Who hasn’t seen Legally Blonde, Neighbors, House Bunny, The Skulls, Old School, Revenge of the Nerds, and, of course, the inimitable John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House? Especially if you’re in a sorority or a fraternity, chances are you’ve viewed a number of these movies, if not all of them. As people, we’re attracted to things familiar to us, and everyone’s gotten that special giddy feeling when you see yourself represented on the big screen, in a good book, or in other facets of society. Those of us who participate in Greek life are no exception to this rule.
But we also get into trouble when we look at some of those iconic films and notice overlap in some areas that are less than favorable, and breed negative stereotypes about Greeks on campus--some unfair, some hitting a little too close to home. Let’s be clear upfront: These movies are fiction, and they’re not meant to emulate or to teach morals. Still, just with all things in life, there are teachable moments for sisters and brothers in these films. Therefore, OmegaFi would like to explore What Iconic Greek Films Can Teach Us (Not) To Do.
Of course the number one stereotype of Greek life in cinema is the party lifestyle. What freshman student doesn’t have a poster of Belushi in his “College” sweater hung on their dorm room wall? His character was the quintessential party animal. Bluto was known for such iconic lines as, “My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.” And that’s exactly what the film portrayed: A boozing, wild fraternity who trashed their house with crushed beer cans. Yet it wasn’t just him that portrayed this image. In Old School, a fraternity started by Will Farrell, Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn hosted female wrestling tournaments and drank copiously. This image is practically omnipresent in regard to the Greek lifestyle in popular media, and some of it comes from historical undercurrents. But does it match up with reality, and more importantly, with your chapter?
Sure, a sorority or a fraternity wants to be known as “the fun one.” But sisters and brothers should be aware that their reputation precedes them. Don’t become the organization that puts a good time above good grades (you know, the reason you’re on that campus to begin with). Don’t become the organization known for drinking. It sets a bad example and, whether or not you believe this, will actually turn a lot of recruits off from joining your chapter. Heavy alcohol use is also tied together in the minds of the public with sexual assault on college campuses and rape culture statistics. It goes without saying that your chapter will want absolutely zero part of that terrible reality or the perception of it, unless you’re playing a positive role in bringing awareness and prevention.
So Belushi and Farrell are fun for the films, but is it really who you want representing your letters? Consider Revenge of the Nerds, which certainly has stock Greek stereotypes abound, though what could Robert Carradine’s dweeby wire-framed glasses wearing Lewis Skolnick character teach us? For one, his fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, is filled with members who excel in their studies. And they want to have fun, too, of course! But ultimately this film shows that the heroes can often be the ones with the good grades and the smarts. Intelligence is what will help you make it in your degree field, and it’s definitely not a bad look on a chapter member, either. The benefit of correlating your chapter’s goals with those of academic success is clear.
Another aspect that is featured often in these films is hazing. The Skulls is a bit of a dated teen thriller, with Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson, so not everyone may have seen this one. Nonetheless it is telling about how the ritualism entrenched in Greek organizations historically can be seen by outsiders as cruel, frightening, archaic, and trending toward the behavior of a cult. Case in point, The Skulls focuses on a young man who joins a secret fraternity at Yale known as the Skull and Bones. The film portrays the organization as sinister, murderous, and plays on various conspiracies surrounding its secretive ritualistic practices. For instance, Jackson’s character is at one point branded on his wrist with a hot iron with the fraternity’s symbol. This by all reasonable measures is considered hazing on any campus across the United States. In the movie, they are also out to kill him for knowing too much, but it’s an exaggeration that proves a stereotype.
In Old School, the portrayal is more humorous and less terrifying. In one instance, new members to the new fraternity on campus must tie cinder blocks to their, ahem, you know--and throw the cinder blocks from a roof, the idea being to trust that the ropes were long enough not to harm them. Of course something goes awry in typical toilet humor fashion, and one new member is yanked from the roof by his, ahem, you know.
In both the examples from The Skulls and Old School, it’s clear that the traditions of Greek organizations are viewed as alternately harmful, comically strange, or terrifyingly arcane, like some campus shadow orders swallowing students into their hooded folds to summon demons and murder people in the middle of the night. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that rituals are kept extremely hidden from outsiders, and are sacred secrets to members of each respective chapter and organization. However, when chapters blur the lines of a local tradition and ritual, it’s easy to confuse outsiders into thinking it’s all one thing. Another reason is that, despite college regulations to the contrary, hazing continues to have real consequences nationally. So if Hollywood and everyone else already views Greeks with suspicion, why contribute to this damaging stereotype that can cause real physical and mental harm to those victimized by hazing?
Finally, films such as Legally Blonde show us something important about sorority life. In this particular movie, Reese Witherspoon plays a pink-loving blonde ditz. In other words, she’s the prototypical sorority girl, as seen by the outsider: all looks, no brains. Or so it seems. Reese’s character, Elle Woods, despite her Valley Girl persona, ditches her dependency on her boyfriend and goes on to become a Harvard-educated lawyer. The moral here is that sisters in a sorority should be proud of who they are, what they want out of life and shouldn’t let anyone else’s image of them stop them from achieving whatever it is they seek. Every sorority sister in every chapter studied hard for the SAT or ACT, applied and got in to their respective colleges. Every sister must study, write term papers, and many will take the GRE, go on to grad school and may become the next award winning physicist, renowned lawyer, fashion mogul or contribute to society doing some other amazing thing. Long story short: People sometimes read books by their covers. But don’t worry about them. This is your life, and chances are you’ve got it covered.
These are some of what we consider to be the major lessons Iconic Greek Films Can Teach Us about Greek life, and how we might make (or break) the stereotypes. Have you watched some of these? What struck you about the way Hollywood meets Greek? Let us know in the comments below!