When I arrived at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall of 2006, I saw banners hanging across the front lawn that said, “Gender Fuck; Fuck your Gender.” I didn’t have a clue what it meant to fuck your gender. I thought gender was something you were born with, something you couldn’t fuck with.
The gender fuck banner was hung between trees on the main campus, which made up the original Lawrence family estate. The manicured look of the Tudor mansions and floral pergola were what initially drew me to the school. But here was this bizarre and shocking thing blocking the picturesque view.
Despite the campus aesthetic and finishing school history, by the time I arrived, Sarah Lawrence was a place where students could, to a greater extent than in most other academic environments, avoid the norms that govern most of the world. With no grades or academic honors, it was non-hierarchical and academically noncompetitive. But rather than embracing the freedoms of that new environment, I felt drawn to recreating oppressive structures, albeit ironically. That’s what led me to create an ironic sorority. Okay, a somewhat ironic sorority.
At that time, the Sarah Lawrence student body was 75% women, and many of the men I met were gay. The near absence of straight men created what was for me a new kind of social scene. For some students, Sarah Lawrence must have been a utopia where, for the first time in their lives, social structures did not revolve around straight dating rituals or hook-up culture. But I am straight, and I was confused about where I fit into the new, liberated environment.
I went sheepishly to a gender-bending party, dressed in a Risky Business style men’s shirt and no pants. When I arrived I saw that other women were wearing facial hair and socks in their pants. Clearly we were not on the same page. My efforts to be fem-sexy and cute (like Paris Hilton in a Fedora or girls in boyfriend jeans) were out of place among other students’ transgressive gender experimentation. The gender-bending party was my first exposure to this kind of boundary-breaking among women—and it shocked me. I was more than a little unprepared for the new world I had encountered.
In high school I spent a lot of time getting dressed for parties. I would try on shirt after shirt, trying to calibrate an impossible balance between sexy and cute. I looked for outfits that didn’t “try too hard.” I wanted something that said, “oops, I’m hot." And then, running late to meet friends, and sweating beneath my winter coat in the cold, I felt ashamed of my vanity and need for positive male attention. I didn’t want to be the butt of those ubiquitous jokes about women who took too long to get dressed. But I didn’t see a way out. I wanted to be a different kind of woman than the one I was, but I was unable to imagine how this woman would feel or dress or think. Paying scrupulous attention to how I dressed felt like it was necessary for me to survive, in order to feel good and accepted.
My high school was a modern orthodox Jewish day school where feminism was a word I heard used rarely and derisively. The acronym LGBT was, perhaps intentionally, confused with BLT. In religious classes we learned that men and women are essentially different and were created to fulfill different roles in life. In the mornings we prayed, boys on one side of the room and girls on the other, separated by a makeshift mechitza – a traditional barrier segregating the sexes for worship.
In this high school context, girls were held to specific standards of dress and behavior. Those who did it best wore cashmere or Petit Bateau cotton shirts, like younger versions of their Scarsdale mothers. They spoke in that uniform cadence of privileged New York-area teen girls. Their hair was silky and straightened or curly and gelled stiff—a desirable look in 2006. That was hot; they were hot. From a young age I knew that receiving male attention was social currency. I could mimic my classmates’ cadence and save up for their clothes, but I believed I could detect a patronizing tone in their polite questions. I grew up around lots of girls like that. As early as elementary school they asked skeptically, "Where are you from?"
I grew up in Soho, in the same tiny one-bedroom apartment that my mother moved into in her twenties. Back then Soho had some grit, she said. “That’s so cool you live in Soho,” a classmate once said. “Are your parents, like, Bavarian?” My parents were and still are kind of Bohemian. They were writer-performer-waiters. They were also observant Jews who chose to send me to Jewish schools, where our financial situation and quirkiness often left me feeling out of place. Like them, I was arty and liked to write. Perhaps consequentially, my clothes, my school supplies, even my cultural points of reference were never quite right, as if my subconscious was willing me not to conform while the conscious me wanted to badly. I was highly critical of my surroundings. But I also totally bought into the expectations of those around me and was conscious of how I fell short.
The homogeneity of my school -- we were all white, Jewish, New York-area kids -- amplified other types of differences. I imagined that everyone knew that my parents had financial difficulties. The college admissions process felt like a magnifying glass held to my family's lack of resources. Our school was academically competitive and known for sending students to Ivy League schools. I applied almost exclusively to elite schools and was rejected from all but Sarah Lawrence and SUNY Binghamton. I believed that going to a public school would perpetuate my family’s limited access to wealth and privilege, confirming in the eyes of my peers that I was different.
