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Go undercover for a sorority rush, crash a Debutante ball, and experience
Burning Man in Vendela Vida's Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys,
and Other Initiations. In this 170 page book, Vida poses as a sorority
rushee, interviews Debutantes, and examines modern rights of passage, as
well as various forms of initiation for young women in America today. Vida
enables the reader to be a fly on the wall, witnessing coming of age rituals
ranging from the traditional and conventional to the obscure and bizarre.
Written in amiable prose that is smart, humorous and entertaining, Vida's
observations provide good objective insight as to what these rituals are
about, who engages in them, and what they mean to the young women involved.
Girls on the Verge is divided into two parts: the first examines
conventional institutions and the second examines more unconventional methods
that young women have chosen to assert independence.
In Part One, three of the most traditional coming of age institutions
are examined: Sorority Rush, Quinceaneras, and Debutantes. In the first
and most humorous chapter, twenty-six year old Vida goes undercover and
poses as an eighteen-year-old entering freshman at UCLA. She assumes the
alias of Katie Wintersen, adopts the proper persona of a rushee, and proceeds
to undergo the entire humiliating process of rushing for a sorority. Throughout
the process, she notes not only what the significance of belonging is to
the girls, but also how the girls' very identity and self worth is vested
in the outcome of the rush. After a conversation with one of the sisters,
she notes, ...what she really means to say is, wear what you want to be
judged and evaluated in, dress like your popularity/ happiness/ overall
success while you're at UCLA, and maybe the rest of your life, too, depends
The girls' self worth seems to rely entirely on what their counterparts,
the fraternity boys, think of them. The rushees are primped so that they
will look like the kind of girls boys like, and therefore the sisters will
select them because this will bring benefits to the house: Attractive rushees
improve, or at least maintain, the sorority's gene pool, and therefore
its reputation as well. Vida's foray into the world of sororities is successful:
her persona of Katie Wintersen surfaces as Tri-Delt. Despite the fact that
the sororities appear to only value all that is shallow and vain, at the
end of the ordeal, Vida is able to recognize what the value in it is for
young women away from home for the first time.
I go back to New York with all the paraphernalia of membership...I
also go back with something less tangible: a new understanding of the appeal
and advantages of group membership. I realize that sororities provide college
arrivistes with a perfect blend of freedom and security; sororities...offer
their members a new social identity, but one that has the solidity and
widespread recognition that comes with age.
In Part Two of the book, Vida explores less conventional avenues
with which young women begin to assert their sense of independence. She
interviews and spends a considerable amount of time with girls that are
or have been in gangs, girls involved in witchcraft, and young brides in
Las Vegas wedding chapels. She notes the striking similarities between
sororities and girl gangs. Both provide girls with a sense of belonging,
identity, family and stability. Both emphasize appearance: looking good
in a girl gang is just as important as looking good in a sorority. Both
have extensive initiation rituals, and both have the social interest of
partying and boys. Vida recognizes that often young women involved in these
rituals are searching for purpose, meaning and identity in their lives.
The Epilogue of the book discusses the phenomenon of Burning Man, a
three to four day long party in the desert attended by both men and women
of varying ages. The climax of this event is the torching of a giant effigy
of a man, which apparently holds no symbolic meaning whatsoever. A party
for no other reason other than simply because they can, Burning Man attendees
gather and create a temporary village filled with booths offering goods
and services, all for free. Apparently the only requirement of this being
that you bring something in return to give away. At the particular Burning
Man event that Vida attended, one of the more popular attractions was the
suntan lotion tent, whereby scantily clad or nude patrons are treated to
a full body suntan lotion coating. Burning Man is a celebration for which
there is no meaning (attaching your own personal meaning is encouraged,
whatever that may be), and ironically the search for meaning is what draws
most of the attendees to the event in the first place.
Girls on the Verge provides strong insight into what motivates
young women struggling to find their identity and place in an increasingly
more complex society. Vida's experiences reflect what expectations society
unwittingly imposes on these young women, and she is successful at retelling
her findings with empathy, humor and wisdom.
© 2001 Libby Fabricatore
Libby Fabricatore lives on
Long Island, NY. She spends her time struggling to find her identity and
skeptically examining the expectations placed on her by society. She currently
bartends in order to fund her ever-increasing habit of
going to U2 concerts.
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