Friday, December 1

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Okay. Real talk: Certain cultural phenomena kind of – I don’t know. I just can’t dig into them. I mean, it’s not out of malice. I just don’t really get around to reading about it. And honestly, fraternities and sororities are in that category. I went to a big state university that didn’t really need Greek life to maintain its hard partying reputation. But like Barbie, Beyoncé and Taylor, RushTok is yet another feel good femme hit of the summer.

It’s here. It’s here. My favorite time of year. It’s Alabama Rush week next week. The OOTD’s are back. I’m so excited.

There’s a documentary on Max. It’s called Bama Rush.

Bama Rush trailer

00:00:45

Sorority recruitment’s a game. You have to know how to play it. Because Greek life is everything at Alabama.

And that barely holds a candle to the drama and sheer volume of content generated by the sorority pledges themselves with their daily updates of the process at the University of Alabama and other schools. Never mind the meta commentary by those who are obsessed with them.

My name is Brandis. I’m your self-appointed Bama Rush senior correspondent.

Morgan didn’t know the prices of brands. Bella Grace was wearing Lilly Pulitzer and knew what she was wearing.

Hashtag Bama Rush has nearly 4 billion views to date on TikTok alone.

I’m totally asking for a friend, but um, is there any way a 25-year-old can go to Alabama and rush a sorority there. I’m literally just wondering.

Thank the TikTok gods because after much concern and deliberation, the Bama sorority girls are back for another rush season.

Seasons. They talk about this like it’s reality television. Although in a way, I think it is, maybe? Anyway, how did so-called RushTok become a content farm and the attention economy? Why is this happening just a few years after some schools were facing calls to reform or abolish Greek life entirely? What’s changed? I’m Audie Cornish. And this is The Assignment.

Try as I might to avoid it, rush content has been everywhere, and no one is covering it more closely than writer Anne Helen Petersen. I followed her work for a long time at BuzzFeed News and now on her newsletter. It’s called Culture Study. But she’s got two relevant credentials for this story. She was in a sorority and she has a Ph.D. in our cultural obsession with celebrity. And I did not know that was a thing either.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:02:45

My dissertation was on the history of celebrity gossip. So starting in 1910, going to 2010, like, how do we get from old school fan magazines to People Magazine and Entertainment Tonight to TMZ and Perez Hilton?

So we started just like with the basics of Rush.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:03:04

At a school like Alabama, you sign up several months before and you put together a resume, a video introducing yourself. You can imagine how stressful that is and figuring out what to wear, where to stand, all those sorts of things.

So far, kind of like an audition, complete with letters of recommendation. As many as you can possibly get, preferably from the women who are in these same sororities. Then you get on campus for these meet and greets.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:03:31

And I think they often just have ice water tea, which is just ice water. We have to remember, too, that it’s like 105 degrees, 110 degrees. Everyone’s so hot and sweaty.

A lot of strolling from mansion to mansion, trying to make the best impression on everyone you meet because they’re, in effect, judging whether they want to call you sister for life.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:03:55

I wouldn’t even call it hanging out. It is like going to a small talk mixer, but there’s no alcohol and everyone is wearing like high heels. It’s very uncomfortable.

You list the houses you want to go back to, but more importantly, the houses decide who they want to invite back. It’s a process of recruitment, preference and Darwinian social ranking until finally one day you get a letter saying you have been accepted to the sorority of your dreams. Now, in the last three years, there’s actually been a renewed interest in Greek life, especially at schools like the University of Arkansas, Auburn University and Clemson University and, of course, the University of Alabama. Now, while some colleges have a larger share of student participation, few rival Bama’s Greek life population in size. Anne Helen Petersen actually has a really interesting theory about why.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:04:57

You know, I really see this as a hunger for the quote unquote classic college experience. And I think that that means not just going to a school that has a football team, but a school with a national championship football team. Not just going to a school with some semblance of Greek life, but a school that has the largest Greek life like participation in the country.

