how goat shines a light on the dark underbelly of america's fraternities
Typically depicted on screen as a natural and normal reality of American college life, new film Goat examines the physical and psychological abuse fraternities encourage, and the extremes many young men will go to prove their masculinity.
If your knowledge of American college fraternities stems solely from watching Seth Rogen movies or Will Ferrell movies, chances are you've gone ahead and presumed that frat culture - aka bro culture - centres on three things: sex, booze and brotherhood. And maybe studying, if they can squeeze it in. These are the staples of Greek life. But beyond the chest-bumps, the beer bongs and the beige chinos, we all know something much darker lurks.
Rarely do we ever see the kind of hazing - the psychological abuse, the physical abuse, the humiliation - that rears its ugly head and grabs the headlines year in, year out. Rarely do we ever see the dark underbelly of America's fraternities, served up on a platter in razor-sharp HD for all to see. When we do see hazing rituals, they're usually made light of, shrugged off as just one of those crazy things that everyone goes through at college and then forgets about. After all, why be a big fat party-pooper? What happens at college stays at college, right?
Goat is that rare sensitive drama - seemingly the first of its kind outside of documentary - that dares to peer into the dark basements of frat houses, where brutal bootcamp-style initiations are cheered on by beer-guzzling bros pumped full of testosterone, and trembling pledges are blindfolded and treated like inmates at Guantanamo.
"Over 500,000 young men pledge fraternities. This is their story."
The sobering drama, directed by Andrew Neel, follows Brad, a freshman committed to joining his older brother's frat. But it won't be easy. To join he has to complete Hell Week - seven days of physical and mental endurance under the brutal tyranny of the elite Phi Sigma Mu fraternity. No pledge knows how brutal the hazing process will be. They might be forced to guzzle neat Vodka if they fail to answer who the first president of the United States was; they might have to down hot chili sauce. Or worse: they might have to fuck a goat.
Brad's mental condition isn't 100%, even before the hell begins. He was the victim of a brutal robbery, his car stolen, his body beaten to a pulp. That's partly why he's so keen to pledge: to reclaim his masculinity. But his PTSD hangs over him like a wrecking ball swinging towards his frat membership. Will the tough treatment trigger his trauma? Will it break him psychologically? How will it affect his sex life? How will it affect his relationship with his older brother?
Goat shines a spotlight squarely on the bro culture that underlies every frat in America. In it, you witness all manner of human degradation - young men in cages, stripped down, forced to binge drink, pissed on, humiliated, dehumanized. You see older frat boys laughing, feeding off their power, loving every second of it. You suspect these were the jocks who ruled high school and are now finding more creative ways to give the new guy a wedgie. It's all jokes, they'll say. It's all banter. The pledges can take it. They're men. And that's what this is all about: pure, distilled masculinity.
Masculinity is in crisis, in other words. Waxed torsos and beer chugging are one thing. But mental and physical abuse - the kind you'd associate with Full Metal Jacket more than a middle class American frat - is quite another.
The film makes you think: what do guys like this actually go through during Hell Week? What impact will it have on them mentally? And, crucially, what leads a frat boy to treat a pledge so badly in the first place?
Nick Jonas, who plays the older brother in the film, sheds some light in an interview: "The biggest realisation was when we did the hazing rituals ... I saw very quickly how easy it would be to get carried away, in the way that the brothers in this film do. Things get out of hand. Because it's an energy that's about topping each other."
Masculinity is in crisis, in other words. Waxed torsos and beer chugging are one thing. But mental and physical abuse - the kind you'd associate with Full Metal Jacket more than a middle class American frat - is quite another. It's tethered to the notion that men should be tough and never show weakness. They should be loyal to their fellow meatheads. Bros before hoes, etc. Sure it's all harmless fun to some, but it's a slippery slope. One moment you're doing tequila shots on the roof of your house in just your boxers; the next you're blindfolded and a guy with a banana inside a condom is slapping your face with it like it's his penis.
As the film's trailer states, over 500,000 young men pledge fraternities in America. Some of them - you hope most of them - never experience the kind of extreme hazing you see in Goat. But some do. According to national statistics posted by the University of Maryland, more than half of college students are involved in some form of campus hazing; 82% percent of deaths from hazing involve alcohol. Last year a 19-year-old pledge was blindfolded and "bludgeoned into a wheezing, non-responsive body as the result of a hazing ritual in the Pocono mountains," reports the Guardian. In that case the brothers told the police the pledge had a 'bad attitude'. In other cases pledges have been branded with their frat's Greek letters, against their will.
According to national statistics posted by the University of Maryland, more than half of college students are involved in some form of campus hazing; 82% percent of deaths from hazing involve alcohol.
A handful of documentaries have burrowed this ground before, uprooting buried truths about frats IRL. Take Frat House, the Sundance-winning doc dubbed "the only HBO documentary to be banned from broadcast". It delves deep into the dark world of boot camp-style frats and their gang-like mentality. It's as shocking as it is illuminating, and unsurprisingly, the cast of Goat viewed it when fleshing out their roles. Then there's The Hunting Ground, which examines sexual assault on college campuses across America and the complete failure of college administrations to deal with the issue, fuelling a campus culture in which young women are treated like toys.
It's a different story in fictional movies, though, as if filmmakers traded their magnifying glasses for rose-tinted glasses. Richard Linklater recently looked back on his own college years, in Everybody Wants Some, painting the benign face of frats in the 80s. Before that there was Bad Neighbours, in which Zac Efron's frat house threw party after party while evading the cops and the dean. And before that, Old School, in which three depressed thirty-somethings relive their glory years by starting a frat and making idiots of themselves.
Those are the on-screen depictions you probably recognise, none of which unmask the ugly face of the frats we know have existed and still do. In taking on this subject, in this light, Goat is strangely singular, an honest look at hazing in America and what goes on behind the beer-stained doors of frat houses. How are there not more films about this urgent issue?
Text Oliver Lunn