It's not hard to go downtown for a night.
Leave the pregame at Harvest just after 11 p.m. Pay $5 for an Uber to the club. Pay $20 to get in the door. Pay $9 for a mediocre gin and tonic. Watch five handles of Belvedere cross the room with sparklers taped to them. They’re being delivered to the Scene.
The Scene is a ubiquitous concept at Penn that lacks a definition. It is identified by a series of traits that allow us to point to someone else––“Oh, he’s Sceney, but I’m certainly not,”––that keeps the Scene in a perpetual state of otherness, and thus, undefined. But what’s behind the Scene? What even is it?
Part of it is an attitude, a certain defiance of knowing that regardless of where you are or what you’re doing, you can enter a certain space and belong. There’s a camaraderie that comes with that demeanor and links members of the Scene together. However, what separates members of the Scene from any other group is their reluctance to admit their involvement in it. This reluctance stems from something simple: The Scene is easy to judge. But it’s much more useful to try and understand the Scene––and to understand, you must immerse yourself. There’s more to the Scene than knowing the Sceney.
As Michelle*, a New York prep schooler who’s now in a sorority, puts it, “I think if you have to define the Scene in a sentence, you just don’t know what it is.”
The Genesis of The Scene
The Scene is a birthright, handed down from parents to children in the form of wealth and access to prestigious institutions. Michelle cites New York specifically as the origin point of the Scene. “It’s the epitome of New York City Upper East Side privilege.”
The Scene, though, can hail from anywhere. When I ask Donald* (a board member of a Sceney frat who hails from the Main Line) where the Scene emanates from, he cracks a grin and turns around in his seat at United By Blue. “If I could just pull down my map,” he says, pointing to an imaginary map on the wall behind him, “I would point to New York, LA and all of Europe. It’s Horace Mann, Harvard–Westlake and any school in the Northeast that has ‘St.’ in front of it.”
The international Scene searches for similarity amongst like kinds. Ahmed*, a wealthy international student, thinks he was initially invited into the Scene because he has an “international perspective. They see a kid from Egypt and think, 'This kid can probably hang, he’s probably very wealthy, he’s probably similarly interested,’ which, in my case, I hopelessly was not [similarly interested].” Ahmed went to one Castle event and a few Theos parties before he decided to stop rushing altogether.
Usually, though, the Scene is well aware of its members before they even set foot on campus. Their parents are connected through networks established at schools like Penn or at the firms that recruit here, and access to these networks is passed down to their children.
Their children become acquainted with each other through participation in the same extracurricular activities. “You’ve got all these kids who went to the same Hebrew school or camp, or do a volunteer thing with their moms at the same soup kitchen,” Michelle explains. She mentions participation in service trips to Fiji as an example.
The Scene attends a specific kind of school, and attendees of these schools tend to know each other. As an alumna of Trinity School, a prominent New York private school, Katie Hartman (C '17), a former Street staffer, was exposed to the Scene back in high school. “I had a lot of interaction with kids from other prep schools in a way that I might not have had if I lived in the suburbs. My social circle in high school was not just people enrolled in my high school,” Katie notes.
Once the children of the Scene are ready to matriculate to college, their parents use their established networks to make sure their children are connected with each other. Michelle tells me of cocktail parties organized by overzealous New York City mothers for Penn Early Decision admits to meet each other. Before Regular Decision kids know they’ve been admitted, the Scene has formed a friend group.
Transition to Penn
Once the track carries the Scene to Penn, the Scene takes advantage of established networks for connections and insider knowledge. “I think the way it translates once you get here is like, 'I knew.' I knew what Tabard was before I ever fucking stepped foot on this campus. I knew what Oz and Theos and Apes were. I didn’t get here and have a learning curve,” Michelle says. Knowledge that would take most students weeks to catch up on is taught to the Scene before they get to campus.
Donald thinks that the Scene is a self–perpetuating cycle, or in his words, “a self– fulfilling prophecy, that these kids from Eton [an English boarding school] are almost destined to be Sceney.” He continues, “When they come to Penn, when a fraternity like Castle or Theos, or for A’s, Haverford, they say, well, we’re gonna invite you to these events because… you’re from this high school. Then they become [the Scene].”
Emma*, who attended a prestigious all–girls school in New York, also acknowledges the extent to which Greek and pseudo–Greek organizations fuel the Scene at Penn. “It’s influenced by sororities and frats for sure. Mostly frats are what create the events that you have to go to in order to be considered Sceney because it’s about like where you go and what you do.”