Going from your room and zooms and virtual classes to everything in your face.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:05:31

And I absolutely understand this. If you can put yourself in the place of the freshmen and sophomores in high school when the pandemic hit, because those are the people who are going through rush or went through rush last year. A lot of the milestones of their high school experience were taken from them. There was a lot of isolation. There was a lot of feeling of like these things that would have made me feel like I was growing up, like I was experiencing growing up, not there. And I think that that college experience, for some people, it’s still very much like what I was seeking, which was like an environment where you were exploring the, you know, the the mind, like the life of the mind. And for some people, it’s like, I want to have so much fun. I want to have an education, but I also want to have so much fun. And Greek life feels like the quickest way to achieve that.

So you write that in 2004 there were something like 4000 students. Is this at the University of Alabama?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:06:39

Yeah, this their data.

Who are involved in Greek life. By 2017, that number is 10,000. Okay, so this is all pre-pandemic. Last year, it’s up to 12,000 and it makes up 36% of the student population. So even while Greek life, so to speak, may not be thriving, everywhere you’re seeing at the places that can really sell the experience like Alabama, it’s huge.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:07:07

Yes.

So pandemic hits. You have a denial of experience. And then the other thing that you have, of course, is all of our virtual entertainments and, of course, the explosion of TikTok. So here’s where we come to kind of the point of our conversation. People going through the rush process at Alabama, let’s say, but at other schools as well, they start providing a steady stream of content.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:07:35

I think the first thing we have to understand is that these women didn’t arrive at college and say, “Oh, now is the time when I want to start taping myself.”

Right this a generation that, like they’ve been snapping, they’ve been Insta, they’ve been storying, they’ve been Tumblrizing, whatever it is. So this is this is already lingua franca for their social activity.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:07:54

Yes, this sort of self documentation is not new and they start doing what are called OOTDs which is outfit of the day. And this is actually a concept that has been around on the Internet for a long time.

Exactly. The YouTube unboxing videos. And the get ready with me while I’m putting on my make up. This is.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:08:12

Yeah.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:08:14

But the thing that happened that I think was pretty remarkable and this is if we can go back to remembering the summer of 2021, right? So people were still depending on COVID cautiousness and that sort of thing. There was still a feeling of being kind of cooped up, right? And tied to our phones and our devices and not having a lot of other entertainment sources. But these women were back at Rush at the University of Alabama, and these TikToks were getting played for an audience that wasn’t just their peers. And there were parts of this performance of, you know, they say. They describe their entire outfit, right? They say, like, my earrings are from here, my skirt is from here, my shoes are from here. They lift up their foot and show it.

My top is Gold Hinge. My skirt is Gold Hinge. My shoes are Golden Goose

Anne Helen Petersen

00:09:04

They lean in close to the camera to show all of the different parts of the jewelry.

My necklace is David Yurman. These are enewton. David Yurman. David Yurman. MICHELE. My earrings are Amazon and then my rings are David Yurman, David Yurman, David Yurman. And then this is Dior.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:09:18

And they also and this is key. Many of these women had pretty deep Southern accents. And so it felt like this performance of a different sort of like femininity, of young femininity. It felt remarkable during that time.

And it’s also one of the things that’s sort of always been fun about social media, which is a peek into other worlds so to speak.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:09:39

Yeah.

What are the other kinds of videos?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:09:41

The second most popular kind is one that is created by the sorority. It is official sorority content. It is essentially an ad for the sorority, and it is usually a dance.

Bring ’em out, bring ’em out, bring ’em out, bring ’em out. It’s hard to hear when Alpha Gamma’s in the house. Swizzie!

Not just any dance. We’re dancing 40 to 50 people fronted by a usually dance team?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:10:05

And there are oftentimes people doing tumbling moves like back flips.

