Beyond Borders

Brothers and Sisters of America...

2011-04-01 09:16
Jean Barker

Jean Barker

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Jean Barker

I was driving to a movie date with another student when a girl without pants stumbled in front of my car.

The girl wasn't drunk or anything, just crippled - by six inch heels. As she tottered along, bent over double like a fleeing chicken in her attempt to remain vertical, I spotted a flock of other females behind her. They all looked like they were auditioning for the role of “$10 Blow-Job Hooker #5” in a high school production of Phantom of the Opera - tiny little skirts and cruel shoes and too much blusher.
“Most of these girls have never worn shoes before,” my date explained as we waited for the stream of perfect legs to pass. That made sense. California girls are traditionally barefoot babes.

“Shame... what are they going?” I wondered out loud. They were so young and pretty. Surely America's recession isn't quite so advanced yet that they have to resort to offering motorists a free happy ending.

“Oh it's one of the sororities. They do it every Sunday,” he said, like it was...totally normal.

Meanwhile, I struggled to stay on the right hand side of the yellow line during another of my crazy “OMG I'm in America and OMG it's so weird!” moments.

Apparently the sorority has a dress code for its members. Yes! Just like in those crazy movies with the teenagers! And they have rules about the craziest things. In some cases they even tell the girls they invite to join who they can date. Frat Boys have more fun, if the recent “USC roof sex scandal photos” doing the rounds online are anything to go by.

And joining a sorority is a big deal. First, there's Rush Week, where you can apply (in some cases), or if you're related to an existing member, be invited to become a “Pledge”, which is like a sorority-girl on probation. During Pledge week you hang out, suck up, and hope you're liked enough to join the sorority of your choice. If it sounds like a horrible return to the worst aspects of early high school, that's sometimes is.

Pledging itself involves some initiation rituals and ceremonies which differ from sorority to sorority. In some, cruel (and illegal) “hazing” rituals in which girls are required to stand in their underwear while members give them notes on what parts of their bodies need improvement. In others, it's all gift-giving and sisterhood. I'd say the six inch heels and three inch skirts fall somewhere in between the two, for me.

Of course, the first question that springs to mind is: Why would anyone want anything to do with this stuff? What happened to just “making friends”?

Why would you be a joiner?

The first answer is fairly obvious: there are benefits to your career and to campus life. For many, it's part of the “college experience”. Ratemycampus, collegeprowler and other community sites that help kids choose their schools include “Greek life” as a factor. This of course really confuses Greek exchange students. It also had me a little flummoxed. When you advertise “Greek” in the South African newspaper classifieds, you're talking about a certain kind of sex, and even though I'd heard Americans were really into that, I was surprised to hear it openly graded out of five as a way to evaluate the education system. Turns out it just refers to the Greek letter naming methods: Alpha, Beta, etc.

And then there's your career. Girls who're humiliated together, stay together, bonded for life. If you're interviewing for a job and a sorority sister happens to be on the interview panel... you're a shoe-in for the position. If you want to be President of the United States of America, it helps to be a member of the secret “Skulls and Bones” fraternity at Yale – or hire one of them in a top position.

And it's not all keg parties and sorority-panty pin-checks. “Greeks” also raise money for charity and support each other. Some even study, though this is apparently rare. Unless things have changed a lot since a 1996 study comparing society members' grades to non-members', the only thing Greek Life doesn't benefit is your grades. Edukashun. Who needs it?

Alphapartheid, Betapride...

What bothers me most of all about it, though, isn't the obvious nepotism involved (that's just human nature) or the silliness of it all. Or even the fact that it reminds me of all the worst things about being 13 or 14 years old - the awful feeling of being excluded; the equally awful selfish delight in being included when others were not; the power of secrets which could make or destroy. Even the lingering suspicion that, were I an undergrad in America now, the “cool” sorority of my choice may not have wanted me isn't such a huge big deal.

No, what bugs me is that Greek Life is divided by gender – and often also by race and cultural factors like religion. As a South African I'll never buy the “separate but equal” argument (it's just English for “apartheid”). It may be a knee-jerk reaction, but I just can't help it. I don't want to hang out with only girls, and do girl stuff. And I want the right to join a fraternity instead.

It's not just me who feels that Greek life isn't all that great. As with everything – not all Americans are Those Americans.

“The closest I've ever come to a fraternity is Boy Scouts”, said Alex Griffin, a carnivorous latter-day hippie and talented cinematographer. “I've always associated them with money, popped collars, and preppy dicks...and those things have never been my style.”

Some religious schools, like (Mormon) BYU ban Greek Life (together with sex and drinking) for being divisive and encouraging sinful behaviour. I agree with half their reasoning.

What's the South African equivalent of Greek?

Americans, of course, are aghast to discover that we don't have American fraternities and sororities in South Africa. You see, sororities have “international” offices - which serve to connect the USA and... Canada. Yeah, no comment!

Just in case I was wrong, I asked around among my friends, most of whom feel that the South African corporate landscape is already enough of a “boys club” without formalising the problem.

And phew. They don't exist - not formally. But as Channel24 Movies Editor @ShaheemaB pointed out on Twitter, we do have something similar. “In SA they're called rugby teams and, er, their girlfriends.”

Word, er, sister.

- Jean is studying to be a famous screenwriter you've never heard of in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here.

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