[Paleopsych] Christianity Today: Rites of Passage: Debs and pledges

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Rites of Passage: Debs and pledges
By Lauren F. Winner

                              Rites and Regalia
                              of American Debdom
                             by Karal Ann Marling
                         Univ. Press of Kansas, 2004

                               The Secret Life
                                of Sororities
                             by Alexandra Robbins
                                Hyperion, 2004
                               256 pp., $23.95

    Every year, at galas like the Magnolia Debutante Ball and the
    Rhododendron Royal Brigade of Guards, young women from the finest
    families don white dresses and long white gloves and make their debut
    to society. If you're not on the Rhododendron Royal Brigade's invite
    list, you can settle for reading Debutante: Rites and Regalia of
    American Debdom, the newest offering by Karal Ann Marling, grande dame
    of American Studies.

    The balls are stupendous, the dresses lovely, but the real meaning of
    deb teas and cotillions is rite of passage. At their debuts, young
    women are formally presented to society. In the crassest sense, a
    debut is an announcement that you are of marriageable age, that all
    those men from appropriate families can start making their bids. Also,
    after coming out--yes, I know the phrase means something different for
    Ellen DeGeneres, but here, think debs--you're allowed to sign your
    full name underneath your mother's when she sends a note or leaves a
    calling card. Once debuted, a woman is a grown up.

    For most of American history, debuts have been the province of elites;
    as Marling shows, "debbing is a ritual grounded in aspiration ... and
    legitimization." Fathers threw expensive balls not only because they
    wanted to dote on their girls but also because they wanted to shore up
    their own class-standing. Debuting, of course, has always been as much
    about who is kept out as who is presented. Most cotillions present
    girls who boast not only a lot of money but also an old name, and
    white skin, to boot.

    Marling traces debbing from the 18th century to the present. Her
    historical analysis is rich and detailed, and readers will enjoy
    vicariously dancing at centuries of cotillions. She explores
    contemporary debdom as well, arguing convincingly that proms are a
    modern-day, meritocratic iteration of the debut impulse. And she
    explores the "different kind of debuts" that have arisen in ethnic and
    African-American communities--quinceanera, the traditional celebration
    of a girl's 15th birthday, has become newly popular in Latina
    communities, and "For every black girl slighted by the selection
    committee of an Old Guard cotillion, a hundred more have bowed to the
    high society of their own communities."

    Her exploration of contemporary, mostly-white, mostly-rich debuts--the
    traditional debuts--is a little thin. Marling tells us that although
    cotillions and balls fell out of fashion in the 1960s and '70s, they
    are now as popular as ever among the country club set. But she fails
    to explore why debuting has made such a comeback, predictably
    wondering why modern-day gals would embrace a coming-of-age ritual in
    which they are passive and objectified, and quickly--lamely--ascribing
    the popularity of debbing simply to "a virulent wave of
    neoconservatism." This quick castigation goes hand-in-hand with the
    pervasive tone of the book--a tone of unrestrained condescension
    towards the people about whom she is writing. (One example will make
    the point: Marling calls her synecdochic, pseudonymous deb "Muffy.")

    Perhaps if she'd spent more time in, say, Virginia and South Carolina,
    Marling would have found more to say about traditional debbing at the
    turn of the 21st century. Curiously, Marling focuses on Philadelphia,
    New York, and the Midwest, and almost entirely neglects the American
    South, surely the home of the most vital deb culture; she notes in an
    aside that "Texas debs are a law unto themselves," and then she moves
    back to Chicago.

    It may, of course, be true that the renaissance of regal,
    almost-all-white debutante balls is part and parcel of a general trend
    toward conservatism. Maybe young women from old families feel their
    class standing has been assaulted by the dot.com nouveau riche. Maybe
    debbing has revived because élite white families are freaked out by
    affirmative action and want to reaffirm their hold on "society." But
    readers of Debutante won't find out, because Marling doesn't
    elaborate, substantiate, or even really investigate her claim.

