Paranoia and Pastels at Bama Rush

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Marina Anderson was accused of recording herself inside a party and told she was being dismissed from rushing any sorority, she was so shocked that she offered to have her body searched for a microphone.

“I begged them,” she said in an interview, referring to her accusers. But that was the end of her run this sorority rush week at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Ms. Anderson, 18, is one of more than 2,500 students who came to campus early to participate in recruitment, the formal name for the weeklong process in which women vie for spots in one of the 19 sororities represented by the Alabama Panhellenic Association. Recruitment at Alabama, better known as “rush,” made international news last year after videos posted by participants in the annual event went viral on TikTok.

New recruits are impossible to miss on campus. Everyone wears a slightly different version of the outfits recommended by the Alabama Panhellenic Association. Those include shorts that aren’t ripped, frayed or too short, and “nice” dresses that aren’t too tight. The organization’s guidebook for 2022 is 111 pages long. It also suggests women wear colors that don’t show sweat. (Temperatures in Tuscaloosa during recruitment week peaked in the 90s.)

There was speculation on TikTok that the women rushing this year would be prohibited from posting videos on the app. In a TikTok comment reviewed by The New York Times before the start of rush, an active sister, who made TikTok videos during her own recruitment process, said posting would be “highly discouraged.”

Current potential new members — P.N.M.s — are indeed posting. Many of the TikTok videos posted by P.N.M.s at the University of Alabama this year have received hundreds of thousands of views.

“The Alabama Panhellenic Association does not have a social media policy for active or potential members and does not restrict or limit what they can post on social media,” Shane Dorrill, an assistant director of communications at the University of Alabama, wrote in an email. The university, Mr. Dorrill said, does not prohibit students from speaking to the media, but he noted, “chapters may have media guidelines for their active members.”

More than two dozen active sisters and P.N.M.s, contacted by direct messages, email and in person, declined to be interviewed for this article.

“Sorry, I have to get to a party,” one potential member said after lacing up a heeled espadrille and rushing away. Another said she needed to go home, quickly turning and walking in the opposite direction. One woman declined to have her hands photographed because she feared her fingernail polish might be recognized.

Tensions on campus were also high this year as rumors swirled on TikTok and on Greek Rank, an anonymous discussion forum, of an undercover documentary about #BamaRush being filmed on campus.

Before participating in rush, P.N.M.s sign a contract with the Alabama Panhellenic Association, which oversees the process. They agree not to disparage sororities or sisters and not to record what happens at parties.

The women are also not allowed to bring their bags or, notably, their cellphones into the houses they visit. When they attend their parties, which are essentially interview sessions, rushees abandon their belongings on the sidewalk or the grass outside the houses, leaving the impression that a particularly pastel rapture has occurred.

Each P.N.M. is issued two T-shirts to wear during the week. Ms. Anderson, who is from Cincinnati, wanted to make hers a little more form-fitting. She used a black hair elastic to ball up the shirt at her lower back and tucked the extra fabric up under the shirt against her spine.

After leaving her second party on Tuesday and retrieving her cellphone, Ms. Anderson noticed she had a missed call. In a voice mail message, she was summoned to the recruitment executive tent near the university’s football stadium.

Once there, Ms. Anderson said, she was taken aside by two “straight faced” members of the executive board. One of the women pulled out a cellphone and began to read, informing Ms. Anderson she had been caught violating the rules of recruitment and was being dismissed.

She said she thought it was a “sick prank.” She offered to show them her phone as proof. “It was not a phone, an active member said they saw you recording in a house,” the women told her, Ms. Anderson said.

Ms. Anderson believes the active member mistook her elastic band for a microphone wire and battery pack. Speaking with The Times, she said she was not wearing a microphone and has no involvement with any film production.

“I even said: ‘Hey, like, I’ll literally take off all my clothes right now. Please just search me,’” she recalled. The women told her they were not at liberty to do so. The decision was final. She has since posted several TikTok videos explaining what happened and warning other P.N.M.s. “Girls should just know, like, please be careful because the paranoia is what’s really causing this,” Ms. Anderson said.

“I just think that the system needs some checks,” said Kay Anderson, Marina Anderson’s mother. “They need to change the process. And I don’t necessarily blame the girls, but I think rush has gotten so out of hand and so overblown and big, and it just puts all this pressure on everybody to either be seeing things that they don’t see or, you know, the girls that are rushing are just panicked and freaked out of their minds to look a certain way.”

“I think it’s become toxic,” she said.

Officials at the University of Alabama declined to comment on Ms. Anderson’s situation.

The idea that recruitment would make for a great series, à la Netflix’s “Cheer,” which followed a Texas cheerleading team, reverberated on social media during recruitment week in 2021. Last year’s TikTok videos are referred to by some online as “Bama Rush Season 1.”

Concerns about microphones were a topic of much discussion during this year’s recruitment, both on campus and online. On TikTok, Amanda Evans, who appears to be a current P.N.M. at Alabama, offered up another warning on the second day of recruitment week.

“I wanted to remind everyone to be very careful,” she says in the video. “You’re not allowed to record in the houses; some girls got caught with mics on them today.” Ms. Evans did not respond to a request for comment.

“The university is aware of reports that outside parties have facilitated unauthorized recordings of our students involved in Panhellenic recruitment,” Mr. Dorrill wrote in an email. “The university has not authorized any third-party entity to film, record or document any recruitment activities and does not allow media inside occupied buildings such as residence halls and sorority houses.”

He stressed that the university was “not involved with this production,” adding it “finds these reported activities to be deplorable, especially when targeting recent high school graduates.”

