HARRINGTON: Don’t knock Derby Days

Derby Days don’t degrade women; they foster bonding for sorority sisters

For anyone who managed to miss the spectacle of sneaker-clad sorority women chasing Sigma Chi pledges up trees in pursuit of crazy hats, this past week was “Derby Days,” the competition between sororities that is Sigma Chi fraternity’s national philanthropy. This year at the University, the week consisted of a coin drop, merchandise sale, house decorating contest, eating contest, hat grab, pledge lip-synch, blood drive, obstacle course, powder-puff football game, dance skits and online donations to support the Children’s Miracle Network.

Nationally, Derby Days has received much criticism. In fact, the philanthropy has ended on many campuses when sororities withdrew due to concerns about the treatment of their members. In 2009, the sorority presidents at Duke wrote, “We cannot in good faith ask our women to participate in an event that, in our opinion, mars the reputation of the Greek community.” A survey by William and Mary’s Inter-Sorority Council found Derby Days was considered “degrading to women.” The event has also been criticized at the University. A 2008 Cavalier Daily editorial claimed “Sigma Chi is essentially getting sorority members to raise money and awareness for them.” If anonymous Yik Yaks are any indication of sentiment on grounds, such thoughts are present today: “Shout out to Sigma Chi for creating the years [sic] biggest girl fights and coming out unscathed. For the kids.”

Yet I believe Derby Days does not exploit women, cause them to be unflatteringly competitive or degrade them, at least not at the University.

The structure of Derby Days is genius. Sure, the majority of the week’s activities do not directly raise funds. Without the ridiculous competitions, though, there would be less incentive to donate money due to less free publicity for the event, a reduced competitive environment and fewer people wanting a commemorative tank. When else does someone have the opportunity to overcome her team’s loss in a competition with a donation to recover the points a win would have earned?

At the University, it is also perfectly timed. Derby Days allows nine-week-old sorority pledge classes to bond over shared experiences, get acquainted outside of a party environment and assert their collective personality. Sororities are not being used by Sigma Chi to fundraise; rather, they are using Sigma Chi’s fundraiser to garner pride. The variety of competitions allows for positive experiences and victories, giving women something exciting to share about their new sorority with friends and family, and something to discuss during next year’s recruitment.

While the donations come from sorority women, Sigma Chi brothers put in considerable effort. All philanthropies seek to garner donations from outside the group, a tough sell among cash-strapped college students. The brothers deserve recognition for their efforts because they planned the week-long event, visited sorority houses promoting it, coached each sorority, counted coins, tabled daily, publicized updates over Twitter and Instagram and maintained a complex Google Document of rankings to keep the point system transparent and encourage donation from those behind.

The competitiveness during Derby Days is mostly for show. As women — unlike men — do not “rush” with their friends, friends from first semester likely belong to a variety of sororities. Therefore, they play up the rivalry in jest. Unlike athletic competitions, sorority teams lack the true fervor resulting from lifelong training. Rather, they have had about one week to brainstorm decoration themes, decide who is best at “Chubby Bunny,” choreograph a dance and learn some football plays. This quick planning also creates an atmosphere of excited confusion conducive to forming bonds between sororities.

As to criticism that Derby Days is demeaning, I will not deny some women turn to sex appeal in hopes of garnering points. In context, though, sex appeal is optional: unlike other competitions of women such as the television show The Bachelor, the prize is a title, not the affection of men. When included, sex appeal is often tongue-in-cheek. Sticky notes saying “Pi Phi has an itch only Sigma Chi can scratch” and casual gyrating during rainy noontime dance skits seem less of an attempt to solicit Sigma Chis and more of a joke about how men are simple-minded and swayed by seductiveness. The potentially embarrassing tasks would be demeaning and qualify as hazing if mandated, but can be enjoyable when women embrace them by choice because they are excited for the opportunity to be ridiculous. In fact, as an exercise of choice, several sororities opted not to perform a dance skit this year.

The integrity of Derby Days is precarious because it rides on that ability for sorority women who wish not to partake to opt out. Therefore, sororities should foster an open dialogue about optional participation. While Derby Days was a positive experience for me, in future years I and others must be conscious not to force younger women into situations they find uncomfortable in hopes of giving them the fond memories we have.

Elaine Harrington is a Viewpoint Writer.

Published April 2, 2014 in Opinion

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