The Exploitation Of Toxic Masculinity In Frat-House Hazing

By Manuel Betancourt

A young man is blindfolded against his will. He’s just suffered the humiliation of having to bray and walk like a goat while eggs, fudge, and other culinary concoctions were dripped on him; to clean up the mess, he was then asked to strip down before cold water was poured on his shivering body. Now he’s kneeling while another young man is tapping a condom-wrapped prop made to feel like a limp dick on his face. Gleefully, the young man tries shoving it in the blindfolded man’s mouth.

“That feel nice? That remind you of high school? Go ahead, suck my fucking chode.”

A raucous group of men surrounds them but the kneeling guy refuses to comply. Unsurprisingly, he’s met with a barrage of expletives that show the way misogyny and homophobia are used as shorthand within the homosocial bonding rite we are witnessing: “Come on you faggot, suck my fucking dick, don’t be a pussy!”

The humiliating scene is one of the milder moments from Andrew Neel’s latest film, Goat, which unflinchingly depicts the hazing rituals that take place within the hallowed halls of many a fraternity house. Based on Brad Land’s memoir of the same name, Goat follows young Brad as he rushes Kappa Sigma at Clemson University, the fraternity his brother belongs to. As in the memoir from the now-reclusive Land (whose online footprint is all but non-existent), the film complicates Brad’s motivation in becoming a Kappa Sigma.

The film opens with Brad (played by Ben Schnetzer) leaving a party at his brother’s frat house and, because he’s a good guy, agreeing to drive two guys a few blocks down. Instead, he’s ordered to drive the car to a far off place and beaten mercilessly. The rest of the film finds him trying to get his life back on track after the traumatizing event, and part of that means joining his brother’s frat — perhaps, the film suggests, as a way to finally show himself and the world around him that he’s not a “pussy.”

But in Neel’s hands, Goat is most interested in the archaic hazing practices that speak to and about the enduring, devastating power of toxic masculinity.

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The expression “toxic masculinity” has become a well-worn shorthand for the adverse effects our gendered worldview has on young men. And perhaps no homosocial space is as toxic as the frat house — and no other activity therein as despicable as hazing.

One recent study found that nearly three-quarters of students participating in social frats and sororities had experienced at least one hazing behavior. And the repercussions can be dangerous; just this year, a high-profile frat-hazing case involved a student who was forced to drink a toxic cocktail that led him to throw up blood before he died.

In 2012, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson introduced legislation that would have made hazing a federal offense and stripped students who participated in it of their legal aid. But the legislation didn’t pass. Currently, 44 states do have anti-hazing laws in place — but this has hardly stopped the practice from taking place.

While both frats and sororities engage in dangerous hazing rituals, there’s no denying that it’s much more predominate among men. As of 2010, there had been 90 recorded deaths related to hazing, pledging, or rushing in fraternities, compared to “just” six in sororities.

As Elizabeth J. Allan points out in her aptly titled article, “Hazing and Gender: Analyzing the Obvious”:

“Those working to eliminate hazing need to be mindful of the ways in which masculinity — that is, the predominant social construction of masculinity — as homophobia work in tandem to create a climate in which violent and demeaning hazing practices are more likely to be tolerated and even considered beneficial for young men.”

Quoting extensive research on the bonding activities within male-only groups, Allan argues that hazing rituals function as socially sanctioned outlets for same-sex intimacy. This is why consent and power dynamics are at the heart of the homoerotic activities that fraternity brothers exploit during hazing (“Go ahead, suck my fucking chode”) — it only allows for a degree of same-sex intimacy that depends on blatant homophobia, reminding pledges that they must always be (and remain) the powerless, disenfranchised subordinate position in relation to their brothers. Hazing only perpetuates larger cultural assumptions about homosexuality that depend on rigid views of masculinity.

In watching Goat, which focuses specifically on frat hazing, there’s no denying the physical and psychological violence young men in particular must endure in the name of a promised brotherhood. Indeed, the embarrassment and ridicule (often with the intent to degrade) that characterize extreme hazing scenes like those shown in the film necessarily exploit what it means to “be a man” — that is, to glorify a vision of a man as powerful and inviolate. To become or to get to the point where you to get to embody that as a frat brother, you’re first stripped of such a position, the better to crave and perpetuate it. With its privileging of aggression and toughness, hazing in male-only spaces necessarily denigrates any deviation from a limited notion of masculinity, one which posits itself as the opposite of both gay men and women alike — an element best summed up by the rhetorical sleight of hand wherein both are conflated in the word “pussy” as a put-down.

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The Hazing Reader, a 2004 collection of essays and studies on the practice of hazing, featured editor Hank Nuwer (a leader in hazing prevention scholarship) not mincing words when introducing the volume’s purpose: “I hope American public opinion can be mustered so that those who haze do so only under the peril of revealing themselves for the abusers, groupthinkers, and negligent beasts they really are.”

