For young men and women in the Greek system in U.S. colleges, the end of summer means the start of rush season. It’s the time when they start recruiting hard for people to beg to join their fraternity or sorority, so they can reject most of them a couple of months from now. It’s a practice seen by many but understood by few outside of the tightly insulated system, and most non-Greeks are okay with that, but sometimes the curtain gets pulled back and you see, for instance, this summer’s recruiting video from Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Alabama.
There are piggyback rides. There are winks and kisses blown at the camera. There’s lots of jumping into a lake. There’s lots of bikini-top-wearing and up-and-down-jumping. There are lots — lots — of shots filmed from behind at butt level. And there’s color ranging from platinum blonde to dirty blonde, with the occasional token brunette thrown in for diversity.
There can be an amount of fremdschämen involved in watching these young women slo-mo bouncing in bathing suits. The Internet quickly, as it does, filled with dismissive comments about hair dye, bikinis, and speculation on the women’s intelligence. A friend who was a member of a sorority at Alabama and continues to treasure her time there said that with the amount of time she’s spent defending herself as a former “sorority girl,” this video makes Greek life look even worse to people outside of it. And one writer for al.com is of the opinion that the video is basically the worst thing to happen to women in modern time — certainly up in Donald Trump territory.
No, it’s not a slick Playboy Playmate or Girls Gone Wild video. It’s a sorority recruiting tool gaining on 500,000 views in its first week on YouTube. It’s a parade of white girls and blonde hair dye, coordinated clothing, bikinis and daisy dukes, glitter and kisses, bouncing bodies, euphoric hand-holding and hugging, gratuitous booty shots, and matching aviator sunglasses. It’s all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyper-feminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition. It’s all so … unempowering.
Are they recruiting a diverse and talented group of young women embarking on a college education? Upon first or even fifth glance, probably not. Hormonal college-aged guys? Most assuredly yes. Older, male YouTube creepers? A resounding yes.
Like the many other videos of its ilk found online for sororities far and wide, it’s supposed to work as a sales tool to draw in potential new members (PNMs). But unlike many other videos, Alpha Phi’s video stands out in the “beauty and bounce” category and in its production value. Yes, sororities are known for being pretty and flirty; they aren’t bastions of feminist ideologies. But perhaps they shouldn’t completely sabotage them either.
And I’m currently really resentful of op-ed writer A.L. Bailey, because now I find myself defending a video full of pool-noodle fights and glitter. Nice job, A.L. I hope you step on Legos.
I will grant you, right off the top: This video makes Alpha Phi look kind of silly. As a video meant to promote the sorority, which includes philanthropy and scholarship within its mission, it pretty much portrays Alpha Phi life as one long music video full of back handsprings, piggyback rides, and “Blessed” bathing suits. It looks, and I’m not joking, like an extended cut of the opening scene of Legally Blonde, without any indication of self-awareness or self-parody.
(As for slamming the video for its lack of diversity… talk to UA’s entire Greek system about lack of diversity. And that’s not a blow-off in the manner of “of course this WWII period movie is all white! Things were segregated back then!” It’s a reminder that the racism that put University of Alabama Greek system in the spotlight two years ago still remains unaddressed in any substantive manner. The video is all white? We can talk about the fact that they had literally no women of color in their casting pool.)
As a marketing effort, the video really does present the sisters of Alpha Phi as pretty things to look at in bathing suits and short-shorts. There’s no way around that. And there are almost certainly men who are responding pruriently to that message (just as there are men who will respond thusly to a woman in a calf-length parka on a city sidewalk in November). It’s silly. But it’s not the root of all misogynistic evil, and in her condemnation of the video and the women in it, Bailey seems a bit confused as to what the roots really are. In the op-ed, she lists women’s struggle for control over their reproductive health, the struggle for a fair wage, women speaking up about Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump’s dismissal of and insults against women as signs that women aren’t yet being taken seriously. Then she essentially lays this on the women of Alpha Phi, who, “with all their flouncing and hair-flipping, are making it so terribly difficult for anyone to take them seriously, now or in the future.”