So they are legit entertaining, right?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:10:12

And, you know, some of these are coordinated by women inside the house. They’re doing the filming, they’re doing the editing. They decide which dance we’re going to do. But some houses hire outside producers to produce this content for them to make the editing incredibly slick. Right? Because you’re trying to communicate, here is who we are as an institution. The other thing, this wasn’t in the piece that I wrote, but all the houses during the week before Rush have what’s called. They have a work week, and every day they have content hour. Which is when everyone’s supposed to be at the house and like looking camera ready so that you can create content. And some of that are those videos and some of them are more like using audio from different TV shows, particularly The Kardashians, that’s a huge one, especially this year. And then like making little skits or like –

That’s amazing. So it’s Greek life content farms. I’ve learned another thing in the course of this.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:11:14

And then the fourth type I would say is like uh talking about your day and sometimes that’s as the women take off their makeup or as they’re putting on their makeup in the morning and it’s more of a downloading how the experience of the day was, how they’re feeling and that sort of thing. But panhellenic rules, the rules of Rush are that you can’t talk about specific houses, you can’t talk about specific people, you can’t talk about specific experiences. So what it really is is just a bunch of platitudes about like, “I had so much fun meeting the sisters. I’m really excited for tomorrow. I’m really tired.”

Good morning and happy day three of sisterhood. I am so ready to sleep in, I really am. It’s been a couple of early mornings recently and I’m just ready to find my forever home with my girls. I keep –Every day, I keep on getting closer and closer to the process. And every day I keep on and keep on losing my voice.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:12:20

Like everyone was just exhausted all the time. But those sorts of things. And yet they’re eminently watchable because you want to get some sort of hint about what’s going on in their lives.

As I approach these next couple of days, please pray for me and all the other countless girls that are going through this process. It’s really draining, but it’s also gonna be so rewarding at the end.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:12:40

And it caught fire that first people call it season one, 2021. And I think a part of that like that language calling it a Season 1, Season 2, Season 3 points to the ways in which it functions as a sort of reality TV show, right? Like, you’re trying to follow these women as they match with a house. It’s not dissimilar to trying to see who wins in The Bachelorette. Right?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:13:09

Yeah. Yeah.

Because it’s us yeah, culturally, I mean, this means this is adults doing this. Correct me if I’m wrong. It’s not just kids watching other kids and thinking, Oh, it might be fun to be in Greek life. This is adults now kind of saying doing this thing we do right, which is to create a story arc out of the chaos that is our air quotes feed.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:13:31

Yes.

Greek life, by definition, is about sisterhood or brotherhood, and it also encourages a kind of sameness within that community.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:13:42

Yeah.

The outfitting. And that also sometimes comes down to the culling and curation of their pledge classes. Who gets in and who is out? Who’s a good fit? And one of the things that’s been fascinating to me, watching all the content you’ve been surfacing on Instagram is these women, in effect, documenting their transition to that.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:14:02

Mm hmm.

They start out themselves and then they become one of the sisters, however, that is supposed to look and feel.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:14:10

Yeah. And some of them are more adept, more equipped to make that transition than others right? because. The affinity – there’s an esthetic affinity, so people who look the same way as you. And that, I think, is race. It’s also hair. It’s the clothes that you’re wearing and how you wear them, what your body type is, all those things. And then there is a socioeconomic affinity.

Or your closest mimicry of that.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:14:45

But they also are very adept at creating mechanisms to sort through that mimicry. So what we’ve seen this year is this sort of secondary effect that happens in reality television as well. So when Survivor first started, no one had been on Survivor before. No one had watched Survivor.

Yes this is such a thing.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:15:07

And they don’t know how to perform. They don’t necessarily know, like, I want to play the villain or I want to play the the protagonist in some way. And then as the seasons have gone on, the people have who try out for Survivor are mega Survivor fans, right? Have internalized the norms of Survivor. And so where we are in this third season, per se, of of Bama RushTok is that the women who are rushing who rushed this past week, they watched so much RushTok.

That now they know what to do. And what kind of image to cultivate.

After the break, the undeniable whiteness of RushTok and why we just can’t seem to look away.

