Note: This is the full extended article that was abbreviated in print issue of May 1, 2019 due to lack of space. This is the latest edition with corrections.
ALINA PANEK — All party-goers are in costume. Most are in “Hawaiian” shirts and wearing fake mustaches. There are pretend undercover cops, a girl dressed up as a leopard, another dressed in white with a ziplock full of flour dressed up as cocaine and a cowboy, who stand, laugh, and drink on Beaver Beach — a nickname used by students to describe an outdoor common area between dormitory buildings on East Quad, Beaver and Shaw. They were dressed up to celebrate a relationship through the tradition of pinning.
Among those who participate in Greek life, pinning is a frequently celebrated tradition on Denison’s campus during the last leg of spring semester. Seniors who are in a relationship who are also affiliated in Greek life will often choose to pin their significant other, signifying a solid relationship. It is a week of events and involves many of their closest friends.
Each significant other invites their closest friends to be a part of their “tank team” to plan and support your friend throughout the week. Similar to bridesmaids and groomsmen, the team celebrates the couple by various activities chosen by the couple. These are consistent activities that appear in many pinnings.
The start of the week usually begins with the dunking of the couple in Ebaugh pond. The tank teams gather around the pond and cheer their friends on — usually the boyfriend will carry the girlfriend into the mud emerging with a variety of waterlife on their clothes and stinking of the mud that is now caked all over their clothes. They make the most of it by ending with a kiss as they approach their friends on the shore.
Another day the tank teams might dress the couple in their significant other’s clothes — often a caricature of their significant other and ask them questions about the significant other to see how well they know them. Another beloved tradition is to come to the Nest — the third floor of Slayter and drunkenly proclaim your love for one another in front of the unsuspecting crowd that is studying there — usually in the form of a speech but sometimes bad karaoke. The week will end with the couple meeting with their tank team on Beaver Beach, reading their proclamation of love for one another and pinning the significant other with their Greek chapter’s pin along with a serenade if the tank teams have a particularly talented vocal group in their midst.
It wasn’t always like this at Denison. Like all traditions, they have been adapted to change for each participant, current culture and time period. Previously and currently at other schools, a fraternity member pinning his girlfriend is a big deal.
According to a Reddit subthread pinning ceremony under Sororities, the ceremony begins, “when a fraternity member is very very serious about his sorority girlfriend, he can appeal to his chapter to approve of the pairing and then give up his letters to her, in the form of his fraternity pin. There’s a saying ‘first a pin, then a ring’ because in most cases, the relationship is serious enough to lead to marriage.” The Reddit user indicates themselves as being a member of Delta Delta Delta. She continues to explain how the ceremony itself begins.
“There is usually a ceremony at the sorority house (most houses I know of do a candle pass), followed by traditions unique to the school/sorority (e.g. pledges light candles and sing, the couple kisses for 100 seconds, love letters are written aloud, etc.), and then followed by a social between the sorority and the fraternity.”
Pinnings have adapted perhaps to match the same nonchalant attitude of millennials towards marriage. Unlike previous generations, young adults are now waiting longer for marriage and in turn pinnings have come to be more of a fun party rather than a serious candle-lighting ceremony to commemorate engagement. According to Pew Research Center, “Americans are staying single longer. The median age at first marriage had reached its highest point on record: 30 years for men and 28 years for women in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”
Pinnings at Denison are usually harmless. These ceremonies usually promise a lot of fun for the participants and have themes like “superheroes” or “going to the beach.” On the last day, the tank teams will arrive at Beaver Beach dressed up in theme of the pinning ready to celebrate and sing.
The April 7 pinning was in the theme of Narcos, the Netflix television show running from 2015-2017. According to producing corporation, the show is about “ [the] rise of the cocaine trade in Colombia and the gripping real-life stories of drug kingpins of the late ’80s.”
The couple — who asked not to be named — being pinned said that they chose the theme because it was the boyfriend’s favorite television show.
Kristine McNulty ‘19 said, “[their theme] shows an astounding lack of awareness. The drug cartels destabilized their country. It shows that y’all watch the show and that’s it.” She attended the pinning and regrets not voicing her dissent toward the theme louder in retrospect.
“It’s about celebrating the show as a work of art,” the boyfriend said. “I mean, my perspective on it is that he was a guy that did some awful things but there was some decent things he did actually. It wasn’t just him. It was part of a larger issue that was still unresolved to this day.”
For the tank teams, the couple invited their closest friends. She invited 25 friends to be on her tank team while he invited 15. They both invited their Greek chapters. Attendance is open to all and the couple said that about 50 people attended.
The couple explained that they told people to “represent the theme and to dress as any part in the show.” According to the couple, their friends arrived in khakis and flower t-shirts, or jean shorts and sunglasses. “We ordered mustaches for everyone to wear and many showed up in Hawaiian t-shirts. Others showed up as underground cops, leopards and as other animals.”