Not being taken seriously is not the reason women are still fighting for equal pay and reproductive rights. Congress isn’t debating laws that shut down women’s clinics and put women’s health under the control of major corporations because they think we’re all just “hair-flipping” “bimbos” who can’t be trusted with these decisions. They’re doing it because they have agendas to support and power structures to maintain (and respectable, non-hair-flipping, non-bimbo women to take part in it all). And when women’s rape accusations are disregarded because of the way they look, act, or dress, it’s not because of women like the ones in the video — it’s because of the stereotypes that are perpetuated against women like them. Tank top-clad sorority videos aren’t going to take down the patriarchy, but they’re also not the sole barrier standing in the way of women’s rights. Not even a major barrier.
Here’s something that’s bad for women: the fact that we can lay out all of the above concerns — the gender wage gap, the fight for reproductive rights and access to health care, dozens of women allegedly being raped by a man shielded for decades by the power of celebrity, and a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination being a man who (among many other offenses) speculated disparagingly on Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle after the debate — and decry the insidious threat of a sorority video in the same breath. That’s not to say that we can’t care about several issues at once; nothing happens in a vacuum. But this video? Not just that it’s another concern, but that it’s so problematic that it’s actively enabling all of the others?
Seriously? In the world of female objectification, this video is tame. It’s on level with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, certainly short of Playboy’s “Girls of the…” college series, light years short of Girls Gone Wild. This is Girls Gone Stereotypical. That’s not helping women, but laying the full weight of the feminist movement on these women’s tanned shoulders is unrealistic.
What makes it bad for women is not the fact that these women might, in the future, be called “bimbos” by male coworkers who’ve seen the video, but that society continues to evaluate women and rate them on a scale from Bimbo to Sexless Hag and treat them accordingly. It’s not the fact that it’s portraying a bouncy, perky, bikinied version of sorority life but that that’s the message, and not philanthropy or academics, that’s actually effective in getting young women to pledge sororities. It’s not the idea that the women of Alpha Phi might have nothing more to offer than “beauty and bounce,” but the idea that writers like Bailey look at them and see nothing but a 72-woman takedown of the feminist movement.
This is not a helpful video, from a purely feminist standpoint. It doesn’t promote a woman’s value beyond her ability to look pretty in cut-offs. It’s not empowering; it’s not “empowerful.” It’s five and a half minutes of pure eye candy. It’s as white as white can be (minus, of course, the football player cameo), and that’s because the sorority itself is as white as white can be within a super-white UA Panhellenic. And it makes me sad that when these young women chose to make a video promoting their sorority, they defaulted to spray tans, bathing suits, and, for some reason, literal piles of glitter. While women should be free to make their own choices for their own bodies and their own lives, we can’t pretend that those choices don’t have wider repercussions, and we’re still free to criticize those choices. That said… it’s a sorority recruitment video. It’s the video embodiment of what Alpha Phi is pretty sure prospective pledges are looking for in a college experience. It’s a reflection less on the value of women as a whole and more on the questionable choices of Alpha Phi’s recruitment committee. (Incidentally, UA’s Alpha Phi chapter has since taken down the video and almost all of their online presence, so… there you go, Bailey. No more bikini shots.)
So. We can accuse Alpha Phi of singlehandedly (72-handedly?) dismantling the feminist cause, promoting the objectification of women, and setting a shameful example for our daughters, via their admittedly objectifying, unintentionally comical video. Or we can say that they look like they’re having fun, that we all did silly things in college, and — most of all — once again — as ever — that telling women that their expressions of femininity and sexuality are betraying the sisterhood isn’t going to make them put on a turtleneck and join the cause, it’s going to alienate them and tell them that there’s no place for women like them within the movement. If you want a young woman “blessed with potential” to work for change within a deeply flawed system, and to fight against racism, rape culture, and Donald Trump and for equal pay, reproductive rights, and access to health care, you can go ahead and tell her she looks like a Playboy Playmate who’s a poster child for detrimental stereotypes and clichés, flouncing and bouncing and sabotaging feminist ideologies. Get back to me about how successful you were with that.