In November 2021, Emily Limbaugh, 23, was approached about such a production. Ms. Limbaugh, who graduated from the University of Alabama in August and is an alumna member of Alpha Phi, said she was contacted via Instagram DM by a woman who identified herself as a producer from Vice Studios “working on a documentary for HBOMax.”

Ms. Limbaugh thought it was “super sketchy” that the direct message came from an unverified account with no profile picture. The account appears to have since been deactivated.

According to screenshots of the messages reviewed by The Times, the producer said the documentary would be directed by Rachel Fleit. Ms. Fleit’s documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair” had its premiere at South by Southwest in 2021.

The documentary would “explore college life, sisterhood, and all the joys and complexities of what it means to be a young woman today, following several women from the University of Alabama,” the producer wrote. She said she had found Ms. Limbaugh “while searching through social media,” and introduced her, via email, to two other producers.

The team invited her to a Zoom to discuss further, Ms. Limbaugh said. Ms. Limbaugh, who is Christian, recalled being asked questions about how her faith fit in at her sorority and about her political beliefs. After consulting a family member, Ms. Limbaugh declined to move forward with the project. In an email that Ms. Limbaugh shared with The Times, she told the team she did not want her participation to be “twisted (intentionally or not).” Ms. Limbaugh did not tell her sorority about any of these exchanges.

Jonathan Bing, a spokesman for Vice Studios, confirmed to The Times that the company is currently making a rush documentary in Tuscaloosa, directed by Ms. Fleit. The rumors of hidden microphones are untrue, Mr. Bing said.

“This film is a thoughtful and compassionate portrayal of young women in 2022 as they rush the sorority system at the University of Alabama,” Ms. Fleit wrote in a statement provided by Vice. HBOMax declined to comment for this article.

Last year, so-called RushTok captivated millions of viewers online with its ruffled dresses and strappy heeled sandals that were almost certain to break some skin. The world learned new phrases like “jewelry normal,” as in, this is my everyday jewelry. Then there was the gripping drama of watching a particularly popular woman face rejection from every single sorority.

“It was like a joke at first because everyone was like, if you post, you’ll become famous,” said Payton Messal, a current student at Alabama who rushed and was initiated into a sorority in 2021 before ultimately quitting after deciding it was not worth the $4,000 dues for the semester.

The joke soon became more serious, she said. “Then reporters actually started to come and then we were told to not talk to them,” Ms. Messal, 19, said. She said saying anything to the news media could jeopardize a woman’s chances of getting a bid to join a sorority.

Even if a P.N.M. gets rejected, posting rush TikTok videos can be a potentially lucrative opportunity. The sudden attention on rush videos can offer micro-influencing opportunities and an opportunity for rapid follower growth.

For some spectators on TikTok, the videos have become like a reality show. “One of the things that has really emerged to me in the last year in studying TikTok, that has become really salient in looking at Bama RushTok this year, is how we use the language of television to talk about viral moments on TikTok,” said Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama. The women are often referred to as “characters” on the app, she noted.

Accessories, like shoes and jewelry, offer an opportunity to stand out ever so slightly amid the thousands of identical T-shirts. The looks are often a mix of pricier items and fast fashion. While one P.N.M. might be wearing Cartier, you’ll find plenty of items from Amazon, Shein or even borrowed from their mom’s closet.

You can also spot P.N.M.s by their hair, often gently curled or heavily flat ironed and fighting for its life in the Alabama humidity defended only by battery-operated, hand-held fans many of the women carry in their so-called rush bags.

“Are you going to get into a sorority because of your outfit? No,” Kylan Darnell, a P.N.M. who is also Miss Ohio Teen USA, says in her first rush TikTok video. It has been viewed more than three million times. “I don’t want anything I’m doing on here to be taken the wrong way,” says Ms. Darnell, who declined to be interviewed. She adds that she was making an “outfit of the day” video because they make rush fun. She says her belt, sneakers and shorts are from Gucci.

One of this year’s most popular style of shorts is from a brand called Queen of Sparkles, said Grace Singley, a sales associate at the Pants Store in Tuscaloosa. The Pants Store is a boutique clothing shop often cited in TikTok videos. The store, which has several locations in Alabama, found viral fame as a result of RushTok’s sudden popularity last year. It does not only sell pants.

The shorts are made of shiny polyester and have a wide, smocked waistband. They sell for $70 and sizes tap out at an extra large.

The Pants Store has been posting recruitment-inspired TikToks, as have other brands popular with the Greek circuit, like the jeweler Kendra Scott. On TikTok, you’ll also find women in sororities around the country using hashtags like #BamaRush and #BamaRushTok to post their own rush content even though they do not attend the university. (Using trending hashtags, relevant to the content or not, is a common growth and engagement hack on TikTok.)

Not everyone is all in on Bama Rush. Milen Kostov, a father from North Carolina who had just hugged his daughter goodbye on the first day of recruitment, had some apprehensions about Greek life, many of them about the potential cost.

The average cost of dues for a new member at a University of Alabama sorority in her first semester is $4,100, according to the Alabama Panhellenic Association. Less quantifiable costs, like new clothing and social events, can also increase that total.

“You do everything for your kid, right?” Mr. Kostov said.

That same day, Susan Gliem, who was dropping off her son at the university, took a walk around sorority row with her husband. They had also brought their teenage daughter and her friend to check out the campus.

The girls wandered over to a sorority house with an open front door. Ms. Gliem said they had become fascinated with RushTok videos. The sounds of chanting could be heard coming from inside the house. As the girls peered in, the door swung shut.