The girlfriend said in response to the decision of the theme, “It’s not deeper than the show,” she said. “It was never meant to be malicious in any way. It’s good to always do your research on stuff whenever you’re going to dress up as something. That [dressing up] probably wasn’t great. But when I think of him as coke kingpin not as the charge of a genocide. When I think of his name, and obviously I’m not as connected to that culture…I don’t think of him and think a country’s economy being destroyed. I just think of drug kingpin…. which is illegal. But it’s not like hearing countries’ economies being destroyed and that carries more impact.”
Narcos follows Pablo Escobar, the Colombian criminal who, as head of the Medellín cartel, was arguably the world’s most powerful drug trafficker in the 1980s and early 1990’s. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “He handled problems with “plata o plomo,” meaning “silver” (bribes) or “lead” (bullets). In addition to rival drug traffickers, notably in the Cali cartel, his victims included government officials, policemen, and civilians. In 1989 the cartel reportedly placed a bomb aboard an airplane in an attempt to kill an alleged informant. More than 100 people were killed.”
Cultural sensitivity trainings were given last year as a response to Kappa Sigma, the same fraternity involved with the pinning, who had proposed to have “Narcos” as a theme for Around the World — beginning of fall semester parties that happen on the same day in various east quad buildings celebrating different cultures.
On Sept. 22 2017, Verena Thompson ‘20 an international student from Manizales, Colombia reached out to La Fuerza Latina, the Latinx/Hispanic culture club to find the appropriate resources to report the party theme.
“…a frat will be hosting a Colombian themed party, based on the TV show Narcos, therefore not celebrating but mocking Colombia and specifically, mocking a very painful and violent part of Colombia’s history,” Thompson wrote in an email. “It is an insulting Colombian stereotype, which does the opposite of celebrate culture. I find the fact that such events are held at this school, somewhere that prides itself on being diverse and celebrating that diversity, ridiculous.”
After being reported, Léna Crain, Dean of Students for Community Values & Conflict Resolution and Residential Communities, worked with Aimee Maczko, former Associate Director of Campus Leadership & Involvement and advisor to all Denison Greek organizations, to identify strategies for training fraternity and sorority members on how to educate members and avoid cultural appropriation, particularly in social events.
Guidance and guiding questions that were provided in these trainings were as follows, “To help avoid this issue, please consider the following questions as you are planning parties, especially those with themes: What are you borrowing and where did it come from? Are you borrowing this to get a particular reaction? Are you including a stereotype, especially a negative one? How would someone from that identity group feel? If you are unsure about whether your theme is culturally appropriative, misogynistic, or otherwise insensitive, please contact the Dean of Students or Dean of Student Leadership and Community Engagement for guidance.” The couple were not aware of the trainings that Crain and Maczko gave.
It has now been a year and a half since that incident. Thompson was shocked that Narcos was used as a theme once again.
“I don’t understand how it could happen again,” she said. “It shows that they [people] don’t care. They ignored what’s happened. If you’re celebrating your relationship why would you choose that as your theme? It’s not even romantic. It’s sad and scary and violent…. Just stop and think. Check yourself. If you don’t properly understand something, the odds are you’re going to end up hurting someone else. If you see others doing it, don’t go along with it…. I’m not even mad about what happened. It’s more like ‘why?’ you know? Well, I’m upset but it’s more puzzling than anything. It’s one of those moments where maybe people can take away something and in the future they’ll say ‘we’ll think about things like this to make sure that we don’t insult people.’”
Matthew Vetter, the interim staff advisor for Greek life and Director of the Alford Community Leadership & Involvement Center, said that they are adjusting the process of planning for a pinning more similar to campus party registration. The previous process had students filling out forms, having the chapter president sign, and then moving to the Vice President of Standards for Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Council (PHC) who would have a conversation with the couple to verify if they are indeed a couple and to discuss the theme. Vetter said during the review of what occurred during this process there was a breakdown in communication.
Jennifer Carr ‘20, the VP of Standards for PHC wrote in an email, “The couple’s theme was not approved by me or Erik [So ‘21], IFC Standards. The couple said they were going to just dress in green and white clothing and although that is most certainly not what they did or were approved to do… The couple has faced proper punishment for their lack of judgement in choosing their theme, although I do not believe they did it to be malicious or discriminate against anyone.” According to the couple, Carr had approved the theme but had not recorded for school records as it was drug-affiliated.
Vetter confirmed that there is no opportunity to note the theme on the pinning form. This will change in the future. Vetter also confirmed that Delta Delta Delta and PHC Standards processes have been resolved. “The Kappa Sig conduct review and IFC Standards processes are ongoing,” he wrote in an email “Denison will evaluate the internal actions of all the groups involved in order to determine if additional actions are needed. This process is ongoing.”
The couple apologized for their actions after realizing the impact that their theme may have caused. “I apologize to anyone who may have been offended,” she said. “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.”
Within the month of the incident, the sorority plans to have an open chapter — a practice they hold monthly by Jax Preyer ‘20, the Member Development chair — about reaffirming their sorority values and cultural sensitivity.