Even if you’ve never been near an American university, you’ll have seen a frat party in action on your TV screen. From Legally Blonde to The Social Network to American Pie, those films are full of kegs of beer, bikinis, parties and macho boys screaming “HELL YEAH” with a few girls on each arm.
If you’re considered dedicated enough to get into a fraternity – a tight-knit brotherhood who all live in the same house on campus and pledge allegiance to each other for life – you think you’re getting the ultimate US college experience. In a way it sounds great; a ready-made social group who accepts you into its fold, throws incredible parties all the time and introduces you to hot members of the opposite sex.
But BBC2’s documentary Frat Boys: Inside America’s Fraternities will make you rethink those films about college life where frat boys are at worst a bit arrogant and predictable – but are really just having a great time, making the most of youth, boys will be boys and all that jazz.
It’s surprising, and a bit creepy, to hear just how powerful fraternities can be in people’s lives – one member explains to the BBC that if there are two guys at a job interview who are equally good, the boss will pick the one who was in the same fraternity as him. And boy, are they an ambitious lot, talking about money-making, fast cars and power as if they’re in The Wolf of Wall Street. “They say money can’t buy happiness – but I’ll take my f**ing chances” grins one leader of the pack.
In that sense it’s like a larger Bullingdon Club or the old days of the Freemasons – you’re carving out a path for yourself by joining an elite club shrouded in secrecy. From politicians like George W Bush to celebrities like Kevin Costner – lots of successful, powerful people were in fraternities.
So far, none of that seems too bad. It’s just another way of forming connections, right? Well, sort of – except for the many accusations of rape, deathly initiations and disturbing mob mentality.
The film talks a lot about pledging – the process by which you prove your loyalty to a frat house – and speaks to both frat boys who insist the initiation process is all good, healthy, character-building stuff and boys like Terence, whose pledging left him in hospital with his skin split open, his liver shutting down, four surgeries and severe blood loss. “I just remember lying there on that floor and I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he says. He’s still got a Frat House symbol (a Greek letter, they’re all named things like Alpha, Beta, Kappa Sig) branded into his leg. Chillingly, when an induction is about to begin, the BBC is asked to stop filming.
It’s pretty horrific stuff – and Terence isn’t the only one whose life has taken a horrible turn after pledging for a fraternity. We hear from a young man’s family who waved him off to university. The next time they saw him he was in a coffin.
The film doesn’t focus much on sororities because there’s generally not the same party culture in those female organisations – and the initiations aren’t so Lord of the Flies-esque but rather a wholesome do-gooder, sisterhood. However, what is clear is that Greek life culture is rife with sexism.
As Marissa, a final year student who has her own awful experience with frat parties puts it, “I think frat and sorority Greek life is the personification of patriarchy. They’re totally in the position of power, controlling the party, the alcohol. They’re so much in control and they want to feel masculine, hook up with girls.” As if to prove her point, one of the boys shows us, proudly, the ceiling-high metal pole they’ve installed in the house “for when girls come over.”
And then there’s the most disturbing aspect of all – the rape culture that victims say is swept under the rug to avoid bad PR, and because privately-run US colleges rely so heavily on donations from lots of ex-fraternity members.
There are certainly some things to admire about Greek life – just as it’s easy to see why young men who want to belong to something end up joining the army, it’s clear why it’s appealing to be in the frat gang. You might get beaten with a wooden paddle at your initiation – but people go to great lengths to be in with the cool crowd and feel part of the club. Feeling empowered in the right organisation can also enable a positive sense of self confidence.
But for a less idealistic view of it all, Frat Boys is well worth a watch – and it’s especially fascinating for Brits like me who went to a normal university where the craziest our parties got was overdoing the boxed wine, throwing up in a sink and then falling asleep on a pillow of chicken kebab.
And having seen this doc, that’s the only kind of Greek life I want.
Kasia is a TV, film and arts journalist who writes news, feautures and comment. She spends a lot of time feeling nostalgic about 90s American films and working her way back through the Desert Island Discs archive.