Monday, September 5, 2011

Fraternities and sororities perpetuate gender roles

Lisa Belkin, writer for the New York Times, recently published a series of articles exploring the exclusive world of fraternities. Reading her descriptions is not unlike taking a trip to a foreign planet- a planet where males chant and sing songs of sexual dominance and females wear strange costumes consisting of as little clothing as possible. In this world, females are customarily invited to gyrate provocatively at the male abode after ingesting and imbibing common sense inhibitors.

Research on the effect of Greek life on gender roles corroborate Belkin’s observations. Studies have shown that for both females and males, affiliation with a Greek organization is associated with traditional male dominant-female submissive attitudes. One study reported that when compared with their non-fraternity classmates, fraternity members “tend to accept more stereotypical beliefs about women; reject women’s political leadership; oppose women’s rights; and believe in differential work roles.”

This is not just a time warp. Even though fraternity members tend to exhibit beliefs consistent with conservatives of the 19th century, they do not find support for their anti-feminist philosophies in religion, nature, culture, or custom. Instead, fraternity members make somewhat legitimate observations that females today choose to occupy a role of flirtatious submission, and therefore may not appropriately prepared for leadership roles. The inference is not that surprising when you've seen your colleague dressed as a slutty princess.

But isn’t this just harmless college fun? How much social damage can a drunk frat boy really do? Considering that women are now enrolling in top graduate and professional schools at the same rate as men, it would seem that we have achieved gender equality. Indeed, my class at UC Davis Law is half female. Perhaps these age-old American coteries are simply engaging in a little youthful, innocuous entertainment. But the subtle and lasting effect of widespread adherence to a culture of inequity will eventually undermine the intellect and professional reputation of the inferior group. Just look at the job interview advice for men and women applicants distributed by the UC Davis Career Center (written by a man). Men are directed to wear a belt, socks, polish their shoes, and wear a conservative tie. Basically, look clean and unwrinkled. Women, on the other hand, are cautioned not to show cleavage, to wear a knee-length skirt, to tie hair back, and so on. Basically, don’t look like a slut. It’s subtle, but that women in a professional school must be advised not to dress promiscuously for an interview is an indication that there may be some remnants of the must-dress-slutty-to-get-in-with-the-boys mentality left over from the frat-boy party days.

Lastly, and importantly, one has to ask whether these types of interactions should be sanctioned by our nation’s elite universities- universities that are the training ground for the leaders of tomorrow? Universities are not blind to the negative effects of fraternities and sororities on campus. Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman recently banned Greek organizations from recruiting freshmen, finding that these groups, “contribute to a sense of exclusivity and privilege and socioeconomic stratification among students.” Prohibiting the Greeks altogether, however, is unlikely due to the history that Greek associations have had in American colleges, and because these organizations do foster community service and friendship. Then again, there are ways to contribute to one’s community and to meet like-minded people without all of the negative side effects. As Tina DaVaron writes, “College campuses can no longer afford to be complicit in this culture” of inequity.


Caitlin said...

I appreciate this post because in part it has identified what I consider to be one of the last vestiges of traditional gender stratification that still exists in mainstream society--fraternities and sororities. It appears that most universities condone, or at least permit, this kind of behavior on their campuses, and although some private, more expensive schools have small greek populations (>10%), the bulk of the state universities in the United States (where most of our young people can afford to matriculate) have very large greek presences that are likely to be around for quite some time.

I wonder, though, whether there is some movement toward change. At Brown University, where I spent my undergraduate years, there were four co-ed fraternities, which pledged men and women into their ranks. While we also had traditional fraternities and sororities, the co-ed fraternities were able to participate in the greek scene and to some extent lessened the extreme sexism that would have otherwise existed on campus. Perhaps if more fraternities and sororities attempted to move away from admitting only one sex, it might move things in the right direction?

AMS said...

I, like Caitlin, appreciate this post. It represents a rather contentious issue facing today's Greek letter organizations.

As a member of a traditional sorority, I both loved and hated my organization. Like you pointed out, I often observed many of my "sisters" as if they were alien creatures. Yet, I found like-minded women with similar ideals, and I really value my friendships with these women.

Unlike most, the rich history, the ability to connect with other women, and the potential for alumni networking opportunities primarily drew my interest to the organizations. The social aspect intrigued me, but I always felt uncomfortable with it. Instead, my affiliation opened doors for me to become a leader in my community.