    For many young women, debbing has been either augmented or replaced by
    another coming-of-age ritual: rushing. Ah, Greek life! Alpha Delta Pi,
    America's oldest sorority, was founded at Wesleyan Female College in
    Macon, Georgia, in 1851. The first six members included several
    daughters of Methodist Bishops and pastors, and the religious
    undertones of this first female secret society were clear. (To wit,
    The Creed of Alpha Delta Pi, which begins: "I BELIEVE in Alpha Delta
    Pi. I BELIEVE that my sorority is more than a ritual or a symbol; that
    it is a way of life. I BELIEVE that the principles established by our
    founders in 1851 are enduring attributes, exemplifying the highest
    ideals of Christian womanhood.")

    The high social standing of the first ADPs remains a mark of
    sororities today, but as Alexandra Robbins' Pledged: The Secret Life
    of Sororities makes clear, some of the noble--not to mention
    Christian--foundations of sorority life have given way.

    In Pledged, Robbins charts the escapades of four sorority sisters at a
    Southern school she calls State U. (Incidentally, she doesn't call any
    of them Muffy, assigning them more plausible and less condescending
    pseudonyms like Amy and Sabrina.) The sisters go on dates, experiment
    with new lipstick colors, and study. Sabrina, a lower-class black
    woman, works a part-time job so that she can pay the sorority dues.
    All four are boy-crazy. All four joined the sorority in order to make
    friends, and find community, at their huge university, and there is
    something wistful and appealing about the bonds they form with their

    But sorority life is not all make-overs and trips to the mall. There's
    a lot of binge drinking. One report, conducted by Harvard University's
    College Alcohol Studies Program, found that 76 percent of
    non-binge-drinking high school girls become binge drinkers when they
    live in a sorority house. Robbins tells of ambulance trips to the
    hospital for alcohol poisoning, of a sorority pledge class in which
    each girl is "required to down an entire pint of Jack Daniel's." Her
    gals routinely "pre-game"--that is, booze up "before the actual
    [party] started. ... This way, they saved time, since they didn't have
    to spend the first hour of an event getting drunk." There's also a lot
    of sex, not all of it consensual--one sister in Pledged is
    date-raped--and eating disorders are epidemic. That urban legend about
    sorority houses' toilets being so clogged with vomit that plumbers
    come round to clean up about once a month? Turns out it's true.

    Sororities have always insisted that they turn out good citizens and
    strong leaders. Doubtless, sororities do have a civic
    function--national sororities require hours of community service from
    their girls, and Greek life does offer real opportunities to hone
    leadership skills. Sisters have to maintain a certain minimum grade
    point average (although to help sisters make the grade, many sorority
    houses keep old papers and exams on file). Out in the real world,
    alumnae networks provide sisters a leg up in the business world.
    (Robbins focuses primarily on sororities in the National Pan-Hellenic
    Conference--that is, historically white sororities like Theta and
    Alpha Chi Omega. No doubt, in historically black sororities, these
    alumnae networks can be even more important.)

    But, bulimia and date-rape aside, these leadership opportunities seem
    obscured by a culture of superficiality. Consider these two
    quotations, which Robbins juxtaposes in a chapter epigraph:

      The sorority becomes one of life's great forces in teaching the
      beauty of self-sacrifice. Leadership under the spell of this great
      power must be magnetic. Self-confidence, then, is creative,
      self-control restrictive, self-sacrifice persuasive.
      --The Sorority Handbook, 1907

      Manicured nails are of paramount importance for the finished look.
      --Ready for Rush: The Must-Have Manual for Sorority Rushees!, 1999

    To be sure, one might pose some questions about that 1907 notion of
    self-sacrifice--likely The Sorority Handbook was thinking more the
    sacrifice of a self-effacing wife than the sacrifice of, say, the
    Christian servant. Nonetheless, in 1907 the sorority message was about
    character, not about cosmetics. Today, an institution that should turn
    out strong leaders instead tells young women that their worth is
    equated with their beauty, with their breast size. Sororities, like
    the women who pledge them, are full of potential. But that potential
    is being diluted by gallons of nail polish and Mudslides and Rolling

    Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Algonquin) and Real
    Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, coming in April from Brazos
    Press. She quit cotillion after eighth grade, and was neither a deb
    nor a sorority sister.

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