Legend says a posse of sorority girls today looks like this: designer tennis shoes, various shades of honey-highlighted hair, a cluster of pastel-toned sweatshirts, and the quintessential sweatpants donning their sorority letters.
While the American sorority system initially positioned itself as an emblem of tradition and female “excellence” when it originated over a century ago, it has since been held to significant levels of controversy from its historically racist practices to its “nightmarish” hazing rituals. As an effect, the term “sorority girl” has come to connote ideas of superficiality and hurtful exclusivity; the modern-day “sorority girl” character description is one of designer shoes, blonde hair and pricey athletic wear.
I wish I could say I haven’t subscribed to the wildly superficial makeup of the “sorority girl stereotype,” and that, as a feminist, I have been able to reject the anti-girl sentiment that this stereotype and its reduction of young women into a shopping-list type of description inherently carry. But, last week, just one day after Washtenaw County instated the campus-wide stay-at-home order, I saw a group of four female students convening in the Michigan Union’s Sweetwaters. And almost immediately, I found myself noting their sorority-like characteristics as if I were making some sort of tally:
Balenciaga sneakers: two pairs.
Lululemon leggings: three wearing them.
Patagonia backpacks: four on their backs.
I looked at this group of friends and did not register them as four women, or even four students, but, rather, four sorority girls. Observing them based on solely materialistic traits, I made a snap judgement before one of them even said anything about a sorority — which, eventually, one of them did.
After about 30 minutes of chatting, they were asked to leave by a Sweetwaters employee because they were infringing upon the social-gathering regulations put in place by the recent executive order. I found myself shaking my head in bitter agreement with the employee, watching them leave the study space with their face masks hung flimsily around their wrists.
Serves them right, I thought. They’re the reason why we’re dealing with this stay-at-home order in the first place.
I looked down at the bright pink “feminist” sticker emblazoned upon my planner and felt a sense of guilt settle in my stomach. The hypocrisy might as well have slapped me in the face. When did anti-sorority sentiment permeate such a basic level of my subconscious? Moreover, when did berating young women based purely on their social associations become OK?
Some might posit that the University of Michigan’s sororities’ uptick in bad press since the beginning of the pandemic has compounded a pre-existing anti-sorority sentiment on campus. Even before fall semester classes began, evidence of large and supposedly Fraternity & Sorority Life-affiliated social gatherings was gaining substantial attention on social media. One picture depicting an outdoor gathering in late August gained over 1,400 likes on Twitter, with commentators quick to associate the culprits with Phi Kappa Psi, a fraternity on the University’s Interfraternity Council, though it’s unclear if the house actually belonged to members of that fraternity. One Twitter user remarked: “SO glad I never had a daughter,” presumably in response to the handful of female students shown in the photo.
One can observe that fraternity members have received their share of pandemic-related policing via social media. A post on the popular “Overheard at umich” Facebook group criticized fraternity-affiliated parties being thrown mid-July: “…a bunch of fratboys having yet another party outside and endangering the general public. So excited to start in person classes with these incredible careful and conscientious people!”
The Michigan Daily joined the narrative of mid-pandemic fraternity criticism with an article by columnist Elayna Swift discussing the ways in which Theta Chi’s partying habits demonstrated “disappointing displays of entitlement and foolishness” that are “likely a result of Schlissel’s recent announcement to have an in-residence fall semester.”
Much of the public criticism surrounding the ways fraternities have (failed to) carry themselves in recent months employs action-based rhetoric: the fraternities’ actions rather than the brothers as individuals are being criticized. And rightfully so.
But when it comes to anti-Fraternity & Sorority Life sentiment based purely on individual, external attributes, like style or appearance, sorority girls have received a great deal more attention — which, frankly, represents a stark double standard in the ways we apply Fraternity & Sorority Life stereotypes on campus.
If you haven’t heard of the “copy, paste” joke surrounding tribes of sorority girls, then you’ve likely seen the infamous photo from The Daily that motivated it. The picture, which has gained over 2,900 likes on Instagram, shows a group of supposed sorority girls making the honorable pilgrimage toward Welcome Week fraternity parties this August. Even before the pandemic, these parties have garnered a great deal of controversy in their own right for being hotspots of sexual assault and sexual coercion.
The comment section under this particular photo reads like a brutal high school group chat:
“Love the uniform”
“Lmao they got copy printed”
… Notice any overarching themes?
The “copy, paste” punchline, which embodies the idea of sorority girls traveling in identical flocks, is not new. Earlier this year, a picture posted on Barstool Sports’ main Instagram of a huddle of female students undergoing the rush process, all clad in black Canada Goose coats, gained over 280,000 likes.
The comment section isn’t subtle in its dehumanizing remarks:
“Look at all those chickens!”
“This is how (we) keep track of hens in public.”
The picture quickly circulated on the “Overheard at umich” Facebook group, with fellow University students hurling similar insults. One woman delivered the harshest blow:
“…It reminds me of the creation of dog breeds actually. Get enough that look similar and boom, a new breed of (insert three Greek letters).”
