When a friend sent me the trailer for “Bama Rush,” Max’s documentary about Greek life at the University of Alabama, I watched with an outcast’s perverse need to glimpse a world from which I’d been excluded. Opening credits roll over a dizzying mash-up of TikTok videos, bronzy, blonde girls sharing the secrets of how to be yourself but also just like everyone else, and grim, gossipy warnings that this documentary would “change Greek life as we know it.”
The film follows four PNMs (potential new members) as they navigate rush in the summer of 2022. The young women are forthcoming and vulnerable about their desire to fit in, to find community and belonging, a need I understood deeply, especially when I thought back to my own experience.
Social capital hinged on appearances and lineage.
I grew up in Mountain Brook, a wealthy suburb outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and we had sororities in high school, breeding grounds for future University of Alabama students and pledges. Social stratification started early, before birth even, when you were divided along the lines of haves and have nots; old money and new money; white, wealthy Christians whose roots ran deep down to Confederate days and everyone else.
In Mountain Brook, social capital hinged on appearances and lineage. Perfectly manicured lawns cut to military precision, gleaming white, brick homes, flawless hair, impeccable, designer clothes. Beautiful exteriors designed to belie whatever turmoil lay beneath the surface.
We were outsiders, having moved to the area when I was a kid. My mother couldn’t even volunteer for the Junior League, because it was invitation only, and like the sorority system, criteria for inclusion remained elusive, though it was practically guaranteed for those with generational ties to the area.
Rush started the summer between junior high and high school, which began sophomore year. I’d survived three painfully awkward years of junior high, trying my hardest to fit in, despite my unfortunate Ronald McDonald perm. Here was my chance to charm my way into acceptance.
We were told that girls from interested sororities would stop by our homes and decorate our rooms with their sorority colors. My mother, a former sorority girl herself, waxed on about the joys of belonging to a group of like-minded girls. I think she was even more excited than me, and together we redecorated my room in a Laura Ashley explosion of purple and pink tulips.
One summer day, a red Cabriolet convertible pulled up in front of our house, and a gaggle of girls descended on our home, slinging red and white crepe paper across the ceiling fan and bed, leaving notes, every “i” dotted with a heart, and shiny mylar balloons that floated around my room until they deflated to the floor.
Every year, the three “elite” groups took turns accepting a mercy bid . . . we all knew who it was.
There were four sororities, organized by standard teen tropes: the popular girls (typically the blue bloods), the preps, the party girls and then the nerds and leftovers – each with a corresponding version at the University of Alabama. In some bungled attempt at inclusion, everyone who rushed had to be accepted, which meant one sorority took on most of the girls who defied categorization or simply weren’t cool enough to be accepted by the other three, although every year, the three “elite” groups took turns accepting a mercy bid, and in one of life’s great cruelties, we all knew who it was. Jewish students weren’t even allowed to participate.
I didn’t fit neatly into any of the groups. I certainly wasn’t getting into the blue bloods group, and I wasn’t a party girl. I was a nerd but didn’t want to be and most closely identified with the preppy girls – who wore matching sweater sets and giant bows in their hair; “nice” girls who would make wonderful wives and mothers with perfectly polished silver and tastefully spare bone china patterns.
I don’t know why anyone thought it wise to take kids at the height of self-consciousness, in their messy, formative years and try to corral them into various chutes of sameness. It’s a kind of cruelty only the South would devise. A way to weed out the “weak” early on.
The preps hosted a pool party one late August day. Pert, slim girls, in polka-dot and striped bikinis, lounged around a comma-shaped pool. The upperclasswomen covertly reviewed us like swimsuit models for poise and grace, sipping on Diet Cokes and whispering as we all chattered nervously.
Rushees lazed about, trying their best to appear nonchalant and indifferent to the outcome of their social futures. Their limbs long and bronzed, pouring on Banana Boat, pulling aside silky manes so a friend could oil their backs, flipping like kebabs every 15 minutes or so.
