Blame “Animal House”

Well, it’s #NationalDrinkBeerDay according to Twitter, and America seems poised to elevate its first Douche Bro to a seat on the Supreme Court despite some serious blots on his character, to put it mildly. And this year marks the 40th year of the film that probably has something to do with both of those facts, National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978).

Casting a cold, dispassionate eye backwards, one can easily see that this hugely popular comedy was a kind of cultural turning point, one that led us down a dangerous, dark alley. Like most people, I enjoyed the movie in my youth; among other things, it contained the apparent apotheosis of John Belushi’s unique brand of nihilistic punk slapstick we wrote about here. As directed by John Landis, it was expertly crafted to provoke low-brow laughs, and possessed an anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian tone, traceable, I think, to Robert Altman’s MASH. In the anarchic spirit of the age, it positioned itself against rules of any sort, militarism, tradition, and any kind of seriousness. It, um, celebrated a carefree lifestyle? In these respects, it was all very “seventies”.

But there’s a whole lot more, right? Like, that’s a very cautious wording, you will admit, selective enough to be inaccurate. Animal House was above all a paean to binge drinking, sex, and the combination thereof. An unprecedented paean, one need hardly add. Had this ever been done before? Ostensibly, its “permission” to take this stance in a mainstream feature film originates in the pose of satire. “We’re nostalgically tweaking those innocent pre-counterculture days on college campuses.” And in the tradition of comedy, everything is exaggerated. So the parties are not just wild, they are the wildest parties ever. The pranks are the zaniest, most heinous pranks ever, and so forth. But in satire, of course, the ultimate objective is to ridicule excessive behavior in order to stop human beings from doing bad things and making mistakes. The note struck in Animal House, to state an obvious point, is instead one of glamorization. This movie romanticizes the behavior it depicts, and it was much emulated by boys for years afterwards, and still is. So, as much as it looks backward to certain values of the ’70s, it also exerted a cultural influence that set much of the tone of the Reagan era ’80s. Just when American society could really have used an effective, politically aware counterculture to combat a major right-wing attack on the progress of previous decades, young people retreated into themselves, plunging headlong into an epic quest to mollify the universal demand for constant pleasure. It’s purely anecdotal, but I feel like a proper sociological study could be done, a “before” and “after” on mass behavior. I do know Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980, and that a National Drinking Age was set by Congress in 1984, both clear attempts to deal with youth drinking that was apparently then becoming more problematic than it had previously been.

I was 13 or 14 when Animal House came out. I didn’t see the movie until a couple of years later. By that time, the early ’80s, the binge drinking culture had trickled down from college campuses to high schools, where almost everyone was under the legal limit. One of the reasons I don’t believe in the setting of a legal drinking age is that I was witness to (and participant in) the unhealthy behavior that arose out of the perceived scarcity. It was like Jazz Age Prohibition — for children. We didn’t just drink, we drank massive, appalling amounts. We drank competitively. Oblivion was a GOAL. One of the reasons I share this information so freely is because I wasn’t indulging in this reckless behavior in isolation. It was the entire class, the entire school, and (as I later learned when I met people from all over the country) ALL the schools. Yes, I know there were kids who didn’t drink or who only drank moderately, but I assure you that the predominating culture had to do with keg parties in the woods, or impromptu blow-outs at some kid’s house when his parents were away. And, as if we required any encouragement, there was the literal inspiration of Animal House. We had, for an on-the-nose example, toga parties. In my Belushi post you will see a photo of me in the high school gym at a toga themed school dance. I assure you there was a proper toga party before or after the dance.

As for sex, I had one steady girlfriend for almost the entirety of my high school career and I was crazy about her. Me and my nerdy buddies mostly hung out together at parties and made jokes.  That said, in high school or afterwards,  I never saw the kind of crap Kavanaugh’s accused of. But then again he went to a different kind of school, the college-like environment of a private preparatory school. And here we get into privilege, and the freedom to emulate some of the worst aspects of Animal House. We pause now to recall the more obvious transgressions in the film, Otter’s lying to sorority girls about a dead fiance in order to get laid; Pinto’s near de-flowering of an extremely underage girl. Since the movie is about a fraternity house, it shouldn’t be surprising that all the film’s main characters are male, or that the film takes their perspective, but with a little reflection (or with a helpful wife around to forcefully point it out, as I have) that perspective sucks! There are nearly NO female characters in the film. The young women are there either to be tricked or otherwise manipulated into having sex, OR shallow sorority targets with names like Mandy or Babs, OR Karen Allen, the closest thing to a genuine female character in the movie, presented as Boon’s nagging proto-wife. The filmmakers would undoubtedly argue that all this is meant as satire and that we’re supposed to laugh at the selfish, unenlightened attitudes of the young men, as we’re meant to laugh at all the rest of their outlandish behavior. But that’s not what happened then or what happens now out in the real world. Guys love it. It reads as permission, and an endorsement of the concept of women as (forgive me) holes to be fucked. If there is a sensitive dude in the movie, it’s the folksinger on the stairs whose guitar gets smashed by Bluto. THAT’s what gets satirized in the movie.

So…drunken gang rapes? Guess that’s okay? Anything’s fair game at the party!

Furthering the subject of privilege, my article here gives the lie to the concept of “partying” as an anti-establishment pose. The National Lampoon guys who wrote this film ARE the establishment. If you’re rich enough to be at this school or at this party, YOU are the establishment. YOU are the problem. Here, too, the film Animal House wears its only partially disguised elitism on its sleeve. Eight words: “You mind if we dance with yo dates?” And look at the film’s “hilarious” idea of undesirable fraternity pledges:

I’m being half facetious when I say “Blame Animal House“. With popular culture, it’s always chicken or egg. Is it a symptom, or is it a germ, or is it both? But who cares? It’s all bad. I’d rather have any of the four gents in this picture on the Supreme Court than some pig of Kavanaugh’s ilk. The institutions of this country aren’t yours to rape; they’re supposed to serve us…the “least among us” as much as those born with a silver spoon. When it comes to the highest court in the land, we deserve better than animals.