When the Walla Walla sun fades more quickly into darkness and the dry heat is replaced by autumn’s chill, when students have sunk their teeth into their classes and freshman have survived the 80’s dance – you know that special time of year has arrived: squatting season. Otherwise known as “sorority rush,” you won’t be able to miss this exciting campus experience whether you participate or abstain – your facebook page will undoubtedly be plastered with females proudly squatting for the camera. If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, here’s a refresher:
Check it out here for a bigger, clearer image: http://sororitysugar.tumblr.com/image/14466495897
Straight from the pages of “The Trident,” the member magazine of Delta Delta Delta (“TriDelt”), this image epitomizes the myth of the American sorority. This myth is encapsulated in part in TriDelt’s own literature:
“The purpose of Delta Delta Delta shall be to establish a perpetual bond of friendship among its members, to develop a stronger and more womanly character, to broaden the moral and intellectual life…to develop qualities of unselfish leadership among its members, and to encourage them to assume, with integrity and devotion to moral and democratic principles, the highest responsibilities of college women.” (http://www.tridelta.org/aboutus/purpose)
In this myth, sorority women are strong leaders and academic achievers, generous and philanthropic. The members are distinctly female – Delta Delta Delta members have a “womanly character,” Kappa Kappa Gamma members are “womanly and true” – they possess grace, beauty, refinement and virtue. Sororities are inclusive, supportive, and welcoming places, and provide the opportunity to make life-long friendships. Sororities embrace diversity as well as providing unity and equality. To be in a sorority is to be beautiful, accepted, chosen, part of a sisterhood and a family – something bigger than yourself.
This image has both denotative and connotative meanings. Denotatively, the image above captures around 50 young women. The majority are white, the majority are slim. All are dressed in high heels and brightly colored dresses that hit slightly above the knee. They stand in front of the camera in a specific, evenly spaced formation, facing the centered woman who looks straight towards the camera. All are slightly bending their knees and placing the arm that is closest to the camera on the shoulder of the girl in front of them. No faces are obscured; the formation permits the camera to capture all of the women. Smiling, they stand on steps underneath thee columns of a house, with each of the three arches bearing the word “Delta.”
Connotatively, this picture as a whole simply screams “sorority!” This is primarily because of way the women are posed. These ladies’ denotative “knee-bend” has a powerful connotation, because the “sorority squat” is a widely recognized cultural symbol for “sorority girls.” (To prove this, I took a random sample in the library by asking 10 people how they would describe the women in this photo. All ten said “sorority girls”).
The “sorority squat” pose represents key elements in the myth. Critical to the myth of the sorority is the concept of equality and mutual respect. The bending of the knee can be seen as a sort of bowing to one another, relinquishing ones own self-interestedness for the greater good of the sisterhood, making sure that every sister is included and respected. Sororities are about equality, not hierarchy. Thus, the women in front bend low so the girls in the back can also be seen clearly. This perfectly exemplifies the “democratic” nature that “The Trident” boasts of their members.
The girls face in towards the group, showing their commitment to one another and to the good of the whole, showing their interconnectedness and loving commitment to one another by placing a comforting hand on each other’s shoulders. The old-fashioned columns over their heads establish a connection with previous generations of Tridelts, as well as a sense of strength and shelter under the roof of their sorority.
Their womanly virtue is also clearly emphasized in their pose and attire. The squatting position highlights their… ahem…“womanly assets,” emphasizing their feminine beauty and pride in their bodies, while still protecting their wholesomeness with dresses that neither too tight nor too short.
Some who take in this image and its underlying myth will recognize it for what it is, a myth – not the true and full picture – and will challenge instead of accept it. As Barthe states, “any semiological system is a system of values” (Storey 268). This critical viewer – termed “the mythologist” by Barthe – will reject the system of values disseminated by Tridelt National Headquarters or similar myth-producers. Instead of seeing the sorority squat as representing equality or democracy, s/he will see conformity and exclusivity. S/He will highlight sororities’ history of racism and classism, and point to the uniformly white, skinny and (likely) wealthy women in this photograph as evidence of its continuance.
According to Barthe, however, most people will fall into the category of “myth-consumer.” For the consumer, “everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept” (Storey 268). S/He “lives” the myth, automatically accepting it as “true” and natural, seeing the sorority squat and unconsciously understanding it as representing sisterhood and equality (Storey 267). Barthe urges us to see that there is not a “natural relationship” between the denotative act of squatting and the connotastive value we read into it (Storey 268). Thrust upon our facebook walls and dominating our instagram feeds, the myth “makes itself look…innocent” (Storey 267). But – trust me on this one – squatting season is anything but.