‘Bama Rush’ Goes Inside the Toxic, Faux-Feminist Hell of Sorority Life

·5-min read
Courtesy of Max
Courtesy of Max

The University of Alabama’s Greek life is like no other, and it won global attention in 2021 courtesy of TikTok, which—via the #RushTok banner—became a platform for girls who were either celebrating the impending sorority rush and/or looking to make their cases to the houses they desperately wanted to join. #RushTok was a viral phenomenon, drawing millions of eyes to the school and its ultra-competitive rushing season, and creating countless fans as well as more than a few critics.

It also caught the eye of HBO and Introducing, Selma Blair documentarian Rachel Fleit, whose Bama Rush (May 23 on Max) examines the school’s Greek societies through the lens of a handful of individuals determined to rush during the 2022 fall semester. What it reveals is an exclusionary environment that views beauty, wealth, privilege, and conformity as the highest of ideals—and which seems, in some cases, to exacerbate the very problems these young women believe it will solve.

Whether they’re high school seniors eagerly anticipating their arrival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or freshmen making their way through their inaugural collegiate year, Bama Rush’s subjects are all intently focused on getting into the sorority of their choice. To do that, they must endure a gauntlet of interviews, parties, and social events in which they’re judged by active sorority sisters according to benchmarks that are as vague as they are apparently shallow. So intense is this process that many girls hire rush consultants such as Trisha Addicks, Sloan Anderson, and Lorie Stefanelli to coach them on their resumes, their conversational skills, and their looks—appearance being, of course, a major factor on one’s sorority prospects.

The question of how sororities are ranked is central to Bama Rush’s portrait, since—as multiple speakers, including original Bama Rush TikToker Gracie O’Connor, admits—a given house’s status has everything to do with the hotness of its members, which is largely decided by University of Alabama fraternities. Thus, having the right hairstyle, dress, and Instagram account is of prime importance, and something that can be honed with the aid of paid professionals. For the school’s traditionally Caucasian Panhellenic houses, being white is also a big plus; Black girls now have the Divine 9 houses to rush, even though the school desegregated its sororities in 2013 (yes, it really took that long). All in all, Fleit’s documentary exposes Bama Rush as a popularity contest predicated on physical attractiveness and, along with it, the ability to project a particular brand of cheery, upbeat, rah-rah southern personality.

With such a fixation on appearance, it’s no surprise that anxieties run high among rushing girls. Having been previously booted out of a sorority for a trivial transgression (she wore the wrong house’s sticker!), freshman Holliday wants to give rushing a second go, even as she discusses the eating disorder and body-related insecurities plaguing her. Those problems are shared by incoming freshman Isabelle, who opens up about her hope that joining a sorority will provide her with the love, compassion, and acceptance that she craves. Isabelle and high schooler Shelby additionally chat about their loneliness, self-doubt, and desire to figure out their identities. Both are convinced that sororities will remedy those issues—a strange perspective considering that Bama Rush paints the organizations as cutthroat entities that, by virtue of their priorities, are designed to aggravate such hang-ups.

Fleit initially remains off camera in Bama Rush, yet her own status as a bald woman (thanks to alopecia), and her history of hiding her condition in order to socially fit in soon proves an integral facet of this tale. Fleit’s personal struggles with shame and alienation shed a light on her motivations for wanting to make this film in the first place. Moreover, she serves as an example of the joy and confidence that comes from recognizing one’s own self-worth, free from the approval of others. Once angry rumors spread about HBO’s presence on campus, Bama Rush becomes a part of its own story, and the fact that Fleit must eventually don the very sort of wig that was, for decades, a symbol of her humiliation only reinforces the idea that Alabama’s Greek life compels women to toe a particular line rather than embrace their individuality.

This Alabama Sorority Is in Chaos Over Leaked Racist Texts

Along with the sexism and superficiality of Bama Rush, there’s also the racism, which Bama Rush addresses through interviews with current and former students who have faced it in both overt and subtle fashion. Add in talk about The Machine (a secret society that basically runs the Greek system and, with it, university life), and the film is an eye-opening snapshot of, as author Elizabeth Boyd puts it, “a proving ground of competitive femininity, and the contemporary performance of the southern belle”—or, as is suggested by the numerous TikTok videos presented here, the unholy byproduct of social media narcissism, Kardashian-style celebrity, and debutante ball-via-beauty pageant culture.

There are unquestionably thousands of college students who, like Isabelle, discover that joining a sorority is a fun and empowering experience that gives them exactly what they want, and Fleit’s documentary doesn’t go out of its way to depict Bama Rush in a negative light. Yet as more of its chosen subjects opt to drop out of this Greek rat race, and with close friends Holliday and Makayla severing ties in the process, the less savory underpinnings of this entire enterprise rise to the surface. While sororities may have originally been founded by proto-feminists, there’s not much progressivism on display in Bama Rush; the values championed by this institution of higher learning’s sororities mainly have to do with upholding rigid image standards, loyalty, and secrecy. It’s elitism in its ugliest form.

Consequently, Fleit grows sadder as she delves deeper into this milieu, seemingly aware that the sorority system makes girls see themselves as inadequate—by pressuring them to kowtow to conventions at the risk of being isolated—in a manner similar to how she felt due to her alopecia. In that regard, Bama Rush shines a spotlight on a unique world, and custom, that cares little for actual uniqueness.

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