'Sorority Row' Shows Hollywood's Greek Stereotype

You won't recognize most of the cleavage-baring cast of Sorority Row. Maybe you've seen Rumer Willis, the famous daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Or Audrina Patridge, that girl from The Hills. The others? Solidly unknown.

But you're probably familiar with the most important supporting cast member: squishy, gel-filled bra inserts.

"I'm only A, so I'm, like, super-tiny, so you put some A-[cup] chicken cutlets in and a padded, B bra, and you're set. You've got, like, Ds," says actress Briana Evigan of her boob-boosting costume requirements for the role, in a video-taped junket for the horror film. Willis, meanwhile, talks at length about her fear of the padded inserts falling out.

Even the male director, Stewart Hendler, weighs in. "[The studio] wanted as much skin as possible, 'cause it's an R-rated movie, and you want to deliver to the audience that signs up for that," Hendler says in the junket video. "I definitely didn't want to make a movie that was exploitative and misogynistic ... but I definitely had pressure, like, 'Why don't you have a girl just pull off her top?'" (Hendler did not respond to NEWSWEEK's request for comment through the movie's studio, Summit Entertainment).

You're probably not surprised—and why would you be? If there is a shop-worn template for any character in movies and television, it's the sorority girl. She's blonde, busty, and artificially tan. Her daywear involves a lot of mix-and-match pink—plus Greek letters, of course. Her major is incidental, but her weekend plans are not: there's the mall, then the bars, then the bedroom of some fraternity guy who doesn't know her last name.

Who could defend her?

Well, me. I was in a sorority. I don't know anyone who fits the cliche described above, and I know a lot of sorority girls: my sister, mother, aunts, grandmother and grand-aunts were all in them. Most of my female relatives attended college before campuses were co-ed, and sororities were one of few extracurricular options for women. "There was cheerleading, and a few girls on the tennis or swimming team, but not much else," my mom recalls of her years in school. To her and the rest of my family, going Greek wasn't a willing submission to objectification and tanning beds—it was more like attending all-girls summer camp, minus the mosquito bites.

Not that a movie about playing kickball and brushing each other's hair would get the studio greenlight. Better to watch Barbie bend over: In MTV's reality series Sorority Life, recruitment of new members is something akin to a low-rent beauty pageant, for which a potential member might hire a "rush consultant" to pre-select outfits. In The House Bunny, a flagging sorority saves itself and its social standing by wearing more makeup and fewer clothes, thanks to instructional tips from a former Playboy bunny. In slasher sequel Scream 2, CiCi (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is stabbed to death in her pink cardigan, then dumped over the balcony of her Omega Beta Zeta house. Hey, she was an elitist sorority snob. It's not murder—it's poetic justice.

"I don't know that anybody would run and pay $8 to see a movie about a sorority experience that talks about the leadership aspect, the academic aspect, the community service aspect, the friendship aspect, the health aspect," says Julie Burkhard, chairman of the National Panhellenic Council, a governing organization for 26 member sororities. "Overall, it's a very, very positive experience for young women, but we work every day to try to combat those stereotypes. It's really and truly three steps ahead and two steps back."

It's not just predominantly white groups that are targets. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African-American sisterhood, was founded as support group at Howard University for women just one generation out of slavery. But in popular movies like Spike Lee's 1988 School Daze or 2007 dance movie Stomp the Yard, fictionalized versions of AKA sisters are seen as little more than midriff-baring arm candy or (in the case of Daze) submissive sex minions for fraternity brothers. Lawrence Ross, president of the National Master of Fine Arts Association and author of the book The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities, says any collective of women that sets itself apart risks being conflated with cliques. "[It's] very easy to project anti-women sentiments on [sororities]—it's an easy formula, as much a formula as an African American being the first person killed in a horror film," Ross says. "There's a value added to that either-or choice to join a sorority. There's no value added if you do or don't join student government ... But particularly with African American sororities, if you join, then you're judged as being separate from the rest."

Not every screenwriter takes the cheap shot. Patrick Sean Smith is the creator and executive producer of ABC Family's Greek, a sitcom that follows the stories of several characters in fraternities and sororities at an Ohio university. When Smith wrote the pilot, he skipped the misogynistic tropes of Sorority Row and went straight for the lightsome tone and bleeding-heart angst of John Hughes movies. "It seemed too easy to go with stereotypes—this felt like a real opportunity to be different," Smith says. "I kind of wanted to start with stereotypes, because I wanted it to be able to translate for people who didn't know the world. I wanted to say, 'Here are these characters you've seen a million times over—but here are the million layers underneath.'"

The result is both effervescent and intelligent, without incurring a toothache—the show's marketing icon is a red Solo cup, synonymous with a good time. The cast is diverse and and their narrative threads have depth: a gay brother struggles to come out to his house; a blonde sorority president fights to be taken seriously as a congressional intern. Even without a boost from chicken cutlets, the show is popular. Adult viewership rose 102 percent on last year's Season 2 premiere, and the network's ad sales rose 96 percent around the same time. (The third season returned Aug. 31.)

Burkhard says she cautiously approves of the show's take. "I watched it when it first came out, and I can honestly tell you that I do think that there are some positive messages there," she says. "You can tell that their writers have done their research in terms of trying to use terminology correctly, and to portray situations as reality-based as they can." Burkhard says that the show's writers haven't contacted the National Panhellenic Council for advice, but "I'd love for them to call me and say, 'Let's talk.'"

As reps from two groups so long at odds, Burkhard and Smith seem to be on the same page: "In this day and age, something that still bases itself in tradition and history is admirable for young people," Smith says. "And for me, I'm never looking to do edge for the sake of edge. I don't want to do exploitative for the sake of exploitative. I like to do real for the sake of real."

For now, he's alright being the rare entertainment executive who gambles that authenticity won't result in tedium. As he puts it, "There's no competition."