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Bama Rush TikTok, explained and explained and explained

I’m already late to #BamaRushTok, so here are seven story ideas.

Last Thursday, I found myself sitting in a waiting room for several hours with nothing to do. So I watched TikTok, specifically TikToks made by the incoming freshman class of the University of Alabama, who were in the middle of sorority recruitment. At that point, this particular niche — known as Bama Rush TikTok — was beginning to become a bit of a thing in the wider culture, so I made sure to save every related video I saw on my For You page and seek out more, figuring that come Monday, I’d have something to say about it.

Well, I have several angles in mind, but frankly, plenty has already been written about it by pretty much every website that covers this sort of thing. In internet time, Bama Rush peaked last week, so I’m already late; that’s just the speed at which we live these days. Regardless, here are seven ideas for a possible article on Bama Rush TikTok:

1. #BamaRush, explained

The obvious choice for an article on Vox.com, which is known for its deeply researched explainers on everything from the stock market to moon poop. I’d explain the basics: #BamaRush TikTok became a thing after several “potential new members,” or PNMs (there are a surprising amount of acronyms!), began documenting their outfits of the day (OOTDs) for the different events of recruitment (formerly known as “rush”).

Designated activities include convocation (the big introduction), philanthropy day (you go to a bunch of sororities and learn about their charitable causes), sisterhood day (you sit down with members of different sororities and decide which ones you like), pref day (you chat with members of the two sororities you like best), and bid day (the one where you find out which, if any, sorority has offered you membership). This week, as you might imagine, is extremely busy and stressful and emotional and exhausting, especially for students at schools where Greek life is a major determining factor of not only your college experience but the friendships and career track you might have for the rest of your life.

2. Why is #BamaRush on everyone’s TikTok feed?

Here’s what I would argue is the central question, besides “what the hell does ‘jewelry is normal’ mean?” The most interesting thing about Bama Rush isn’t that it’s happening; it’s that somehow it ended up on millions of people’s For You pages, people who potentially had zero prior interest in the National Panhellenic Conference, the American South, or whether Hannah would get into Zeta (she did!).

The hashtag never ended up on TikTok’s Discover page, which typically lists the more G-rated trends circulating the app, plus whatever campaigns that brands have paid to appear there. Yet for many users, the first TikToks they saw weren’t the original OOTD videos from the PNMs, they were videos that were commenting on how Bama Rush was taking over TikTok, e.g., “why is Bama Rush all over my FYP I’m literally a 30-year-old man in Ireland,” etc.

But to ask these kinds of questions is to misunderstand how TikTok works. A huge percentage of the stuff that ends up on people’s For You pages is random ephemera from around the internet; it’s why people feel special when they land on micro subcultures like CartelTok or Hood Alt TikTok and then make videos like “how did I end up here?”, thereby spreading it even further. When users stumble on an interesting community, it tends to skyrocket to the top of everyone’s feeds super quickly. Bama Rush, by virtue of being a time-specific event (that didn’t occur last year because of the pandemic), was immediately launched into mainstream TikTok because it was something novel to observe in real time.

3. The peculiar, paradoxical fashion of Southern sorority girls

Aside from the spectacle of waiting alongside Makayla and Emma for their bids, the second-best reason to watch Bama Rush TikTok is to learn about all the peculiarities of Southern sorority girl fashion. Most of the clothes come from relatively predictable brands — Amazon and the Chinese ultra-fast-fashion megalith Shein are popular choices for jewelry and dresses, often paired with upscale staples from Nordstrom and Lululemon.

Betches described the style as “the Met Gala for Americana fashion with a Gen Z twist. They’re all decked out in LoveShackFancy [an expensive resort wear brand] and fake designer jewelry from Amazon. There’s no in-between.” A typical OOTD video included shoutouts to the Texas jeweler Kendra Scott and something called the Pants Store, which apparently everybody at major Southern universities knows about and which also sells more than just pants. Once you’re in the sorority, the rules get more explicit: As Stephanie Talmadge explained at Racked back in 2017, “dress checks” for specific events are common, where you have to stand in line while the recruitment chairs ask things like, “Can you add a belt?” “It’s good, but you’re going to straighten your hair for actual recruitment, right?” or “That pattern is too busy, can you show us something simpler?”

4. Sororities are bad, actually

As one might imagine, this sort of codified aesthetic judgment has not historically been limited to just clothing. One of the Bama Rush videos I came across on my For You page was from Cosmopolitan magazine, reminding viewers that sororities at the University of Alabama were only desegregated in 2013. There’s been plenty written about the racist, sexist, elitist history of fraternities and sororities, as well as the rape culture and hazing pervasive in the system. Calls to abolish Greek life for good have grown louder in recent years, although many universities are hostile to the idea because, well, it makes them money. It’s also easy to make the case that putting 18-year-olds through this kind of extreme hierarchical social organization tactic feels icky. As my friend Sara, who rushed at Auburn University, told me the other night, recruitment “was the absolute worst week of my life.”

5. Wait, are we all being classist and/or misogynist?

Now that Bama Rush has become an actual phenomenon, a lot of people are doing their own parodies, most of which are pretty funny and harmless. Someone on TikTok, though, made a solid point about the Southern sorority girl’s natural foil: the New England small liberal arts school girl. “Ladies, please do not forget, the only reason your small liberal arts college in New England doesn’t have sororities is because your entire school is filled with wealthy white people, so you don’t need a system to filter them out,” explained one student.

Making fun of Southern accents is also steeped in classism; as Rachelle Hampton noted on Slate’s ICYMI podcast, “There is a gawking element of looking at Bama rush and saying, ‘Look at these women. Look at these accents. Look at this various specific kind of femininity. Look at how toxic it is. This is white feminism.’ But this exists everywhere, and isolating the systemic issues that rush is built on to the South absolves everyone and every other place that is complicit in these exact same issues.”

6. Why this keeps happening and will continue to happen and be weird

This, to me, is the most important piece of Bama Rush TikTok: the fact that it will all be completely forgotten about in roughly a week, and that Hannah and Emma and Makayla will fade into digital obscurity once more. It happened to VSCO girls — another subset of middle- and upper-class young white women whom the internet focused heavily on for the span of a couple months before determining them unworthy of future coverage. As Ryan Broderick wrote in Garbage Day, “Social media, as a whole, is deeply obsessed with young women, particularly white American women. Whether it’s through endless thinkpieces analyzing and scrutinizing young women’s interests and trends — the constant pop anthropology of millennial and Gen Z women — or, on the flip side, through the ubiquitous gendered harassment and abuse from male-dominated internet communities, college-aged women essentially are viral content.”

Besides the blatant voyeurism and misogyny of American media’s often gross relationship with teenage girls, we know what happens when a giant mob of people parachute into a topic or community they previously knew nothing about. It almost never ends well. The internet, and TikTok especially, is very good at blasting these complex communities and debates to an enormous number of people, which means at a certain point, everyone will live to see themselves become the main character of the internet for a day and then be left to pick up the pieces when that attention gets diverted to the next new thing.

I’m sure it’s been extremely fun for the handful of girls who struck gold on Bama Rush TikTok to watch their views and followers rise into the tens of thousands. I’m also positive that they’ve been subject to huge amounts of harassment and doxxing threats during an already stressful time. Once you go viral, your face and voice and internet history is no longer yours, and I hope the sororities that the girls end up in help provide support in any way they can.

7. Why did Makayla get dropped from every sorority despite being the undisputed queen of Bama Rush TikTok?

Please, someone write this. We deserve the truth!

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