In 2021, new University of Alabama sorority sisters running along sorority row.Credit...Gary Cosby Jr./Imagn
Sorority rush is a tradition at many colleges. But in the South, rush inspires the same passionate zeal as collegiate football. Thanks to TikTok, the University of Alabama’s incarnation of that tradition — peak neo-antebellum white Southern culture on display — is now a global phenomenon. Since it entered the zeitgeist in 2021, millions of people have followed Bama Rush, as if they’re royal watching through Mason-jar-tinted glasses.
When a small phalanx of white coeds in Tuscaloosa self-organizes under the Bama Rush banner to promote their sorority, they are battling for ritual supremacy. The current sorority members choose coordinated outfits like crop tops and tennis skorts for synchronized dance routines to promote their chapters on TikTok. There is a lot of hair in these videos — standardized for length and blond in ratios impossible without chemical intervention; it swings exuberantly, signaling good health and traditional femininity. Their robotic dancing to hip-hop songs showcases gymnastic athleticism instead of looser routines made for the club. They keep time, but even the fact that they aren’t clapping on the one and three seems intentional — being cute rather than sexy protects them from the dreaded label “trashy.” Walking that fine line without mussing their hair is part of their popular appeal.
The rushees who wish to join the dancers’ ranks give daily reports, with noticeable twang, on what they are wearing. Their Southern accents are the linguistic equivalent of pointing a ring light at their shiny hair and tasteful makeup. The sororities purport to make these videos to attract the highest quality rushees. But they have found a wider audience.
For a mainstream culture struggling to adapt to the ways that gender is exploding all around them, that accent is seductive. It says these are ideal women from a regional culture that values traditional gender norms — and people cannot get enough of it.
As for myself, I’m proud to say that my TikTok algorithm has not delivered me any Bama Rush videos. All my exposure has been secondhand. My friends who love true-crime podcasts were excited for the documentary from Rachel Fleit, “Bama Rush,” that was released on Max earlier this year. My feminist academic friends forwarded me Bama Rush memes during a recent faculty dinner to dissect the kitschiness of sorority microcelebrities. Anne Helen Petersen, a culture writer, has been obsessively unpacking Bama Rush 2023 “like we’re a 400-level Sociology class,” as she recently put it on Instagram.
A lot of my worlds are collapsing into the Bama Rush phenomenon, yet I am in Bama Rush’s blind spot.
I assume I don’t get Bama Rush videos on my social media feeds for the same reason that I would not have been an ideal Bama Rush candidate when I was a coed. Bama Rush is very, very white, and my algorithms are programmed for me — someone who is not. Fleit’s documentary touches on the inherited culture and code of conduct that filters for the “right” type of young woman — thin, able-bodied, athletic and, yes, in most cases, white — to rush at the University of Alabama.
Seeing that culture rendered so explicitly primes the progressive impulse to call for diversity. It feels like the response to the vague unsettled feeling that something is wrong with Bama Rush. It could be the hair or the matching outfits or the accents. But it is clear from watching RushTok that there are a lot of young white women involved. We fixate on that and haphazardly reach for the diversity hammer in our progressive tool kit, without thinking through why that lack of diversity exists in the first place — or what it tells us about the American South.
Despite alumni and cultural pressure to maintain tradition, there have been a handful of attempts to integrate sorority rush at the University of Alabama over the last three or so decades. This is an example of the Faulkner adage that the past is never dead. When it comes to our willful collective amnesia about racism, the past isn’t even past. Most recently, the university pushed to integrate the Greek system in 2013, the year the U.S. Department of Justice inquired about allegations of race discrimination in Alabama’s rush process. Still, in 2022, almost 85 percent of the sorority members in the Alabama Panhellenic Association, comprising most of the university’s sororities, were white, a percentage disproportionate to the racial makeup of the university and the state.
Consider the university’s failed attempts to integrate rush in concert with its comfort with the social media blitz. While there is no definitive proof of causation between the Bama Rush popularity and the University of Alabama’s fiscal health, the university is coming off record enrollment in 2022, even as the general higher education climate in the United States is being roiled by crises.
Alabama’s cousins in Florida are dealing with a hostile political leader and takeover of their curriculum. West Virginia is facing fiscal insolvency of its flagship public university. The general public’s faith in higher education is waning, whatever the individual’s politics. For too much of the public, higher education’s complex problems are reduced to culture wars about diversity, gender studies or critical race theory, which have become the brands of many elite, Northeastern schools. In this climate, these sororities’ annual viral juggernaut is counterprogramming to the Northeastern elite university brand. The Bama version is wholesome, nonthreatening, traditional femininity in Lululemon athleisure. For free. Welcome to Emotional Labor 101, Bama Rush ladies. You already aced it.
