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Culture Study Meets Bama RushTok
HEY GUYS, GONNA DO A LITTLE OOTD FOR YOU!
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I was supposed to have jury duty this week. I cleared my schedule in anticipation. Then I showed up day one and was dismissed — which meant that I had a full week of largely unscheduled time….time to fill with Bama RushTok.
I was in a sorority at my small liberal arts college and loved it. There were four sororities total, no actual houses, very low dues, and lots of “we’re not like other sororities” talking points that were more or less true.
The super low-key three days of rush (which took place on the weekends) at Whitman were sold to me as a way to find friends in those early weeks of school, and at that point, I missed my high school friends desperately. I chose my sorority (Delta Gamma) almost entirely based on the way that they were with each other: zany and loving.
In the sorority, I liked being close with girls in other grades, the structured social opportunities, the deeply casual vibe (and resistance to what I understood as stereotypical sorority norms), the intimacy of it. Back then I knew the jokes about “paying for your friends,” but I didn’t understand the ways in which these organizations sort for and reinforce class and race-based hierarchies.
I’m currently working on a much bigger as-yet-unannounced project about RushTok and Greek Life at Alabama, which means that I’ve thought a lot about my own experience — and what, exactly, is drawing people to Greek life today. At schools like the one I went to, COVID restrictions pummeled Greek involvement, which had already been declining on the national level for years. In the early 2000s, my sorority was usually somewhere around 80 members. This past year, it was around a dozen.
At Alabama — and other big, flagship state schools like it — Greek life is thriving. In 2004, 4,014 students at UA were involved in Greek lifet; by 2017, that number had risen to 10,942. Last year, it was up to right around 12,000, or 36% of the student population. At the same time, the demographics of Alabama’s student body have shifted, at least when it comes to geography. A whopping 67.63% of Alabama students come from out of state — and we’re not just talking over state lines from Mississippi and Georgia.
Cue RushTok, Bama’s best recruiting tool outside of a national championship football team.
In short: Rushtok is a genre of TikTok videos that includes women who are going through rush (also known as PNMs, or Potential New Members) and videos made by the sorority members themselves. Rushtok first took off in 2020, which is why people refer to this iteration as “Season Three.” Since that first year, the organization that governs rush (Panhellenic, or Panhell) has issued guidelines on the type of videos that PNMs can make (#OOTDs, aka Outfits Of The Day, and commentary that says nothing about the houses themselves or their specific experiences with them).
All of these “primary text” videos are, in some way, advertisements: for the PNM as a person, or for the sorority itself and the type of experience you’d have there. Then there are “secondary text” videos that provide commentary, price out the items listed in an #OOTD, or aggregate the OOTD looks.
But what does all of this actually look like? I’ve spent the last week curating videos (and commentary) on Instagram to give you a glimpse. Click here to get started, and if that piques your interest, go to my IG profile and keep clicking on the highlighted stories. (If you don’t have Instagram or don’t have the time to spend an hour in this particular wormhole, I’ll post a few pertinent texts below).
A full sorority Tiktok:
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An #OOTD from some PNMs:
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An OOTD from an active sorority member (also a pageant queen FWIW):
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So what do these TikToks tell us? What ideas are they selling, what ideals are they sublimating, why is this happening?
I could write a whole book on this, but I’m going to try and get at some of the themes by answering the questions I’ve fielded the most in my DMs.
1.) Why do they want to do this, this sounds horrible
The first and most obvious reason — even to the women themselves — is social structure and friendship. A lot of them talk about their desire for “sisters” in their videos in ways that sound pretty hollow, but friendship is what they’re grasping for: a network of friends and community and a path forward through the maze of college. That’s why I was convinced to rush as a Greek-system-resistant freshman at a liberal arts college, and I’ve long heard the advice to undergraduates (particularly at big state schools) that joining the Greek system is your way to get “plugged in” at school (as opposed to finding yourself lonely and lost in a faraway dorm or apartment off-campus).
