Bama Rush shines light on the dark underbelly of the college ‘sisterhood’

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Cut-throat competition, feverish femininity, and a desire to join “the sisterhood” are hallmarks of the pageantry that has taken place at American universities for centuries, as undergraduates seek life-long membership to a sorority.

For the young women in Bama Rush – a new documentary depicting sorority recruitment at The University of Alabama in 2022 – the stakes to belong are so high, some are willing to become entirely different people.

In 2021, sorority recruitment at the university became a viral sensation, as applicants posted daily TikTok videos about their wildly competitive experience trying to get into the hallowed sorority halls. Suddenly, a life that was once concealed from those outside the sisterhood became visible to the world.

Bama Rush shows the lengths some young women will go to belong while competing for sorority membership at The University of Alabama.Credit: Binge/HBO

Hundreds of millions of people collectively watched in confused awe as young pledges stacked on top of each other to form human pyramids in front of sorority houses, singing songs to impress senior members. Others dropped to the floor in tears upon realising they’d missed out on their top pick.

Rachel Fleit was so awestruck by this phenomenon that upon seeing the videos she decided she had to make a film about it. But as she delved in, the pressure to conform became so intense that she – a 42-year-old award-winning director who lives with Alopecia – found herself putting on a wig, changing her clothes and upping the make-up to “fit in” among groups of 18 to 21-year-old girls.

This was the only way Fleit, known for the critically acclaimed Introducing, Selma Blair could finish capturing the highly competitive nature of sorority recruitment, also known as “rush”. She essentially had to become “one of them”, blend into the background and remove anything that stood out.

“This symbolised everything I was talking about [in the film],” Fleit says. “I couldn’t be me. I had to cover who I was in order to be a part of this world … It was quite intense. But then I also felt a little bit like a warrior getting ready for battle because, in a way, it was like I had to do this to finish my film.”

“I believe the sorority system is a lightning rod by which we can talk about all of the the issues that young women face as they’re becoming themselves,” says Fleit, who was not associated with “Greek Life” – a term used for sororities and fraternities in the United States because they are named using letters from the Greek alphabet – when she attended university around two decades ago.

During the vérité film, Fleit follows four young women embedded in the rush process. For most of them, it begins as a light-hearted journey of self-discovery – an opportunity to explore their budding womanhood alongside new friends. But the closer they get to “sorority row”, the more visible its dark underbelly becomes.

Fleit and her crew are forbidden to film inside sorority houses. One of the girls, Holliday, was dropped from her sorority for wearing the wrong sorority sticker. Other girls speak of being tried before sorority “judging panels” for something as minor as going upstairs in a frat house. Paranoid members refuse to speak about “The Machine”, a secret society rumoured to control campus for the elite, for fear of being dropped.

Holliday in HBO Max’s Bama Rush.Credit: Binge/HBO

During the film, rush is described as a “social stratification ritual”, a form of “competitive femininity”. Girls race for spots in the top houses (usually labelled as such by male fraternity members), which generally boast the most power, status and prestige on campus. Some even hire professional “rush consultants” who guide them through rush week, helping them create sorority CVs, select their clothing and instruct them on “appropriate” conversation (ie. avoid the five B’s – boys, booze, bible, bucks and Biden).

Representation is everything, Fleit says. One scene depicts members editing photos of each other on their phones. They whiten teeth, slim down arms and tighten waists while explaining every little detail counts when the goal is perfection.

“Individuality is so lacking,” Fleit says. “One of my characters, the young woman Rian, said it so poignantly … she says something like, ‘I hope these institutions will start to take care of the well-being of its members and really support the individuality of its members’.”

One prospective member, Makayla, slowly changes her entire appearance in a bid to “fit in”. She’s introduced as a quiet, curly haired girl who listens to rap in her car. By the end of the film, she has straightened and lightened her hair, bought frilly dresses, and forced a smile during pageant-style photoshoots with her rush consultant. She edges her way towards being a carbon copy of existing sorority members, but the conformity eventually proves too much. She pulls out of rush, saying it wasn’t “her style”.

Makayla changes much of her appearance in a bid to “fit in” and be selected by a sorority.Credit: Binge/HBO

“There are good things about this tradition, there are bad things, and there are very confusing things, so I stand somewhere in the middle of it all,” Fleit says.

“It’s so nuanced. Isabelle had such an intense, traumatic experience right before rush began, and then you see how she was embraced during the rush experience, embraced by her sorority and the system. Then you have someone like Holliday, who gets dropped from the sorority for something quite minimal. It really runs the gamut.”

Fleit describes sororities as a rose with thorns. They can guide women during the turbulent transition from school to university, embedding them within close-knit communities. But this sense of belonging often comes at a price, one that many – even those outside US sororities – have at some point been willing to pay.

“We all just need and want to be seen. I hope that young women can see themselves in the young women in this film, that they can identify and feel less alone … I hope people just get it and are like, ‘I want to belong too. This is what I do to belong’.”

Bama Rush is now available to stream on Binge.

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