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The New Republic Online
Thursday, June 10th, 2004


 

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities

by Alexandra Robbins

Twisted Sisters

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

Alexandra Robbins has a new book out, and it, like, exposes sororities. It's called Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, but the weird thing is, the reader doesn't learn anything about "the secret life of sororities" — unless, that is, you didn't already know that sorority girls are drunk whores. In fact, Robbins details the extent of their partying and promiscuity so well that I felt like I should get an STD test just reading the thing.

And yet read on I did. Robbins grapples with a terrific amount of research on Greek life, and the book that results is fascinating and, in the end, highly alarming. Pledged is amazing in the same way that reality TV is amazing: It's the car crash you can't take your eyes off of, it's the Jerry Springer episode where you have to find out if that midget chick is really a dude, it's the makeover show where you have to see what the drag-queen-looking freakshow that comes striding up to the mirror for her "reveal" looks like now. Throughout the book I just had to know: Which one of these shallow dumb-asses is going to have her head in the toilet with her panties around her ankles by the end of the night?

Robbins tried to go the official route and failed — the National Panhellenic Organization seems to have a problem with transparency in Greek life. (One Greek leader actually complains, "We do community service and they don't cover it. One person falls out of a window and every paper in town is there." Um, exactly.) But she cleverly managed to find four sisters who agreed to let her shadow them throughout the year. She disguises the names of the girls, the sororities involved, and the university, and refuses to disclose the story they came up with to explain her constant presence at the sorority, including its "secret ceremonies" (read: lots of candle-holding, secret knocks, passwords, and singing — yawn). So right away we have learned that Robbins is willing to lie — a lot — to almost every sister in the sororities she shadows and to obfuscate all recognizable details to the reader. To any journalist, this might look suspiciously unverifiable.

But how cynical of me! Wouldn't it be more fun just to talk about the peer-pressured clitoral piercings? Or the rousing games of "Circle the Fat" — which make you a better person because you can, like, know which of your body parts need improvement? Or how about the eternal favorite — the "drink an entire bottle of vodka, get slipped a mickey, and get date-raped" game? (And then sleep with the date-rapist again a few months later because, you know, you're feeling really bad about not having a date for Formal.) OK, so that last one isn't a game, but it does seem to happen with enough regularity — and often ambivalence — that it sure could be. And through it all, your sisters are there for you: to point out your "problem zones," to gossip about you behind your back, to force you to break up with your non-Greek boyfriend and your old girlfriends, to tell you what to wear, to make you strip in front of frat boys, to force-feed you grain alcohol, and to make you pay tons of cash for the privilege of it all. Screw those snotty lesbian Seven Sisters schools — sorority life is where sisterhood is at.

I'm sure people are picking up this book for many different reasons. Anyone ever in a sorority would want to read it, of course — either to relate to the insanity, to dismiss it, or to try to figure out which school and sororities Robbins shadowed. And some might just be fascinated by secret societies, especially opulent elitist ones. But most of us who haven't experienced sororities first-hand will read Pledged simply to say, "I knew it!!" — which is pretty satisfying for about 60 pages. But then the gloating stops, and the barrage of dates and mixers and anorexia and alcohol and psychological cruelty and goofy rituals starts to feel very depressing and very desperate. I found it difficult to keep reading after awhile. Once the novelty wore off, I remembered that I didn't enjoy these people in college, and frankly, I enjoy them even less now.

Robbins does a great analysis of every aspect of sorority life: the Pledge process itself, the social hierarchies, the racism, the influence of the national organizations. And she uses incidents from throughout the country's Greek world — and not just at "State U." — to illustrate various trends in the Panhellenic community. For example, Robbins makes the alarming discovery that Greeks rarely perform community service anymore — no! — and that, when they do, it almost always consists of financial donations rather than actual activism. (All you can eat pancakes and beer for $5 — proceeds go to charity!) And, while Robbins does describe hazing throughout the country as something just short of Abu Ghraib, she tries to ameliorate it with talk of how sweet and nice and "normal" so many of these "girls next door" seemed. (Sound familiar?) They didn't come up with these ideas themselves — it's the fault of the schools and national charters, which either are absent from sorority life or, worse, condone many of the practices. Universities do receive generous annual donations from Greek alumni — which would dry up should the school try to impose rules on the Greeks that the alumni (or their children) opposed. And the national charters are influenced by money, too: They set quotas for the sororities to fill, which sets off the insane rush process and reaps profit for the chapter at large. But why these alumni seem to tacitly support hazing at all is still a mystery — perhaps because they went through it themselves?

Ultimately, Robbins tries to answer what seems to be the obvious and yet unknowable question: Why on God's green earth do these girls subject themselves to such a punitive, anti-feminist, and downright degrading system? The girls she interviews — the vast majority of whom have very few positive things to say about sorority life when Robbins asks about specific events at the house — give more upbeat and elusive answers when quizzed about the meaning of it all. The clichés of sisterhood and bonding and networking come up, but generally the girls mention the one or two really amazing sister-friends they made. Robbins points out that statistics show that Greek life does not lead to more or better connections than any other group on campus or the alumni association of the university itself, and she is careful to remind the reader that many people make close friends in college without going Greek. In the end, it seems that so many girls find themselves partying, fucking, conforming, and (mostly) ignoring why they are at college in the first place for rather unsatisfying reasons: Their mothers belonged to that sorority, they want to fit in, they want to make a big school seem smaller, their friend is rushing, they want to meet new people. Unfortunately, no one seems to be paying attention to the fact that women in sororities almost universally earn worse grades, suffer more alcohol-related injuries and deaths, behave more pornographically, experience more eating disorders, and act more prejudicially than anyone else on campus!

Every parent of a college-bound daughter should read this book. And Alexandra Robbins: You go girl.


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