In an op-ed for The Dartmouth that made Andrew Lohse a whistleblower of sorts for the toxic environment nurtured by the Greek system, the then-Dartmouth student stated that “Fraternity life is at the core of the college’s human and cultural dysfunctions.” Hazing was nothing less than this dysfunction made flesh. Lohse went on to write Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: A Memoir, a narrative which skirts similar territory to Land’s, describing at one point the humiliation he suffered as a pledge wherein he was asked (though here coerced is perhaps a better word for it) to swim in a kiddie pool filled with “food products, beer, vomit and urine, even shit and semen.”

The psychological effects of hazing, as well as how they exploit shame to encourage a culture of silence, adds to the reason why many students who are the victims of hazing (including Brad in Goat) refuse to report it. According to the National Study of Student Hazing, in 95% of hazing cases, students who were aware they were hazed did not report it. After all, to report would be not only to claim that subordinate position, but also to devalue the very brotherhood it was meant to nurture.

In this context, a film like Goat is of particular importance, since it has the potential to open up a broader, and much-needed, cultural conversation. So it’s frustrating, and a bit ironic, that it doesn’t entirely achieve this — in part because of toxic masculinity itself.

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The same year Lohse’s memoir came out, Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic wrote a damning indictment of the Greek system in the aptly titled piece, “The Dark Power of Fraternities.” But she couldn’t bring herself to expose to her readers the obscenities that often mark hazing scenes in real life. The “particular variety of sexual torture reserved for hazing” was “best not described in the gentle pages of this magazine,” she noted.

It’s here where Goat breaks new ground. It never aims for laughter (as films like Animal House or more recently Neighbors do), and it doesn’t care about whether its audience can stomach what it’s being shown. Hazing, and what Neel terms “neo-tribalism,” is its very own raison d’etre.

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Yet the movie rankles for the way it so obviously portrays the barbarity of such scenes while refusing to offer any critical distance from them. In making his version of Lord of the Flies inside a frat house, as he wanted, Neel all but feeds into arguments about the primal urges that homosocial spaces merely tap into.

Indeed, in talking to the director, every time he began making an argument about how this is a decidedly male issue, he reverted to humanistic arguments that all but did away with a conversation about the role of toxic masculinity. “I think — not just men but human beings are predisposed to exploiting weakness,” he argued when talking about the cruelty one finds in the film’s hazing scenes.

But perhaps the most telling way in which the film’s depiction of toxic masculinity remains a mere posture is the fact that Neel admitted that the brutal hazing scenes on screen were improvised, a pseudo-Stanford Prison Experiment made in the name of “authenticity.” Having set up general scenarios for the scenes in question, he gave his actors free rein, letting his cameras capture what would develop thereafter. As most of these scenes track the cruelty of the brothers in keenly deployed long takes, the process required his actors to commit to their roles as hazing brothers and helpless pledges throughout, making the many reaction shots about what’s happening all the more chilling.

“I tried to create those environments on the set,” he says. “And it’s really traumatic on the set, for everybody. I think people were very uncomfortable in the hazing scenes and obviously so.” There was no question about it; for the actors playing the brothers “they were hazing these guys. Throwing shit on them. Slapping them. Pushing them around.” The scenes were, in his own words, “a social experiment.” “Which is exciting,” he adds, “and also dark.”

And while he notes that he aimed to create a safe environment for his actors, he admits that during the hazing scenes, he went to great lengths to get the desired effect. The actors who played the pledges, for example — who had no idea what they’d be subject to — had a safe word on set. As for the actors playing the brothers, “I talked to them like a frat boy. If one of the pledges wasn’t in line, I’d say, ‘Well, are you gonna let that fucking pussy do that to you?’”

Neel’s comments and filming practices would be irrelevant were they not in keeping with the cult of masculinity Goat presumably seeks to expose. This explains why the film doesn’t more actively indict that which it is representing. When pressed, Neel said he understands why that would bother some people, but pled instead the artistic licence card, saying his film was never meant to be a polemic — though he was quick to add that fraternities across the country were already speaking out against the film. To him, the film strives for ambiguity and hopes to leave audiences thinking without taking a side. “And that pisses some people off.” (That the film has partnered with HazingPrevention.Org to screen across campuses in tandem with National Hazing Prevention Week only serves the obscure the fine line between marketing and advocacy.)

This is what makes Goat a perfect document of our current discussions on toxic masculinity. Not just because it so unflinchingly portrays it, but because its very production relies on it. When an actor’s well-being is jeopardized for the sake of a good take, and when abuse is used in the service of a seemingly apolitical artistic vision, you’re not being a brave documenter of “the male problem,” but an active agent of it as well. “There’s a long road ahead of us as men in terms of understanding who we are,” Neel told me.

I just wish he realized that many have been walking ahead and around him for quite some time.

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All images courtesy of ‘The Goat’ Facebook page

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