Holliday, student at the University of Alabama.
CNN  — 

Inspired by the viral sensation that became known as #RushTok on TikTok in 2021, the new Max documentary “Bama Rush” dives into the pros and cons of Greek life recruitment at the University of Alabama. (Max, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Gracie O’Connor, an active sister and “Bama rush influencer” who is featured in the documentary, explained that rush consists of four highly competitive rounds. The new documentary follows a number of potential new members through recruitment and features perspective of current sisters that exposes the good, the bad and the ugly of Greek recruitment at the University of Alabama.

CNN reached out to the University of Alabama seeking comment on the documentary’s content, and is awaiting a response.

“The Machine”

“The machine” is a group shrouded in secrecy that consists of members from the University of Alabama’s Greek system that has influence over student governing bodies. Dating back to the 1800s, local journalist John Archibald said in the documentary that their mantra is “Little is known, and what is known is kept secret.” To further illustrate how active and elusive this group still is in the 2020s, a number of rushes and active sisters refused to acknowledge questions about “the machine” in the documentary.

One student who did talk about “the machine” was Garrett, a student government associate justice at the University of Alabama, who said “the machine” and the Greek system are synonymous. “They control everything on this campus,” he said, adding that members secretly meet “in fraternity basements to discuss student politics and then they report back to their house and their student politicians within their houses and tell them how to vote.”

The ranking system

O’Connor, a member of Pi Beta Phi, posited that the fraternities’ opinions on whichever house has the “hottest girls” tends to dictate the rankings. Sloan Anderson, a featured “rush consultant,” echoed the sentiment, saying the fraternities “want to make sure the girls who are wearing their letters are up to their standards.”

Rian, who is an active member of the Sigma Kappa sorority, described Sigma Kappa as a “low ranking” house “because that’s just how it works here,” and said that women in top sororities have “perks” like test banks for exams, access to people with connections and money, and “beneficial” attention from men.

Excelling in Greek life – and gaining acceptance in a high-ranking sorority – naturally places an overt pressure on appearances. “Bama Rush” filmmaker Rachel Fleit interviewed various subjects who spoke on camera about their struggles with body image and disordered eating.

Combating racism

In 2013, allegations that alums of several sororities had interfered with the recruitment process to prevent Black students from getting bids gained national attention. In response, the university’s president at the time put a mandate in place that historically White sororities use a new system in an effort to increase diversity.

Rian, who is Black, said in the documentary that while she hasn’t had any “overt” racist experiences, she still deals with misguided microaggressions from women who she believes are just trying to be “woke.” Makayla, a potential new sorority member who identifies as being of mixed ethnicity, went through rush in hopes of joining an “historically White” house but still struggled with how she’s perceived, saying, “If I’m too White, then I’m White washed. If I act too Black, then I’m not White enough. Like, what am I supposed to be? Because I’m both races, why can’t I just act (as) myself?”

Shrouded in secrecy

For Fleit, capturing the true nature of recruitment was no easy feat. Filming inside of the Greek houses at the school is prohibited, and active members speaking to the media is typically frowned upon. When a New York Times article published in August 2022 outlined a frantic paranoia on campus about what the documentary may reveal, and mentioned rumors of surreptitious recording (which Fleit denied in the documentary), Fleit is seen shifting her strategy midway through the film.

Greek life is expensive

During a segment where a student is seen telling Fleit that she does not plan to rush because it’s too expensive, a text block splashed across the bottom of the screen that read, “The average annual cost for new members of a sorority at Bama is $8,300.”

Young women during sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama.

Why the women featured say they still want to pledge

The potential new sorority members that “Bama Rush” followed all had different journeys. One, named Isabelle, who had worked with a rush consultant to better her chances of becoming a pledge, ultimately accepted a bid from her top choice, Alpha Delta Pi. “I finally have not just a home, but a place where I belong,” she said, adding that she feels both at peace and hopeful for the future.

Makayla and another featured potential new sorority member named Holliday both dropped out of rush on their own accord while the documentary was filming, and told Fleit they’re happier now. Rian still looks at her experience as a Sigma Kappa lovingly, saying that her sorority sisters are “the best people I’ve met in my entire life.”