Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Going Greek

Book: Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities

Author: Alexandra Robbins

Published: 2004 (Hyperion)

Pages: 339

Greek life is sort of a chaotic neutral force in my own university orbit. I know it’s there, doing its own thing, and occasionally I’ll read in the school paper about the Dance Marathon they put on or the drinking fines they get, but none of it really affects me or the people I hang out with. I never even thought about pledging for reasons that keep sounding like they insult the system when I write them down (I’m not girly enough, not social enough, not rich enough, not Southern enough), but they’re truly just things I don’t happen to be instead of things I think are dumb in other people.

Naturally, this plus my freshman roommate turning me on to the TV show Greek has made me curious enough about what it’s like to read up on the subject. (That’s not exactly a difficult bar to clear.)

And Robbins’s book is pretty much exactly what I expected from my cobbled-together observations of event t-shirts bobbing through campus, ABC Family’s web stream, and Daily Gamecock articles: people are naturally social, dependent on ritual, and a little bitchy when they live together and are supposed to represent ideals while going through the massive personal upheaval of college.

I’m not entirely sure why this book got a crap-ton of controversy heaped onto it, unless it was all from people who got mad before they read it and refused to read it because somehow they already knew it was blasphemy. She mentioned getting emails about that. Probably because of this cover.

She follows four individual girls through a year in their academic/sorority life, which makes for great anecdotal evidence of actual drinking policies, peer pressure, the restricted dating pool, and the time/financial suck of sororities.  And it’s awesome that she got four completely different points of view on practically the same exact thing during the same school year. Not everybody liked Greek life by the end of the year. Only one of them seemed as enthusiastic as she was meant to be about sisterhood and bonding rituals and junk like that. But they all went through difficult, sometimes rewarding transformations as direct results of going through this process. It was neat to read about those, like case studies from a gossip magazine.

But after everybody got settled in and started talking to boys and each other, that bit turned into every YA novel that has ever dwelt too long on the gossipy dramas of young people.

How did she get all this inside information? She can’t say because the Greek systems she approached immediately went into orange-alert hostile mode when she was open about what she was doing, so she went undercover, I think just posing as a close friend of one or more of the girls who agreed to let her follow them. But she’s got all the dirt somehow, way too much mundane detail for me to keep caring about the individuals for over 300 pages, but thankfully she puts in some interesting factual sections after the girls would bring up a specific topic so it’s not all one gossip train-driven narrative.

Like, the differences between historically white and historically black sororities: the formers are more social-oriented, the latter usually more service-oriented. The former has a set, formal rush week when they grab up new girls, and the latter has much looser, sometimes completely open, rotating applications all year. There are sisters of different color in both types, but it’s a lot rarer than our post-Civil Rights era should be comfortable with.

Also hazing. That still happens, and that still hurts kids; it’s just more underground because now it’s technically against a super-fuzzy National rule.

Basically, Robbins takes the reader on an easy-to-read tour through the Greek system as a pressurized microcosm of college life, binge drinking and lifelong bonds and all.     

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