While tinkering with the layout for Shayla Reid’s article on bicker season bikini wax discounts last week, I racked my brain and the Internet for a picture that might adequately represent Princeton’s most iconic and hallowed tradition. For the non-Princetonians and especially ignorant freshmen among our readers, “bicker” is a phenomenon similar to fraternity rush employed by some eating clubs for the selection of student members. An “eating club” is kind of like a mix between a frat, a cafeteria, and a manor house—it is a historic mansion, all but one on Prospect Street (Terrace is on Washington Road), where junior and senior members take their meals, and during weekends and select weeknights, where students of all years go to engage in alcohol consumption, live entertainment, gyratory dance, and sloppy, regret-ridden kisses. Students usually become members during the beginning of sophomore spring—this is when the five “sign-in clubs” admit new members through a lottery (sort of, most people end up going where they choose unless the spots fill up), and when the five selective clubs hold bicker. (A sixth selective club, Cannon, reopened this year, held their bicker in the fall, but is expected to revert to regular bicker time next year.) The bicker process differs from club to club, but typically involves prospective members (bickerees) meeting current members (bickerers) and holding conversations and performing tasks by which the bickerers may later discuss the bickerees and determine their worthiness in joining. Bicker is generally accepted by students as an ethically neutral fact of Princeton life, but becomes very embarrassing to explain to parents and friends from home without sounding like a cold-hearted dick.
In the end I paired up Reid’s “Salon Pure” (Blue Ivy League, issue 35.01, page 8) with a photo of Steve Carrell’s hairy chest instead, but I found some interesting results in my Google image search results for “princeton bicker”—most surprisingly, the headshots of my peers and friends. Bicker is notorious for its selectivity and elitism, and only the most socially adept and beautiful people are chosen to populate our six superior clubs. Imagine, then, what godlike students might deserve the privilege of representing bicker with their very faces? Upon request, some have graciously agreed to share their stories. All of the following quotes are genuine.
My first response came from Mack Darrow ’13, whose image appears prominently on the “princeton bicker” image-hunter’s screen (page 2 of search results). Mack found himself unworthy of the honor bestowed:
“Bicker is defined by kids who make phenomenal first impressions, as well as kids who are smart, witty, and attractive. I’m not any of these things, and I just want to take this opportunity to formally apologize to the university and its eating clubs for negatively representing Princeton’s unique and storied tradition.”
Next, Lillian Li ’13 (page 5), a member of Terrace, a sign-in club, responded with a sense of confusion about her inclusion in the search results, and about bicker generally:
“Bicker is a foreign language to me, like French or Italian. When I hear someone switch from English to bicker lingo, it just comes across as gibberish to me. Sexy, enigmatic gibberish, but gibberish nevertheless. I’ve considered taking bicker language classes, but I like to keep my Fridays free. By the way, how do you conjugate ‘to hose’?”
Ryan Bonfiglio ’01 (page 3) recounted an initial sentiment of surprise at my observation, but soon accepted his fate:
“I have to say, I was shocked when you said my picture came up in a google image search of Princeton bicker! I even felt compelled to do the search myself just to make sure – and presto! – there I am. How dare I question the all-knowing gaze of Google?”
Similarly, John Burford ’12 (page 5) had some difficulty locating the image that contained his likeness, but made sure to point out that another particular image did not:
“Which picture are you talking about—the one with the naked guys and the face blurred out? If so, that’s not me lol.”
More on this a little later.
In addition to pictures of exemplary students, the image search also yielded logos of some of Princeton’s most exclusive campus organizations. It is a well-known fact that a bickeree’s extracurricular affiliations can be instrumental in facilitating their selection to a club, and the student groups that appear in this search must therefore be powerful institutions indeed.
Speaking for Tiger Magazine (their logo appears on page 3), Princeton’s best and oldest sporadically printed humor journal, chairman Jim Valcourt ’12 found his organization’s appearance a logical consequence of its social position:
“Wait, we’re ranked near the top of something? Do we get money out of this? Because we could really use it. It does make sense, though. Everyone knows Tiger Magazine is the most selective of all the clubs. We didn’t accept a single bickeree this year. Please give us money?”
When questioned about the appearance of the logo of Roaring 20 (page 9), a coed a cappella ensemble, a representative repudiated any connection between the group and bicker:
“I’m really sorry to be a spoilsport but I think that our group has nothing to do with Princeton bicker and I’m not sure why it’s coming up in a google image search. I’m sorry but we would prefer not to be a part of the article.”
