I attended the University of Arkansas in the ’90s, a public university that is demographically and geographically similar to the University of Alabama, the subject of the documentary Bama Rush. At the time, graduation rates in Arkansas were under 50 percent, and it wasn’t necessarily because the student body was dumb. Students, many of whom came from small rural communities, weren’t prepared for a college environment. A student body of 25,000 alone could be overwhelming for kids who came from towns with populations of a fifth of that. Homesickness was a real problem that cost the school hundreds of students every year. Students would go home for the weekend, and it wasn’t unusual for them to never return.
Despite the number of students, the first few months of freshman year can be a lonely time, particularly if no one from your high school made the journey with you. It’s within an environment that fraternities and sororities prosper. They promise ready-made friends, popularity, connections that last a lifetime, and guaranteed invitations to college parties. It’s hard to resist, particularly in these huge, football-oriented public universities where Greek life is the rule and not the exception.
I joined a frat as a freshman. I hated it, quit after a year, and ultimately exposed their hazing rituals in the school newspaper during my senior year one week when I was hard up for a column idea, not realizing how much shit I would invite upon myself, including harassing phone calls, death threats, and my former “brothers” disowning me. Greek houses take that sh*t seriously (My column prompted an investigation and a suspension).
No university is more serious about Greek life, purportedly, than the University of Alabama, where Rush Week is explored in Max’s documentary Bama Rush. Director Rachel Fleit follows several girls contemplating becoming sorority girls — some of whom have been dreaming about it their whole lives — and takes us on a journey through the experiences, at least until the sorority system (The Machine) catches wind and shuts it down.
I’m not sure that I would call Bama Rush a great documentary — Fleit centers herself unnecessarily, there’s not enough footage from inside the sororities, and the doc ultimately fizzles out — but it is an unwelcome reminder of how superficially brutal Greek life can be. Mostly freshman girls vie for the best houses, and those houses choose members mostly based on looks. The top-tier houses have the hottest girls and the hottest girls are largely determined by the frat boys, which means even the sisterhood is controlled by the patriarchy. It also means that self-worth is largely determined by looks. It’s so baked in, and rush is so serious at the University of Alabama that there are even consultants to help first-year students look the part, and by that, I mean: Look like real-life glamour photos from the mall.
As the consultant tells one prospective sorority girl, it’s important to be yourself, but also look like everyone else. You don’t gain entrance into a sorority by standing out; you gain entrance by fitting in. Failure to get into a top-tier house can feel demeaning — I still remember at the U of A that the Tri Deltas (Delta Delta Delta!) were considered the top-tier house, while the Phi Mu sorority girls were infuriatingly referred to as the Phi-Moooos.
It’s basically institutionalized misogyny, a system-wide means to breed insecurity. On top of that, the University of Alabama Greek system is apparently run by a shadow organization called The Machine, which, for instance, instructs its members on whom to vote in both college elections and in national ones. The Machine doesn’t just control the sororities and fraternities; it seems to have control over the entire university.
To the credit of several of the incoming freshmen in the doc, they drop out of the rush process before — or soon after — it begins. It takes a lot to recognize how toxic the Greek system is before it’s too late, although — again — I wouldn’t fault anyone for pursuing that path. It’s a shortcut to a huge friend group, and all you have to do is sell out your personality. For those who have little to begin with, it’s an easy choice.