“True Prep” by Lisa Birnbach was a souvenir from my internship in the book review section of a Boston newspaper two years ago. I breezed through the candy-striped sequel to “The Official Preppy Handbook” (TOPH) on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail to and from work. Here’s a glance between the covers:
Page 3, by way of introduction: “Maybe you attended a historic prep school. Maybe you didn’t. Of course, it’s better if you did because then you’ve been acculturated.”
Page 161: A Quail Recipe.
Page 220, on IMs, sexts, and tweets: “This bully pulpit is wearying. A kind of opinionated clutter, as well, not to mention a great waste of time. Not to sound like prudes, but preppies are averse to all this openness.”
Looking back at the book, fresh off a presidential election, I return to Birnbach’s warning about social media. I too am tiring of all the “opinionated clutter,” my own included. However, through an autumn rife with live tweets, I couldn’t help but note an unexpected voice chiming in—Lisa Birnbach.
Lisa Birnbach wrote “The Official Preppy Handbook” in 1980 when she was 21. It became a New York Times bestseller, and earned her the nickname of “preppy evangelist.”
Now, if you go to Bowdoin, you either are prep or you know a preppie. “Preppies are the most sociable people on the planet,” Birnbach told me, after I got in touch with her through the “True Prep” Facebook fan page. But they do shy away from the public expression of strongly worded sentiments.
To some incoming students, it’s not just the weather on campus that can surprise with its coldness. If you were initially enamored by the “Bowdoin Hello,” you were probably baffled by the Bowdoin “hell no” to most declarations of political passion—despite the admirable encouragement of Eric Edelman ’13.
And if you have a theory about the sociopolitical origins of Bowdoin students’ stoicism, you’ll have to look beyond admissions literature. In the ’80s, Birnbach’s original tongue-in-cheek tome was the first come one, come all—but not too close—explication of preppy culture. It looks like an old Sears catalogue, and reads like something a young Reaganite might keep handy.
I can’t help but grin at the anecdote of a friend who went home with a Bowdoin male for some weekend coupling. Upon discovering TOPH on the gentleman’s bookshelf, there was much internal debate as to whether or not to take the book and leave the boy.
Yes, TOPH produces these types of reactions. An ethnography of the historically un-ethnic was the novelty Birnbach strove for and achieved. Then “True Prep” came along to make the prep world seem like less of a closed system. Not all preps are born into prepdom, the sequel says, and this culture is not an impenetrable WASP stronghold.
“I have always been interested in politics, but I have rarely written about them,” Birnbach told me. “I’m not sure I ever wrote anything overtly political until the world wide web was invented, and I don’t consider what I post to be ‘serious’ writing.”
Yet, some critics felt that “True Prep” was political, or at least sociopolitical—while others were just happy to get a copy.
“The last straw for me—the book is politically-correct prep at its worst. For one thing, it took gratuitous pot shots at President George W. Bush and obviously fawned over Obama…Thanks to Ms. Birnbach for ruining great feelings about one of my favorite ’80s cult classics. Republican preps need not purchase this book,” wrote internet commenter “John Sepehri” beneath Birnbach’s April 2010 interview with Ivy Style.
“Michael Wingert” was a bit more enthusiastic about TOPH’s democratic revamp: “I have just read the book. It’s super actually. I managed to obtain a copy here in England very easily via a company called Amazon, charming people who I found on my computer.”
I wonder if “John Sepehri” was just as disillusioned by @LisaBirnbach, or if he wouldn’t be caught dead in concert with the little blue bird.
“I have done nothing but lose followers for the last week or so,” Birnbach told me, “Therefore, I agree that I’m not using Twitter in a prep way.”
After all, come election season 2012, there was Birnbach for all the world to see: retweeting about the importance of Pell Grants, drawing attention to the Ivy League credentials of certain DNC speakers, and tweeting at Ann Coulter to ask, “Do you actually mean what you tweet?”
“I sometimes forget who I am on Twitter. What I mean by that is I write as myself—as Lisa—not as a spokesperson for prepdom. And each time I do—in the passion of the moment (during debates or election night)—tweet in a partisan way, it must offend a portion of my followers.”
Birnbach’s own writing waxes on prepdom’s staunch adherence to the old “money, religion, politics” taboo—limits to conversation that are surely a reality in pockets of the Bowdoin community. And ever since money became speech in 1976 and corporations became people in 2010, who can really blame this mantra’s adherents—prep or otherwise?
I won’t go so far as to advise the reader to forget who they are and espouse every political belief they’ve been hiding under their tennis bag if it doesn’t feel natural. Nor do I think that what’s “natural” should go unchallenged in your four years at Bowdoin—whether you graduated from Choate or my personal alma mater, King Philip Regional High School.
What Bowdoin students lack in passion won’t be resolved by a cacophony. And if a cacophony is in order, can it at least wait until after the inauguration? My Twitter muscles are sore.
The “True Prep” author never wanted to join Twitter, she tells me, but did so at the insistence of her publisher. Surprisingly, she doesn’t regret it. She uses it to get breaking news, and compartmentalize her social networks in the most gracious sense.
“I also find I have different relationships with different people on Twitter,” said Birnbach. “I have my diehard and very funny preppy group—they now tweet to one another (and sometimes leave me out) and I love that.”
Aside from subtle indications of unrest, all is well in the social media brand of the “preppy evangelist.” Of late, you might find her assuming the persona of a judgmental Manhattanite, milking the Petraeus scandal for all it’s worth. Automatic tweets betray that she signed up for “Just Unfollow”—a service letting Tweeters know who jumped ship—which she subsequently cancelled.
That’s what the “voice of prepdom” is doing, but where’s Lisa? No doubt spending time with her kids, feeling ambivalent about her Blackberry, and sharing the voice of prepdom’s deep contempt for a certain Donald Trump.
In the words of Lisa, prepdom, and all of our mothers: “If anyone wants to talk to me about the 2016 election, you will have to go to the Time-Out Chair. #Until2015”