But the Sarah Lawrence name had cachet. They offered me a generous scholarship that enabled me to become a part of the school's legacy. I had a dated fantasy of the place as a prim, WASPy finishing school for artistically inclined girls. That elitist fantasy appealed to me. More recent cultural references to Sarah Lawrence, like Julia Stiles’ character in "Ten Things I Hate about You," who rejected mainstream culture and was a self-proclaimed feminist, might have been alienating to me if I'd paid attention to them. I had no idea what I was in for when I sent in my confirmation of enrollment. I was clueless that in choosing Sarah Lawrence, I was not only choosing an elite academic experience but a social experience that contrasted sharply with the one in which I’d come of age.
During my first few months of school, I made friends with other conventionally feminine girls and even took pleasure in thinking we were cuter or more “normal” (meaning less challenging of mainstream culture) than anyone else there. But I had a nagging insecurity about not having a “normal” college experience.
One night in the library I used the reference computer to look through Facebook pictures of high school classmates. I fixated on an album, “We’re bringing sexy back! Sorority Rush ’07,” that featured pages full of girls carefully posed with red Solo cups. In some pictures they wore sized-down football jerseys and temporary cheek tattoos to University of Michigan football games. So this is what everyone else is up to, I thought. While I navigated genderfuck parties, my Scarsdale-bred high school classmates were dressing up in identical packaged Halloween costumes. I was put off by the kind of imposed homogeneity—and the self-inflicted objectification (a very external show of internalized sexism). But at the same time that it all seemed totally insane, it was also oddly attractive. I felt excluded; this was major FOMO before I had an acronym to describe it.
I googled “sorority rush” and diligently studied the protocol with a mix of disgust, amusement and envy. I was particularly drawn to the formal social hierarchy of the system; how you could tell who was hot, who was rich and who was cool by the fraternities or sororities they were admitted to. During rush, sorority members observed subtle social cues in order to discern who belonged. There were blogs that advised girls about what to wear. They warned against looking “trashy” or “slutty” and advocated for chaste dress combined with endless enthusiasm. They imposed a strict conception of white femininity and upheld a subtle classism:
“When you enter the room there will be loads of girls chanting and cheering! Keep a big smile on your gorgeous face!”
“Don’t wear too much jewelry, avoid loud make up or too-tight tops; a sorority is not a nightclub.”
“Dress like you’re going out with your girlfriends for ice cream.”
“You know what would be ridiculous,” I suggested to my new Sarah Lawrence friends, “starting a sorority.”
Soon we had a name, Sigma Lamda Chi, and a Legally Blonde-inspired hot-pink logo. We began drafting flyers that said, “Shave your legs and put on your miniskirts,” “Radical feminism won’t land you a man!,” and “Put down your leather collar and put on your pearls.” We made hundreds of copies and pasted them, complete with our contact information, in dormitory hallways and cafeterias.
By morning the flyers were covered in red Sharpie. Sexist bullshit, someone wrote. Disgusting. Everyone needs to chill out and learn to take a joke, I thought. It’s not like being feminine is the same as being sexist.
Although I insisted that the flyers were a satire of imposed femininity, the girls who contacted us about membership were earnestly interested in a more conservative presence on campus. A quiet girl from my Romantic Poetry class came up to me in the library and asked how she could join. She said, “When I saw you guys, I was like, thank god there are other normal people here!”
“That’s awesome!” I answered, confused about how distributing semi-sarcastic flyers with images of hairy-legged women in miniskirts could be construed as “normal.”
I was briefly interested in having a system of selecting and accepting members in order have a more “authentically elitist experience." The other sisters said that was pushing the boundaries of what was a joke. (My version of the sorority was always more sadistic than everyone else’s.) Our membership continued to grow democratically. We had a Facebook group with 15 to 20 girls excitedly posting ideas for our first sorority event—a bake sale or, I offered, a hazing ritual. Eventually we decided to throw a Greek life-themed party.
The night of the party we wore tight-fitted, pink sorority T-shirts. We went to Stop and Shop and loaded up on cases of Coors Light with the money we had pooled together from our group of Facebook members. My hands shook with excitement as I mixed the grain alcohol with powdered Hawaiian Punch. In the absence of ironic fraternities we became both sorority girls and frat boys. I joked about adding roofies for the sake of authenticity. Like a young bro enjoying scenes of bad behavior in "The Wolf of Wall Street," I could not discern between satire and aspiration.