Michelle thinks this happens because it’s easier to maintain existing social networks than to branch out and redefine your social circle. “There are some people who are Sceney by default... they get here... and they don’t really know how to branch out, because why would you when all your friends go here?” Michelle asks.
It is, technically, possible to join the Scene later in life. “You’ll always have the kids who have enough, for boys, charisma, and for girls, attractiveness, who will get in on it. But the kids who are the power players are the ones with the most money,” Michelle explains. Connections once on campus can help. “I know people who don’t come from New York or Los Angeles or a foreign country but lived with someone who is like that,” Michelle continues. “You get sucked in, and you quickly learn how to act.”
The Sceney Lifestyle
Once elite status is solidified, the Sceney lifestyle sets in. Michelle says that her friends who went to exclusive all–girls New York prep schools, “[knew] promoters by the time they were 16.”
Access to clubs and bars is not a problem for the young and wealthy. At 16, Michelle had procured a fake ID and began experiencing New York nightlife. “I was 16 and going to bars and getting hit on by 25–year–old men,” she recalls.
Within the Scene, “Game recognize game,” Michelle asserts. There are certain signals, like clothing, language, access to technology and vacation destinations that indicate Sceniness. And the easiest way to recognize game, it seems, is through social media.
If you’re in the Scene, you’re not just expected to live the good life, but show off the good life on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. “They all have around 1400 followers, they only follow half of that and it’s a flat number, it’s not a private Instagram,” Michelle notes. “People want to be seen,” she elaborates. “But once they’re seen enough, they want to be remembered.” The Scene is, “more than anything, S–E–E–N,” Donald agrees.
Donald sees the “one–upsmanship” in the Scene as detrimental. “It’s like everyone’s competing. There’s an Instagram of her riding with the top down in a Ferrari and that got 160 likes, so here I am with a glass of champagne in a Lambo and that got 350 likes. There’s got to be a lot of psychological consequences of just constantly being peppered with all of this media.”
Michelle was out at a club in the Meatpacking District, which she described as full of “graduates of the Scene,” when she had a revelation: Nothing at the club was stimulating. “Are you happy?” she wanted to ask the club attendees. “Do you sit down and talk about interesting things? Is this music that moves you, or is it like not knowing about it will make you feel like a total fucking loser.”
Those in the Scene can feel as if their normal social behaviors are belittled by stereotypes of the Scene held by those outside of it. “These kids come here and think, ‘How do I become special? How do I become not just another [New York prep school] girl that goes to Penn and is in Theta, or TriDelt or Tabard? How do I become different?’” Michelle concludes, “You either need to hardcore defy it, or run with it.”
The Sceney Identity
The Scene is just that: a label. It is an identifier, but by no means is it an identity. In Donald’s mind, the Scene’s goals are the exact same as every other Penn student’s. “Everyone’s trying to succeed socially, they want to all be getting a job, or they just want to do well academically.” In this sense, as in most, they’re no different than anyone else.
Everyone I talked to in the Scene couldn't define it, but everyone with distance from it could. Those in the Scene see if for the nuanced social group that it is, while those who are not, don't. It’s easy to pass judgement on something that you’re not a part of, and the farther you away one is from the Scene, the easier it is to identify.
Emma’s still not totally comfortable being identified as Sceney. “I wouldn’t love that description because I don’t think that’s how I would define myself. I don’t want to be a part of the Scene because it feels almost cliché, trying too hard to strive to be in the Scene and always be in the best places. But it’s definitely not something you want to be excluded from either, because then you’ll miss out on some fun things that you actually do want to do.”
The label is not something anyone wants to have attached to them. As Emma explained, “It makes you seem like you care about superficial things, and you only like to go to these places because they’re considered Sceney.” Katie acknowledges the hurtfulness of the word: She thinks it can be especially prejudicial—especially from certain people.
* * *
It’s easy to go to a downtown for a night, but if you haven’t been before, you’re not quite going to fit in. It’s Thursday, and Recess is emptying. As a fraternity brother furiously yelled at the DJ to cut the music and the crowd starts to trickle out, a friend drunkenly strolled up to me. As she waited for her friend to catch up, she whispers, “I fucking hate being here, and you can quote me on that.”
*NOTE: Names have been changed for anonymity.
Brandon Slotkin is a senior from Florida studying PPE. He is the Entertainment Editor for Street.