College students find new ways to channel their inner Bluto
By E.E. SMITH
When Animal House first came out just over 30 years ago, it dominated the cultural landscape. College students were nostalgic for the "raunchy, pre-1960s undergraduate ideal," says Peter Rollins, who has been studying pop-culture academically for over 30 years. Mr. Rollins, who attended Dartmouth in the 1960s, says that students back then tried to live "the fantasy" on their own campuses. Some still do, taking Bluto's counsel to heart: "My advice to you is to start drinking heavily."
Take Alpha Delta, the Dartmouth College fraternity that the infamous Delta house of the movie is based on. The movie, co-written by Dartmouth graduate and Alpha Delta brother Chris Miller, still inspires some of the fraternity's traditions today.
In spring 2008, a band covering Otis Day and the Knights played on Alpha Delta's front lawn to an audience of boozers, brawlers and, probably, future U.S. senators. This past spring, Alpha Delta organized an Animal House-themed party with the preppy brothers Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the inspiration for the sadomasochistic Omega house in the film. And on any given Friday night, it's not just beer making the basement floor of Alpha Delta sticky. Paying tribute to the movie that made their fraternity famous, the brothers of Alpha Delta relieve themselves in plain sight along their basement wall.
This behavior is frowned upon by some. James Watson, a senior at Dartmouth and the current president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, says that the Animal House culture is "very irresponsible." Speaking as the president of a fraternity whose motto is the "true gentleman," Mr. Watson unsurprisingly takes issue with such Bluto-inspired basement practices as "doming," where one chugs a six-pack as quickly as possible until projectile vomiting is induced.
Deborah Carney, director of Greek letter organizations and societies at Dartmouth, echoes Mr. Watson's concerns. "I saw Animal House twice and I thought it was funny," she says. "But when I show clips of Animal House to student leaders of Greek organizations today, they tell me that the clips are funny, but also . . . not funny."
So why do so many college men see Bluto as a model? "People think that behaving like Bluto will win them respect," Mr. Watson says. Bluto has nearly become the archetype of the college man. His poster is found in dorm rooms across the country. He is a binge drinker, physically aggressive and impervious to pain -- especially when he is chugging a fifth of whiskey.
Add one ingredient to Bluto's mischievous mix, sexual prowess, and you have what at Dartmouth is currently called "the hard guy."
An Alpha Delta insider, who agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity, describes the hard guy. Referencing the excesses of typical Friday festivities, he says, "Your Friday night is my Monday morning." A Web site, created by Dartmouth alumni David Grey and Bobby Zangrilli, is devoted to selling T-shirts emblazoned with that and other hard-guy mottos. Another: "Hard Guy Dating: Having a girlfriend and not even liking her."
Interestingly though, the one variable that could check the hard guy is sex -- or more precisely, the opposite sex. Ms. Carney, looking back at her time at Dartmouth, says, "Over the last couple of decades, one of the biggest changes to the Greek scene has been the presence of women." Women were admitted to Dartmouth in 1976.
Mr. Watson agrees: "Having women around changes the way men act." The Alpha Delta insider has a different take: "My personal theory is that the college really didn't appreciate the attention from the movie and tried even harder to suppress the Animal House culture." As Dean Wormer once said, "The time has come for someone to put their foot down. And that foot is me."
The Alpha Delta insider is referring to the college's heavy oversight of Greek life. In 1999, Dartmouth's board of trustees passed the Student Life Initiative to sap the Greek system of its social dominance. Just one of the many highly unpopular provisions of the Student Life Initiative required Greek houses to register parties and kegs with the college. "Students tell me that, since the Student Life Initiative, parties have grown much tamer. There is more administrative oversight of the parties," Ms. Carney says.
Whatever the cause -- the presence of women or tougher supervision -- the Animal House culture is not the Sodom and Gomorrah it once was. Still, even after 30 years, neither the administration nor women can take the mischievous boy out of the college man. Back then, the frat brothers raged defiantly against the stuffiness of Omega house and the authority of the college administration. Today, they've been reduced to channeling their inner Bluto with hard guy T-shirts.
Ms. Smith, a recent Dartmouth graduate, is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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And, if you've never read Chris Miller's "Night of the Seven Fires", check it out here.
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