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Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities
By Alexandra Robbins
HC, 372 pg. US$23.95/C$34.95
ISBN: 1-4013-0046-4

When sisterhood goes wrong

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 17, 2004

Pledged: The Secret Life of SororitiesBeing in a sorority seems a little like being in the military; unless you've been a member you don't really understand what the experience is like. You are part of an organization that separates itself from wider society with ritual, ceremony, a unique language and a shared common purpose. Unlike military service, which fosters teamwork and leadership, however, sororities are a nest of cliques, shallow conformity and drug and alcohol infused excess.

That at least is what Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, argues what female Greek life is really about. Rather than being a tool of sisterhood and networking, sororities are a soap opera existence for its members who focus their attention on men, money and partying. During the 2002-03 academic year Robbins recruited four sorority members at a school somewhere in the United States and occasionally passed herself off as an undergraduate in order to uncover the inner workings of sororities.

It's an unpleasant world, writes Robbins, that begins within the first days a student enters university. Prospective members go through 'rush', a dizzying process where they meet with representatives of sororities and if they are lucky they will eventually receive bids, invitations to the sororities that would have them. Upon accepting a bid, women then go through pledge before they are initiated into the sisterhood. For the next four years, their lives will be a balancing act of school, parties, the occasional charity function, dating and the need to conform to the sororities' standards.

It's that conformity, and the resulting problems, that Robbins focuses much of her attention on. Sorority members are encouraged, at least according to Robbins, to look and dress a certain way, date the best men possible from within the Greek system, think alike and place the sorority at the top of their priorities. The question that Robbins constantly asks the reader is why would otherwise intelligent and successful women willingly join a group that seems to discourage uniqueness and individualism. Her answer is that sororities sell themselves as a place for women to make friends with others who have common interests. In reality, however, it's a bait and switch: instead of noble ideals women enter a world of shallowness and amazing amounts of alcohol consumption.

Sororities are, in essence, not centers of networking and nor do they promote any real academic achievement or charitable work, despite what they tell prospective members. They are simply an extension of high school cliques, groups that exist to promote a sense of belonging and great parties. Sororities may be a more sophisticated -- not to mention more expensive -- version of the high school clique, but they promote the same empty purpose. Rather than belong, many women find themselves struggling to conform to an unrealistic ideal, doubly cruel because the pressure to conform comes from people they are being told are their friends.

"The twenty-six historically white sororities are not service groups, they are not organizations based on intellectual development, and they are not vehicles of women's empowerment. They are, purely and simply, social groups. Girls join sororities to make friends. They join them to meet guys. They join them to have parties. They join them to belong. It is easy to see the initial allure of sororities to lonely or bewildered freshmen floundering in a large student population. ... But within the hierarchical structure of sororities, even once a girl is in the group, she still does not necessarily belong."

Although Robbins occasionally takes pains to portray some of the more positive aspects of sorority life, the picture she paints is overwhelmingly negative. Despite the fact that some 3.5 million women in 3,000 chapters across the United States are members of sororities, a clear indication that there are many women who find the experience fulfilling, Robbins doesn't seem interested in exploring that aspect. Instead the reader is treated to a book version of MTV's unflattering 'Sorority Life' series.

Pledged could have been a revealing look at sororities but unfortunately it simply is a year in the life of four women who Robbins takes such pains to cloak in anonymity that it's hard to identify with them in any way. And despite the fact that Robbins claims to have interviewed hundreds of sorority members from across the United States and went undercover herself, we learn very little their world. It's not only Greeks who should be unhappy about the unflattering image Robbins has crafted, and to be fair there are legitimate problems that need to be addressed, it should be any reader who expected a real insight into sororities rather than the breathless Cosmo-style reporting they received. Pledged is ultimately as shallow as the world Robbins was investigating.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities at Amazon.com for only $16.77 (30% off)

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