‘Which came first, college binge drinking or college drinking movies?’

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The uniformity of the people and situations portrayed in typical college movies is troubling

Clinton Hallahan
CUP Arts Bureau Chief

The portrayal of the college experience in movies seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: a populace enslaved to the almighty degree as the new price of admission to life grows up seeing celebrities getting blitzed at parties and spilling out onto manicured Ivy League lawns, and expects the same in the time before they toss their mortarboards. Upon climbing those ivory towers and finding that an education (gasp) makes attempts at relevance, committees are struck by the politically minded of them in attempt to reinvigorate “student life.”

Pretty soon you have a student population way more interested in the party than the knowledge. Expectations have to be lowered so professors don’t look bad and, suddenly, coupled with that damn G.I. Bill and its inflation of the value of a college degree, your B.A. looks like soggy receipt paper in a job interview. Kids watched and re-watched Dazed and Confused before they even got to college, so admission standards have to be lowered to let in the stoned 12th graders. Nobody learns anything after high school and then they all get elected to Parliament. Now we have a nation that reads Italian Vogue for a challenge and no mandatory long-form census. All of this because John Belushi pretended to be a zit that one time in Animal House.

Get it?

Is he joking? Of course. Even when German statisticians use their fancy Chi-squared tests to find that adolescents allowed to watch R-rated Hollywood films drank, on average, more alcohol than those that were not, it’s tough for me to swallow the bitter pint that film might just influence the way we drink. As someone who has watched hours of My Little Pony and learned nothing about friendship, it’s just hard for me to understand. But let’s just say, for a moment, that mass culture creates expectations and then youth decide to make those expectations a reality. What is Hollywood teaching us about social drinking habits in college? What reality are they recreating? The easiest answer: one of excess.

Remember, kids, sipping port wine is for the weak and the old. A young person does whatever they can to get the largest amount of the strongest liquor possible into their digestive system to maximize fun times. Alcohol poisoning is just something “the man” made up to keep young people down in the ’60s. If someone gets hurt by excess, it will make for a hilarious anecdote to fill them in on as you explain the saline drip coursing through their veins.

Movies about college, and college parties, more specifically, experienced a kind of arms race around the time Revenge of the Nerds hit theatres. Not content with the average party, where the only casualties were the dignity of co-eds and the occasional acoustic guitar that totally had it coming, producers and writers made excessive drinking the basic unit of the college experience, and then festooned it with escalating hijinks. To wit: if your party does not feature foxy boxing in a kiddie pool full of intimate lubrication, a road trip to get the virgin in your party some action, or farm animals, you have failed to drink enough. In the same way the adventure film gave way to producers excising their action set-pieces and stretching them to feature length, hijinks became the only notable feature of college sometime around the Nixon administration. Academia was a pursuit not even the nerds bothered with.

The problem, or not, depending on how much you like booze, is that the idea of a social drinking occasion is almost wholly dismissed. In fact, only the stuffiest of squares choose sipping over chugging, and films lionized those who could hold their liquor best. Sure, Bond movies imply that real men can chug a martini, make love to a woman, and disarm a death ray over lunchtime, but the badge of honour bestowed on the college souse is made to be an attractive university credential. Combine that with films about adulthood portraying the perpetually pickled as either pathetic losers or dangerous psychos – or Irish – and you have a confusing message coming from the leading provider of mass culture in the western world.

Funny thing is, I haven’t even directly cited a single college drinking film yet. The college movie formula is so set in stone that a child could write it – and it often feels like one did. Take one band of outsiders, one very literal journey or challenge, enough intoxicants to stop the Grand Army faster than a Russian winter, and shake and pour over ice. Garnish with a Slim Jim.

Animal House established the formula and made John Belushi a star, but every movie about the college social life has been a variation on that theme. Road Trip introduced a bus and cross-country infidelity, The Graduate introduced post-school malaise, PCU made fun of your pet cause and your band t-shirt and Dead Man on Campus brought in some light murder. At their core, however, they highlight one theme: college is about anything but academics, and drinking is the order of the day. Even The History Boys, a recent film concerned with students actually interested in their studies and college futures, was mostly about homoerotic experimentation when you get down to it. Studying makes for poor drama, and if we’re taking our cues from Hollywood, it’s no wonder there are such things as “party schools”.

The formula made one stab at Oscar glory previously – but included more Mrs. Robinson than was palatable – but reached its critical and philosophical conclusion just recently in The Social Network. The implication? Pursuing this degree is a waste of time, you drunken secret-genius. Make your masterpiece to get back at a girl who spurned you while half in the can and then watch everyone line up to kiss your feet. Again, they sidestep the idea that academic success is the priority. Genius, athleticism, and the pursuit of cougars are the orders of the day.

There’s no interesting argument to be made on whether or not the portrayal of drinking in college movies is substantially contributing to how much liquor is being consumed, but the uniformity of the portrayals is troubling. Academics are meaningless in these documents of the human experience. A good time trumps all.

At one point, the cold stone and cloisters of sacred learning halls were probably separate from the social, but who can remember when? The question is fowl: which came first, college binge drinking or college drinking movies?

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