The week after I arrived in Oxford, months ago now (gosh, that’s strange to say!) I attended the first formal dinner of this whole strange experience, and a couple weeks afterward I found myself writing a long post that attempted to puzzle through and come to terms with the culture shock that dinner occasioned. As your average American academic brat, I grew up attending dinner parties and reading the kinds of books and watching the kinds of movies where the etiquettes of attire, successive courses, and too many forks are deployed. When I came to Princeton, I attended the odd awards dinner or some such thing where I put what I’d learned into practice, making small talk, using my forks and knives correctly, and agonizing too much over the ambiguities of gender-specific dress codes. But as much as I thought I knew how to navigate academic dinners, I found myself stupefied by the performance of pretentious formality that gets carried out every Friday night in Trinity’s dining hall, by sparkly dresses and port and being waited on at table by young women my own age who I felt certain loathed the posh-accented people getting drunk around them. As I processed the experience of that first “Guest Night,” as this production is known, I felt ashamed, ashamed of the fact that I had been complicit in the perpetration of the remnants of the English class system.
Time went on—a term passed—and I got to know more people in Trinity who felt the way I did, left-wingers who greeted these productions with an embarrassed ironic distance and yet managed to take them for what they were and have a good time. I went to another formal dinner, for all the history students hosted by the college history fellows; and when my father came to visit I took him to my second Guest Night. I paced myself, feat-of-endurance-like, through four-course meals; I learned to do the same for massive, by my standards, quantities of red and white and port and sherry. And I went several times a week to normal formal halls, wearing my gown and standing for the Latin grace and turning the alienating thing into something I could value, something that put me closer to understanding Symonds’ Oxford and something that got me out of the library and talking to the people sitting near me for at least an hour a day. I’d look at the portrait of John Henry Newman in Trinity hall and think about another time, another Oxford, and wonder where I as a woman academic stand in relation to it—like Guest Night itself, wanting to understand and yet feeling an irreconcilable distance all the same.
Last week, my friend told me she had an extra ticket for the MCR Gala, Trinity’s annual black-tie banquet for the graduate student body, and would I like to go? I leapt at the chance, and in the days leading up to the event, which was yesterday, I could hardly contain my excitement. I’ve been working hard; I was longing for a celebration; and parties with good friends are always fun. I went out and bought a dress, the first dress I have bought since my high-school prom—ready to play the black-tie game properly, to act the role (with appropriate sense of irony, of course) of one of those Bright Young Things in the costume dramas I’ve always salivated over. I bought my “Big Issue” magazine from the homeless man in front of Blackwell’s on Friday afternoon, and on Friday evening I dressed for dinner. The epithet “champagne socialist” couldn’t possibly have been more apt, I realized, as I started the evening by drinking a glass of champagne and spent the third course bonding with my friend over the large-looming role of the socialist musical and cultural tradition in our upbringings. We talked about how it had made us feel a bit nostalgic, a bit homesick, to see a little May Day trade-unions rally in front of the Bodleian last weekend, and we shared in a sense of outrage about how much sexism there still is in academia. But the ugly juxtaposition of this political sentiment with what we were doing while we said it didn’t really strike home until the President of our college made a rambling after-dinner speech that made several bad jokes at the grad students’ expense, but no reference to the idea that what they do is intellectually important and worth doing; and which in an instance of tastelessness that frankly fills me with disgust and I think is absolutely inexcusable in a retired senior British diplomat, made not only a joke about the death of Osama bin Laden, but a joke whose apparent humor rested on said retired senior British diplomat “accidentally” confusing the names “Obama” and “Osama.” I gaped, speechless and outraged, at my friends while the room erupted into laughter around us. A few minutes later, when someone in the room was, honest to God, “sconced” for supposed “offenses” including speaking in a foreign language, the compartments I’d built in my mind to rationalize my enjoyment of the idea of a black-tie dinner came crashing down. I could see, clearly, why events like these are a big part of the access and equality problems Oxford and Cambridge continue to have. I was embarrassed at myself for being complicit in this sort of nonsense, and embarrassed on behalf of a college and to some extent (though less so) a university that should really, in this day and age, know better.