A boombox blared U2 and R.E.M. while a few brave girls floated on rafts or batted a rubber ball around in the pool, like a commercial for some generic island getaway.
I hunkered down under the single umbrellaed table, slathering SPF 50 on my alabaster legs. I was not fat, but lumpy, so I wore shorts and a baggy white t-shirt with the image of a large, green, bulls-eye button in the center. Most certainly something my mother had found on sale at TJ Maxx.
I decided to ham it up, doing my best Michael Jackson moonwalk, pumicing my bare feet as I dragged them awkwardly across concrete. Then I took a few steps back and ran and hurled myself cannonball-style into the pool. Water shot up and out around me, waves crashing into floats, knocking girls about, splashing their faces, dousing the kebab crew. I reared my head back to clear soggy permed hair from my face, sending more stray droplets into the eyes of onlookers. I knew, scanning the perimeter of girls wiping water from their faces that I had f**ked up. I climbed out of the pool, un-suctioned the giant button from my belly and boobs and scuttled back to my shady corner.
The pool party sealed my fate, that grim, summer day when I displayed my clowniest self. I had strayed way too far from the norm.
A few days after the pool party, I got invited to drive around with the leftovers, because a member was in my French class and liked me. It felt nice to be wanted, so I snuck out of the house and joined them. Five of us wedged into somebody’s dad’s sedan, driving around the town’s windy roads, Def Leppard blaring. I didn’t want to belong to their group. They weren’t the chosen, they were different, in the way you didn’t want to be in high school. And yet most were more like me than any of the other sorority girls. Outsiders. The only difference is they’d given up caring what others thought, or at least pretended not to; whereas I continued my dogged pursuit of popularity, flinging myself like a bird against the clear glass that divided me from a society I could see but never gain admission to.
On bid day, sorority girls picked up new pledges and drove them to parties. I waited by the window for that Cabriolet, but it never came. Instead, the sedan pulled up, and I asked my grandmother, who was babysitting while my parents were away, to decline their offer and tell them I wasn’t home. I felt too guilty to turn them down myself.
Only one of the four girls featured in the documentary is shown pledging a sorority. Two girls dropped out, and the one who’d zealously created a thick binder dedicated to her rush experience dropped out of the film, fearful her participation would ruin her chances of pledging. In fact, once rumors of the documentary spread through campus, another PNM, not even involved in the filming, got kicked out of rush, accused of wearing a mic that turned out to be a hair tie. One wonders, with that level of paranoia, what the sororities are trying to hide.
I am grateful for a rejection that saved me from sacrificing myself in order to belong.
I had high hopes for the film. I wanted to see that world cracked open, the underbelly of the Machine exposed, all the dirty secrets of that cult-like life unfurled before me, but that never happened. The Greek world at Alabama seems almost impenetrable, a fortress of secrets heavily guarded by those who benefit most from their preservation.
So little was revealed beyond the need we all have to belong, laid bare in these young women striving for acceptance in a world that grants it on a whim.
The director, Rachel Fleit, who is bald from alopecia, awkwardly inserts herself into the movie in a few scenes. She tells the viewer about when she finally gave up wearing wigs, her sophomore year of college.
“The pain of not being myself became greater than the pain of not fitting in,” she says, looking balefully into the camera. That’s a lesson I wish I’d learned much earlier in life.
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Greek life ended at Mountain Brook High School in the late ’90s, after I graduated. The wounds of not belonging stayed with me for a long time. I am still occasionally overcome by loneliness, a sense of separation from others, and wonder how much of that stems from striving to belong to a world I could never quite fit into. Mostly though, I am grateful for a rejection that saved me from sacrificing myself in order to belong. I believe in that parallel world I would have married out of college, had kids and always felt a longing for something more, for all the adventures I’ve been able to pursue on my own.
I think the community that Greek life offers in college can be a good thing, but the system does more harm than good by creating and supporting a culture of exclusivity. There’s a binary where you fit in or you don’t, and when that belonging hinges on assimilation, you have a society that is intolerant of difference, of true self-expression, and that is a dangerous place to live.
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