Oh. My. God. Alexandra Robbins has gone totally undercover and exposed the fetid underbelly of America's epicenters of pedicures and pillow fights. What she unearths in Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities won't rival the revelations of Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill, though it might put to rest lingering regrets about not pledging Delta Delta Delta.
In her introduction, Robbins makes a reasoned case for her project. Sororities, she notes, are an enduring institution that still offer a social pedigree and network for women, especially in the South. At the University of Alabama, where sororities remain racially segregated, Robbins says it's known that the Greek system is de rigueur for entrance into the state's political and economic elite.
The author's decision to go undercover appears equally justified. In the wake of unflattering coverage (MTV's Sorority Life being the most cited example), national sororities clamped down on granting reporters (like Robbins) access to their chapters. Robbins felt she needed 24/7 immersion in all things Greek to write a substantive book. Abetted by several of her confidential sources, she sneaks through the proverbial bedroom window.
Going undercover can be a tricky enterprise for any number of reasons. Ethical questions aside, the word "undercover" promises juicy information that couldn't be gleaned through traditional reporting. If that doesn't materialize, one might hope for an amusing personal account of life in a foreign milieu. Robbins provides neither.
And that's the problem. Pledged bills itself as an investigation of a subculture, but despite secret songs and initiation rites, sororities are anything but. In fact, Robbins shows that these sisterhoods serve as agents of social control, exacerbating pressure for women to conform to a set of social and aesthetic standards.
What we're left with, then, is a book about four unremarkable girls surfing the vicissitudes of college life. Occasionally, their lives break from the banality of boy drama and petty inner-sorority infighting. For instance, Sabrina is one of only two African-American girls in her 100-plus member sorority and is plagued by a pervasive disconnect between her background (she's the first in her family to go to college) and that of her privileged sisters. Partly to escape this world, she has an affair with her professor until, not surprisingly, her heart gets stomped on.
Robbins attempts to broaden the scope by looking at the differences between "historically black" and "historically white" sororities. While the analysis is a bit pat, one of the more curious revelations is that black sororities place an emphasis on community service whereas their white counterparts practice philanthropy.
The most interesting trend Robbins identifies is how sororities allow women to use sex as a means of exacting power within a group. The most frightening example is the case of a Chi Omega sister at Sam Houston University who pledged to maintain her virginity until marriage. Displeased by her brazen individuality, her "sisters" spiked her drink with the "date rape" drug, and arranged for her to be raped by a friend.
Although Robbins has an eye for sociological trends, she prefers to spend her words (which are full of hastily constructed, redundant prose) on the day-to-day soap opera of her subjects. In the curious paradox where the misfortune of others is a journalist's manna, perhaps Robbins was hoping for more from these girls and just struck out. How else to explain so much stultifying fluff: barhopping, midnight pancake parties, crushes, hookups and reunions? Isn't this why we watch the OC?
While there's something to be said for portraying sororities as they really are (and Robbins can't be faulted for a lack of thoroughness), there's as much to be said for knowing where a story lies and sticking with it. Or even admitting -- Oh. My. God. -- that despite a book deal, maybe there just isn't any there there.
-- John Dicker
Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities by Alexandra Robbins (Hyperion: New York) $23.95/hardcover