Bama Rush, the internet’s guilty pleasure, is back, only this time we’re not scrolling down our TikTok FYP to get the latest rush week news. The Bama Rush documentary is officially out on Max (FKA HBO Max), and there’s a lot to unpack.
Over two years ago the world was introduced to the ubiquitous rush process at the University of Alabama. Sorority rushing isn’t new, but the merging of southern tradition and social media made the perfect storm for the young women of Tuscaloosa to become TikTok’s own personal mini-series with subplots, main characters, and, of course, antagonists.
The hashtag #bamarush currently has over 2.6B views on TikTok, which alone shows how invested people became in these journeys to choose three Greek letters. Bama Rush Tok became a sensation almost overnight, and as the public flocked to TikTok, viewers and past alumni alike started calling the university and panhellenic council out for its many missteps over the years: allegations of racism, sexism, gatekeeping, and secret societies became vital parts of the Bama Rush discussion, leading to national news coverage beyond a 30-second GRWM video. The new documentary addresses some, but not all, of the Bama Rush phenomenon, aiming to shed light on the massive mental, emotional, and physical toll that comes with rush week.
Bama Rush follows four young women — PNMs (Prospective New Members) for short — as they navigate Alabama’s monstrous Greek life process all while trying to find themselves. While on campus, we see these young women balance their pre-rush activities with the excitement of starting a new chapter in their lives.
The process of making the documentary was itself tinged with controversy and secrecy. Current students and alumni caught wind that a documentary was in the works, so many girls were allegedly warned to limit their social media activity. The paranoia got so intense one PNM was dropped from all sororities because others believed her hair tie was a microphone. The warning was clear: anyone currently connected or hoping to be connected to Greek life at Alabama would be ill-advised to participate in the doc.
Marissa Lee was the first Black president of Phi Mu at UA. And while she grapples with the diversity struggles within the Greek system, she still has strong connections to her sorority. So when she was approached to be a part of the documentary, she decided to decline. “Things are a lot more nuanced than they seem and I think it can be hard to capture that in a two hour documentary,” she tells Teen Vogue. “And then everyone's story and experiences are unique. I was a president, which is a very different experience than the average member whether they are white, Black, or Asian.”
Now that the Bama Rush documentary is finally here, it’s time to relive the TikTok virality, go deeper into the stories behind The Machine, and contextualize the Greek life phenomenon in our larger culture. What does Bama Rush have to show us about this process? Here are 11 things we learned after watching the doc.
We all just want to fit in
The documentary closely follows four girls: Shelby, Isabelle, Holliday, and Makalya. And while all four come from different backgrounds, they’re all chasing the same thing: membership in the largest Greek population in the nation.
Their rush process alone shows how vast the landscape is at Alabama, and when you’re 18 entering a massive university, fitting into the campus status quo can be extra appealing — and that means participating in Greek life. Throughout the documentary, these four girls share their journeys to rush week and many talk about their physical attributes and things they want to work on, often referring to their bodies. Closer to rush week, Makalya even gets blonde highlights. UA sorority life, especially those viewing through a small screen on an app see a disproportionate gap in diversity, with white blonde women being a vast majority of its members.
“It should be noted that the pressures of being thin and beautiful were astronomical when I rushed back in 2013,” former UA Alpha Delta Pi member Maggie Gehlsen-Burnett tells Teen Vogue. “I even remember hearing that because I had brown hair, I would be dropped by some sororities almost instantly. It was pretty cutthroat. I have never seen anything like Alabama Rush.”
And in 2023, girls are still preparing to tackle Bama Rush by showing up as the version of themselves they believe will get a bid.
The weight doesn’t fall solely on sororities
The documentary heavily discusses the Greek ranking system and how it came about. In our current age, when you hear that a sorority is top, bottom, or mid tier, you’d think things like community service, charity and social activity would play a role in how they were ranked. In the documentary, we’re shown that the origins of this ranking came from the Alabama fraternity houses who ranked off of who had the most attractive batch of PNMs each year. When we think about the Bama Rush craze happening currently, we tend to put a lot of the blame on the women involved. But, this mere fact alone of tier systems shows how important fraternity men are to this conversation about toxic college environments.
Beware of the all-seeing standards board
The infamous standards board conjoined with a patronizing “hey girly” text have plagued everyone’s general understanding of the dos and don'ts of sorority life. Many former Greek members have gone on to talk about via TikTok how the standards board is a way to police their members' online presence. TikTok Becca More has previously posted often about the many things that had her sent to standards when she was in her sorority. A standards board focuses on upholding the integrity and reputation of your chapter; for many members, it stokes the fear they’ve posted something “inappropriate” on social media. In the documentary, a current sorority member talks about how she’d previously been policed for her social media posts. More than anything, we learn how for many current members it’s just a nagging part of being in a hyper-visible organization.