For example, soon after I joined my sorority, I caught wind of a Greek leadership retreat. Living with women from two other sororities at the time, we all saw the retreat as an opportunity to get away from school and get to know people outside of the frat party scene. I even received a scholarship to attend the event.

The people I met at that particular event actually turned out to be many of the same people who ran the university's student government. The friendships and networks developed at that retreat lead to many opportunities down the line.

I never thought I'd find myself in a position to defend the Greek system. Yet, it seems important to consider the benefits of the organizations--or at least membership in one.

The partying aspect of these organizations is clearly complex. I looked forward to attending many of the parties--especially the ones sponsored by my own house. Yes, we consumed alcohol. Yes, we often wore scantily clad outfits.

A trained modern dancer, I often thought of it as dressing up for a performance. It involved ritual, costumes, and excitement--all familiar emotions in the performance context. Yet, unlike the stage, parties, for me, served as fora for social exploration and self-realization. (In the performance context, rehearsals are much better suited to exploration and discovery of identity).

The Greek scene may perpetuate backwards morals and gender stereotypes. Yet, maybe there's value to allowing young people to explore these roles. Maybe they need to explore it to learn that they do not approve of it? Furthermore, would the elimination of Greek letter organizations solve the problem? I know that I witnessed much more disturbing displays of "experimentation" and endured much more hazing in non-fraternal organizations.

Either way, young people really need to understand the potential damages inflicted by their choices--whether it involve showing a lot of leg or drawing on someone passed out from drinking too much. In a digital world where people "sext" and keep cameras in their pockets, this might be more relevant now than ever before.

KayZee said...

AMS, I appreciate your candid admission of how you, as a sorority sister, took part in what you considered to be the "partying" aspect of the Greek system. My undergrad institution did not allow a Greek system, but I attended enough social events to know that there was a "dress code." It's interesting that you likened it to a dance-performance, because I agree, that there was a sense of "dress-up" associated with a night out. It was much more than just putting on skimpy clothes and going to a house party. There was a ritual to it all. All the girls in my dorm would share make-up, critique each others' outfit choices, and run from dorm room to dorm room, looking for the perfect pair of earrings to borrow. Like you said, it was like getting ready for a performance.

Last week in class, we mentioned an article in the NYTimes that spoke to this kind of behavior ( In some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, there appears to be a disconnect. The author questions why it is that female college students can be top of their class, yet, subject themselves to "skimpy" attire in order to get into a popular party. Perhaps, as you suggest, AMS, it's because we tend to see it all as a show, rather than a slight on our self worth.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

I would agree with AMS. As a former member of a Greek organization, I whole-heartedly agree that there are substantial benefits to be reaped from joining these groups. However, I also recognize their shortcomings and drastic need for improvement.

I am hesitant, however, to apply this argument to our Career Services Office. Are they really perpetuating the cultural inequities so prevalent in the Greek system by issuing job interview advice? To play devil’s advocate, couldn’t they also be providing some preemptive reminder of the professional setting we now find ourselves in? Many King Hall students come to law school from undergraduate institutions where “a sense of professionalism” was not drilled into their heads every day. There it was acceptable to go to class in pajamas, attend a speaker series with distinguished professionals in wrinkled shorts and a t-shirt, or interview in khakis and a polo. Perhaps the Career Services advice recognizes that some students are unaware of what is required in a legal interview.

Providing this advice does not necessarily symbolize a “remnant of the frat-boy party mentality.” Legal job interviews are, admittedly, very conservative affairs. This means no shorts/jeans with holes, nice shoes, and no revealing clothing – all of these descriptions would be applicable to members of both genders. Instead, Career Services may recognize the need to educate some students, describing what constitutes professional, sharp, clean attire. In this lesson, the Office is laying out the dance steps to the “performances” we all must give in order to feel that the interview went well (whether it actually did is another question entirely).

I certainly recognize the possibility that their advice could be easily interpreted under the former argument. But, on the flip-side, it is equally possible that the latter is true.

