'Stepford Wives: College Edition'?

U of Alabama sorority faces questions for a recruitment video that appears to suggest it is a home for attractive white women only -- but the video is hardly unique among sorority recruiting efforts in emphasizing blondes in bathing suits over time in the library.

August 19, 2015
Image from the Alpha Phi video

A University of Alabama sorority has removed a recruitment video from the Internet after an op-ed decrying the clip as being too sexual and lacking diversity resulted in widespread attention and criticism for the chapter.

While the video -- which featured the mostly blond members of Alpha Phi blowing clouds of glitter from their hands, running through bubbles and playing in a river while wearing bathing suits -- appears to be the norm for social sororities, its content has sparked a debate about how chapters should represent themselves in marketing materials.

The op-ed, written by A. L. Bailey, a guest columnist for AL.com, was titled “Bama sorority video worse for women than Donald Trump,” referring to the presidential candidate's tendency to make sexist comments about women he does not like or disagrees with.

“It's all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyperfeminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition,” Bailey wrote. “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.”

After Bailey’s op-ed was published and spread online, the chapter deleted the video and its social media accounts, but the video continues to be re-uploaded by others. By Monday, the controversy had been featured on the Today show. Deborah Lane, a spokeswoman for the University of Alabama, said in a statement that the “video is not reflective of UA’s expectations for student organizations to be responsible digital citizens.”

Some critics have focused on the lack of diversity in the video, as the University of Alabama’s sororities were accused of discrimination in 2013 after an investigation by the student newspaper found that several chapters had blocked the bid of a black student over her race, and that the sorority system had a history right up to last year of being largely segregated. The video does not prominently feature any black students except for an Alabama football player who jokingly loses a race to one of the sorority’s members.

Most critics, however, have expressed that they worry the video is reinforcing sexist and misogynist ideals. In an op-ed for US News & World Report, Susan Milligan wrote that the sorority culture seen in the video was a "destructive force" and that sororities treat their members with "almost as little respect" as what sexual assault victims receive when reporting a rape

"Sisterhoods on campus ought to be exactly that -- groups dedicated to supporting fellow university women and developing skills, confidence and leadership," she wrote. "Instead, the women look like they're auditioning for a Girls Gone Wild video. This still doesn't mean that women can't be sexual, or dress and behave in a way to find sexual partners. Nor does it make an assault on those women or any woman justifiable. But if the Alpha Phi sorority won't respect itself, how can it expect fraternities -- or indeed, anyone -- to respect their members?"

A writer for the website Total Sorority Move defended the video on Monday. “Sure, our videos are filled with gorgeous women running around with flags, playing with puppies and blowing glitter,” she wrote, “but when the credits (yes, we have credits for these things) roll and the lights come up, we all know that it’s complete bullshit.”

Indeed, the Alpha Phi clip could serve as a checklist for many other chapters’ recruitment videos. It includes several prominent tropes of the genre.

Florida State University’s Zeta Tau Alpha’s recruitment video features its mostly white members dancing, partying and lounging by the pool in bikinis. Members of Pi Beta Phi at the University of Florida spend much of their video’s running time splashing around in bathing suits. Pennsylvania State University’s Alpha Phi’s clip features fewer bikinis than the Alabama video, but at least five times as much glitter. Several of this year's videos include shots of sorority members enjoying ice cream and Popsicles.

Fraternity recruitment videos often include similar content, which is to say they, too, feature groups of college women wearing bathing suits.

Greek chapters are not alone in using online videos to play up the social aspects of college life. Institutions themselves have occasionally released videos trying to show that college can be a party, and they have faced a backlash. In 2010, the University of Georgia was mocked when it created an orientation video parodying the song “Party in the USA,” called “Party in the UGA.”

The “party” in that video was far tamer than anything seen in a typical rush video, but the emphasis remained on the social, not educational, experience of going to college.

“We’re robbing students of the richer college experience if we say we’re not going to talk about its social and fun side,” said Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications, a public relations agency focused on higher education. “That said, there’s a growing awareness of the challenges that can come with that social side, and an institution or Greek chapter needs to be ready to talk about those issues of gender, race and ethnicity. With the sometimes negative perception Greek life has, you can market the fun, but you also have to be ready for hard questions.”


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