On August 17, the University of Texas’s community Twitter account, @universitycoop, took a break from its regular routine of posting Pinterest-like photoshoots of happy campus life and touristy photos of students throwing their "horns up." (The school’s mascot is the Texas Longhorn, and they rarely let you forget it.)
It was the beginning of the fall semester, and among the cute #moovin jokes and scenic pictures of Austin, @universitycoop threw in a short video of sorority Alpha Delta Pi welcoming potential recruits to the house as part of the annual campus recruitment week.
The video went viral almost immediately — but not because of UT pride. References to the "creepy" sound of all these women chanting, the doors to the sorority house serving as some kind of portal to hell, and the inherently basic nature of all those white women in a room together, having the audacity to bond and say words at the same time, ran rampant across the internet.
They really did just open the gates of hell https://t.co/CQo27PLRFm— M✿ (@poeticgf) August 18, 2016
The original tweet was quickly deleted, but it wasn’t long before the media picked up the meme. Over the next several days, several major news outlets covered the Alpha Delta Pi video. New York magazine called the video "deranged," insisting, "Their screams will haunt you, but not as much as their wiggling fingers, their manic chants, and the disembodied arms clapping in the background."
But as anyone who’s lived on a major university campus in the fall can probably tell you, all sororities have chants. This house cheerleading is a basic, routinized component of sorority recruitment, and learning the chant is an easy way to bond with potential sorority sisters. In the annals of sorority house chants, the Alpha Delta Pi one is easy to learn and good to use in a recruitment video, to teach any potential recruit the chant before they show up to the event. And the way the chant plays out, with a sorority "door stack" behind those grandly opening doors, is a longstanding tradition among sorority houses:
Sorority recruitment videos be like pic.twitter.com/NEsVglpMgf— Common White Girl (@girlposts) August 19, 2016
Was it just this particular video that rubbed the internet the wrong way? Of course not. As sororities have moved online, incidents involving the public shaming of sorority girls have increased. Here’s a brief look at the many ways sororities and their members have taken heat on the internet.
The recruitment video craze — and the perpetual backlash
The most familiar wave of this branch of societal misogyny is the annual backlash over the sorority recruitment video, an increasingly normalized form of recruitment in which the house’s existing members make a welcome video for potential new ones. The videos usually feature a number of beautiful blondes and tanned brunettes, linking arms and laughing while casually strolling through some of their campus’s most scenic spots.
The videos serve as both an introduction to the house and the campus. And since most Panhellenic sororities only give potential members five days to commit to a Greek house — men are given an entire semester — the recruitment videos can be a vital resource to help make up minds in a hurry.
These sorority recruitment videos have racked up millions of views on YouTube — and for good reason. The production values are often seriously impressive, and the video narratives of Greek life, fun party times, and cute girl bonding are often hypnotic (as well as easy to parody).
2015 seems to have been the watershed moment for the sorority recruitment video, as first the public and then the media discovered its existence — and promptly proceeded to mock it endlessly. Gawker’s Allie Jones, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, devoted a list to the most "cringeworthy" sorority recruitment videos. Jones reserved her sharpest scorn for a 2015 recruitment video from the University of Miami’s Delta Gamma chapter, excoriating the video for its overt privilege and male gaze-y shots of women in bikinis.
Not to be shamed out of a little high-quality production value, UM's Delta Gammas doubled down this year. Their January 2016 recruitment video has nearly 2 million views, uses aerial drone footage, features an enormous yacht and some exclusive rooftop hotel partying, and does a stellar job functioning as a Miami tourism advertisement. Plus, it has pineapple photo shoots.
Despite the popularity of the 2016 Delta Gamma video, the comments it received on YouTube and Facebook are full of anger and criticism, particularly from men. The comments typically characterize the women in the video as shallow, dumb, slutty, time-wasting, privileged, un-diverse, and ignorant. "I look forward to seeing how little each of you contribute to society," ran one typical piece of user feedback.
The existence of the video was an excuse for viewers to lash out at what they deemed to be stereotypical sorority life. The Delta Gamma chapter defended themselves with a second video showing the local chapter’s work with the national Delta Gamma charity Service for Sight. But that video got only a fraction of the views of the first, and it seemed to convince no one.
The reaction to the Miami Delta Gamma video is a miniature version of the reaction to the recruitment video genre as a whole. No matter what the women in these videos do, they incur shame and backlash. One beautifully edited chapter recruitment video got the dismissive response of "more dumb whores." The more professional the quality, the more the public’s reaction seems to be, "Look at these overprivileged [slurs] wasting their time, minds, and money."
Earlier this week, another sorority, which used the same production company as Delta Gamma to film its recruitment video, wound up issuing a media statement in order to explain that the video only cost a few thousand dollars to make, rather than the exorbitant amount of money the public was ready to shame the sisters for spending.