We threw the party at Warren House, one of the single-family homes that the school had purchased for student residency. One of our sorority members, who was also a resident, suggested this venue because the size was similar to a frat house. We never thought to ask how her housemates felt about hosting. We went ahead and marked the front door with our Greek letters like the ancient Israelites with their lamb's blood. Outside it was snowing. Inside we blasted an excruciating playlist full of the dregs of top-40 music (Paris Hilton’s update on Rod Stewart’s “If You Want My Body”) and frat anthems usually played at closing time in dive bars: "Sweet Caroline" and "Don’t Stop Believing." Our party guests, confused, hipster classmates from our literature in translation seminars and poetry workshops, asked “is this for real?” They watched uncomfortably while we attempted keg stands on a Heineken mini keg, trying to hold each other upside down but failing and falling on the floor. Some grew antagonistic and tried to change the music to Elliot Smith. Others got into it. Gay male friends requested sorority shirts, danced with us on tables, chanted with us: “You’re only as strong as the drinks you mix and the tables you dance on!” By 10 p.m., we had succeeded in a producing a lively, carnivalesque recreation of mainstream culture. At midnight, one of the house residents threatened to call security if we didn’t turn down the music. “I did not agree to host this mess,” she said. We ignored her request and, as promised, campus security came and wrote us up for hosting an unregistered party.
By the next morning, in the throes of my paranoid hangover, the campus’s anonymous list serve filled up with comments about the sorority. “Sad display of sexism and self-hatred” wrote one commenter. “Dumb bitches,” someone else wrote. “Those girls think they’re so hot but they’re not.” “The blonde girl’s boobs look like sausage meat squeezed into that stupid shirt.”
I assumed that the last comment was specifically about me, and felt ashamed of my body and my insistence on exposing it. I was ashamed of our bravado, which enabled us to joke about sexism, elitism, imposed femininity, objectification—realities that persisted even within the liberal Sarah Lawrence bubble; realities that were evident in the slut-shaming condescension of the anonymous commenters. Their accusations were another version or continuation of the same female policing I had experienced in high school. On the other hand, I began to see how for other students at Sarah Lawrence, the lack of gender-normative culture was a respite. While femininity is not internalized sexism, imposed femininity is surely a product of sexism. Our “ironic” imposition was reasonably interpreted as threatening and hostile. Finally letting that thought sink in, I quickly shut down the Sigma operation and ceased hanging up flyers. The network of sorority sisters disintegrated.
When I eventually started dating someone, a student at Johns Hopkins who was in a fraternity, I gained exposure to real-deal Greek life, and I was surprised to find that my boyfriend’s masculinity was also a kind of ironic performance. “Bro!” he said, “bra, bra, what are you even about right now?!” He took pleasure in the exaggerations and insisted that his constant use of “bro” was a criticism of how middle-America college students abuse the word. “This is Johns Hopkins," he said, “It’s not like we have legit frats here.”
It occurred to me that my gender performance was not the only one that was aspirational and performative. The times that I had joked about drag being freakish or campy, I had not taken into account how contrived my own efforts were. Senior year, as a requirement for the thesis I wrote about masculinity, I enrolled in a queer theory seminar. Before each class I straightened my hair and did my makeup. I recognized my new classmates as the same students I once taunted with sorority posters. During discussions on Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity, I picked at the split ends of my hair, just as I had seen other girls do. I began to recognize the behavior as a performance, and wondered if this new consciousness qualified the act as ironic. I wondered if something could be ironic if I continued to feel pleasure and attachment in earnest.
This year I went to meet some of my old Sarah Lawrence sorority sisters at a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. We never mention the sorority—the memory of it is buried in locked Facebook albums. For a long time it was something I wanted to disassociate from and forget.
To our left was a bachelorette party full of drunk girls wielding penis paraphernalia. The server brought them a bottle of Patron.
“I want Patrón and pink sashes,” my friend joked. “Why isn’t that us?”
“That is us,” I said. “Think of the metaphorical pink sashes we wear across our chests as cis-women.”
“L-O-L,” my friend replied, “and this war paint we call makeup.”
The bachelorette party, rebellious within mainstream boundaries, reminded me of us on the night of our sorority party. That night I found myself in a confusing place between conformity and rebellion; between an earnest longing to belong and a flippant rejection of the surrounding expectations. Today, almost a decade later, I can look back on that night with sympathy and fascination at my motivations. I don’t particularly like or want to be the person I was at that moment, but I have compassion for her. Even now, as I move between spaces such as a high school friend’s bachelorette party in Atlantic City and the small, radical feminist organization where I work, I am conscious that there is often a disconnect between my actions and my beliefs, a wish that I could have better, more “enlightened” desires. There are moments when I still find it hard to distinguish between what I do ironically and what I do earnestly. But I recognize now that rejecting gender norms and adhering to them are often motivated by the same deep and essentially human desire: to find a way to feel loved and accepted within the world.