Reel Thoughts: ‘Bama Rush’ is a reminder of how sinister sororities can become
June 1, 2023
Content warning: This article contains mentions of racism and sexual assault. It also contains spoilers.
“Little is known and what is known is secret,” John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said in the new Max documentary “Bama Rush.” He was paraphrasing the motto of the secret society, Theta Nu Epsilon that controls Greek life at the University of Alabama, according to the documentary.
The hour-and-a-half-long film follows four girls and their journeys while rushing — or going through formal recruitment — for sororities at the University of Alabama. It ends up being a haunting story of how Greek life can hold influence far beyond what it first set out to do.
According to the documentary, Alabama sororities formed in response to the sexism women faced attending universities at a time when universities were a male dominated sphere. However, later generations of women instead chose to focus on party life and the optics of premiere womanhood.
Nearing the exposé that viewers thought the documentary was going to be, the documentary dives into the large political influence known as “The Machine,” where student government and local politics is dominated by secret meetings with members from Greek life at the University of Alabama who are forced to “show receipts” of their involvement.
The documentary begins with a whistling tone you’d be accustomed to hearing in a psychological thriller, setting up the perfect tension.
Immediately, the film jumps straight into the virality of #BamaRush on Tiktok in 2021: the dresses, the drama and most importantly, the comedy that sprang from mocking how seriously these girls took themselves.
Filled with hopes and anxiety around getting into the sorority of their dreams — but fearing retaliation for involvement in the documentary — the girls at the heart of “Bama Rush” take viewers on an emotional roller coaster.
One girl talks about roofies as a social norm. Another holds a deep conversation about sexual assault. All of this serves as a stark reminder that the girls are truly victims of a system taking advantage of their insecurities.
The documentary, however, uses TikToks and cheeky jokes to break up the more serious discussions — a decision that reflects the sometimes morbid humor of Gen-Z.
Girls trying to increase their chances of getting selected for their top choice house have even begun to hire rush consultants who create portfolios and sharpen up someone’s social skills for rush interviews.
Makayla Miller, one of the girls rushing in the documentary, is faced with being made someone who she’s not. By featuring the story of a mixed-race Black woman entering spaces dominated by white women, director Rachel Fleit tackles the idea of identity.
At times it feels indirect, when she asks about people who have “automatically stood out,” instead of addressing how sororities treat women of color more straightforwardly.
With Greek life at Alabama having been recently desegregated in 2013, Fleit highlights the experiences of Black sorority girls in modern day and back in the ’80s. It’s an approach that points out how despite the changes in policy, racism has remained in these institutions.
In a unique move, Fleit inserts herself into the story to compare her struggles with alopecia — a condition that causes hair loss — to the stress of rushing. Her early years were marked with an internalized shame and she wore a wig until her sophomore year of college. She was “trying to get into the sorority of all of the girls who have hair,” she said.
She stopped wearing a wig — until word about the documentary blew up on TikTok. For the sake of her own security, she puts on a wig again, signifying a return to pretending to be someone she’s not.
Personally, the director’s inclusion speaks to me as a gay man, in terms of the message of coming to terms with something you can try to hide.
It’s a message I would wish my sorority friends could take from “Bama Rush.” Because at the end of the day, if your sisters drop you, you can only rely on your strength. You will be left with just yourself.
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