When spamming, flaming trolls crucify you on message boards and your mother calls worried and your ex starts telling really bad and untrue stories about you on Facebook and your whole world collapses just because you thought you were doing what you were supposed to do.
Here are some of the expectations we have of young women:
Be clever. Be smart. Be sexy and coy. Make good choices in front of people and make sure nobody knows about your bad ones. Straighten your hair. Wear shorts with no inseam. Shave, everywhere. Be clean and courteous and kind. Fix your makeup. If it feels good, go along with it tacitly. If it doesn’t feel good, try to use your best judgement and then go along with it tacitly. Lick your lips. If you get drunk try not to get sloppy, or at least make sure there’s no cameras around. If you take pictures with your phone assume they’re going to be all over the internet someday. If you’re in a bad relationship, stick it out—at least until you find something better. Don’t eat too much in public. Push them up. Pluck. Do what girls do on the porn sites, but only if your friends think he’s worth it. Wear glasses. Take off your glasses. Whip your hair. Learn how to do back handsprings. Get rid of that on your upper lip. Open your eyes super-wide—all the time—like a meth addict or a cartoon. Pretend you’re a virgin at your wedding. Don’t let anyone know you bleed. Spend all your money on purses and shoes. Question why she has the same tank top as me. Cry in designated areas only. Put your hair up when you’re not interested. Look good in sweats. Look better in a bathing suit. Get them enhanced. Act surprised. Bend over at the right time. Be a cool girl. Be up for anything. Be down for whatever. Be good at everything, but not threateningly good. Be smart, but in a way that’s seductive. Read, but not too much. Don’t be overly cautious. Understand everything, implicitly, revolves around you and then one day…it doesn’t. Carry gum. Carry pepper spray. Know that age is your worst enemy, that and chin hair. Your teeth are important. Even though it’s tempting, don’t completely ignore the advice of the bitter old hens who are jealous of you now. Every man is thinking about the same thing even when he says he isn’t (especially when he says he isn’t). You’re in terrible, terrible danger—all the time. When in doubt, cut it. Pretend you look great in white. Nobody’s wearing those jeans anymore. Project the same image of famous women who pay a dozen professionals to schedule them, write for them, dress them, feed them, train them, handle them, drive them, advise them, massage them, clean up for them and tuck them in at night.
Do all this—every day—and you’ll be OK.
Except when you won’t be. Except when it backfires.
Except when the image you’re working so hard to cultivate—while you go to school and work a job and try to date and hopefully not get raped—even if it’s just an attempt to be like everyone else…makes national headlines. And spamming, flaming trolls start to crucify you on message boards and your mother calls worried and your ex starts telling really bad and untrue stories about you on Facebook and your whole world collapses just because you thought you were doing what you were supposed to do.
It’s 2015 and women’s options should have opened up by now. But they have not. The luxury to allow young women to discover who they are in the context of society and pop culture does not yet exist. Attractiveness shouldn’t be prurient nor purely a byproduct of socioeconomic advantages, but it is.
That’s not to say the Alabama Alpha Phi recruitment video that was yanked after almost a million hits wasn’t unintentional. It was—very intentional. It was supposed to be lurid as much as it was alluring. Did it strive to portray the organization’s women as Stepford Wives in training or give its viewers direct and implicit messages about campus celebrity, subservience, medicated smiles and sex? Yes.
But that’s the whole point. Marketing.
College fraternities and sororities have to deftly sell themselves in an age when their modalities and practices are not-so-discretely fucking over. Greek organizations today are sparsely integrated safe walls around the next generation’s guardians of inherited wealth and power. Fraternities, for now, are still incubators for hand-wringing CEOs, financial services dickheads, asshole attorneys and sniveling politicians. Sororities, though they may too be filled with future doctors, lawyers, pr powerhouses and carpool mavens, make for gilded pairings with the boys. But how does one sell that sort of submissive subtext in an age of knowing better?
The answer? The same way college is sold, with slickness and sexiness and mass appeal.
Undergraduates are carefully marketed to by the host institutions of higher learning for almost two decades in attempts to get them to cross that hallowed threshold of the school crest. Once there, the reality is harrowing. Almost half the students that start off Freshman year lugging a giant Target bag full of shit don’t graduate. More than 60 percent face crippling student loans when they’re done. It’s increasingly staggeringly hard to get through college financially and socially and the odds are stacked against each student to make it out safely and successfully before a book is ever cracked.
Today, those who are freed from the organization, diploma in hand, face no guarantee of any kind of employment that doesn’t entail wearing gloves and carefully but quickly wrapping bread and cheese and meat.
Greek life provides a kind of glitter-blowing false sense of security that something good can happen from this arcane, patriarchal mess. The notion that in small cities of misbegotten youth known as campus, someone’s watching your back. That you will, in fact, make it and have a little built-in brand recognition from day one. That you are viable, dateable and employable. Greek buildings on campus are identifiable, imperious and connote impenetrable fortresses—safety inside, undesirables outside. The traditions are both palatable and dangerous.
Nick Syrett’s disturbing historical non-fiction takedown The Company He Keeps chronicles how fraternities came to be in the 19th century. He features a letter from Jenkins Holland to a fraternity brother: “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago.”
Sounds about right—though it’s notable Holland wrote the letter…in 1857.
So why does the less-than-safe secret society grouping persist? For one, colleges don’t have to take on major (housing) development because of the Greek system. Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan estimates the net worth of sorority and fraternity infrastructure in this country is $3 billion as it provides lodging to at least one in eight students. She speculates this component alone is the reason Greek organizations cumulatively are worth more than their host campuses—and why the hazing, stereotyping, fatalities, atrocities…and soft-porn sell-job videos—are tolerated.
There is no real connection between the Alabama Alpha Phi recruitment video and society; between the actual women in it and their relationship with one another, their families and their bodies. It personifies disconnect. The video is perfectly executed. It is beautifully if not seductively filmed and edited and conceptually on point in that it’s promulgating the unwritten prerogative of inherently oppressive organizations. It is nothing more than propaganda.
The sorority members involved, you can’t blame them. They were merely imitating what they’ve been taught their whole lives. They did it by selling something that doesn’t exist. We say we want our young women to know better, to be better. But somehow, right now, we’d rather they beckon with an index finger and flash a come-hither grin then show that they are.
And we condemn them for it.