A. M. Ayoub said...

The college party scene is a great reminder that too much of women's success is bound to calibrating to how men want women to be. While sorority girls are encouraged to party half naked, professional women are encouraged to wear skirts and assume a certain demeanor in order to succeed at the firm. My point here is that all this starts at a young age and it is always men who seem to be writing the rules. Women are expected to look good and act a certain way to get ahead from the time they are little girls. While there is certainly something to be said about female empowerment through sexuality, my sense from my college years (and numerous Halloween parties) is that the "anything but clothes" dress code does young women a disservice in the eyes of the men they are hoping to hang with - because those frat boys become law partners...

Girl Talk said...
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Ringo1985 said...

I agree with this post because as a member of a sorority during my undergraduate studies, I found the culture encouraged by fraternities and sororities to be obnoxious and offensive.

Originally, I joined with the intention of attending the various "socials" that the fraternities and sororities offered. Each social had a theme, such as Hawaiian night, toga night, etc. However, these events always consisted of scantily clad women (who were my friends and peers) and overly inebriated men and women. At first, this seemed like innocent but fun behavior. It wasn't until I learned of the rampant eating disorders that affected so many girls in my sorority and other behaviors that I couldn't help but disapprove of that I started to question my involvement in the sorority.

I don't mean to sound disparaging or condescending. I thoroughly enjoyed many of the events that we put on, and was an active and willing participant. But the focus on aesthetics and the desire to somehow "showoff" for the fraternity boys was disconcerting- our sorority shirts even said, "If you are going to be Greek, you might as well be a Goddess"- as if that doesn't tell you enough about constant image maintenance that was required to feel adequate as a part of the sorority. Another sorority wore shirts that said, "You don't go to college to meet your husband, you go to meet your bridesmaids." At the time I thought that this was a relatively progressive statement, but in hindsight I realize that this is just another example of an outdated perception of women.

Girl Talk said...

I, like many of the former commenters, appreciate this post. I have to say, the first thing I appreciated about it was your use of the word "gyrate." Such a good word.

Ok, now on to my legitimate (?) comment... While reading this post, I at one point paused and got lost in a tangential train of thought. Regarding the concepts of male dominance, female submission, and slutty princesses, there is another concept that I'd like to bring attention to that fits hand in glove with these three - something I like to call GMO: an acronym for "Girls Making Out." To preface my "analysis" of GMO, I'd like to say that I was not in a sorority during my undergraduate years, however I have certainly witnessed my fair share of Greek life shenanigans.

A common theme that wove its way through countless parties, Greek or not, was females engaging in certain behaviors for the sole purpose of getting male attention. The easiest way to do this was to make out with another girl - not because they were gay, bi-sexual, or attracted to each other, but because it was guaranteed to get them in the spotlight. By spotlight, I mean the salacious stares of drooling frat boys, who seemed to turn into horny monkeys, whooping and jumping all around the keg of warm Natty Light.

Many of these girls actually had male partners, and sometimes those partners were there with them, almost egging them on. As guys cheered and encouraged them, girls stripped, which isn't saying much considering they usually arrived at parties donning little more than a cowboy hat and a bandana.

The girls ate up the attention. It almost seemed like some sort of life force. They would do anything if it meant male attention was on them. GMO, stripping, and generally just being way too enthusiastic about any suggestions put forth by guys regarding things they should do. It disgusted me, seeing girls prioritize "pleasing" guys, knowing that if they engage in shockingly promiscuous behavior in a somewhat public setting, guys will pay attention to them and view them as more desirable (as counter-intuitive as that seems to me). Tying this back to the original post, I view this sort of behavior as a manifestation of traditional male/female gender roles: the male is dominant and the woman exists to serve him, to please him, to submit to his desires. I have seen a slutty princess and a slutty bumble bee make out for the attention of a drunk Wolverine and Jack Sparrow.

I also believe that this desire to receive an unlimited amount of male attention has fostered a competitive animosity among females. They feel like they have to compete with other women for male attention, and because of this, every other woman is a threat. I've found this disheartening for quite some time, and I consider this an explanation for why a good handful of women claim that they don't get along well with other women and have mostly male friends.

I do believe that the adherence to traditional male/female roles within Greek life contributes to this behavior and dictates the way young women behave in front of men. Some would say that it's just a phase that they grow out of as they get older. This may be true, but what I'd like to know is: once they "grow up," how has that experience formed the way they feel about themselves, about men, and about their place as women in society?