So. Anne Helen Petersen was in a sorority. That’s where she met some of the people that she still calls her best friends. But her experience of Greek life at a small liberal arts college in the 90s was, shall we say, simpler.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:16:16

It was so informal. My best friend wore REI shorts and a climbing shirt to the first day of rush.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:16:24

Like we were not. Yeah. No bra either. She got every house that she wanted to go to. This is the Pacific Northwest. So that’s the femininity vibe.

I was familiar with her essays about millennial burnout or Hollywood focused articles with titles like Jennifer Lawrence and The History of Cool Girls, or Ten Long Years of Trying to Make Armie Hammer Happen. Honestly, I didn’t totally get her obsession with RushTok until we dug in a bit.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:16:56

I get in these wormholes of things that are simultaneously beguiling and repulsive.

But this one is about you, right? Because you were in a sorority.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:17:08

Oh, yeah. Part of it is that, like, I loved being in a sorority. All of my best friends are from my sorority. Like, it was an incredibly important and loving and fun time. And I think some people have that experience in Greek life. Some do not. But how do I also understand all of those things, know them to be true, and then also understand the larger macro conversations about how sororities and fraternities operate, not just on college campuses, but then also go on to create and reproduce power in the United States

So you’re reckoning with your own privilege.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:17:50

I mean, always, right?

No, no, but this is pretty specific, right?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:17:53

Yeah. Yeah.

Because every time someone brings you in the DMS and says, Why is this so white? You have to think about your own experience, which were some of the best of your life.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:18:04

Right. And I have to think about why was my college so white? I have to think about all of those questions, right? Why is my friend group still so white? Like it is a constant interrogation.

That’s hard. That’s the part people don’t – the like, maintenance part of your politics can be hard. You know what I mean?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:18:22

Yeah. 100%.

So it’s much easier to slide in someone’s DMs than to check your contacts list and realize everyone looks the same.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:18:31

I was talking to someone about my really tight group of friends from college, right? So part of it was that this college itself, because of location, but also because of what it was and who it recruited and who it was able to keep there was already pretty white. The Greek system selected it down even whiter. And then you graduate and yes, you make friends in all these different parts of your life. But if that core understanding of friendship, the place where you feel like you created those incredible bonds that stay as your foundation, if that is still that group, it’s useful in so many ways. It’s useful in terms of I always have a place where I can feel real community. If I need something, I can rely on these people.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:19:21

Yeah,.

Like that. I mean, I need an internship and I need a place to stay. And someone types a letter to someone or makes a contact and like, lo and behold, you’re whatever. Like the network itself pays dividends for life.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:19:37

But then it’s also it’s reproducing the things that I think keep America the way that it is, that keep privilege

That are now sort of at odds with your own internal politic.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:19:50

Yeah. And how do you dismantle those things in your own life? Right? I think it gets to the heart of what is really hard for a lot of people, which is personal choices versus larger politics. And that can be anything from school choice, where I want to live, and what kind of work that I do. And how that you can reconcile that with things that you theoretically and ostensibly believe.

So you’ve explained all this to us. Now in the context, put your celebrity studies hat on.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:20:25

Yeah, I think that there’s a real desire amongst women in particular, to say “I’m not like that.” To say, like, this is ridiculous. They’re spending so much time on hair and makeup. White, liberal people also want to express like, this is so white, right? Without understanding –

Is that a question you’ve actually gotten?

Anne Helen Petersen

00:20:48

Oh, just constantly.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:20:52

Have you noticed how lily white this is? I’m like yes, yes, I have. But it’s never people of color who are asking that question because, like, I think they understand the ways that whiteness reproduces itself in these sorts of organizations.

Give me two or three reasons why you think. People on the outside are becoming sort of obsessed with it.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:21:14

I think it’s spectacle first and foremost. You know, part of like, I love watching the sorority videos because I like watching cheerleader routines.

