The secret lives of SORORITIES
Marie Claire Australia|December 2021
A recent viral moment offered a rare glimpse into the world of sororities – shiny American sisterhoods defined by pledging, parties and social promise. But behind closed college doors lies a culture of elitism, sexism and systemic racial exclusion, writes Kathryn Madden
Kathryn Madden

It’s a scorching August day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a small, historic town in the deep American south. Eighteen-year-old MaKayla Culpepper puts on a white ruffled minidress and pair of colour-blocked, dangly earrings that pop against her dark skin and waistlength black hair. She posts a quick TikTok video sharing the details of her outfit (“Dress: Painted Pink; Shoes: Gianni Bini”), then makes her way to Sorority Row, a strip of student houses on campus at the University of Alabama.

She arrives at a neoclassical mansion and ogles at the towering white columns rising from neat, manicured lawns. (“I’d never seen a house like that,” she later tells marie claire.) The doors fling open and she’s greeted by a pack of young women eagerly clapping and chanting Greek letters. A glass of iced water is shoved in her hand and she’s ushered in, then spends 15 minutes chatting about her life, studies and philanthropic endeavours.

MaKayla leaves the mansion and visits two more, a repetitive fanfare of singing and small talk. The women – older college students who already live in the house – are welcoming and bubbly. But behind their sweet smiles they’re sizing her up, ranking her on her high school graduation score, her reputation and probably her Gianni Bini heels.

Like thousands of high school graduates across America, MaKayla is in the midst of “rush week”, a nine-day audition for a highly prized spot in a sorority house. These sisterhoods are the stuffof Hollywood tropes – think Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, the pink-suited president of Delta Nu – but they’re also a mainstay of modern America, especially in the south. An estimated nine million adults across the country have been part of a sorority or fraternity; and today the University of Alabama boasts one of the largest Greek communities, with 66 different “chapters” and more than 10,000 student members.

The system dates back to the 1770s, when the first fraternity was founded at a college in Virginia. The secret men’s club got its name, Phi Beta Kappa, from the Greek initials for its motto: “Love of learning is the guide of life.” In the mid- to late 1800s, similar women’s societies started to form – a safe, intellectual space on male-dominated campuses – and by the 1920s they’d morphed into social clubs, a magnet for wealthy Southern belles. Next, future presidents joined the ranks: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, followed by soon-to-be stars including Jennifer Garner, Matthew McConaughey and Meghan Markle. Since 1900, 63 per cent of US Cabinet members have been Greek life alumni, and 80 per cent of today’s Fortune 500 executives are former fraternity brothers. Given their lifelong ties to these chapters, admission can serve as an entree to the upper echelons of society.

Back on campus in Tuscaloosa, rush week is progressing like it does every year – each day the potential new members (PNMs) receive invites to various sorority houses, and are gradually “dropped” from the process. But this year something’s different: in 2020, recruitment took place over Zoom, so 2021 is the first real rush since the explosion of TikTok. PNMs such as MaKayla are advised against sharing details of the formal proceedings on social media, so instead they upload #OOTD (outfit of the day) videos each morning. The seemingly banal content offers a rare glimpse into the secretive world of sororities, equal parts intriguing and predictable. The candidates are primarily thin, white and blonde, with Southern drawls and expensive jewellery.

Almost overnight, #BamaRush goes viral and MaKayla amasses 60,000 new TikTok followers (she now has more than 144,000). Avid fans create fantasy league drafts predicting which girls will enter which sorority, while media outlets from The New York Times to The Washington Post publish think pieces about the cultural moment. It’s a quasi reality television show playing out before our eyes.

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