Obviously there are SO MANY ways to get “plugged in” to college life, but the Greek system is the cheat code. Before school even starts, you have somewhere between 100 and 400 “friends,” or at least people who will do things with you, tell you where the parties are and what time you should show up to them — and orient you to the campus, class, help figure out study groups, have people who can talk to you about what professors to seek out or avoid, etc. etc.
At a school with a big Rush, you endure a week of tremendous anxiety and social pressure in order to (theoretically) have less anxiety and social pressure for the rest of your college career, building connections in the process that also ease your transition into adult life. If college is still theoretically the pathway to the middle class, then Greek life smoothes the path even more: it’s a place to (again, theoretically) meet a partner, the best friends (of similar education and class) that will stay with you for the rest of your life, and build the alumni connections that will facilitate career-building (particularly if you stay in the South).
Greek life appeals to students who were popular in high school and want to reproduce that feeling of power and ease (whether they realize it or not). It also appeals to students who were not popular but still desire that power and ease. (Some students self-actualize early and realize there are other avenues to adulthood; if you were one of these kids, I’m retroactively jealous of your strong sense of self). Which leads us to….
2.) Why do they all look the same
Like most other groups in life, Greek groups are affinity groups. They attract and select for people who fit an understanding of the ideal member. Current and prospective members use coded language for this affinity (“I can see this girl in this house,” “I can’t see myself in this house”). Some of “fit” is related to vibe (snotty, conservative, Christian, girl next store, jock, nerds, cool girls) and some of it is related to aesthetic (body size, hairstyle, style of dress, hair color, skin color) and all of it is shot through with class reproduction. No sorority at a school like Alabama would ever say “we only take rich girls,” but some of their understanding of a “fit” means, well, they only take rich girls — or girls who can perform a certain class level.
The aspirational standards at BamaRush this year are pretty similar to what they’ve been for the last few years: white (we’ll get to that); tan; long, straightened hair with waves; thin; significant amounts of makeup; short dresses with overly feminine features (big ruffles, structured poof sleeves ); and extensive jewelry, including multiple bracelets and rings. The deviations from that norm (in size, in skin color, in dress choice, in hair texture) are so remarkable as to single the girls out for Tiktok stardom.
See: the two ‘stars’ of this year’s rush, Bama Morgan and Bella Grace. Both are aspiring for the norm in different ways (Morgan straightening her hair, Bella Grace’s dresses) but can’t quite fit in (for reasons of personality and perceived class). They mirror what so many of us, particularly those of us many years distant from our 17 and 18-year-old selves, understand as the building blocks of a good person and good human: individuality, personality, kindness, and humor….instead of looks, body size, wealth. (More on Morgan and her rush experience below)
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As for the rest of the girls on RushTok — they might look the same to you, as a viewer, but the current members of the sorority “read” the texts of the PNMs in a very different way. Months before rush begins, all PNMs submit elaborate rush application packets filled with a personal video, a resume, and reams of recommendation letters from women in their life (preferably sorority women, preferably sorority women from the University of Alabama). They scrub their social accounts to curate an identity that seemingly matches their desired sorority — which, contrary to what you might assume, does not mean a lot of shots of them looking hot and partying. Instead, the goal is a mix of volunteering, being normal, having friends, and looking pretty (but not sexy). All signs of “partying” are eliminated.
The active members of the sorority read the text of a PNM’s social accounts, but they also read the implicit signaling in the background of their rush application video, the “quality” of recommendations they receive, and the zip code of their high school. Many of the girls destined for the top sororities were already part of high school sororities (yes, this is a thing) that are effectively feeders — and where membership is contingent on a certain performance of class and femininity.
