if it happened here: the cold water challenge.

April 16, 2014

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal released an article chronicling the rise of the “penguin dance” as a fad in Saudi Arabia (and my friend Layla, who writes the blog Blue Abaya, is mentioned in it, which, despite my issues with the tone of the article, is very cool). 

According to the article, “In a land where a strict interpretation of Islamic law means movie theaters and many other diversions are banned, nightclubs are unthinkable and the weight of tribal custom is heavy, Saudis in large numbers are discovering the thrill of a little sidekick-sidekick bunny-hop.”

Because obviously, it can’t just be a fun, frivolous fad..no, no. Not in Saudi Arabia.

Putting aside the discussion of the fact that Saudis do have fun in lots of ways that don’t involve “a little sidekick-sidekick bunny-hop” (or nightclubs, for that matter…I’ll concede that it sure would be nice to have movie theaters here), when I read this summary of the appeal of the dance, I couldn’t help but think of Joshua Keating’s brilliant “If It Happened There” series on Slate.com, in which he writes about American news topics in the style that American media often employ to cover stories in countries and cultures.

Thus, in the spirit of Keating’s series, I decided to write an article about the “cold water challenge.” Videos of my friends and acquaintances participating in the challenge, posted by the participants themselves, have been filling up my Facebook newsfeed throughout the past week or so, and as I watch them, I couldn’t help but wonder what someone from another culture would think of them.

All names in this article are fictional, and I want to make clear that this piece is satire. My goal is to cover the story using the same voice–and often, with the same dubious reaches for explanation–that American media use to report to Americans about events that take place in other parts of the world. If you read a part of the article, and think, “Well, yeah, that’s kinda right, but no, you’ve got it all wrong!”…that’s the point.

So without further ado, this is what an article about the cold water challenge might sound like if it happened…here. 


Timothy Jones is a young police officer in southern Missouri, a central state in the United States of America. He is dressed sparsely in running shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the high school from which he graduated seven years ago, a nod to the fierce pride with which he regards his meager education. Behind him is a scenic river, running wild through the settlements established by this equally untamed culture. Dense forests surround the river, and although the yearly government-sanctioned period for deer hunting has long since passed, at any moment a bullet fired from the gun of a townsman, or even an arrow from the bow of more primitive villagers, may come zipping out of the woods in a wayward attempt to bring down a deer that will provide nourishment for a family for months.

Later this year, in the scorching humid summer, the hunt will have ceased for the year, and this area will be dotted with scantily clad Americans, many of whom will be participating in water sports while refusing to wear life jackets, a practice borne of the long-standing cultural value of rugged independence. But right now, in the harsh Ozarks winter that has held its grip on the poverty-stricken region this year for much longer than average, the river is piercingly cold, and this young man stands in front of it.

Jones faces the video camera and says, “I’m Tim Jones, and I got called out in the cold water challenge by Randall Martin. My charity is St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I’m calling out Carl Rogers, Mark Smith, Everett Baldwin, and Joseph Garrison.” He turns and wades gingerly into the river, stopping when the water reaches his mid-thighs.

Jones holds out his arms in an apparent allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; most southern Missourians identify as Christians, and many admit that not only are they conservative Christians, but they also seek to live their daily lives based on Christian values in every way possible. Jones falls backward into the frigid water, completely submerging himself, imitating the Christian practice of immersion baptism.

He splashes through the surface of the river as he stands up again. He shivers and cries out, “Whew! You see that? You’ve got 24 hours to git ‘er done, boys!” (“Git ‘er done” is the catchphrase of Larry the Cable Guy, an observational comedian popular in the region, whose act relies on bringing out the humor in everyday situations in the American South.)

Jones shakes the water out of his hair and says, “Whew!” again as he begins to wade out of the river. The video cuts to black.

The rules of the cold water challenge are thus: when a person is challenged (“called out”), he (or she, although, perhaps owing to the more conservative gender roles that prevail in this area of the country, female participation in the ritual is less common) must submerge himself in a body of cold water and donate 10 American dollars to a charitable organization of the challenger’s choice. The submersion act must be captured on video and posted Facebook, a social media site gaining popularity even in this private, insular region of the country, where internet access, especially in the most rural areas, lags severely behind the more developed cities of America. Jumping into the cold water also bumps up the person’s rank from challenged to challenger, as it allows him to choose his own charity and “call out” three or four more people to participate in the challenge. However, if the challenged person prefers to avoid leaping into cold water, or does not complete the task within 24 hours of the challenge, he must donate 100 American dollars to the challenger’s chosen charity. 

The challenge forces its participants to choose between the shock of their bodies being stripped of warmth or their wallets being stripped of cash. The ritual cuts to the heart of southern Missouri priorities: pride and money (as evidenced by the fact that the majority of these Americans strongly oppose social welfare programs, although poverty is a norm), forcing its participants to choose between one or the other.