The UT Alpha Delta Pi chapter video couldn’t have been further from this kind of aesthetic. It’s a grainy, simple, unedited vertical video with no production quality, just a roomful of girls cheering. Yet it brought on the jeering media frenzy just as quickly as Miami’s sun-soaked beaches and yachts.
Sorority girls just can’t win.
The internet versus the sorority girl
The sight of women bonding in loud, public, and overt ways has long been a threat to the established order of society. But sororities are demonized from both ends of the social spectrum: They’re attacked for representing what many perceive as regressive and outdated gender roles, and they’re attacked for representing the positive aspects of female community and "sisterhood."
In 2013, Gawker leaked an email from a Delta Gamma chapter, labeling the sender "deranged" for her profanity-filled tirade against "boring" members who weren’t doing their best to entertain their partner frat during an intra-collegiate Greek week. The writer quickly resigned from her chapter, causing Gawker to declare her "guilty of caring too much." The sorority girl is portrayed as being either too shallow and superficial, too deeply obsessed with her fellow community of sisters, or some combination of the two.
The unfortunate internet history of Alpha Chi Omega provides an example of each of these extremes. In 2008, the viral video "Crying Sorority Girl" racked up millions of views and plenty of ridicule for Oklahoma Alpha Chi Elyse Downs. Her fellow sorority sister filmed her sobbing meltdown after she allegedly tried to create an indoor snow scene using a fire extinguisher and instead set off the fire alarm and angered her fellow sisters. In terror of getting thrown out of the sorority, Downs vows, "I’ll do whatever it takes to be an Alpha Chi."
The internet’s reaction to Downs’s meltdown drew unwanted attention to her entire house of sisters at the University of Oklahoma. In an awkward interview with Daniel Tosh a year after the video went viral, Downs endures bad penis jokes and describes how the video resulted in phone calls to her parents’ house and her ultimate disaffiliation from the sorority.
After discussing the fallout from the video, Tosh tells her the idea of a sorority helping her career is "complete horse shit." Then he asks, "Are sorority girls easy?" Loyal to the end, she tells him: "Not Alpha Chis."
The sorority’s next brush with internet fame was even more damning. In August 2015, a group of girls from Arizona State University’s Alpha Chi Omega chapter attended a local Diamondbacks baseball game. At the stadium, the announcer reportedly encouraged the crowd to take selfies for a special promotion. The girls proceeded to do so — and the baseball commentators roundly mocked them for it for more than two minutes.
The chapter responded to the uproar in the classiest way possible: When the stadium offered the members free tickets as an apology, the Alpha Chi Omegas paid it forward and used their moment in the spotlight to raise awareness for the sorority’s national philanthropy, which is domestic violence awareness and prevention. The sisters were invited to appear on Ellen to share their side of the story. Still, it didn’t stop the backlash. A year later, this image from the game is still commonly circulated, attached to this pejorative internet meme:
This video functioned as a Venn diagram of things the internet loves to hate: selfie culture, millennials, and women. Sorority culture itself, by virtue of being young, female, and increasingly tech-savvy, seems to inhabit the center of this vortex. It’s not enough that sorority members face a litany of bizarre double standards compared with their fraternal counterparts while in school, even as feminists accuse them of contributing to their own oppression; they’re also in danger of being publicly shamed just for being in sororities.
This social punishment continues long after their college years are over: Women I work with tell me they are afraid to mention that they went Greek in college because of the stigma attached. No wonder the LinkedIn description for the national Alpha Chi Omega society reads like a beleaguered, hollow party line for a group of women who seem perpetually expected to defend themselves — to convince the world that they are real and strong. No, really:
"At Alpha Chi Omega, we are real women. Facing real issues. In the real world. On the one hand, inspiring. In turn, being inspired. Transforming. And being transformed. Together, creating a more positive reality, for ourselves and others. We are strong women. Strong in the courage of our convictions, the confidence in our actions and the purpose in our hearts. To know us will be to experience a voice that is respectful, genuine, open, empathetic and honest. Real. We will define how a sorority will thrive and be defined, today and in the future. We are Real. Strong. Women."
Criticism of individual sorority girls overshadows the real problems of sorority culture
Often the individual women who join these houses wind up taking the blame and the shame for the systemic problems that afflict the entire Greek system — particularly sexism and racism.
In a video published to YouTube earlier this year, former sorority member Alex Purdy, then a senior at Syracuse University, explained that she had decided to leave her sorority because of the endless body policing, internalized misogyny, and lack of compassion her sorority sisters showed one another. "I hope that the structure of sororities isn’t broken across the country," she said.
Though sororities usually manifest problems with race in far subtler ways than their fraternal counterparts, they are also whiter — 77 percent white, compared with the 47 percent white average student body — and their reticence to diversify has led to problems, such as the recurring offensive meme of caricature-heavy "ethnic" parties, which have continually sparked controversy for sororities around the country.
These incidents accompany a seemingly endless litany of racially insensitive parties and events from the fraternal side of Greek culture, but the problem of racism among sororities is no less real because it is less overt. At the Oscars this year, Chris Rock compared Hollywood’s brand of racism to "sorority racism":
Is Hollywood racist? … Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No … It’s a different type of racist …Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, "We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa."
