Freaks and Greeks

What are the girls on MTV’s Sorority Life doing?

Nicole has been a problem from the beginning. First she told Janel, the easily offended social chair, that she was guaranteed a bid to join Delta Xi Omega just because her sister was a member. Then, when she was rushing, she was nervous and standoffish. And now she appears to be dating none other than Tim, the sorority’s chief adversary, the head hellion in a group of rambunctious pledges over at Sigma Chi.

“It’s a sucky situation that Nicole and Tim are going out,” say the girls.

“We think that Nicole is choosing Tim over pledging and that’s really, really disrespectful,” they say.

“We just don’t like him,” they say.

“You need to separate yourself from Tim,” they say.

Poor Nicole. She wants indulge her giddiness over her handsome boyfriend, but the hater girls are determined to make her renounce her love life as treason to her sorority.

“Tim and I are in these feuding houses,” Nicole says, wistfully. This is Sorority Life on MTV.

Down the road, on MTV’s Fraternity Life, which is also set at the grandly permissive University at Buffalo, Tim, the Sigma Chi pledge, sees things differently. He just wants to get the bitches at DZO. They saw him take their banner, and they wouldn’t sign the T-shirt, and then the boys stole their underwear, and then the underwear was nasty. Tim on romance: “I’ll never date a DZO sister because their underwear are huge.”

Oh, but wait, isn’t he already dating a sister, or nearly a sister? I’m not trying to rush things here. And Nicole herself does indeed say, solicitously, “It’s a good thing that we’re not really putting a title on anything right now because that wouldn’t be fair to either of us.” But I thought at least that they were dating, especially with all the agitation that the couple has caused the girls of DZO.      

But no. Tim’s just using her. In the photo booth, anyway, he didn’t want to be kissing for the camera; he looked uneasy about the ironwork of “relationship” that seemed to be coming down on him. He doesn’t see Nicole as a girlfriend. Nicole’s his stooge. He loves the pretext Sigma Chi gives him for violent self-expression. From Nicole he gathersintelligence with which he might browbeat the DZOs and impress the brothers at Sigma Chi, for whom he—for now—is stuck doing push-ups and answering questions like a Marine.

Sir, yes, college life, sir. I thought of pledging a sorority at the University of Virginia, and sometimes I still wish I had. The fraternities and sororities were the centerpiece of college life there; what social life—or academic life, for that matter—developed outside them could never rival “the Greek system” for mystery, sincerity, vitality, and danger. (Inside the mansions, or so we were told, were accidents, brawls, brutal hazing, solemn oaths, date rape, drug busts.) A non-Greek existence was a second-rate existence, and not because of prejudice from insiders. Rather, it really was second-rate; the university had, for good or ill, allowed the fraternities and sororities to set the standard for what real life was: decadent, familial, secretive, boozy, and anti-intellectual. If you were honest with yourself, you suspected that complaining about Greek oafs was nowhere near as fun as being one yourself. But I didn’t join a sorority, and I complained about those girls here and there, and only now am I finding out what I missed.

This season’s Sorority Life is a sleepy show, with—so far—no decadence and little, even, of the sharp infighting that took place on the show last season, when it was set at U.C. Davis. The crazy banner-T-shirt-underpants caper, which was the subject of Wednesday night’s episode, is tedious, incoherent, and boneheaded. Only the drama of women anxiously minimizing their love lives to their friends is decent drama. That’s where you see the high-hat indignation that the sorority sisters resort to when discussing each other’s transgressions against the sisterhood—especially the transgression (Nicole!) of getting and enjoying attention from men.

So, that’s what a sorority is: a system of laws used to prolong childlike female separatism—and to discourage mixing with men except in fleeting, superficial ways. A sorority’s power can be seen in how well or poorly it enforces these laws. In the last Sorority Life, the Sigmas found no end of ways to chastise Jordan for being good-looking, vivacious, and friendly to men—but she stuck around for abuse all season. So, Sigma, in the end, worked.

And while Buffalo’s DZOs are uniformly prettier than the Sigmas, they too resent poised, self-reliant girls who hold back from full commitment to the brood. Last Wednesday sturdy, pushy Maggie (a Billy Joel fan) took on pretty, haughty Brooke (a Bruce Springsteen fan), implying that she’d been disloyal to the sisterhood for skipping one of their escapades. Brooke, who’s tougher than she looks, liked the fight but was unmoved by the general attacks on her womanhood. Not trembling before the authority of the girl gang? This doesn’t bode well for order at the DZO house. Bored, Brooke retreated to her room. Now she’s talking about depledging.

Disproportionately, the DZOs major in communications. It seems safe to say that the major’s requirements are not rigorous; no one ever appears to be doing schoolwork. But it’s possible that the students get a year’s worth of credit for appearing on MTV, communicating mini-insights into loyalty, cattiness, and the many obscure purposes of American higher education.