This final group is so exclusive that new members have not been admitted since 2003. I refer, of course, to the Princeton Class of 2007 (page 4). President Jennifer Mickel ’07 shared some encouraging words:
“At baccalaureate Professor John McPhee dubbed ’07 ‘the Class of Destiny.’ Google in its omniscience is clearly aware that, like being a member of ’07, success or failure in bicker will have a similarly determinate effect on your destiny.”
My hunt also brought me a number of images that seem entirely unconnected to the terms I had entered, as Google image searches are wont to do. Some notable examples include a well-shaded colored pencil drawing captioned “SNAKE,” appropriately portraying a snake that clutches in its tail the empty leash of an erstwhile pet named “Sparky” (or perhaps Sparky is the snake? Mysteries abound on page 1); a cartoon of a meditative Snow White scoring a cup in a solitary match of beer pong (it is somewhat unsettling that all seven attendant dwarves are absent while their only ward drinks alone, page 9); and a screenshot from the original Pokémon series depicting (spoiler alert!) protagonist Red reading a biological researcher’s diary entry that intimates the existence of the legendary psychic clone Pokémon, Mewtwo (for further research, see Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back like I did with my dad when I was nine, page 11). I have no explanation for their relevance, but if you do, you should probably keep it to yourself—the information may prove advantageous to your acceptance to Ivy, and it’s always good to have the competitive edge.
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It should be noted that the number one image search result for “princeton bicker” is a photo of two blurry-faced Caucasian men, butt-naked but for the Sambergian gift boxes containing their respective wangs. The image comes from a 2007 article on IvyGate, a blog devoted to digging up dirt and stirring scandal about the Ivy League; their post in turn references an investigative piece on the eating clubs from the New York Observer. The Observer piece explains that the nude dudes were in attendance at a debaucherous, predominantly white “lingerie party” at Cottage, and that one of them was rudely disrobed when a passing fellow reveler slapped his box to the ground. The piece also discussed bicker, and characterized the process as tainted by issues of race and class. Bicker has long carried these stigmas, and probably rightfully so, but it is also a dumb thing that dumb kids do that ends up, variously, hurtful, disappointing, and a lot of fun. I signed into Terrace and chose not to participate in Bicker, so I cannot offer any firsthand insight on the subject. I can tell you, however, that from my own observations and friends’ insider accounts, bicker clubs seem more welcoming and diverse, and bicker more casual and light-hearted, than has been portrayed by a story-hungry media.
Bonfiglio shared his unique perspective:
“I bickered and got into Tower when I was a sophomore back in the winter of ’98 (and later was an officer there for 1 semester). My bicker experience at Tower was a fun, safe, respectful, and pretty laid back…After graduation, I occasionally worked weekend night shifts as a nurse’s aide at Princeton’s University Health Services. Bicker weekend was typically one of the busiest times, and we saw up close some of the emotional and physical side effects of a different sort of bicker experience than I, and surely many others, had. For me, memories of my own good experience with bicker will always be in tension with memories of what I saw in other students who ended up at UHS during those weekends.”
The bicker experience, it seems, varies widely from participant to participant. It is appropriate, then, that bicker’s Internet representatives displayed a range of reactions to their association with the institution, from humor to confusion to desperate denial. Other students and organizations I reached out to never replied (I’m looking at you, Daily Princetonian (page 3)), nor did popular singer-songwriter Ben Folds (whose image appears on page 5 of search results and whose website seems to lack contact information and I therefore futilely attempted to press for a quote by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and keeping my fingers tightly crossed). I acknowledge my highly limited sample space and questionable methodology, and make no claim to seriously address the deep sociological implications that Princeton bicker may or may not carry. On the contrary, I attempt to point out the skewed, superficial perspective that poorly-captioned, decontextualized images, like Google’s or IvyGate’s, might convey.
The ever-resourceful Bonfiglio offers yet another thoughtful reflection:
“‘Princeton bicker’ is not a caption to [my] image, and neither is [my] image an illustration of Princeton bicker…Thus, whatever my opinion is about bicker, to read this image as an iconic representation of bicker is, I would argue, to overlook the complex relationship of visual and verbal media.”
(Does anyone know this guy? I think we all should. Bonfiglio is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religion department at Emory and also happened to break the world record for the fastest time to do 1000 push-ups. The wonders that the Princeton alumni network bestows.)
So yes, “princeton bicker” is two guys with Christmas-wrapped wieners, but it is also a 6’9” varsity forward, an inebriated Disney princess, and a North Carolinian alternative rock artist. Perhaps the recalcitrant Mr. Folds said it best after all:
“I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest so I can be for you what you want to see.”