Having a lot of money is important but it’s not enough, at least not for the most exclusive sororities. You have to be a certain kind of rich, and wield that wealth in a certain kind of way. The women making Tiktoks of their #OOTDs, listing out their expensive jewelry — it might seem counterintuitive, but they’re doing it wrong. The consumption is too conspicuous; the performance too public. It’s all very old money new money, very East and West Egg, very “like us” vs. “not like us.”
There’s a reason, in other words, that so many of the girls doing #OOTDs are not from the South. They can approximate the aesthetic but they don’t know all the other unwritten rules. That doesn’t mean they won’t get a bid to a sorority, it just means they don’t have entrance to the highest echelons of campus power.
[In the case of Morgan — who got dropped from all of the houses that she preferenced this past Saturday, the final day of rush — the current consensus is that she was dropped because she was too good and too successful at social media. She quickly surpassed 100,000 followers (and celebrated the milestone), she did an interview with Teen Vogue about her ‘normal girl’ experience (PNMs are told not to interact with the media), the hairbands she was wearing in her OOTDs made a response video (honestly it’s charming), and she signed with a manager (who basically makes sure you’re not getting screwed by brand sponsorship opportunities, which is a very real thing).
None of this is “bad” (there’s nothing about Morgan’s toks that suggest she was trying to gain this sort of popularity, she just seems like a girl who likes to talk to the camera and we all have one of those in our lives) but it’s not the “right sort” of attention. We’ll never know the real reason why she was dropped — not unless someone inside the sororities she preferenced talks, which is very, very unlikely — but its visibility will absolutely police PNM RushTok behavior in years to come.]
3.) But how is it still so white
All of these big universities were founded to reproduce white supremacy. Some readers might chaff at that phrasing, but an institution founded on stolen land to educate white people and (with very rare exception) only white people is an attempt to ensure white people remain in power. That’s white supremacy.
The Greek organizations at the majority of these universities operated with that implicit goal in the background (or foreground) — and excluded anyone who wasn’t white from their membership for decades. The sororities, particularly in the post-Civil War period, worked to foster and preserve an understanding of womanhood rooted in whiteness. (For an incisive read on how sororities helped shape conservative ideals of white womanhood, see Margaret Freeman’s Women of Discriminating Taste: White Sororities and the Making of American Ladyhood).
But not all sororities were for white women. At many schools, sororities and fraternities specifically for Jewish, Asian, and Hispanic students developed alongside but always separate from the white organizations; at HBCUs (and, later, on integrated campuses) there was an entirely separate Greek system, known as the Divine Nine or D9.
The University of Alabama was forcefully integrated in 1963. The first D9 house was established eleven years later. If you were one of the few Black women on campus, you could either stay independent, pledge a D9 sorority, or attempt to break the unspoken but incredibly evident segregation line of the white sororities — and even if you did make it through rush and get a bid, you’d still be the “only one” or one of the very few for four years.
You can see why the status quo maintained itself — and the sororities at UA were not officially desegregated until 2013. (On TikTok you can find a lot of stories from Black women who rushed in the aftermath of 2013, got into sororities, and then put up with endless bullshit, even when several of them became presidents of those sororities).
And even though rush is officially unsegregated today, the legacy of segregation (which, let’s be clear, is the legacy of chattel slavery) means that women of color participating in rush don’t have the same legacy connections to the sororities that give many white PNMs a stronger chance of membership. What’s more, many of the high-achieving southern students who end up at Alabama come through the funnel of private schools — many of which were founded as literal segregation academies after the end of Jim Crow to ensure that white students could still be educated in cocoons of whiteness.
Many of these segregation academies now have nominal diversity (often but not exclusively in the form of scholarshiped sports players) but remain overwhelmingly white. These schools also have the best apparatuses for funneling students into Greek life — including senior year orientations from other parents on how to prepare your rush application, offers to write recommendation letters and connect students to other women who will write them letters, etc. etc.
