“Oh, cool,” I responded. “Yale’s a great school.”
Mollie was surprised. “That’s not what people at Yale say about Princeton,” she said, giving me a quizzical look.
She then told me that, at Yale, they are vicious with Princeton-directed hatred. The students she had met there spewed vitriol about us and our preppiness, our investment banking, our trust funds. Everyone at Princeton has heard this before. We know what this stereotyped Princetonian looks like: Sperrys, J. Crew shorts and white skin. It’s the look we all mock — some of us more ironically than others — twice a year at Lawnparties, which no one outside of Princeton seems to find as amusing as we do.
And so, though I found myself defending Princeton against these accusations, I felt a little like I was arguing the wrong point: Every stereotype starts somewhere. There are boys in my classes who wear freshly starched button-downs every day. I’ve overheard people talking about multiple summer homes. I know students who will inherit millions of dollars at some point in their lives. But these people are more than dollar amounts. Probably because of the tutors, lessons and opportunities they were able to afford in childhood, they are also artists, athletes and leaders — and future givers of hefty alumni donations.
Kids at Yale aren’t stupid; I’m sure they know that there’s more to Princeton students than the outfits we wear. But at the same time, I can see why this preppy aesthetic would be repellent. Putting on clothes societally associated with a specific lifestyle expresses the wearer’s identification with the conventions that accompany it, and, in a lot of ways, choosing an outfit is choosing a side. By appropriating the symbols of a certain societal group, you’re participating in a cultural conversation between social stereotypes and manipulating these images to change how you’re perceived. A person who pierces her lip and spikes her hair into a mohawk wants people to know she’s “punk” in exactly the same way that someone who wears a blue and white striped button-down and Nantucket Red Vineyard Vines shorts wants to be seen as “preppy.” At Princeton, there’s a lot of the latter, and the choice to present yourself as preppy can seem like the choice to participate in a lifestyle that has you living off Daddy’s money and exploiting the poor and raising your daughters to hate themselves.
To people who think that because the “typical” Princeton student looks this way means anything about the kind of institution Princeton is, however, my reaction is one giant eye-roll. If someone wants to come to Princeton to go into investment banking, good. They should use the resources and alumni connections available to them and join the significant number of their classmates who, like them, will go into the financial sector. If someone wants to come to Princeton to use these same resources and connections to write a muckraking expose about Wall Street corruption, even better. Send me a copy.
I think the reason “Princeton” can be so easily used as a pejorative is because the Princeton “experience” — as vague as that term is — is real and powerful. I spent 18 years of my life yawning through my dad’s stories of his undergraduate days here, but I get the obsession now. Something about Princeton — maybe our relative isolation, maybe the strength of the alumni network — makes the University its own adjective. Coming here means that, whether you like it or not, that adjective will be used to describe you. Yes, it comes with a legacy of preppiness, but it also evokes a tradition of impressive intellectual innovation. It comes with inclusion in decidedly Princetonian things like Lawnparties, the Street, Reunions, Dean’s Date and all the other things that make us nothing like Yale. Maybe those Yalies’ aversion to Princeton is because of how into our own experience we are, which is probably really annoying for those who aren’t a part of it. But mocking people for being preppy is the same as mocking them for not being preppy, and going by my conversation with Mollie, only one school was doing either.
Susannah Sharpless is a freshman from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at email@example.com.