Alpha Phi Alabama pulls video: Why sororities will survive the backlash

The University of Alabama's Alpha Phi sorority pulled its slickly produced recruitment video after critics called it objectifying, but, despite negative perceptions, Greek life remains more popular than it has been in 15 years.

Vasha Hunt/ via AP
University of Alabama bid day pledges run to their sorority houses after receiving their bids, Saturday, at the 2015 Alabama sorority Bid Day in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Following an online backlash, the University of Alabama chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority pulled its recruitment video, which depicts the Alpha Phi experience as a nearly homogeneous sea of blonde hair and designer outfits. But don't see this as a sign that Greek life is about to make its exit from America's colleges.

The video garnered 500,000 views on YouTube before it was taken down after an opinion piece by writer A.L. Bailey took issue with its content:

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. 

But bad press hasn’t affected enrollment in Greek organizations. According to the American Freshman Survey, which interviews more than 100,000 freshmen, their interest in joining a fraternity or sorority is the highest it's been in 15 years.

According to the 100-year-old National Panhellenic Conference (whose website depicts women from multiple demographics), 2015 statistics show membership is on the rise for sororities, with an increase from 80,000 to 140,000 members from 2004 to today. There are currently some 575 fraternities and sororities on 672 campuses, the group says.

Alpha Phi is the fourth-oldest sorority in the country. It was also at the center of the controversy over hazing when it was revealed that Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev was kicked out of the sorority’s Hofstra chapter for hazing in 2013. At the time, Ms. Kazantsev, who denies participating in any hazing, was serving as the sorority's head of recruitment.

Just how deeply is Greek culture infused into American culture? The Fraternity Advisor website states that there are over nine million Greek members nationally, including about 85 percent of the Fortune 500 executives, 40 of 47 US Supreme Court Justices since 1910, and 76 percent of Congress.

In addition to career-boosting friendships, Greek life may also offer some students a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world – but at the price of adhering to ancient gender norms.

"Given the world we live in – the age of the selfie – with all the insecurities, things happening in the world, you can see how fraternities and sororities with these traditions and behaviors provide a sort of safe nest," says Elaine Heffner, a psychotherapist and parent educator in New York City. "It’s more than fraternities and sororities being stuck in the past. It’s like women are lost."

Entrenched Greek cultures don't evolve easily, notes Emily Pualwan, executive director of HazingPrevention.Org. "What we’re working with, and sometimes against, are long-held traditions," she says. "Folks thinking, 'My parents did it, and I did it when I was in the system.' It’s hard to de-normalize those kinds of systems overnight."

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