If an institution is reproducing conservative understandings of gender and class, a conservative understanding of racial hierarchies is coming along too. Sororities at other universities are less white, but it’s going to take a long, long time (and intention) for any institution founded to buttress white supremacy to be meaningfully less white. (I know that at least thirteen sororities with chapters at UA, including several of the most prestigious houses, have made the pretty radical decision to stop referencing legacies. That’s a real start, but it’s going to take a lot more than that.)
4.) Why are so many of these students from out of state
Some students come to Alabama because of tradition, because of proximity, or because of price. But a whole lot of them — particularly those coming from out of state — are coming for “the college experience.”
As of 2022, 63% of first-year students at Alabama were coming from out of state. Some of them are coming from other Southern states, but many have been aggressively recruited — with merit scholarships — by the university, which, like many public universities, finds itself with less public funding than ever and an implicit mandate to recruit out-of-state tuition dollars. (You can find a lot more on that recruiting apparatus, particularly how it’s functioning in wealthy suburbs, here).
“The college experience” is rooted in the social, the group, the experience (or appearance) of fun. Not just going to a football game but GOING TO A MASSIVE FOOTBALL GAME, not just being in a Greek System but being in the BIGGEST GREEK SYSTEM. Not just living in a house with friends, but living in an ornate plantation mansion with hundreds of your friends across the street from the football stadium. Not just going to parties, but going to sprawling themed ‘darties’ (day parties) that last a day, a weekend, a week.
Who craves the college experience? A lot of high schoolers, particularly high schoolers who had much of their imagined experience of high school and its social rituals eliminated because of Covid. If the current hunger for Greek life is, at least in part, a response to the isolation and loneliness of the pandemic, then the hunger for the “college experience” is an outsized reaction to a muted high school experience.
Of course, these students could go to the University of Oregon, or USC, or Ohio State. But they want a specific kind of big college experience — and Bama is the apotheosis. Big football, of course, but also one where sororities and fraternities are still cool (not “problematic”) and where they can engage in a sort of white Southern cosplay, complete with accent, politics, and remove from the pressures of progressivism that have come to structure urban and suburban norms in many of the places where these kids grew up. (This posture is of course deeply annoying to actual Southerners, whose lived reality is much more complex than the one mapped onto them by outsiders, but it’s no different than what’s happening as out-of-staters become the dominant population in Montana or Texas. At some point, the hackneyed idea of the identity eclipses the identity itself.)
The promise of Bama — at least to outsiders — is an opportunity to “make college great again.” Sure, the fraternities aren’t supposed to have “Old South” parties anymore, complete with “Lost Cause” uniforms for the men and specifically tailored antebellum dresses for the women. But they’ve figured out how to get around it by calling it a Derby party. For them, the costumes of the South are the costumes of the South, regardless of what name you affix to the party itself.
And while many schools conceive of their Greek institutions as a thorn in their side, sustained on the insistence of trustees and alumni, Alabama’s leadership understands it as foundational to its identity and future draw. (To be clear, I don’t think this is the attitude or posture of the academics at Alabama — the mission of institutional leadership and its faculty are two very different things).
For the girls rushing, I think a lot of this is subtext. If you went to college — and, more specifically, if you had a choice in where you went to college — you know that so much of your decision was informed by exposure, by parents, by stereotypes, by who sent you a bunch of brochures in the mail, by who you saw playing in the NCAA Final Four, by where your secret crush went, the list goes on. Many of the students rushing right now spent some of their most formative teenage years watching Rushtok. They were 13 and 14 years old when it first took hold. Maybe it made them feel gross. But maybe it also made them feel like they could do that, too. All they needed was to get into Bama — and amass the proper rush trousseau.
5.) So if they girls have learned exactly how to perform rush from Rushtok why do they need rush consultants
Backtrack this question just a bit to say: a small percentage of out-of-state parents are hiring rush consultants, who charge thousands of dollars to guide young women through the rush application process (and rush itself) in a similar manner to the college admissions consultant. A rush consultant helps prospective PNMs put together their application, scrub their social media, mine their parents’ connections for recommendation letters, learn how to have a rush conversation, and pick outfits. They make the invisible rush curriculum — which many of the girls from the monied white South have been absorbing since childhood — into a purchasable service.
