Bama Rush Isn’t a Takedown, It’s a Revolt

Photo: Max

An ominous voiceover in the new MAX documentary Bama Rush makes a lofty, revolutionary declaration: “This documentary could be the end of Greek life as we know it.” It’s clipped from a TikTok video about the mere rumor of director Rachel Fleit’s project, which inevitably overtakes the University of Alabama during its 2022 production, causing one of Fleit’s subjects to ghost her and forcing the director to wear a disguise around campus for her own safety. These hysterics surrounding the buzzy TikTok-inspired documentary aren’t surprising, but anyone who can let go of the hype and actually watch the film is likely to realize they’re completely unnecessary. Far from being a juicy exposé on sorority culture at the university, the film explores what it means to be a part of American society as a young woman — particularly when that society is itching to watch your world get torn down by a documentary on a streaming service.

While Fleit did not gain access to a highly coveted sorority house, or any Greek house at all, she did enter the inner lives of the young women who fill them. One of Fleit’s subjects is Isabelle, whom we meet in California during her senior year of high school. She’s seemingly unafraid, even eager, to submit to the rush process, firm in the belief that she will find herself through her new sorority. When I reached her by phone ahead of the documentary’s release, she hadn’t yet seen the film, but she’d certainly seen the comments on the trailer. “I was 17 years old at the time we started filming,” she said. “And when I see these videos or comments from women that are in their 30s, or even 20s, just trying to pick apart every little piece that we say, and trying to find something hateful about it, it’s hurtful.” But she considers the film a record of her personal growth from a high schooler searching for a sense of self to a sorority woman who feels empowered, and inspired, by the women who surround her. She includes Fleit in that list of women. “I see my future self in her, in a way,” she said. “I want to go into film. I want to be able to be independent. And I never saw that in a woman, in a real person, like her. She really did change my life.”

Fleit creates an intimacy with her subjects that’s only possible because of her own vulnerability; early on in the film, she turns the camera on herself and begins sharing her story of growing up completely bald due to alopecia. She posits that her ritual of hiding her condition with wigs around the clock, fueled by her fear of being outed as “a bald girl,” is akin to the fear each potential new member — and truly everyone on earth — has of being seen as someone who doesn’t belong. The subject is first broached when a girl named Katie, an active member of Zeta Tau Alpha — a “top tier” house at UA — asks Fleit if she wears sunscreen on her head. In lesser, more sensationalist hands, this moment could have been presented as a pretty sorority girl prodding at someone’s insecurity. But it’s not that. And the filmmaker takes care to present the interaction as one of real bonding: a beautiful young woman who has just confessed she’d “kill to look like any of her friends” feels safe enough to ask Fleit an honest question about her own relationship to her appearance. Becoming a subject of the film wasn’t something Fleit had planned, but the suggestion by her editor was a revelation. “It became so clear to me that in order to create the maximum amount of empathy that I could create for these young women, I had to stand shoulder to shoulder with them,” she said. Fleit was interested not in criticizing but in understanding. She succeeds not only in creating a heartfelt portrait of how young women experience the world but in reframing how I viewed my own past life as a sorority member.

Rush is something I did at a university almost obsessed with Greek life, but it’s not something I look back on fondly: Getting dropped, as I did by almost every house I sought to join, is a traumatic thing. “It’s way more dramatic than you’re thinking it is,” one sorority woman tells Fleit of not being called back to a house as a “potential new member,” or a PNM. And it’s just as destabilizing as it feels, even putting aside the fact that top-tier houses at Alabama are part of an underground campus organization called the Machine, which apparently rigs every school-related election and sometimes exerts its influence violently. (John Archibald, who has reported on this, is featured in the film as well.) At any school, the letters you end up wearing mean much more than just what color T-shirt you get. After all, every house on campus has a reputation, and the act of being sorted into one is like being told to your face what everyone really thinks of you. It really is like a Harry Potter sorting ritual, but instead of being determined by a talking hat, your fate is decided by your fellow students privately voting on whether they want to include you. One of the more revealing moments of Fleit’s film happens when both an active sorority member and a professional rush consultant admit what makes a sorority a top-tier house: the opinion of frat boys. Rush, then, serves as a ritual to magnify every insecurity, a grand heightening of the lunch-table politics of high school, a formalizing of the racist, ableist, misogynist scale by which the young women of our country are measured. In a way, it’s a little like if someone made Instagram a competitive sport (something that isn’t lost on two of Fleit’s subjects: Hailey Holliday and Shelby Rose, both former beauty-pageant participants who relish the competitive aspect of it all). Some, including me, might tell you it’s not worth what comes after. However, Fleit isn’t interested in whether people should rush, but whether they could avoid it even if they wanted to.

