Alexandra Robbins is a best-selling author who has written about at nurses, Yale’s Skull and Bones, geeks, overachieving kids, twenty-somethings and Greek life. She is a regular contributor to many popular magazines. In Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, she turned her gaze to the life of sorority women in the south. A Yale graduate, Robbins tried to live undercover with a sorority only to be turned out for fear of negative publicity. She then reworked her research model, interviewed scores of young women in sororities, and developed a close relationship with four sorority sisters. Her multiple interviews gave her an intimate and unfiltered perspective on Greek life for women in four southern colleges. Robbins stressed the tabloid aspects of the story in her book. The overall message, though, is not titillating – it is sad.
The stereotypes of sororities, she writes, have more than a passing relationship with the truth. Sorority women drink alcohol, take drugs, party, and fight over men. They judge people by their appearances – spending a ton of time on their own, haze entering students, and are clustered into small cliques and groups. Not everyone in a sorority is a caricature, but enough are to warrant attention, Robbins notes. The students live in an intense environment, with multiple demands on time, behavior and money. The young women alternatively support to each other and then do not. “Mean girls” is no abstract concept in a sorority.
The book recounts relationships, date rape and a range of inappropriate sexual behaviors, from harassment to violence. The mechanisms that could provide help or solace with these or other life issues are inadequate or avoided. Norms tend to be set by older sorority students. More than anything else, there is a conspicuous absence of caring and involved adults.
In Pledged, issues of learning and academics are as absent as responsible adults. Status is achieved through wealth, proper consumption – especially clothing and accessories – and physical appearance. Peer pressure is relentless. The sorority women focus on the organization and do precious little learning. Why should a sorority affiliation matter more than a major? And why is the only faculty member with any real presence in the book having an affair with a student?
Clearly a smart woman, Robbins on multiple occasions seems to dumb things down in the book to boost sales. Maybe she is on to something – I read it. She makes trenchant observations about race, for example. Many sorority sisters navigate the negative aspects of Greek life while recognizing its limitation. Overall, the book is more tabloid than serious journalism. There are few hard facts or studies. It is impressionistic and anecdotal. Robbins could have made the book more substantial without sacrificing the reader’s interest.
Greek life is a part of many colleges. Thousands of women take part and many report strong bonds of sisterhood and support. This seems to be especially true for African-American sororities, which Robbins reports have a different history and ethos than white sororities.
It is difficult to assess the veracity of Robbins’ account. It might be accurate for some, but is it true for many? For all? However, even if only somewhat accurate, Pledged paints a picture that reflects poorly on the sororities and the colleges that support them.