A rush consultant also advises girls to stay the hell away from Rushtok, or at least from putting themselves on Rushtok. Rushtok is for people who don’t know the rules, or who think they know the rules, or who think that having a bunch of David Yurman bracelets is the same as knowing the rules. It’s the opposite of stealth wealth and subdued Southern femininity.
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Which isn’t to say that you can’t be “big” on Rushtok — but you might only get a bid from a certain type of house. (One of the biggest stars of last year’s Rushtok is now an active at Zeta and has continued to post through Rush; the stereotype of a Zeta, at least according to some of the girls I talked to, is “girls with black Jeep Wranglers with Jersey plates.” You see what’s happening here.)
This is what I mean when I say that Greek organizations reproduce a conservative understanding of class: one in which the “right” kind of wealth is at once private but legible to those who understand the language. It’s such a fine line to tread, which is part of why finding yourself firmly on that line remains so desirable. And a family employs a rush consultant to try and navigate their daughter’s way as close to that line as possible, because once you’re there, invisible doors (to a “good” marriage, to the right societal connections) start opening.
6.) Where are all the queer girls
I have a strong memory of the president of my sorority coming back from the summer of junior year with a girlfriend — and the sorority alumni advisor, then in her 70s, asking: “are we the lesbian sorority now?” We sorta were, at least relatively — and became more and more queer as the years went on (and the college itself became more and more queer).
A lot of people don’t come out until they’re in college for so many reasons; the pressures to perform heteronormativity are even higher in culturally conservative environments like the Greek System. And yet! There are lots of queer people there, just like there are queer people everywhere! My understanding is that there are queer out women in a lot of the sororities at Bama, and, well, there’s a lot of gay sex in the fraternities. A cis-gendered femme queer person would theoretically do just fine in rush if they had a hetero-seeming social presence, since discussion of the three Bs (booze, bars, boys) is strictly forbidden (and, by extension, any discussion of romantic relationships).
If a PNM was very openly out — maybe a different equation. Not necessarily because of the active members of the sorority, but because of the advisors, made up of alumni who are deeply invested in their understanding of what the sorority was, what it must remain, and what sort of exclusion is necessary to do so. Alumni facilitate rush through their labor and funds; alumni in advisor positions serve on the committees that enforce behavioral norms in the sorority (like no posting alcohol on social media, no drinking in your letters, not leaving the house without “2 out of 3” done [hair, makeup, outfit]). Alumni make their opinion known about whether or not the sorority should offer a return party invitation to, say, a gender non-conforming person going through rush. The alumni are instrumental in policing the sorority status quo.
The same goes for the national office of each sorority, often referred to as “nationals.” When a non-binary student was initiated into Chi Omega at St. Lawrence University earlier this year, it was nationals that called months later to tell them it had “been a mistake” and nullified their membership. (In my experience, the standards of sorority national organizations align with the norms of the biggest and most normative chapters — not the norms of the smaller schools like St. Lawrence).
This influence might change as the oldest alumni age out of advisor positions the same way that political voting blocks are changing as boomers age out of voting (in that case, by dying). But I also think there will be a much larger reckoning within the Greek system at large as more trans and non-binary students challenge its rigid gender binary.
Will that happen at Alabama? In the more exclusive sororities, probably not for a while. Again: conservative ideas about racial hierarchy and class positioning intersect and rely on conservative understandings of gender. UA panhellenic guidelines state that anyone who “lives and consistently identifies as a woman” can rush. But what does that policy matter if none of the houses will give you an invitation for the next round?
