country-based puns (think of everything you can do with Djibouti). So if you lacked the right sort of confidence – and it wasn’t quite sexual, but it was to do with attractiveness – then you would not do as well. The girls dressed smartly, but it was all tight skirts and high heels.

I was a lot more confident when I took over the newspaper, though it was also doing the paper that gave me a new confidence in my own ability. It helped that I didn’t find out that I had been given the job because the organisers thought I was boring enough to keep in check the ‘funnymen’ who had been made my deputies and whose approval I desperately craved. (This backfired in my second year when, confident in the that knowledge I was leaving, I set up a couple of fake drug busts and let loose some people in monkey suits across the conference, all for a pun and a picture). Again, the sword was double edged. On the one hand the newspaper was good. It really was. And the moment where I kept a large group of hungry people slightly older than me in a tiny room until I had finished editing the last page, so that we could all go to lunch together, just by telling them they couldn’t go, is probably still one of my proudest moments. (Sad, I know. But these boys were so cool). But then again, the very idea that we might not have a ‘fit delegate’ page in the paper was so unthinkable that it didn’t even occur to me. I think I wanted to prove I was cool, and could objectify women just as well as the boys I’d been put in charge of.

I want to say that in my second year I at least instigated a male and female winner, but I really don’t know that I did. I do know that the second girl was only 14. As a feat of organisation, as a woman able to run a large team of recalcitrant boys, in a boys’ school, I am very proud of what I did. But I try not to think about the actual quality, or integrity, of the journalism. Apart from a few well placed lion king puns, that is what I would do over.

There’s one more thing. Remember those notes that were being passed between delegates? Who, you are almost certainly asking yourself, was doing the passing? It is here that I introduce the security and admin teams, who facilitated the smooth running of the conference. Security moved chairs, supervised committees and kept the peace. Admin passed notes and flirted with security, chairs, delegates and the press team. When I first began, Security were men, Admin were women. This is something so entrenched that again no one thought to question it. In fact, in another conference, I believe Admin were actually referred to as ‘Angels’.

But in my final year that all changed. The girls’ school liaison came to do a recruitment drive, and decided to sell the position by telling an entire room of women who had had independence, initiative, integrity and whatever the other two ‘i’ s were that this would prepare them for their jobs as future secretaries, and then some comments about high heels. As you can imagine, there was uproar. Our school threatened to pull out entirely, and I found myself having to try and persuade them not to. Again I used to be pleased with this piece of negotiation, but I now realise that I was actually arguing in favour of entrenched gender roles.

The ending is happier, thankfully. Admin and Security were confidentially, and I was asked to sit in on the interviews for the new heads. One did not look at me for the entire interview and when asked how he felt about the potential merger, stated that men were just better at carrying chairs. He did not get the job.

I suppose my point is that it’s a lot harder to see what is entrenched sexism, and what is a legitimate logistical reality when you’re directly involved, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, and all that. But I wonder how much of what I experienced at MUN happens behind the scenes at the Tab, every time we’re back for another Best Djibouti Competition.

– Hannah Marcus (founder of the Dodo)

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