Fraternities are at a strange crossroads in their history. On the one hand, the scandals of a few chapters from around the country have made the very word synonymous with hazing, sexual harassment, rape, white privilege, and racism. On the other, none of these PR nightmares seem to have put a dent in fraternity enrollment numbers. Pledging is actually up and, according to a 2014 Gallup-Purdue Survey, going Greek might even lead to more happiness and fulfillment in life well after graduation. Of course, as the survey relied on self-analysis, it's hard to say if that's actually true.
Either way, the North American Inter-Fraternity Council (NIC) appears to be worried that fraternities have a bad rap. They went so far as to identify "sophisticated public relations efforts to advance the 'fraternity' brand" as one of five key priorities in their "NIC 2.0" initiative. Duality of man is great in theory, but is there room within the modern frat brother to be both woke and a beer pong broham?
Two films that came out on Friday—Goat and Total Frat Movie—explored just that. With wildly disparate agendas, each film, a separate side of the same coin, portrays the yearning for purpose, camaraderie, and easy pussy that young American men seek out each semester. Both shine a light on the subculture—one through the rose-tinted glasses of its acolytes, the other from the perspective of an aghast voyeur. (Minor spoilers of both films to follow. You've been warned.)
I won't beat around the bush: Total Frat Movie is an abysmal film. A big-screen spin-off of the website TotalFratMove.com, Total Frat Movie is basically a pastiche of Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, with plot points carried out by creatures that are more random Urban Dictionary phrase generators than three-dimensional characters. The protagonist, Charlie (Justin Deely), must shore up new pledges to save his beloved frat house from the evil rival frat, all while under the watchful eye of the Dean (Tom Green).
Viewers outside of Greek life might understandably perceive Total Frat Movie as parody, its heroes so blithely dropping platitudes that are neither profound nor funny. But no, this film is an earnest celebration of the "frat star" lifestyle, and the problematic landmines it keeps tripping over turn the otherwise hacky jokes into a broader concern about frat culture's place in modern society.
There are many problems. First, there's the blinding whiteness of the Total Frat Movie cast. While this could just be a boneheaded casting oversight, the "Reagan Bush '84" tanks the boys wear might lead one to the conclusion that the decision was more intentional than that.
Then there's the outright misogyny. In the film, frat bros pour beer on the breasts of non-consenting female party guests, promise pledges harems of slutty sorority girls as if they were chattel, and recruit a Joe Francis type to film all the debauchery going on in the house. When the token nerd pledge reveals the science experiment he's been working on is a way to make co-eds ejaculate like a seltzer bottle, a bro asks why any girl would want to squirt. The test subject replies: "Because women shouldn't be the only ones forced to swallow." In other words, female sexuality is nothing more than a power play to the guys behind Total Frat Movie.
By contrast, Goat focuses on the horrors of "hell week," as told from the perspective of incoming freshman Brad (Ben Schnetzer) as he pledges the fraternity of his older brother (Nick Jonas). After a violent incident leaves Brad shook and traumatized, he turns to brotherhood of both blood and covenant to ensure he'll never find himself alone and scared again. He undergoes a torturous hazing period wherein frat brothers proudly compare their abuses to that of Guantánamo guards, but when a more grave tragedy hits the group, the upperclassmen have to focus less on brotherhood and more on protecting the booze-soaked fiefdom they've established for themselves.
With a script based on a memoir of the same title, and a release date during National Hazing Prevention Week, Goat announces its intentions of breaking up the party early on. Even as bros toss back brews in the early scenes, a storm cloud of dread hangs over the characters and the audience flinches with suspicion alongside the pledges at every frat bro pleasantry.
If Total Frat Movie is Tim Burton's Batman, Goat is The Dark Knight. Goat presents us with grimey, hip-hop-blaring house parties, Total Frat Movie's are aspirational Steve Aoki music videos. Goat gives us two acts worth of hazing, Total Frat Movie gives us a brief ice barrel challenge scene. Goat shocks with its characters' overt and casual homophobia—with "faggot" screamed out maybe more times than "fuck"—Total Frat Movie retreats to old-fashioned gym coach-style implied homophobia ("quit jerkin' each other off in there") for cheap laughs.
Fortunately, both films share deeper themes: trauma perpetuating trauma, an existential yearning for a meaningful life, and the desire to belong at any cost. But is all that Skull & Bones skullduggery worth the debasement of one's self and others required for entry? Will the networking opportunities frats provide outweigh the trauma and liver damage?
"All my life I wanted to party like a frat star," says Charlie at the beginning of Total Frat Movie. If only his film shared the same universe as Goat, so Nick Jonas could remind him "none of this even matters."
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