“Standards is basically a game of favoritism,” Gehlsen-Burnett says. “If you were well-liked amongst your peers and those on the executive council, your odds of going to standards for the same activity as someone else who wasn’t well-liked were low. I went to standards once or twice, I think I missed a homecoming activity I was required to participate in. The idea behind standards is that you have ‘consequences’ for your actions, when really that typically just meant if you got too boozy at a fraternity party or a formal event, you’d pay a monetary fine.”
Sororities can give you a chosen family
In the documentary, PNM Isabelle talks about finding a chosen family through Greek life. “Being a part of a sorority will give me a chance to find people that love me no matter what,” she says in the project.
There’s truth to this. Sororities give you a chance to form lasting bonds with women for four consecutive years. You’ll be tied together, and those friendships tend to carry into the rest of your life. Joining an alleged sisterhood is enticing for anyone who doesn’t have that chance at long-term bonds in their normal life. The documentary’s main subjects all in different ways were chasing that sense of family. With Shelby being adopted and Makalya having her dad pass away early in her childhood, they all showcased how vital human connection and a chance to start anew was.
While the chance at sisterhood is top of mind for many, those who have been through the process and made it to graduation realize how harmful that sisterhood can still be.
“I think sororities are branded to young women leaving high school as essentially an instant group of friends,” Gehlsen-Burnett says. “I don’t know many 17-year-old women who would turn that down, so it’s a great marketing strategy. When I rushed, it was said to me on multiple occasions that if I didn’t rush, I would have an exceptionally difficult time making friends at UA. There’s a real sense of FOMO. I think there are a couple positives to joining sororities. I made so many lifelong friends in my sorority. I was able to participate heavily in philanthropy. But do I think the bad outweighs the good? Yes. I now recognize that making friends and participating in philanthropic endeavors are things you can easily do outside of the Greek system.”
The Five B’s
During the documentary, we’re introduced to the infamous five B’s of rush week. If you were anywhere on TikTok you might’ve heard about them, but the documentary finally confirms what we knew to be true. When going through rush week, PNMs are mostly notified of the five things you should never talk to a current member about: Boys, Booze, Bible, Box, and Biden.
Boys simply means discussing anything about potential mixers with fraternities or expressing interest in a specific man (just in case your campus crush happens to be the president's boyfriend). Booze is of course discussing alcohol. Bible is anything religion-based, box is financial standing, and Biden encompasses all discussions about politics. These topics might come up, but it's advised for PNMs to not be the ones to bring them up. Conversing about those topics is a sure-fire way to get dropped during rush week.
Sometimes you might need a fairy rush-mother
Alabama Greek life is so large that some prospective members hire a rush consultant to guide them through the process. Throughout the documentary we see Makalya navigating rush preparation alongside her consultant, who helps her pick out dresses to wear during rush week, prepares her for small talk with current members, and helps her spruce up her résumé.
As a former PNM and Phi Mu president, Lee understands firsthand how intense the UA rush process is, so she recently decided to launch a rush consultancy business alongside her sorority sister. Similar to the rush consultant in the documentary, she’s decided to help the young women of Tuscaloosa find their footing in the massive realm of recruitment. “I end up getting a lot of DMs and comments with questions around rush time anyway, so we put this personalized coaching together because it's not just about wearing the right color,” Lee says. “If you're coming from out of state and this is new to you, you're overwhelmed, we want to provide guidance and comfort. We’re offering something for the moms who get super involved and we’re focused on social media to help prospective members polish their pages so they can put their best foot forward.”
Students are still not ready to talk about The Machine
The infamous “secret society,” The Machine, is discussed during the documentary. The organization is more than a century old, and it originally formed as a branch of Theta Nu Epsilon, itself a branch of Yale’s Skull and Bones. It’s not a recognized Greek org, but rather a sorority and fraternity coalition that historically has had the power to influence university politics, campus elections, and more.
Their influence has continued into present-day. But while the producers attempted to explore topics around The Machine and the impact they have on campus, every single interviewee opted out. Current sorority members claimed they didn’t even know what The Machine was. The PNMs in the film quickly chose to say they would not discuss that at all. Mentioning The Machine was grounds for getting blacklisted for any org you might be interested in.
