Sometimes with our Bamboo Reviews, we like to cover something old, in this case, 5 years old, mostly on the grounds that we the bloggers just saw/read/heard it for the first time. Consider this much like you’d consider Nick Hornby’s column in The Believer. I picked up Alexandra Robbins’ book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities for a couple bucks at Half-Priced Books, and I’m glad that I read it many years after it came out, because I read it right after reading The Purity Myth, because the latter put me in the proper skeptical frame of mind to deal with the part of Pledged that bothered me the most, which was Robbins’ uncritical acceptance of the concept of “promiscuity”—the concept that there’s something wrong with women who have more than X (fill in what you think the limit is—everyone has a different answer!) sexual partners, and that sleeping around is automatically worse than being in a relationship or abstaining. Robbins doesn’t hesitate to scandalize her audience by dwelling on the hook-ups and the occasional unwillingness to commit exhibited by some of her characters, which bothered me greatly, especially since Robbins does admit that the alternative of having a steady boyfriend isn’t feasible for many girls, and for some, it’s emotionally damaging and even dangerous to have a boyfriend. The general discomfort with the sexuality of her subjects bothered me, because I think that dating and finding yourself sexually is a fine, well-established college tradition that has more benefits than drawbacks, and in fact, there’s evidence that if you don’t go through this exploratory period at this age, you run a higher risk of sexual problems later in life. (It’s not for certain, but it’s something to take into advisement when considering whether or not to panic, or be grateful that our society has built in a period of late adolescence/early adulthood where experimentation is considered normal and healthy.)
It’s true that much of the sexual behavior she records is dysfunctional, but this is America, where we’re swamped with ignorance and shame. Frankly, I found the sex parts the least alarming part of this book. Everything we’re apparently supposed to find shocking—dirty dancing, singing dirty songs for fun, casual sex, friends with benefits, nudity and sexual joke-telling at parties—didn’t strike me as that big a deal. It would be nice if kids didn’t get so wasted to have sex, but again, I chalk that up more to their shame about it than their “promiscuity”. On the whole, I thought there were examples of how they’re doing better than I would have guessed in such a sexist system, with the girls speaking freely about sex and masturbation, and enough casual references to cunnilingus that you get the impression that the boys are at least clued into the importance of everyone in the room having fun during sex.
But that was my biggest problem with the book, which was a really enjoyable read, mostly because Robbins chooses to follow four girls around and really get to know them and tell their individual stories. The theme that ended up emerging—and Robbins confirms this by stating it baldly in her conclusion—is that sororities may claim to exist for service and sisterhood, but they function mostly as a adjunct to fraternities, in order to funnel the most socially acceptable college girls into the beds and onto the arms of fraternity brothers. I had some sense of this before I read the book (my university didn’t have the Greek system, so I’m not overly familiar with the culture of it), but I was astounded at how thoroughly the sororities organize themselves, almost subconsciously, for this purpose. For no other reason than to really get a handle on how the colluder culture is developed, I recommend this book.
What Robbins finds is there’s something of a bait and switch going on with sororities. (At least the historically white sororities—historically black ones have different recruitment systems). Freshmen girls are attracted to the system because they imagine they’re going to find a whole bunch of girl friends, and this is actually true for many, but what they get when they get there is that everything they do is centered around fraternities and getting dates, preferably with frat boys. And from within the system, I don’t think many of the girls are able to see and articulate this for what it is, in no small part because it’s just an extension of how high schools tend to be socially structured around boys, and even the “mean girls” who run the system are subject to the need to please and be validated by the boys.
To be fair, it’s the larger patriarchy than just the preferences of the boys, who are just as stuck in their narrow gender roles and fear of being seen as emasculated as the girls are afraid of what will happen without being validated as acceptable women in their specific subculture. With that caveat in place, hoo boy is it obvious what’s going on. The chapter on rushing was particularly interesting, because the criteria by which sororities pick their members is laid bare. They need the best members to be considered the best sorority, and what makes a good member is being skinny enough, (mostly) being white and a specific kind of white—even having the right hair color and texture becomes very important, being wealthy and wearing designer clothes, and just generally being considered pretty within a very narrow range of what that could mean. The system is structured in a way that discourages pushing back against this and using resumes or personality as criteria more than looks, because if you do that, you get a more diverse group of women, and then your sorority gets a bad reputation (especially with frats, but also with other sororities), and you lose status, which means losing out on things like having fraternities pair off with you for social events. It’s an insightful piece on how people really do become cogs inside a system, unable and unwilling to push back against the forces that constrain them.
The system isn’t just sexist, but it’s also incredibly racist. When your image is 95%, well, image, and that image is of a specific kind of white woman, black and Hispanic women tend to get eliminated from consideration up front. What I really appreciated about the book is that Robbins doesn’t pussyfoot around this at all, but shows exactly how it’s discrimination at play, cutting off any conservative claims that the it’s mere self-segregation.
One of the other things that I found interesting what that any pro-patriarchal system tends, in our feminist era, to slap on some faux language about sisterhood and empowerment in order to quell people’s anxieties, and sororities are no different. But what happens when you have tension between stated values (sisterhood, service, empowerment) and actual values (date filtering and funneling system for frat boys) is that sometimes the stated values do start to impact the system, however slightly. You see this in the anti-choice movement, which is tepidly signing onto small amounts of government support for single mothers in order to show that they don’t hate women, when they rather obviously do. The girls in the book sign up to get access to female friends, which can often be more intimidating than getting guys interested in you, and even though they end up spending most of their socializing time centered around boys and looking good for boys (seriously, the amount of time they spend on hair and make-up is unbelievable), many of them did manage to work the system to reach the holy grail of having supportive female friends. Not as many as they’d hoped, but they did get some support. For the girl that finds herself in an abusive relationship, I suspect it helped her get out a lot faster than she would have otherwise, even though she goes through a rough patch as her friends resist having the boyfriend around after they catch him physically abusing her. Robbins also found that the girls were hip to the existence and wrongness of rape, and weren’t quick to judge and condemn victims like the boys were, though obviously, this may only be true in the sororities that she followed.
But there was less of this than you’d hope, and more of the competition to be the skinniest with the shiniest hair. And the mandatory date requirements upped the ante considerably, especially for one character who suspects that being a whole size 8 or 10 is making it harder for her to get a boyfriend than it is for her friends. For the black girl in a mostly-white sorority that Robbins follows, the situation has another layer of difficulty, as the girl comes up against a lot of blatant racism and ostracism, and ends up sticking with a very narrow group of friends in the sorority. But what I found most shocking was how blatantly boyfriend-grubbing was institutionalized at the sororities, since most of them had some sort of candlelight ceremony where you celebrate it if some dude will allow you to be his real girlfriend. Grades and other achievements didn’t rate near the enthusiasm. Because of this atmosphere, I didn’t find it as repulsive as Robbins clearly did when one of her subjects dumps a boyfriend in order to get out and have more fun with her sorority. It struck me as at least some variation on the “must have a man” theme, even if the girls who pressure her don’t have the best intentions at heart.
Despite my sympathies for the young women in the book who really just wanted to have some female friends, I came to the conclusion at the end of it that the Greek system, as it currently stands, needs to go. Since fraternities and sororities are about being single-sex from the get-go, they’re corrupt at the root and no matter how you try to reform them, they’re going to trend towards reinforcing the most retrograde gender roles.