But as Missouri has long been a state torn, this is nothing new to Missourians. Southern Missouri in particular is a historically violent region in a mostly rural area of the central United States. In this part of the world, gun ownership remains high and acute distrust of the government runs deep, tracing its roots back to the American Civil War, in which radicalized Missourians jumped into the bloody fray as militants for both sides of the conflict; thousands fought with the pro-slavery Southern rebels, and thousands more fought for the Northern regime. In the end, Missouri elected to stay with the North in the union, while maintaining its status as a state in which slavery was legal–at least until later in the Civil War, when the famed American leader, Abraham Lincoln, freed all slaves in the land currently known as United States of America. However, in the southern region of Missouri, where strategically important skirmishes in the Civil War took place, many citizens maintain strong allegiances to the South, which manifest themselves through frequent displays of the Southern flag on clothing and vehicles.


source: laprogressive.com

Brayden Cartwright, an 18-year-old high school senior who plans to join an American militant group once he has completed his education (he is still trying to decide between the Army and the Marines), participated in the cold water challenge to benefit a local hospital. “My mom was so mad when I came home dripping wet; it was freezing cold outside,” he said. “I had to promise her I would never do anything like that again.”

“That boy ain’t got no money or no sense,” Bonnie Cartwright stated in her southern Missouri dialect. “He’d jump off the dadgum Mississippi Bridge if his friends were doing it, too. Who’s the peckerwood who thought up this game?”

It’s a question many are asking, and some have answers. Harry Lewis, owner of a small bookstore in Glasgow, Scotland, saw a cold water challenge video pop up in his Facebook newsfeed when a distant cousin of his was tagged in it, and he immediately made a connection. “It must come from the Loony Dook,” he said, referring to the event that takes place every New Year’s Day in South Queensferry, Scotland, in which participants jump into cold water as “loonies” who follow a “dook.” “Loonies have usually lost a bet,” Lewis admits.

Meanwhile, when Bram Stijn, an architect from The Netherlands who spent a year as an exchange student in St. Louis, Missouri during high school, watches a cold water challenge video, he sees the Nieuwjaarsduik, an annual Dutch New Year’s Day tradition in which thousands of people plunge into icy cold seawater on beaches all around the country.

Obviously, there are different theories as to how the cold water challenge began, but it has rapidly swept across the nation with slight variations along the way, and southern Missourians are eagerly adopting it. Many see the cold water challenge as a source of entertainment in a land where movies and alcohol abound, but other diversions are scarce. In any case, most Missourians see the challenge as a harmless way to have a bit of fun and benefit a good cause while they’re at it.



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  • Risi

    That is soooo the Bunny Hop! Probably resembles all kinds of folk dances,too! Loved the Winter Challenge this year. It’s been customary in many First Nations cultures (and others around the world) to do water immersions often to celebrate the coming of Spring.this year that old custom was kinda combined with the Winter Challenge starting in the Pacific Northwest and served as a solidarity/ blessing thing as it went all over the continent. My daughter called out most of her cousins. There wasn’t a donation aspect to ours, but some people did that anyway.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      i’m sure it bears resemblance to all kinds of dances…i mean, it’s not that complicated! :) and i’m sure the cold water challenge is nothing new, either–it’s just the tone of the piece that rubbed me all sorts of wrong. i mean, compare the wall street journal’s coverage of the “penguin dance” to their coverage of the “harlem shake”:


      no discussion about where it must have come from. no attempt to explain why it caught on with so many americans. but when it comes to saudis, it’s like, “wow, look! they like to have fun, too!” i mean, duh. if that wall street journal article about the harlem shake had said something like, “despite their lazy image, americans are finding fun in the movement of the harlem shake dance,” then maybe i wouldn’t be so irritated. lol!

      • Risi

        Lol! Yes, couldn’t get the WSJ article,but I do see what you mean and how it’s a real burr under the blanket. Media tends to go for the easily digestible stereotypes. Happens everywhere. My personal favorite from here was when a council meeting was depicted as a “ceremony”…because everything we do is “mystical” …and somebody taking notes and people voting wasn’t a big enough clue, I guess.
        IMHO,with the advent of you-tube,,Skype,iPhones,etc. ,I can’t see how this sort of reporting is going to last. Personal media is trumping it. I mean, honestly, we can see each other in real places, real time. I think that Penguin Dance issue as depicted in the article would seem ridiculous to my daughter. Not only has she ” been” to the very enjoyable wedding party of one of the family members of one of the students she knows,she has “gone to” a couple of what looked like festivals, and there was a really cool party in a major SA city that she “attended”. She even “went to the movies” with some of her friends out that way ,from a couple of countries ,online. They all agreed on a time,pulled up the movie,got popcorn, watched it together ,and made comments on it to each other while it played. :-) it was an international girls night out.Lol! Lavender is only a few years away from whatever takes the place of “Whassup?” And she can ask a kid in Beijing or Boston what they are having/had for lunch. I know that we humans have might actually be able to use this technology to help achieve world peace and understanding, and the youth do discuss these issues,but right now among the younger set “what I’m eating “and ” what I’m listening to ” also appears to be a top priority. Of course, maybe if you know so-and-so likes watermelon and Ed Sheeran’s latest song just like you do, it will be harder to blow them away.