Max's new documentary explores the viral phenomenon of sorority rush at the University of Alabama
"Bama Rush" took TikTok by storm in the summer of 2021.
Using hashtags like #BamaRush and #RushTok, hopeful young women looking to join sororities at the University of Alabama began documenting their recruitment experience on the social media app. While their lighthearted "outfit of the day" videos are what first captured TikTok's attention, their content began to take a slightly darker turn as the students chronicled the heartbreaking rejections and behind-the-scenes drama that inevitably came with the notoriously selective rush process.
According to the university, there are approximately 12,000 students involved in Greek life on the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, campus, which is 36% of the undergraduate student body. Since 2011, UA has been home to the largest fraternity and sorority community in the United States.
Max's new documentary Bama Rush, which premiered on May 23, takes a closer look at the viral phenomenon and sheds light on the experience of four young women going through sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama in fall 2022. Director Rachel Fleit spent over a year filming both current sorority members and potential new members at the university, offering viewers an inside look at the highly competitive culture surrounding Greek life at Alabama.
But what exactly is Bama Rush and why did it go so viral in the first place? Read on for everything to know about the University of Alabama's sorority recruitment process and how it became a TikTok sensation.
What is Bama Rush?
Bama Rush is the informal name for the recruitment process at the University of Alabama, where students hope to secure a bid from the participating sorority of their choosing after a series of "rush" events.
At Alabama, there are typically four main events that PNMs (potential new members) participate in before classes commence. The week kicks off with convocation, typically the least formal event, where PNMs can get to know the different sororities. Rush is a mutual selection process, and after each event, PNMs make selections of which houses they would like to visit the next day, while current sorority members choose which PNMs they would like to invite back to their houses.
Next comes philanthropy day, where PNMs learn about a chapter’s volunteer work. Sisterhood round follows, where PNMs spend one-on-one time with current sisters. "Pref" night or preference round is the most formal and intense part of the process, where PNMs have longer conversations with sorority members in an effort to foster a deeper bond before both the chapters and the PNMs make their final choices.
From there, sororities deliberate on the PNMs they’ve met throughout the week and extend bids, an offer to pledge their chapter. PNMs also rank the houses they've visited in order of which they would most like to join. Since the process involves mutual selection, not every PNM receives a bid from their top house — and not every sorority gets to offer a bid to their top choices if the PNM ranked a different house higher. In some cases, PNMs are not offered a bid to any house at all.
The week culminates with bid day where members of the newly chosen PC (pledge class) “run home” to their sorority house and celebrate.
Why did Bama Rush go viral on TikTok?
In August 2021, Bama Rush first captured TikTok's attention when PNMs began sharing their "OOTD" (outfit of the day) videos on the app during rush week. Users quickly became enraptured by the specific dress code that PNMs were following for each sorority event, from the colorful dresses of sisterhood round to the athletic skorts of bid day.
Frequently seen brands included big retailers like Lululemon, Lulus and Kendra Scott, plus local favorites like Pants Store.
In addition to sharing their OOTDs, PNMs documented what was in their "rush bag," or the tote full of essentials they lugged with them from house to house, which often included everything from bandages and hair spray to sewing kits and rain ponchos.
Shortly after, prospective pledges at other universities with large Greek life populations, including Auburn University and Clemson University, began capitalizing on the internet’s fascination with the Bama Rush process and documented their own rush experience as well.
The phenomenon continued in August 2022, when "season 2" of #RushTok kicked off with a whole new set of hopeful PNMs looking to "run home" to their dream sororities. To date, the #BamaRush hashtag on TikTok has accumulated over 2.6 billion views and counting.
Who were the main characters of #RushTok?
Standout PNMs from Bama Rush in 2021 included Emma McGowin, Haylee Golden, Makayla Culpepper and Ashley Stahl. In addition to showing off their rush outfits and newly decorated dorm rooms, they chronicled the ups and downs of the entire recruitment process, from their months of preparation ahead of the event to their disappointment after being dropped by a house.
In August 2022, a new group of prospective sisters began documenting their journey on TikTok, with many users on the app referring to them as members of “season 2.” Major players that were “unlocked” included Miss Ohio Teen USA 2022 Kylan Darnell, Gracyn Edmondson, Grant Sikes and Shelby Rose.
Darnell, in particular, became known as the "Queen of Bama Rush," with users praising her positive attitude and signature opening line: "I hope you're having a great day, not just a good day." After documenting her rush process, Darnell gained nearly 750,000 followers across TikTok and Instagram.
What were the controversies surrounding Bama Rush?
Makayla Culpepper quickly became a fan-favorite PNM during the initial Bama Rush craze. TikTok users began taking guesses on which sorority house she would end up in, and eagerly awaited her bid day announcement. A few days into recruitment, however, Culpepper revealed that she had been cut by all of the sororities on campus.
In a TikTok, Culpepper claimed that she had been dropped after a video started circulating of her allegedly underage drinking, a violation of the university’s recruitment rules. TikTok users quickly rallied around Culpepper, saying that she had been unfairly targeted because of her popularity on the app. Despite not receiving a bid to join a sorority, Culpepper managed to make the best of her situation, launching an online store aptly named "Till You Drop Boutique."
During the 2022 Bama Rush season, a non-binary student named Grant Sikes garnered attention after being dropped from every sorority during the recruitment process. The Alabama native enthusiastically documented her OOTDs on TikTok during the early days of rush, before announcing she had received a phone call ahead of preference round to let her know she had been cut by every sorority.
In a note posted to her Instagram, Sikes wrote: "This recruitment journey is over for me. Being dropped from my last house this morning during primary recruitment at the University of Alabama doesn't come as a surprise considering out of the almost 20 chapters - I was dropped by every single one except 2 before day 1."
She continued, “I’m hopeful of a future where everyone is welcomed for just being themselves—everywhere."
Grant later reflected on her experience in a personal essay for Insider, revealing that the attention that came from the process pressured her into coming out as transgender before she was ready. "I felt so pressured into thinking I had to label myself, and fast," Grant wrote. "I am transgender. I just wasn't ready to be public about it then, as I was still figuring it out privately."
How diverse are sororities at the University of Alabama?
The University of Alabama did not desegregate their sororities until 2013. The overdue change came following an article in the student newspaper The Crimson White, which revealed that Black students had been denied entry to campus sororities based on their race, despite having qualifications that would otherwise make them eligible new members.
Despite then-president Judy L. Bonner pushing for sororities “to remove barriers in order to increase diversity,” many TikTok users called out how the PNMs that gained traction during the rush process were overwhelmingly White.
Per AL.com, of the 2,307 PNMs who received bids from participating Panhellenic sororities in 2021, only 236 self-identified as racial or ethnic minorities.
Bama Rush touches on the university's troubling past when it comes to race and the Greek system, featuring an interview with former UA homecoming queen, Deidra Chestang Lane. Lane was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black organization that remains the only all-Black sorority on the campus's Greek row, when she attended UA in the 1980s.
In the documentary, she recalled how she and her sisters came home to a burning cross on the front lawn of their sorority house after attending a fraternity party.
"I grew up in Alabama, so hearing that crosses were being burned is something that I grew up hearing about, but I never personally seen a cross being burned," said Lane. "Once you see that, you can’t unsee it. And it sticks with you for a lifetime.”
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