Sororities were originally built as defensive measures. The University of Alabama did not admit women until 1893, and it did not admit a Black woman until 1956. The school expelled her due to backlash and did not accept or graduate another until the ’60s. Upon arrival, both of these groups sought the bonds of sisterhood for camaraderie in the face of hostility to their very presence. Kappa Delta, a historically white sorority, opened its doors on campus in 1904, and Delta Sigma Theta — the school’s first Black sorority — arrived in 1974. In a sense, sororities still serve this protective function, as Fleit discovered when she was turned down for interviews by 500 people and her access to any sorority house on campus was firmly denied. “I think a lot of the fear was that their words would be misconstrued and that the film was going to be this takedown,” she told me. “The fear is that, I think, sorority systems have been mocked in mainstream media.” The perceived hostility that exists toward sororities today is usually seen as progressive: These are institutions that champion exclusivity in a world that idealizes equal opportunity. And the film doesn’t shy from a lot of uncomfortable truths about the history of these institutions. While segregation is not something at all unique to Alabama’s Greek system, it is shocking to learn that the school’s historically white houses admitted to cutting Black pledges as recently as 2013.

What Fleit discovers is that the Greek system at Alabama is not some alien cult. Any school’s Greek life is often a distillation of the community that surrounds it and the values that community champions in its youth. Likewise, every horrifying thing you’ll see in Bama Rush is a horror that women can universally relate to: the almost unfazed reaction one woman has to getting drugged at a bar again. The casualness with which sorority members digitally reshape their bodies in photos to look thinner. The automatic way all of these women, to varying degrees, readily devalue themselves. When two Zetas express anxiety over how they’ll come across, the exchange is heartbreaking. “I just don’t want people to hate us, or me,” says one. “Or us,” the other interjects, with a laugh. “But you’re likable,” argues the first, giving us a glimpse of that inner narrative even the women commanding so much envy have running through their heads at all times: You are by default unwanted, unwelcome, unlikable. These are young people who are keenly aware that there is safety in blending in as just another pretty girl among very pretty girls, and that to speak — to become a real person, flaws and all — is a dangerous prospect.

It’s not yet clear if any of the women who spoke with Fleit will suffer consequences for doing so, but the threat of such causes at least one of her subjects, Shelby, to ghost the production. After the trailer dropped earlier this month, she posted a TikTok video disavowing her participation. While the fear of what the film will mean for Bama’s Greek life is real, it also highlights an irony: This documentary pretty much only exists because the sororities themselves are popular on TikTok, which is also what drives women like Shelby and Isabelle to attend the University of Alabama in the first place.

The only tea spilled in Bama Rush is an unfiltered look at the lives of the young women who dance and dress up on TikTok as free advertisements for an extremely large and well-funded university. No one bats an eye at the strangeness of that, because to be a pretty, dancing thing is a role we expect these young women to fill. But it is the only role we expect them to fill. To discover their depth, and to understand their choices, is to admit that we might have made those same choices ourselves in their circumstances. It robs us of the ability to mock them, to roll our eyes, to shrug them off as unserious — all the things we do to women we feel a need to devalue, perhaps because they look like people who would do the same to us. “These young women were the girls I felt scared of when I was growing up,” Fleit told me. “After talking to a few of them, I was like, Oh, wow, we look totally different, but we are totally the same underneath it all. Really, underneath the hood of the car, it was just the same kind of engine that was just wanting to belong, to feel loved, to have friends.”

What I expected to get from Fleit’s film, a bitter catharsis to soothe my old rush wounds, is not what I came away with. Instead, I was reminded that the sorority I ultimately ended up joining was actually a decent influence on my life. It was an organization that required me to be a good student, to drink responsibly, and to act in a way that wouldn’t embarrass my cohort, even if I didn’t necessarily listen. The sorority house itself, a bowerlike structure that had no tolerance for boys or booze, was one of the few spaces on campus where I always felt safe. I can’t argue that sororities are the best way to provide these things for college students or that I got these things because of the Greek system rather than in spite of it. But what I can say is that not going through rush, or even attending a school without a Greek system, wouldn’t have spared me the pain of trying to be liked by strangers as an 18-year-old. That is a ritual no one avoids, even if their version of it is more affordable and involves less dancing.

Greek life is unique, however, in the culture of silence it upholds. “I kept on saying, I really want to know what it’s like to be a young woman right now,” Fleit said, as she recounted the resistance to her project on campus. It culminated in the sale of “f*ck your documentary” t-shirts, and her decision to once again wear a wig to avoid being recognized. “I would just stop hearing from people. It was interesting because you can dance on TikTok, but you can’t talk about your feelings.” Sorority women have long been cloistered, ostensibly for their own protection. What anyone who watches Bama Rush will end up wondering is whether today’s women are still benefiting from that silence. After all, what kind of community would view the voices of young women as a threat? And is that a community worth protecting? This documentary certainly won’t be the end of Greek life as we know it, but it could be the beginning of a different kind of life for the young women who see it, whatever their affiliation.

Bama Rush Isn’t a Takedown, It’s a Revolt