“Their membership is so exclusive, it makes Soho House look like a halfway house.”
In the Gossip Girl episode “The Undergraduates,” this is how the wealthy Columbia student Blair Waldorf describes an elite secret society called the Hamilton House to her best friend Serena van der Woodsen. Once the two arrive at the Hamilton House, they discover that only Blair has been accepted as a member. “I’m sorry, Serena,” the Hamilton House “keymaster” says as the friends stand there awkwardly, “but this club is for members only.” Serena leaves with a strained, hurt smile.
As it turns out, the fictional Hamilton House is based on a real-life organization: St. Anthony Hall (or simply “St. A’s” or “A’s”), a coeducational fraternity founded at Columbia that has chapters on elite college campuses across the country. Not one to miss out on WASP-y traditions, Princeton boasts its own chapter.
The fictional Gossip Girl portrayal of a one-percenters’ clubhouse deviates little from the organization’s reputation at Columbia, rife with vivid stories of wealth and excess. At least at Princeton, the group seems to bear little connection today to its unsavory origins — but the gilded apple can only fall so far from the tree. Ask around among this year’s participants in the “secret” society’s rush process, and you’ll discover a not-so-secret fun fact: the majority of this year’s bids went to alumni of elite prep schools like Dalton, Hotchkiss, Harvard-Westlake and Lawrenceville (likely no different than the organization’s first, mid-19th century crop). It’s also common knowledge that the organization expects members to pay significant dues. Some members excuse this practice by pointing out the financial aid policy, as if extending paternalistic, class-based hierarchies into every aspect of our social lives is somehow necessary or admirable.
Still, for all this backstory, it may seem unreasonable to single out St. A’s. This is Princeton, after all — we’re all members of an elite, wealthy, historically white, perhaps cult-like organization. The campus’s more traditional fraternities, sororities, and eating clubs have much uglier legacies of social exclusivity and classism (issues which I along with many others have commented upon in the past).
But St. A’s is more than deserving of critique. The organization’s relatively small size and friendly facade make its exclusionary practices all the more intimately hurtful to dozens of sophomores who “rush” each year. Perhaps even more than eating clubs or Greek life, A’s preys on students’ loneliness and insecurities. I have known many individuals who rushed because they had not yet found a campus niche that fit their personality and interests, and were all the more desperate for a welcoming social space. I have heard again and again from peers who rushed with the hopes of finding, for the first time on this isolating campus, a close-knit group of friends — only to be crushed by the emailed excuse that “our numbers couldn’t accommodate you” (as if the precise group size was dictated by Saint Anthony the Great’s mystical preachings).
So, are members really that insensitive, or are they just clueless? Perhaps, sometimes, both. I’ve heard from hosed students who have been bombarded with unwanted, performatively apologetic messages from A’s members (oftentimes people they’ve barely even met before). Some A’s members choose to unload their guilty consciences onto the very individuals who have been hurt, demonstrating empty virtue-signaling, rather than empathy and respect. If they were genuinely sorry, they’d drop A’s and not look back.
Niceties aside, there’s no kind or “chill” way to advertise your friend group to someone, evaluate that person purely on the basis of intangible personal qualities, and then tell them they can’t join.
The most troubling part, however, is that A’s members do not typically resemble hostile Gossip Girl characters. Actually, I’ve known plenty of friendly (and sometimes even politically-conscious) A’s people, and I count many current and former members as friends. Why, then, are these individuals so casually cruel as a group?
St. A’s is evidence of how thoroughly we have normalized social elitism on campus, to the point that even the nicest and artsiest among us will institutionalize exclusivity. All of us are implicated to some degree in this pattern; even dance, a capella and other groups have been known to make decisions based on surface-level social factors. But it’s uniquely shameful to promote social exclusivity for its own sake (without even the pretense of more impersonal criteria like musical experience). As one commentator put it, St. A’s fetishizes social skills while “refusing to acknowledge what it’s doing.”
By admitting those individuals with the hippest, most marketable, and oftentimes most expensive personal brands (which typically entail a palatable degree of quirkiness and maybe a dash of Nietzsche), St. A’s contradicts its own mission of cultivating an air of mystery and uniqueness. In reality, A’s is fundamentally, transparently mundane — just another smug, elitist group on a frequently smug, elitist campus.
But, let’s imagine otherwise for a moment. Can’t we set up “coffee dates” with strangers without turning them into confusing and intimidating auditions? Can’t we find close friends without having to formally compete for their approval and acceptance? Can’t we share our passions without implicitly (or explicitly) evaluating some as more or less worthwhile than others? What an idealistic and unrealistic utopia that world would be.
Max Grear is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.