Don’t faze me, bro

Why bad press won’t change frat culture

February 23, 2014 8:00AM ET
Greek life, spring break version.
The Image Bank/Getty Images

Caitlin Flanagan seems to believe that “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” her massive cover story for The Atlantic’s March issue on how the college fraternity system evades liability charges, will incite meaningful reform — even though her chief concern is the high number of drunken undergraduates who fall off frat house roofs. “Articles like this one are a source of profound frustration to the fraternity industry,” she notes; even if her piece doesn’t make waves, Flanagan hopes that the increasing number of civil lawsuits, which give us “a clear picture of some of the more forbidding truths about fraternity life,” will “exert pressure on the fraternities to exact real change.”

It’s a nice thought, but I don’t buy it, since Flanagan’s 15,000-word essay attacks building codes and binge drinking instead of taking a closer look at the real “dark” side of Greek life: institutional class privilege, racism and sexism. Erecting more balcony guardrails won’t persuade frat brothers to stop hosting offensive Asian-themed ragers and sending mass emails referencing “rapebait.” It won’t stop them from from throwing beer bottles at black students, calling them “Trayvon Martin,” or more or less getting away with sexual assault.

I’ve covered the frat-bro beat for years, and I’ve long been fascinated by how impervious Greek lifers are to public criticism. Once, I interviewed some of them in an attempt to figure out why they kept throwing racist or sexist theme parties and committing racist and misogynist acts, even though their peers nationwide are perpetually implicated in viral coverage that destroys their Google search results and, ostensibly, their job prospects. The answer? Endemic entitlement — (mostly) white male privilege that begins way before freshman year of college, continues into the workplace and has little to do with slippery roofs.

Frat to finance pipeline

The problem starts early. Future fraternity brothers are often coddled by yes-men athletic coaches and administrators in high school, where they learn that they can argue their way out of class and — as nationally publicized cases like Steubenville and Maryville show us — rape accusations. The fraternity pipeline funnels frat bros onto Wall Street, as a recent Bloomberg article explained; Flanagan notes that “an astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities." Once they’re entrenched in the high-paying jobs they expected to easily obtain, these former fraternity brothers, who now preside over millions of dollars and hundreds of employees, continue to act the same way behind barely closed doors. If you feel so secure about your past, present and future that you feel invincible, why stop the fun?

Splashy magazine features on Greek life like Flanagan’s often gawk at its debauched antics instead of holding the system accountable. According to Twitter, what most readers took away from Flanagan’s story, which is illustrated with photos of dumbfounded bros flying through the air alongside beer cans like drunken acrobats, was the “epic lede,” which involves a frat bro regrettably shoving a bottle rocket up his ass. Most of the fraternity brothers in Flanagan’s story are “knuckleheads,” not racists and rapists; they commit high jinks, not hate crimes. Flanagan essentially ignores sororities, which can be plenty racist themselves, but her unexplained erasure of their "high jinks" is proof that this is behavior enabled by white male privilege, as opposed to plain old privilege.

“Gentle reader, if you happen to have a son currently in a college fraternity, I would ask that you take several carbon dioxide–rich deep breaths from a paper bag before reading the next paragraph,” she writes. Is Flanagan about to describe horrifying sexual assault rates or racist hazing practices? No, just the “devastating” financial consequences against members who violate policies, consequences that come out of their parents’ homeowner insurance. In other words: Boys will be boys.

Flanagan finds it in her heart to sympathize with and even revere the very institutions that enable this sort of odious behavior.

What’s more, Flanagan finds it in her heart to sympathize with and even revere the very institutions that enable this sort of odious behavior. "I found that the ways in which the (fraternity) system exerts its power — and maintains its longevity — in the face of the many potentially antagonistic priorities in contemporary higher education commanded my grudging respect," Flanagan writes. “Fraternity tradition at its most essential is rooted in a set of old, deeply American, morally unassailable convictions, some of which — such as a young man’s right to the freedom of association — emanate from the Constitution itself.”

If only the piece focused on that instead of insurance claims. The piece’s concluding anecdote, about a rape case at Wesleyan university in which a young female rape victim — “in one of the bizarre twists so common to fraternity litigation — ended up being blamed by the university for her own assault,” is the one time Flanagan addresses sexual assault, although she only does it by putting “rape culture,” the fairly mainstream concept that misogyny and sexual violence is normalized, in quotes. It’s hard to understand how the university’s mishandling of the case would have been prevented by a guardrail.

Flanagan’s piece brings to mind another disappointing pseudo-anthropological deep dive into modern frat life: Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” (and not just because both pieces are unnecessarily long and riddled with exclamation marks). Wolfe’s novel, which he researched by talking to students about their sex lives and relationships on campus, tells the story of a college student from a poor town who learns to navigate the alcohol-fueled, status-obsessed culture of the fictional Dupont University. (Not coincidentally, the book won a Bad Sex in Fiction award in 2004, though the book did not include any references to ass-propelled bottle rockets.) Both Flanagan’s expose and Wolfe’s novel purport to condemn a dangerous species — the privileged young white male — but somehow simultaneously condescend to and glorify the system instead. Meanwhile, reports on both pre- and post-frathouse life illustrate that the fraternity-industrial complex and its members don’t care what the public thinks — and, notably, that they don’t have to.

Katie J.M. Baker is a reporter who often covers higher education.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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