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Lady Liquor: Fraternities as 'Underdogs' in Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and History

A discussion of alcohol and gender politics is pretty much incomplete without a discussion about the space where many of us take our first drinks (not to mention our first women's studies classes): college. I decided to rent the two movies that (for better or for worse) shaped my youthful expectations about college life, and my understanding of Greek life, which are at least perceived as the center of alcohol consumption on many campuses. I was interested in seeing if the sexual politics, and portrayal of college drinking (and other drug use) would be more or less palatable to my crotchety 30-something self versus my young, impressionable self. But I was also interested in whether popular portrayal of the Greek system matches up with history: that is, were Greek societies always centers of hedonism on college campuses? And why does pop culture so often portray fraternity guys as underdogs?

While Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds ostensibly portray two different types of male cliques, they had, I realized, a startling number of things in common: first, they both portray groups of college men who are "outsiders" within the Greek system, though for very different reasons. Animal House consists of a bunch of guys who are too goofy or too underachieving (and, one suspects, too working class) to get into the other houses (which consist of "legacy" blue bloods); the university administration dislikes not the Greek system in general, but Animal House in specific. The guys in Revenge of the Nerds are better liked by the university administration, presumably for their high GPAs, but actively hated by other Greeks, most of whom play on the football team (coached by a very young John Goodman).

Both movies treat sexual assault as both funny and par for the course in Greek life, though Animal House refers to it far more explicitly, suggesting the writers are actually a little more ambivalent about -- or at least aware of -- the issue. In Animal House, a character has an angel-on-shoulder/devil-on-shoulder dilemma after his date has passed out; the angel wins and he leaves her alone. He does have sex with her after she's woken up, learning afterward that she's just 13 years old (the actress who played her was 18 at filming, but looked older), and she cheerfully introduces him to her parents as "the boy who molested me last month." As disturbing as that is, Revenge of the Nerds is actually worse in this regard, with one of the main characters hooking up with one of a sorority girls after stealing her boyfriend's Darth Vader mask, and refuses to take it off; when it's all over, she's surprised to learn it was him. (This is the same guy whose frat is selling nude pictures of her -- at the same time they're having sex.) While consent given under false pretenses isn't consent in the eyes of the law, none of the characters in the movie takes that into consideration, nor does the movie portray it with any degree of conflict or ambivalence: it's an act of, well, revenge against a member of the more popular frat (Louis surpasses his performance in bed, and succeeds in stealing his girlfriend); the audience is supposed to identify enough with Louis to believe he deserves it.

Alcohol and drug use are both portrayed in fairly predictable ways. In Revenge of the Nerds, the appearance of pot turns a previously-dull party into a cool one, and also makes Timothy Busfield adorable:

In Animal House, drinking heavily is a badge of masculinity:

Despite their conventional politics (with people of color generally appearing either as physical protection, as entertainment, or as ambassadors of cool -- though the nerds are impressively nonchalant about Lamar's interest in men, though his effeminacy is played for a few laughs), Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds are framed as underdog stories. It's worth noting that Revenge came out during a time when self-identifying as a "nerd" was so unheard of that actors were reluctant to tell their friends and family what they were working on during filming. And it seems to me that – for better or worse – Revenge of the Nerds effectively invented what we now call "geek culture," both for better (inclusiveness! Embracing weirdness! Standing up to bullies!) and worse (privilege denying! Rape culture promoting! A total failure to acknowledge that the bullied can also be the bullies!). And...I mean...I think...um...it can be argued that this movie maybe also invented nerdcore. Also for better or for worse.

Animal House's characters, while a fairly different type of underdog, are shown in opposition to the more established, genteel Greek houses and to the university establishment – but they're also pretty much a bunch of white dudes at the center of their campus' social culture. I assumed that was just a narrative device to get audiences to like the characters in these movies, since fraternities are historically comprised of 1) white dudes 2) who can afford to pledge in the first place 3) have the social skills and capital to be quickly accepted by a group of other relatively affluent white men. (The history of nonwhite fraternities and sororities is fascinating in and of itself, but since both films I've discussed here are predominantly white, I'm limiting the historic discussion to white college fraternities only.) Interestingly, though according to historian Nicholas L. Syrett, Greek letter societies have their origins in student literary societies, which are remarkably like Dead Poets' Society, if that movie had taken place about 150 years earlier. Syrett writes that during the first part of the 19th century, American universities – mostly set up to train young men for the clergy – were rigorously scheduled and had incredibly strict rules of conduct, and student societies provided an escape.

University officials were non-too-thrilled, and they weren't any more thrilled when students started forming Greek letter societies – at first as honor societies or clubs for men in specific majors, gradually becoming more focused on socializing (and opportunities for networking as an adult) and less on academia as time wore on. (Sororities – initially called "women's fraternities" – started popping up in the late 19th century, when women first began to attend college in sufficient numbers.) If students' alcohol use was the subject of official handwringing early on, it seems less because of its sometimes drastic consequences for both male and female students (like death from alcohol poisoning, or date rape – accounts of the latter in Greek houses start appearing in literature and pop culture in the early 20th century, Syrett writes) than because administrators were uneasy that students exercised any autonomy over their recreational time.

That historic tension – between the idea of universities as in loco parentis for unruly teenagers, versus college students bucking outmoded traditions – should be familiar to anyone who's seen a low-budget college movie. Alcohol and drug use in these movies -- and in debates about the proper role of student social clubs -- is a symbolic way for students' sticking it to authority figures, but also as an initiation into adult life. Students in these films are sticking it to the authority figures they themselves are about to become. The tensions we see are between young men and old men, between rich men and not-rich men, between cool men and uncool men. In that respect, too, pop culture narratives about college echo the early history of American universities: women simply aren't part of the picture.

Previously: The rise of the cocktail and the feminization of drink

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