My Weekend With Winter Guard: The Freak Flags and the Freaks That Fly Them


I’m an individual of a certain age and disposition that makes particular forms of cultural media a lens through which I see new cultural experiences. My cultural diet has over the years has consisted of parody mock-umentary films focused on social outliers, such Michael Patrick Jann’s 1999 teen comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous which easily ranks among my top 10 favorite movies (I said it was one of my favorites. I didn’t say it was exactly a cinematic masterpiece). I have a particular place in my heart for the entire oeuvre of Christopher Guest. These films are the anti-sports films, the anti-popular teen stories. For every the Rudy, there’s an Angus; for every Remember the Titans, there’s a Bad News Bears. While my more “in” peers gleefully consumed such fare as Clueless and the Bring it On franchise, I was obsessing over Welcome to the Dollhouse and anything starring Parker Posey. Teen comedies speak to particular themes relating the experience of growing up – one’s social self, one’s family and education, and even one’s socioeconomic experience and family life. For a kid such as myself who was a chronic “joiner” and whose college application resume included leadership positions in marching band, Business Professionals of America, Texas Association of Future Educators, Academic Decathlon, and theater – and who lived with both feet on the wrong side of the tracks – those teen films that featured an earnest, quirky social outlier were a natural source of appeal. And those films, and the constellation of quirky cult comedies that I grew to love, profoundly inform the way I understand social relationships and cultural practices.

Which brings me to the topic of Winter Guard.

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This last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Southwest regional competition for Winter Guard, held here in town at the Coliseum at the University of North Texas. Before this weekend, I had no idea that Winter Guard even existed. I would come to understand it as a very unique blend of Color Guard (the team behind the flag and baton choreography in a marching band), theater, and staged choreography, all dressed in costumes reminiscent of Olympic figure skaters. The sheer amount of glitter, sequins, and spirit fingers involved is staggering. Each team performs a routine to a piece of recorded music, utilizing a sometimes-elaborate set of props, staging, and narrative. It can be light and fun, like routines set to popular Broadway hits, or it can be abstract and avant-garde featuring modernistic music and spoken word poetry in the style of Judy Funnie.

So.

At the risk of unintentionally or carelessly giving offense or insult to the persons dedicated to the impressive athleticism and artistry of Winter Guard, I’ve got to be real.

The entire affair struck me in a state of fierce ambivalence. My inner fag was rejoicing in ecstasy while my inner cool-kid critic was cringing (and yes, straightie, I get to use the word “fag,” and you don’t). Admittedly that says more about me than about Winter Guard, and I’m happy to dress down that inner critic and tell him to shut up and let people enjoy things. But there’s something more going on here, something that my socializing into the logic and mechanics of off-kilter social outlier movies teaches me to pay attention to that makes my experience of this fierce ambivalence utterly delightful, because had I been in an environment where this was a possibility, I would have done everything I could to have joined Winter Guard as a high school student.

There’s a social politics at work that makes Winter Guard a thing. These kids (and adults) are from the same crop that produce band nerds, drama kids, glee club singers, dancers, and a cappella choir singers – these are not your teen flick-style stereotypical “cool” kids, as cool as these kids may be. There aren’t football players or cheerleaders. Chapters of Winter Guard most often must invest enormous sums of money into costumes, props, set pieces, equipment, and travel, not to mention the countless hours of visualizing, choreographing, rehearsing, and performing the routines that make it to the competitions, meaning that these chapters arise out of schools and communities of at least relative affluence and leisure.

And I’m gonna say it.

It’s gay as fuck.

 

This isn’t just “Olympic figure skating” gay. This is what happens when all the Olympic figure skaters form an army and forcefully take control of the opening ceremonies. There is, quite simply, no heterosexual explanation for this.

Events like marching band and Winter Guard are outgrowths of military ceremonials. Some countries, in order to boost nationalist fervor, still utilize events involving elaborate performances of brass bands, flags, rifles, marching, and choreography. Understood in its historical context, Winter Guard makes perfect sense itself as a form of parody, which is why it so strikes my parodic imagination. Winter Guard is a queered form of nationalistic display, a ceremonial reflecting the destabilization of the social hierarchies that nationalism favors and promotes, and upon which it depends. The “cool” kids in high school are best understood as “normative,” because it is they whose lives and narratives construct the wider social system of “normal” and “deviant.” It is they to whom all that is “normal” belongs, including nationalist narratives and systems of social privilege. Without the “cool” kids, in high school or beyond, there is no nationalism. There would be no system of dominance of particular groups with particular characteristics over others. We struggle with thing like bullying and violence in schools, but we’re far too often blind to the insight that the reason we tolerate these things is because they’re social pedagogy. Bullying and school violence trains, forms, and disciplines kids into living in a society based on rigid social hierarchies and systems of dominance.

Something about Winter Guard, and the spirit behind it, disrupts the system of symbols used to legitimate nationalism. Rifles become wooden toys for tossing and spinning. Flags become flying steams of color and frivolity. Military-level precision, discipline, and physical exertion becomes, instead of an expression of power, an expression of play. Winter Guard replaces the stars and stripes with sequins and glitter, and the lethal force of an infantry brigade with the deft handling of a rifle toss with a behind-the-back catch. Ultimately, it represents a cloud of possibility: if these symbols can be turned around to frivolous ends, what about nationalism itself? What about militarism? What about social power systems?

For the many people who participate in Winter Guard, and its many fans, I’m sure very few of them don their tights, pick up their dummy rifles, and devote countless hours of practice and physical exertion for the sake of disrupting a power system. To them, it’s fun. It’s meaningful. It’s a way to work toward something with a group of other people, and to compete and strive for something beautiful and exciting. Their focus is on the thrill of perfecting that saber twirl and that coordinated hand off on the downbeat of the music, as the audience cheers when each rifle lands safely in the hands of the one who tossed it. Like the lion’s share of worthwhile endeavors, the magic of it can’t be intellectualized or summarized by a critic or an academic.

But for this raging homo whose academic streak dukes it out regularly with the kid who grew up watching dark teen satires, I like to think that maybe those brightly-colored freak flags are doing something more than just twirling in the air. I like to think of them as a form of blissful resistance and defiance, as they take these deadly serious trappings of nationalized, militarized power and turn them into something that would make most “cool,” “normal” kids cringe, as if to take the gun out of a soldier’s hands and, bedazzling it and using it as a parade baton, telling him, “Oh, yeah hunny, this isn’t for you anymore.”

Here’s to the freak flags, and the freaks that fly them.

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