Sororities and social awkwardness

by Rob Horning

27 February 2007


The Sunday NYT ran a story about a sorority house at Depauw University in Indiana that threw out most of its members in an effort to shed the chapter of its reputation of being for “socially awkward”. Apparently that’s code for not being white and emaciated:

Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house. The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.

Especially mortifying is the account of a recruiting event where “national representatives took over the house” and “asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms”—basically because they felt the actual members would scare away new prospects. You think these members would have resigned in disgust and contempt right then.

This whole incident seems terrible and unfair and all that, but what kind of organization did these women think they were joining? We’re not talking about NOW; this is a sorority, part of the Greek system, which is a cog in the machine perpetuating all the traditional entitlements and conventional arrangements that have been passed down through the upper middle classes. The Greek system? Biased? Of course it is; that’s it’s raison d’etre by and large. By entering in to the system you confess your wish to have your social life bureaucratically arranged and subjected to conformist codes. “Socially awkward sorority” is thus an oxymoron—sororities are about purging awkwardness and making social life work mechanically. You are looking for official sanction on your choice of friends and activities, so by consenting to that, you have to admit of the possibility that the officials in charge might withdraw their blessing, otherwise it meant nothing in the first place—which it does for everyone outside of the system. Unfortunately, the social networks the Greek system sustains has real power in the world beyond college; so the whole thing is not merely submissiveness and hierarchy for its own sake, but for the sake of anchoring yourself in the broader post-collegiate hierarchy. (I chose to live in darkness, pretending that by rejecting hierarchical systems in college I could somehow deny their existence in the world beyond; this shows I learned almost nothing while in college about the real world.) Is it lame that sororities judge members by their potential attractiveness to men? Absolutely. Is this sort of thing unprecedented in the real world? Not exactly. The nice thing about the Greek system is that, unlike patriarchy at large, women are not forced to participate in it, so they need not endorse a by-and-large sexist arrangement by collaborating with it for tactical gains within a seemingly inescapable system of oppression.

Why this sad story merits coverage in the New York Times‘s front section is worth considering: That this particular chapter, where women were apparently giving each other solace rather than orchestrating ways to attract male attention, has been effectively shut down is presented as a representative example, though I’m not sure how much can really be concluded from one ripe example. Perhaps more significant is how the article gives us a good pretense to exercise our facility for righteous indignation as we consider the callousness of Delta Zeta’s national officers and breathe a sigh of relief that our own lives are not beset by such shallowness (and then we flip to Sunday Styles). But also the story lets us experience the vicarious thrill of humiliation, our secret pleasure in seeing these kinds of codes of comparison being upheld (at a safe distance from ourselves, of course). I was thinking about this while watching the Acadamy Awards show and how comfortable I was in denouncing various celebrities as “ugly”, as if I really cared and as if my opinion mattered in the least. But this is the purpose of the red-carpet show, isn’t it? To give people a chance to pass judgment at home? We all collude in this kind of superficiality when it seems safe to, because we have learned so well its collective power and would love to indulge the fantasy of exercising that power personally. Not to be too trite, but in those fleeting moments of judgment we become convinced that we escape observation ourselves.

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