These young women’s world — which exists outside the frame of a TikTok video — deserves to be taken seriously. Their emotional labor moves a lot of capital. And their sorority system is a legitimate status culture, just like fraternities and sports leagues, with a clear hierarchy; the top dogs get more privileges and honor than the lesser-ranked sororities. To defend their position, sororities have a code of conduct to keep its sisters — and the wannabes — in line. How to talk, how to dress, how to act, and most important of all, how to aspire. The code is so elaborate that aspiring pledges can hire Rush coaches to learn exactly what it takes to be the right kind of woman. It boils down to performing hyperfemininity and settling for referent or secondhand authority while deferring to masculine power. The cute dances and OOTDs also reveal how complicated it is for today’s young women to live feminist lives.
Rushees are cautioned not to speak of boys during rush, but that is a silence that screams. As becomes clear over the course of Fleit’s documentary, what men might want from these young women shapes their beauty standards and obsession with weight and career plans and outfits and friend groups. It determines the sorority’s rank, the value of its members and its ultimate power to influence the campus culture as future alumnae. The Deep South’s sorority culture gets its power from the rewards that come from compliance. You get cool campus housing, cool friends, study buddies, social invitations, a defined dating pool and maybe a little social media fame.
The rewards don’t stop at the edge of campus. Sorority members anywhere come with networks that can grease the machinery of mobility. But in the Deep South, of which Alabama is a cultural and geographic linchpin, the sorority system carries greater influence. It gets you close to the women who are close to the men who tend to dominate the state’s network power.
At Alabama, that power is most visible in the form of “the Machine,” the university’s not-so-secret society that extends the power of the many predominantly white fraternities and sororities it represents. The Machine is like the mob with training wheels, teaching the fine art of political influence through campus elections and grooming university student leaders for politics and industry.
Greek life and the Machine do the same work that supper clubs and social clubs and secret societies do at elite universities and boarding schools in every privileged enclave across the country. When you think of fraternities and sororities as the gateway to a seat at the table that manages the social reproduction of the entire region’s cultural, economic and political elite, rushing is serious business.
Young women know that. For 20 years, they have outpaced their male peers in educational attainment and achievement. Today’s traditional-aged female college student could be inheriting up to four generations of gendered expertise on navigating higher education — the bureaucracy of achievement.
Progressives and conservatives have at least one thing in common. For decades, both sides have told young people that going to college overdetermines their life’s trajectory; they must amass all the power and wealth they can, in one shot, or their lives will be abject failures. For women, there is the added burden of amassing all the economic capital possible while also earning all the social capital to be desired.
Joining an elite sorority solves multiple problems at one time. It gives you a college cohort, seeds your LinkedIn connections and grooms you into the ideal partner for the men who are joining the fraternities.
Elite status cultures invest a lot in marriages, and that is no different in the South. For all that the sorority sisters talk about bonding and lifelong friends, the power of these sororities is not sisterhood. It’s the brotherhood that desires it. Bama Rush codifies the many incentives behind marrying power and turns them into a long audition to become a handmaiden to patriarchal privilege. Becoming pretty enough to sit at the right hand of machines that chew up history and the future is not my idea of getting ahead.
One biracial rushee in Fleit’s documentary discovers the true qualifications to this culture when joining the sorority does not get her the same male attention as her white sisters. Even if you could integrate Bama the brand, you cannot integrate Bama the social reproduction machine.
The impulse to diversify Bama Rush got me thinking about the book “Elite Capture.” Author Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s thesis is that radical terms d’art like “identity politics” and “racial capitalism” have lost their radical potential. They are victims of elite capture, the process by which the nominal winners of our system strip the terms down to a brand. In the case of “integrating” Bama Rush, no one is talking about the radical roots of integration. They don’t even mean integration as an accommodationist principle. They mean the neoliberal branding of integration as cosmetic diversity. That would look like adding a few plus-size bodies, a racially ambiguous but nonwhite young woman, and some dark hair here and there and calling that fixing Bama Rush for our new sensibilities.
We can quibble about whether integration ever had a hope of being radically transformative, but it was more radical in practice than its mealy-mouthed descendants “diversity” and “inclusion.” But reaching for the diversity canard to fix our discomfort with Bama Rush content is an overreach. This is Alabama. The University of Alabama. This is the university where George Wallace infamously stood in the classroom doorway on the first day of class in 1963 to block Vivian Malone and James A. Hood from matriculating. You look at the images from that period of massive resistance to school integration, at the crowd shots of young white men and women chanting at Vivian and James who are flanked by the National Guard as they broker integration with their lives. The idea that joining a sorority is integration feels hollow, but especially at a place where integration once meant so much.
It might be reasonable to want everyone to have access to what Bama Rush promises. But the sorority does not have the power to confer it, not really. It can only brand it and, if it works really hard and looks pretty while doing it, can grow up to marry it. And I ask, why would anyone want to integrate that?
Sometimes the proper place for something is the past, and the thing just does not yet know it.
Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.
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