Life for the minority members who do make it into these systems isn’t always easy. Though the recruitment videos are often quick to show smiling, easily assimilated women of color, the reality is typically far more awkward. And women of color who do enjoy their experiences often face backlash for not joining traditionally multicultural Greek systems. "It’s kind of like I’m looked down upon because I chose to not join a historically black sorority," said YouTube vlogger Rebecca Heyliger in a detailed video about her experience rushing Chi Omega.
These are the kinds of stories that rarely make it into public discussion of sorority culture. Last year, a recruitment video for the University of Alabama’s Alpha Phi sorority chapter drew strong criticism from local news media website AL.com, and then from the wider media community. An apparently anonymous writer using the pen name A.L. Bailey lambasted the recruitment video’s four minutes of all-white community bonding, calling it "worse for women than Donald Trump."
The most glaring problem in the video — and by far the most glaring problem for most sorority recruitment videos — is its lack of diversity. It’s especially significant considering that the University of Alabama has only ever successfully rushed one black sorority member in its entire history. But the writer mostly spends the piece attacking the video’s party atmosphere and the appearances of the women themselves. "These young women, with all their flouncing and hair-flipping, are making it so terribly difficult for anyone to take them seriously, now or in the future," the anonymous writer opined.
The piece drew backlash from the Alabama community, most of whom defended the women in the video. But some criticized the writer for derailing an important conversation about diversity in the Greek system in order to launch a misogynistic tirade policing women in general.
Black sororities don’t do recruitment videos
Currently there are only 10 national Greek sororities for black women, and only four in the elite grouping of historically black Greek-lettered organizations known as the "Divine Nine," which are a separate entity from Panhellenic sororities. These sororities each have long histories that are intrinsically tied to black sociopolitical activism and the rise of the suffragette movement in the early 20th century.
Black sororities notably don’t post recruitment videos on YouTube; you’re much more likely to find personal vlogs about Greek life, videos of live step shows, or probate ceremonies — the introduction of a new recruit into the community, which tends to come with lots of uplifting messages about the sorority and the women in it.
Then there are videos like this one, which work to dispel the myth that the two oldest black sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha (founded in 1908) and Delta Sigma Theta (founded in 1913), can’t get along; and this one, which parodies the rivalry between the two groups. Again and again, videos about the AKAs and the Deltas, the Sigma Gamma Rhos and the Zetas, emphasize their history, their service, and their community. Even the videos that come closest to resembling the "recruitment video" aesthetic seem to have a layer of self-awareness and irony that their mostly white Greek sorority counterparts seem to lack.
Black sorority videos also don’t seem to generate the same internet backlash as the recruitment video genre, or the white sorority girl in general. But the women in these communities have more ongoing societal difficulties to face, whether it’s systemic racism, being negatively depicted in media like Sorority Sisters, or enduring criticism from within the black community.
Meanwhile, within the Panhellenic system of campus Greek groups, defenses of sororities continue, paradoxically perpetuating the idea that sororities somehow need defending to begin with.
"[P]lease realize that for many of the women who frequent this site, our Greek experiences helped shaped us into the women we are: smart, funny, snarky, feminist," wrote a Jezebel commenter in 2008 in response to the Crying Sorority Girl hubbub. "These experiences were very important to us, and that is why so many Greek women get upset when so much that we care about is dismissed as ‘you paid for friends.’ I'd pay five times what I paid in college for the experiences my sorority has given me."
For as quick as the internet is to shame sororities, as the AL.com writer’s screed revealed, there’s very little discussion online of the actual problems with Greek life. A bevy of beautiful blondes going to parties, jumping off yachts, vowing everlasting friendships, and taking selfies at ballgames — these aren’t problems, unless the idea of a group of women having pretty cool lives together is a problem.
It’s true that recruitment videos often seem to be targeted at upper-class, overprivileged white women. Yet criticism of these videos typically shames the individual sorority girls for their efforts, which is ultimately unproductive. After all, if outsiders label you and your friends sluts and whores (and worse) for daring to hire a production company to make a video, instead of diversifying, you’re most likely going to want to stick even closer to those friends who aren’t treating you like wastes of space.
Online sorority shaming is a problem that has no easy solution, and no real hope of ending. The high degree of gender policing, body shaming, slut shaming, stereotyping, and sexual assault that sorority girls often face, from both inside and outside Greek culture, is part of the conversation we should be having. But these things always seem to get lost amid the clamor of insults and sexism directed at the sorority sisters themselves.
As for the lack of diversity, that’s a problem that won’t be solved simply by adding more multicultural faces to recruitment videos. But until we find ways to talk about systemic problems in Greek culture without shaming the women who join it, sororities online will continue holding a precarious position: between (mostly white) sisters defiantly doing it for themselves, and (mostly everyone else) attempting to shame them out of existence — or at least off the internet.