So just straight entertainment.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:21:25

And dances set to music. And then on a secondary and more ideological level, I do think that there is a performance internally. And also the way that people comment on a live like that is so different. And I think it’s similar in some ways to why people watch something like Real Housewives like these people are so messy, they’re so rich, they’re such assholes to one another. It’s spectacle. And it’s also not me. Like, I am not that person.

The other thing is how the women kind of cultivate themselves. Their code of conduct they kind of adhere to. How they make themselves look. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think that is something that has been commented on a lot in passing by people. There’s something about the version of being a woman that they’re making themselves into that is striking for people, even as it’s in a way old fashioned.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:22:31

What do you – like, when you watch them, what do you see?

I mean. I’m going to be honest with you. I see exactly what I thought Greek life was.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:22:40

Right. Right.

You know, like pretty young women kind of doing stuff on a male timeline. You know what I mean? And preparing themselves to enter marriage at the strata that is most likely to bring them success and happiness and maintain the life and lifestyle of which they’ve inherited. It’s actually been hard for me to sit through some of the TikTok videos and think, Woah, this is new. Like, I’m actually very confused by why people are interested.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:23:17

Yeah, it doesn’t seem new to me. It’s just that they’re taping it, right?

I mean, the newest thing to me was that they were being called seasons. I was like, Oh, we have given up on pretending that this is personhood. We’re just like, everything is content. Everyone is capital. And it is yet another way that being a woman can be packaged and sold.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:23:38

Yeah. And I think that that is something that a lot of people remarked to me, that what you see is them learning how to perform the self for a public audience, a large public audience, really young because many of them started these TikTok accounts when they’re in junior high or high school and now they’re –

And even the coaches, right? It reminds you of pageantry. Don’t talk about politics. Don’t talk about religion. Don’t talk about anything that will upset anyone or make conversation difficult for you. It runs counter to the cultural, the progressive, liberal kind of dominant cultural idea of, like, difficult women.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:24:19

Yeah. Or even the college student, right? Because I think that’s something that there’s this understanding that somehow all college students are like dirty hippie liberals who want safe spaces.

Rebelling against standards of every kind.

Anne Helen Petersen

00:24:33

Yes.

And then along comes RushTok

Anne Helen Petersen

00:24:36

Yeah. that I think underlines what we know about the political makeup of this country. You know, these organizations, they’re called fraternal organizations, even the sororities. They’re all called fraternal organizations. Fraternal organizations extend past what we think of as Greek life to include things like the Elks Club, the Rotary Club, all of the things that, depending on where you grew up, like where your grandparents or great grandparents were probably part of these groups in some capacity. They were also almost certainly part of some sort of religious infrastructure. That’s social infrastructure that is ready made friends. That is your cheat code that when you moved to a town, you joined a church and that is how you found people who would be your like community of care. And there are all sorts of reasons why that has gone away. And I think a lot of them are great. But also we have found ourselves in this moment without many of those nodes of connection that were ready made for us, right? so part of it is social infrastructure. There’s not a lot of public spaces. There aren’t these places to aid you on that road to friendship and community. And here’s one right there, right, right there in college. All you got to do is sign up. And that’s the sort of like care and promise and friendship that I think a lot of people are really desperate for.

That was writer and journalist Anne Helen Petersen. And you can find her on Substack. Her newsletter is called Culture Study. Now, if you have an assignment for us, please give us a call. Tell us what’s going on in your life. I was actually just listening to a bunch of them. Please keep calling. Our number is 202-854-8802.

This episode of The Assignment – a production of CNN Audio – was produced by Jennifer Lai and Carla Javier. Our producers are Lori Galarreta and Dan Bloom. Our associate producer is Isoke Samuel. Matt Martinez is the senior producer of our show. Mixing and sound design by Michael Hammond. Dan Dzula is our technical director. And we got extra help this week from Matt Dempsey. Matt, thanks so much. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. Special thanks, as always, to Katie Hinman. And I want to thank you for listening. I’m Audie Cornish.

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