7.) Why are the beds in these videos so high
8.) Why are all the dances to the same songs with the same moves
That’s what you do on Tiktok, they’re memes
9.) Why do they wear so much makeup and so many serums and spend so much time their hair
Performance of the high femme aesthetic
10.) Why do they call their dresses “cute little dresses”
Diminutive is feminine — and also the opposite of sexy, which is not the image you’re trying to exude during rush. (There’s a bit of a virgin/whore dynamic going on — rush dresses are, in many ways, “church dresses,” which are a contrast to the “going out” dress you wear when interacting with fraternities and under the male gaze)
11.) Do they all have Covid now
12.) How do you know what houses are “good”
I mean define “good,” define “desirable,” but here’s a Reddit thread explaining some stereotypes.
13.) Why are there so many girls who look like pageant queens
Because they’re pageant queens (Alabama is one of only five schools and the only major university to match pageant scholarship funds).
14.) Why do their dorms have such fancy decorations
The “college experience” manifest on the aesthetic level! Also those neon name signs are cheap on Amazon
15.) Why don’t the fraternities do RushTok
Fraternity rush is much more diffuse and unorganized because everyone knows that organization is for ladies. More to the point: public performance is feminizing; men’s rush (can) involve a lot of alcohol; there’s no upside, just liability.
Also: women internalize the idea that they always be performing their identity for a public audience. That pressure starts in teendom, goes through college and early adulthood, and extended into the motherhood. The more public you are in your performance, the more you submit yourself to others’ disciplining eye, and women must always be disciplined).
16.) This is so different from when I went through rush, these girls spend way too much time filming themselves, why is their hair like that, why are they wearing fake eyelashes, what is she putting on her eyebrows, I don’t understand the point of these OOTDs, etc. etc.
A really smart Gen-Z reader reframed this reaction for me, and I’m just going to put it here for you to ponder.
“I feel like there are definitely Bama/Southern trends observed in Rushtok, but there are Gen-Z trends that get characterized as Bama/Southern because they are different from what millennials and older expect,” they told me. “The commentary skews towards characterizing certain shows of wealth as inherently southern when I can name six girls between DC, NYC, an MN that are wearing fake designer or Cartier bracelets right now. Things are happening on a different scale for sure, but so much of it is the consumerism inherent to growing up with a curated profile. Every girl I know is performing femininity or consciously Not Performing (which is to perform) on IG/Tiktok and — and Tumblr when we were younger still. Like I have been visible on some scale since I was 13 and I will continue to be so and so everyone who meets me can see who I was and who I am and who I will be, which leads to such unique image curation on social media culminating in very performative ‘I own this’ signaling item…..and then boom, Golden Gooses for the South.”
(Golden Gooses, by the way, are shoes that are $600-900+ and look like purposefully dirtied up Converse — and a current staple of RushTok)
16.) Why am I so invested in RushTok even though I knew nothing about it a week ago
For the same reason it was so easy for me to write this post (even if it did take all damn day): Greek life (and its manifestation on TikTok) weaves together so many cultural and historical threads. As evidenced by my hours of Instagram coverage, you can pull one of those threads, pull another, keep pulling, and bunch everything up in a way that makes it impossible to smooth out again.
Contemporary Greek life is at once far more complex than the stereotype and also deeply rooted in that stereotype. It’s incredibly ornate and deceptively simple. It’s all so deeply, deeply American. And I’m invested in unpacking it for the same reason I’m invested in unpacking anything that shaped me as a young adult, whether that be a sorority or Presbyterianism or academia. Zoom in, and I see the very best parts of my life, myself, my heart. Zoom out, and I see networks of power and privilege that cloak themselves in the cute little dresses of sisterhood and belonging.
It is so natural to want to belong: to crave something, anything, that could ease your way during the most terrifying transitions in life. But it should also be natural for us to think more — like, a whole lot more, a whole newsletter or hours of Instagram Stories more, the rest-of-our-lives more — about any system animated so thoroughly by exclusion. ●
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