For the last two years, the summer’s most anticipated viewing experience hasn’t played out on prestige network TV or in theaters showing Hollywood blockbusters. It has lived on TikTok, via the University of Alabama’s prospective sorority pledges, through an international spectacle of outfit-of-the-day videos, get-ready-with-me’s, and trendy dances.
With Bama Rush, a VICE Studios production debuting May 23 on Max, documentary filmmaker Rachel Fleit wanted to use sorority recruitment and the women involved as a “lightning rod” to discuss a pivotal period in girl’s lives and how the pursuit of sorority life offers a glimpse into their struggles, their quest for community, and their navigation of the cultural forces surrounding beauty, class, race, and gender that have long shaped college and Greek life.
Bama Rush is a dissection and critique of sororities and fraternities, in part, and puts the University of Alabama under the magnifying glass. But far more than a takedown, the documentary is focused on the lives of the young women involved. It follows the process of several teenage girls as they gain their acceptance to the university, prep for rush (some with professional coaches), and navigate the endeavor itself.
Though the documentary emphasizes young womanhood, the fact that it discusses Bama Rush at all has made it subject to much controversy. Last August, word spread that HBO Max and VICE were pursuing the doc on campus, and women suspected of being involved were quickly pushed out of the rush process and banned from joining any sororities. Talking to the press was discouraged, and Fleit herself was subject to harassment. Nevertheless, the documentary continued, and the result is a poignant look at the journey of becoming who we are—as Fleit says, we all have “rushed” in our own way.
VICE: How did Bama Rush become an interest of yours?
Rachel Fleit: It was a confluence of events in 2018, right around #MeToo. I started thinking about what it would be like to make a documentary about Greek life during what we called “the age of consent.” I started some preliminary research, but then I got sidetracked by my first documentary, Introducing Selma Blair, and I put this idea on the shelf. After that documentary came out, I would just sort of bat the sorority idea around in meetings. When the Bama Rush TikTok viral sensation happened, VICE called me in September of 2021 and said, “Rachel, we know you want to do this. Do you want to go down to Alabama?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
We went down there, and there were swirls and whirls of other people trying to do a project about Bama Rush, but I was very clear on what I wanted to do. I wanted to create a documentary that was grounded in this culture, this Greek system, and it would serve as this lightning rod to talk about what it means to be a young woman. We could talk about feminism, and we could talk about competition between women, body image, racism, sexism, classism, and sexual assault on campus or in general. There were all these big topics that I thought we could explore in the film by going into the Greek system. And we did.
“We could talk about feminism, and we could talk about competition between women, body image, racism, sexism, classism, and sexual assault on campus or in general.”
People initially seemed to fear that the documentary would dig deep into Greek life at the University of Alabama and the recruitment process, but the story seems far more focused on the lives of the individual girls you spoke to for the documentary.
That was much more interesting to me. From 18 to 22, we really become ourselves. We’re finding ourselves and trying to figure out where we belong. With my work, I always think, “Let’s see what’s underneath the hood of a car.” And underneath the hood of this car, I quickly realized all these girls just want to belong. They want to make friends. They want to feel OK and comfortable in their skin. And it’s the same with me. And the same with most human beings living on this earth. So that’s what I was hoping for. When people watch this film, I hope they’ll say, “Yeah, I rushed too in my own way,” or, “I’m just like these girls. These beautiful, gorgeous girls in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and I are not that different.”
At what point in the filmmaking process did you decide to turn the camera on yourself and talk about your own experience?
Very early on. As a filmmaker and as a person, I want to know how you and I are similar. I want to know how we are the same. I physically look different than a lot of the young women I saw on TikTok—I didn’t see any young women on TikTok who had alopecia rushing the sorority system. And so I sensed that I’m so different from these young women. But then my filmmaker sense was to ask, “How are you similar?”
As I listened to young women talk about their experiences over and over again and in my filmmaking process, I tried to identify and share a vulnerable part of myself with my subjects. I kept telling these young women at the University of Alabama my story of wearing a wig because it felt resonant. I told them about how college was a big time for me, how I felt apart from other girls, and how I started to feel part of them — I just kept talking about my story. My editor said one day in January of 2022, “I think you need to be in this.” I said, “No, I don’t want to be in this movie. I’m a director for a reason. I’m not in front of the camera.” I resisted it, honestly. But then it was like, you know what? I have so much empathy for these young women and what they’re going through, and if I stand shoulder to shoulder with them, then that might come across.