“I was Machine-adjacent,” 2016 UA graduate and Chi Omega member Katie Plotts tells Teen Vogue. “I was Machine-backed as an SGA senator and also paid the Machine dues as treasurer and president. They screwed me over in 2015, and it was a huge wake-up call to how terrible this organization really is. I can definitely understand not wanting to talk about it, especially if you want to stay in Alabama. UA is an extremely social school. There's a popular crowd, then there's the popular crowd of the popular crowd. It can be very easy to be iced out from these groups. Speaking out is not kosher in Alabama. No one wants to be the one to disrupt the status quo. Those who speak out against it are often a pariah in their friend groups and sororities. Hopefully this starts to change soon though as more people realize the damage this group is doing to democracy.”
The Machine’s actual dominance throughout campus is never seen, but for many current and former students, it's felt. “The Machine has dictated everything from SGA elections to Homecoming Queen for years, and there’s speculation it’s dictated much more, from city council elections to the Governor’s race,” Gehlsen-Burnett says. “I think people fear what tries to remain hidden or mysterious; the Machine still exists because of the fear of shedding light on what it actually does and how it’s inherently rooted in classism and racism.”
UA Greek life has a tense past with racism and The Divine 9
The documentary also focuses on the racist past connected to white UA students and their Black counterparts. In 1986, the Theta Sigma chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., had a cross burned into their yard in front of their sorority house. Their house is the only Black sorority on Alabama’s sorority row. UA has a longstanding history with the mistreatment of its Black and brown students, and we see first hand how that history still plays a role in how students interact.
“Diversity is at most a check box at Alabama,” Plot says. “Although it's been a few years since I graduated, Alabama has never taken accountability in their extremely racist history, and still to this day I see troubling things at the university that wouldn't fly at other schools. Tradition takes on a whole new meaning at this school, and it can be hard for them to separate what is good and what is shameful.” (Teen Vogue has reached out to the University of Alabama for comment.)
The secret blacklist does exist
We’ve all heard through TikTok about the possibilities of getting blacklisted, and the documentary shows one of the lead subjects Holliday dealing with it firsthand. She originally rushed in August of 2021 and chose a sorority house, but after making the mistake of wearing a different sorority sticker, she was dropped. Now in the documentary we see her prepare to rush again, but close to rush week she overhears sorority girls talking about how she was already blacklisted. She ultimately decides not to rush. While many current sorority members deny blacklisting to be a real thing, many young women at Alabama have spoken out about being put on that list. It usually comes down to small mistakes a senior in high school might not even realize they’d done until it was too late.
“Blacklisting is real,” Gehlsen-Burnett says. “Certain PNMs would be removed from our list if they had a ‘troubling’ social media post, including alcohol in photos, overly sexual pictures, things of that sort. Sororities are all about branding. If someone threatened to ‘ruin your brand’ then they’d be cut.”
Students are stuck in a love/hate relationship
The reason this documentary can only really touch the surface of Greek life at UA is mostly because of how many students are still ride-or-die for it. It’s very hard to convince people to betray a place they love dearly. Watching the documentary, you learn quickly how important tradition and legacy are to so many of these students, which is why there continues to be complacency and pushback on the practices that are continuously harming some of the student body. It is a hard line to walk, and it’s something Lee continues to deal with as an alumna who wants to see her beloved university evolve.
“I love UA so much,” Lee says. “I never want to be a part of something that could look like I don't love it or look like I support only the negative narrative against Alabama, but I also think loving something is wanting it to be its very best, holding them accountable. So in the same vein, we need to continue to get better each day and not let these small moments of diversity and change be a blip in the radar.”
Diversity is still an uphill battle
When looking at the population of current sorority members, diversity is still on the backburner. The university only made a formal effort to integrate the Greek system in 2013.
In the documentary, we meet several women of color currently in Greek life who share that while they weren’t met with outright racism, they did experience microaggressions from their sorority sisters. Lee was a part of the first crop of Black women to experience rush week. She’d then go on to become president of Phi Mu alongside her two close friends who were also Black women that became president of their respective panhellenic sororities. So while Lee garnered access and inclusion amidst this organization, she still believes there are many strides that still need to be made. Sometimes it’s not even a glaring diversity issue, but something as simple as mixers with their partnering fraternities.
“It’s kind of like when you watch a reality TV show and if everybody there was cast and they say their type is blonde, blue eyes and fit, then when they put the Black girl on the cast, obviously it's going to reinforce the fact that they're not going to be chosen,” Lee says.
Bama Rush is now streaming on Max.