First, I acknowledge how the University’s Panhellenic system carries an extensive history of problematic, racially and physically discriminatory rush processes that lend themselves to constructing the sorority “breed” this Facebook user is referring to: a homogenous makeup of wealth, whiteness and thinness.
But I must also acknowledge that in no circumstance should it be socially acceptable to openly compare young women to dogs. And this is where I’ve seen productive, anti-sorority dialogue surrounding the system’s corruption become extremely destructive, anti-sorority girl dialogue — the same analysis that’s digested and manifested later by raging feminists like me, who can observe a group of perfectly friendly female students and automatically cast judgement on them for being of that “type.”
In an email interview with The Daily, a member of one of the University’s Panhellenic sororities who has chosen to keep her identity and sorority affiliation anonymous for privacy concerns, expressed that she definitely recognizes the sorority stereotype being perpetuated on campus.
“I feel like it is unfair, especially for those who don’t understand or are not involved in the Panhellenic community,” she wrote. “Some of the stereotypes, at least from my experience, are not even close to the kind of love and genuine support I’ve received from this community.”
As far as how this stereotype manifests itself in academic settings on campus, she noted that, “… sometimes the stereotypes may be that people in Greek life don’t focus on school, but that couldn’t be more of the opposite from what I’ve witnessed. There are so many women excelling in their grades, including lots of women in STEM programs.”
This particular sorority member had also seen the notorious “copy, paste” picture that circulated on social media late August.
“It is a little sad that this (photo) is being called a ‘sorority outing,’” she wrote. “First of all, there is no way to prove any of these women are involved in Greek Life, and many of the (Instagram) comments are based on the assumption of that. Secondly, if these individuals are freshmen, based on the survey presented in the (Instagram) caption, they wouldn’t be involved in Greek life yet, considering rush events do not start until Winter 2021.”
Essentially, this image depicts the kind of magic formula — tribe of females, crop tops and Air Force 1s — that immediately registered in our minds as “sorority girls,” despite the objective fact that these, presumably, first-year students wouldn’t have even started the rush process yet. Nevertheless, disregarding the actual or prospective sorority status of these young women, why does the sorority-girl assumption immediately induce biting reproach?
Does the harm exist in the mere label of being in a sorority?
Knowing that the sorority system extends across the United States, I was curious to know how the negative stereotypes attached to the sorority-girl label manifest themselves on other campuses beyond the University of Michigan’s. According to sorority members of Panhellenic chapters within Indiana University, which has a nearly-equivalent percentage of students involved in Fraternity & Sorority Life to that of the University of Michigan, the social impact of the sorority label can vary based on which sorority you are affiliated with.
One member, who is quoted anonymously and omitted her sorority affiliation due to privacy concerns, wrote in an email interview with The Daily that, on IU Bloomington’s campus, “I have met many people (…) who have said that I don’t come off as a stereotypical sorority girl to them. However, when people know of some of my sisters they are quick to say that I am such a (chapter name) sorority girl because of the sweet people they know who I am therefore associated with.”
This member has also observed the ways her sorority affiliation and the associated increased level of COVID-19 risk have affected the way she’s perceived by classmates. “The only setting in which Greek life has affected my reputation negatively is in my classes this semester,” she wrote. “My classmates were just extremely worried about me spreading the virus to them.”
Annie Leonard, a sophomore at Indiana University and member of Kappa Alpha Theta, recognizes the role sorority branding can play in being perceived through a stereotypical lens. In an email interview with The Daily, she wrote, “At the end of the day I barely wear much Theta stuff, I don’t live in Theta, and I don’t have any Theta events to attend this year, so I don’t feel the stereotype affecting me very much.”
Moreover, Leonard offered that, “I think for the entirety of Greek life there has been a ‘sorority girl’ stereotype, just like there is a stereotype for everything.”
Ultimately, we’re experiencing a particularly turbulent time to be a woman in America. Kamala Harris’s historical Vice President nomination spurred celebration in August, then Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing invoked grief in September and, as some sort of cruel grand finale, Amy Coney Barret’s Supreme Court confirmation motivated grim conversations around the future of women’s reproductive rights in mid-October. Being “American while female” has proven to be a particularly stressful condition in 2020.
Given this, I reflect on the moment I cast judgement on four girls in Sweetwaters simply for fitting some socially constructed “sorority-girl” type and I confront an essential truth: No matter their sorority affiliation, they’re still young women, just like me, watching the same news and perhaps also feeling like being “American while female” gets harder with each passing day.
So “copy, paste” this: Take care of your female friends, non-sorority and sorority girls alike. In a world where basic female rights like access to birth control seem like they’re teetering on the edge of termination and we’re seeing the 57th major party presidential ticket with two men holding the commander in chief nomination, buying into anti-girl rhetoric of any kind is productive for no one.