I was aware of all of this social media pressure, especially when the rumors [about the documentary happening] started, and there was such a violent attack towards us, as though we were trying to ruin their sacred tradition. I got named in a New York Times article, my physical safety was threatened. They [people at the University of Alabama] were very angry. They made those T-shirts that say, “Fuck your documentary.” They were not playing. I was like, “No, I just want to make a movie about what it means to be a young woman right now. I come in peace.” In that process, I realized that if I am going to make an empathic, thoughtful, and compassionate film toward these young women, I need to throw myself into the fire. That’s the way that this is going to feel correct.
That made particular sense in the context of Bama Rush TikTok and how watching it became a personal experience for many. Even those who aren’t connected to Bama Rush have turned the camera on themselves on the app to explain their relationship with it.
Totally. Many of the commentators were alumni who were like, “OK, let me tell you, this is what my experience was like.” I wanted to push that even further and say that I wasn’t in Greek life, but I feel like I get it in my special way. I hope that when people watch this, even people who don’t identify as women can feel that they did something similar in their own way.
What was the most surprising element for you in telling this story?
The first shock was how similar I was to these young women. That was an early-on shock. I was disheartened that so many of the themes that I dealt with 20 years ago in college are still themes that these young women are facing, especially surrounding eating disorders. I was surprised that my story felt resonant in this film. And then I was surprised at how emotional the experience actually was. I was extremely impacted by the making of this film. I was extremely impacted by telling my story, and I had to figure out the perfect on-ramps for my story and the off-ramps because it’s a delicate balance.
I don’t want to take away from the story of the young women at the University of Alabama, and I want to infuse my story into this to create a more powerful message. But I had to really look at my own story and figure out which parts of this belong in this film, and in talking about that, I shed some skin, I would say. It can feel heavy, and sometimes you gotta just let it go. I was profoundly exhausted by the end.
Did the experience change your perception of Greek life?
Yeah, it did. One of the things that I really wanted to do was go down to Tuscaloosa. I wanted to pull back the curtain on the TikToks and find out who the real young women are. And these young women were the ones that intimidated me as a college student or as a high school student because they just seemed so pretty. They had their hair done, their makeup done, their outfits on. I just didn’t fit into this beauty ideal. I feel very differently about myself now that I’m 42. I’ve had some time. But these beautiful, beautiful girls that I think fit into whatever we want to call the “beauty ideal” or the “beauty myth” are really struggling on the inside. They put a lot of pressure on themselves.
My view has changed when I see a young woman doing an “Outfit of the Day” TikTok or just a young woman who fits the profile of the sorority sisters at the University of Alabama. There’s more there than I am seeing, and I’m forever changed by that. I also see that some things in the sorority system at the University of Alabama need improvement, and there are also a lot of good, cool, important things that happen in the sisterhood. This isn’t black and white. This is gray.
“There’s more there than I am seeing, and I’m forever changed by that.”
What are some of the good things about the sorority system?
A sense of community, a sense of belonging, friendship. When you go to a school with so many people, and it’s so big, and you come especially from out of state, and you don’t know anyone, you’re disoriented—it’s an instant community. And I think that despite some questionable practices, they promote excellence in academics and community service.
The documentary highlights how essential community is for these young women, especially those dealing with traumatic experiences. I was shocked, for example, by the discussion among the women about how many times they’d been roofied and how normalized this was.
I think the movie is about young womanhood, but also on the converse of that is like this sort of low hum of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy and how that is influencing these young women. What is driving all of this emphasis toward a certain way of looking? Why are young women being sexually assaulted on this campus? When our subject talks about how the fraternity boys determine who the top-tier sorority is and it’s based on looks—thin, long hair, beautiful—what is that? Where does that come from? There’s competition between young women, but what are they competing for? They’re competing for a spot in this top-tier sorority, and the top-tier sorority is paired with the top-tier fraternity. And the idea, which is quite archaic but still exists, is that they’re going to pair off in some way and marry, have children, their children will go to the school and get into that top-tier house because of their legacy, and so on.
Why do you think that Greek life continues to be as popular as it is by upholding these traditions?
It’s this feeling of belonging and like you’re a part of something exclusive. This isn’t just the Greek system. That’s what I feel most passionately about—the Greek system isn’t the only place where the patriarchy has a low hum and women are competing against each other, and these sorts of archaic ideas still exist. That’s why this film is just a lightning rod. The sorority system is just a lightning rod for all these other systems. It feels archaic, but then if you think about the larger context of the world, it’s not that different.