Like so many things I have been part of since coming to Oxford, all this is not really unique to Oxford, Oxbridge, or England. Elite universities are elite universities wherever you go, and there are unquestionably people in Princeton who behave the way some of the people in Trinity did last night. I have often said that it may be better to be served at table rather than having the kitchen staff hidden away behind servery counters and kitchen walls as they are in the halls at Princeton, just as it may be better to have your bins emptied by someone who comes into your room, whom every morning you need to have a conversation with and whose name you need to know—in Princeton, where the bins are emptied at six in the morning, I have never been awake to ask the name of the person who empties mine. And just because at Trinity displays of wealth and privilege are events that anyone can attend does not mean that the ones that occur at Princeton behind the walls of eating clubs or in the rooms of fraternity, sorority, and certain student organization members are any less insidious. I have been fortunate in finding friends at Princeton who don’t buy into this nonsense, just as I have at Trinity, but the absurdities of last night’s dinner, and the culture shock of my first Guest Night, take me back to the inferiority I felt in my first semester at Princeton, when I was acutely aware that I was not as suave or as smooth-talking as my fellow members of certain student organizations who came from money and had been to prep school. Elite universities are elite universities wherever you go, and if on the one hand that means that once you’ve learned the rules of academia you’re set, it also means that you will find these ugly underbellies wherever you go too. The best thing I can say for the rest of the halls of privilege is that I have never in my life heard anyone who holds academic power say anything as tasteless while speaking in an official capacity as what the President of Trinity said last night, nor do I come from a university culture where faculty and administrators are so obviously complicit in and present at their students’ excesses.
But where does that leave us? Well, it leaves me having to make the awful confession that for all this, I still get a kick out of dressing up like a woman and drinking champagne, and that I would do it again, especially if it were in an environment where I could more readily forget about the ugliness of the display of wealth and privilege. And it also leaves me thinking back to a late, humid New Jersey night a year ago, at the end of the weekend of Reunions that is Princeton’s most grandiose display of money and privilege, when I sated the nausea produced by the parade of alumni classes and their mass consumption of the second-largest annual alcohol order in America by dancing to Madonna in a dark basement with my friends. After Reunions, I got my Princeton back by going to the LGBT alumni’s party, the last event of the weekend. And it wasn’t so much that it was teh gayz, as it was people I knew and loved, and songs that a cultural tradition I adore and respect has adopted as anthems of not-belonging, of survival, and of pride. I will never forget the glowing realization on the face of one of my friends, newly come out, as he realized that he was in a room full of people who, like him, knew all the words to “Like a Prayer”—that, for reasons greater than this, he wasn’t alone. Whether I myself ever participate in Reunions as an alumna, the Princeton that can do that is the Princeton I want to remember.
And so it was late last night, after the MCR gala, when my friends and I with a sense of escape betook ourselves to a gay bar and danced until after 3 in the morning. The air humid after the first rainfall in weeks, all of us dancing as if for our lives in a dimly-lit room permeated by flashing colored lights, gave me back my university experience, my sense of what it means to be a young person, my self-constructed, adopted cultural compass. The DJ played “It’s Raining Men” that night, a song that recalls for me the youthful glee of dance-party protests against the National Organization for Marriage, of road trips up and down I-95, of seeing Martha Wash perform it at Pride that fateful summer in Washington, DC. There are no gay bars in Princeton. There is no reason I would ever have to wear black tie there. But turning my face to the ceiling and laughing aloud while shouting the words to my favorite gay anthem, still in my ankle-length dress and my jewelry and my high-heeled pumps, I felt a powerful sense of continuity. We make our own worlds, our own communities, our own senses of ownership and control. We adopt our own anthems—whether the solidarity stems from the sentiments of the Internationale or those of “I Will Survive.” Like drag queens, like the great Harlem ball culture, we can, if we wish, all make opulence and glamor into something we can understand, own, and be part of.
And really, I suppose that’s the point: there is nothing evil in wearing a dress, in having a fancy meal, in playing game-like by the rules of a kind of class culture that shouldn’t properly have a place in modern-day Britain (or America). Because simply by doing and living we can all invert, subvert, and parody these conventions until they are something which we find ourselves capable of delighting and glorying in. I had my stereotypically Oxonian debauched formal evening. I played the game. But it is the sight of half a dozen of my friends, faces glowing, bowties undone and dresses askew, all of them shouting “Hallelujah, it’s raining men!”, that I hope to remember for years to come.