Photo courtesy of anonymous Pi Beta Phi member.
There exists on college campuses a universal joke, the kind of low-hanging comedic fruit that students reach for in the awkward silences of an orientation group or an improv set, that calls for a squealing airhead valley-girl voice and some fawning over a fictional boy named Chad.
It’s a joke that reveals our cultural convictions: we love to hate sorority girls, laughing cynically at the hair flips and bubblegum recruitment songs and relentless invocations of sisterhood. Whether the jokes come from a place of innocence, jealousy or feminist critique, they invariably carry an undercurrent of misogyny that mirrors the tide of society at large.
Under our patriarchal power structure, the masculine is regarded with greater legitimacy than the feminine. Sorority culture is among the more pronounced displays of ultra-femininity on college campuses, thus it invites the habitual onslaught of mockery reserved for “girly-girl” behavior.
For every few sorority photos online, there’s a parody photo featuring (mostly) guys throwing up contorted hand signs or hugging their “sisters,” accompanied by an all-caps caption about how much they love their little sister/new home/letters. Around recruitment time, the Twitter-sphere buzzes with complaints about shrill women and basic blondes named Becky clogging everyone’s Instagram feeds.
People make these jokes in that nudging, laugh-with-me kind of way, as if it’s common knowledge that the only people who like sorority girls are sorority girls themselves. But even women in Greek life downplay the extent of their sincerity with self-deprecating humor, poking fun at their matching recruitment outfits or the cultishness we ascribe to their kind.
And why wouldn’t sorority women join in the ridicule? Sorority bashing is part and parcel of the patriarchal idea that “good” women aren’t like other girls. Respectable college women are somehow more “chill,” less inclined to squat in pictures or clap along to some songs about sisterhood. Women internalize such misogynistic fantasies as a way to mediate their status in a world shaped by masculine values.
I myself drank the cucumber-mint-spritzer Kool-Aid for a while. I retained some of my ironic distance even as I rushed a sorority, wondering whether my time would be better spent on “real” extracurriculars like student government rather than learning my sorority sisters’ favorite ice cream flavors.
I thought mocking sororities made me a better feminist. I thought it was righteous to ridicule an institution that defined womanhood with pearls, pretty lipstick and getting guys at the frat mixer. In reality, I was only contributing to the cultural ideology of feminine inferiority.
Perhaps I realized the misogyny in mocking sorority life when I enrolled in the communications studies major. A number of friends — many of them the very ones who pose in those satirical photos — warned me that communications is a “sorority girl” major, i.e. it’s easy, shallow and a silly excuse for an MRS degree.
Relative rigor of the major aside, it occurred to me that their warnings are predicated on the deeply entrenched notion that femininity and intelligence are mutually exclusive. It’s as if, after centuries of feminist progress, we still can’t conceptualize a woman who can both blow glitter into a Polaroid camera and write essays on Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony.
The sorority women I know are STEM majors, pre-law policy enthusiasts, aspiring CEOs, and yes, communications majors who want to climb the ladder at CNN. Regardless, I shouldn’t have to invoke these largely male-dominated fields to demonstrate women’s legitimacy.
I can hear the counterargument already: people make fun of frat guys all the time! Sure they do, but what are half of these jokes about? The physical and social domination of women. What’s the stereotypical frat boy major? Business Economics, a subject taken plenty seriously by students and employers alike. How many U.S. Presidents were fraternity members? 18. The cult-like qualities of blind obedience and submission don’t mesh very well with masculinity, nor does the sorority girl stereotype of utter incompetence.
I could keep going — sorority-bashing is only a symptom of mainstream culture’s deeply entrenched misogyny. Overt patriarchy and internalized disdain for femininity create a perfect storm that disadvantages women from the interpersonal level to the political. Jokes about sororities’ fruit water seem harmless, until we realize they’re the building blocks of a culture that holds women at arm’s length from power and credibility, perhaps only a hair flip or bubblegum song away from being taken as seriously as men.
If it looks like misogyny, swims like misogyny and quacks like misogyny, then it probably is misogyny. Poking fun at sorority girls perpetuates the toxic trivialization of femininity, and it not-so-subtly suggests that feminine expression isn’t welcome in an academic environment.
The Greek system is archaic, to be sure, and its cis-heteronormative, reductive ideas about gender should be dismantled. Still, although I’m no longer involved in Greek life, I recognize now that I made the error of judging women and femininity, rather than the institutional Panhellenic structure that twists women into the patriarchal mold.