Reflections of College Men
One of the most enduring sub-genres of comedic films is the “college” comedy. Examples of this genre can be seen as far back as 1927 with the release of a film, simply titled: College; and continues with the recent release of Neighbors. Though the genre has continued, the characters have remained largely the same, particularly the male characters. Most male characters in college comedy movies exhibit a white, heteronormative, hyper-masculine narrative that does not accurately reflect the diverse nature of the college experience.
The Millennial generation (people born between 1980 and 2000), of which I am a part, is much different than previous generations. For one thing, we are better educated than any previous generation, 34% of 25-32 year olds have at least a bachelor’s degree (Taylor ). Compare this to the Silent generation; in 1965 only 13% of 25-32 year olds held a bachelor’s (Pew). In addition to this Millennials are the most racially diverse generation America has ever seen, fully 43% of Millennials are non-white (Taylor). If we have so many of our generation either in college or having been to college—with nearly half of them being people of color (POC)—why are the characters in college movies the same kind we have been getting for decades?
Let’s take a look at one of the most famous college comedies of all time, Animal House. Released in 1978, Animal House follows the antics of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity in 1962. This film was absolutely groundbreaking, introducing an outrageous “frat’ style comedy that many have since tried to emulate. Given the setting of the plot it isn’t all that surprising that the cast is overwhelmingly white, in fact there is only one named POC character in the entire movie, and he isn’t even a student. This is best illustrated by the famous toga party scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MG7KCOO76Wc
Now let’s look at a recent release to see how the representations have changed. Neighbors is a comedy that was released on May 9th of this year. This film documents the feud between a couple who have just had a new baby and the frat house that moves in next door. 36 years separate Neighbors from Animal House and yet the casting is remarkably similar, the majority of the main cast is white.
Racial diversity is not the only thing that has changed on college campuses throughout the years, the acceptance and inclusion of LGBT students has dramatically increased. There are over 100 LGBT resource centers on college campuses across the country and there are even 38 schools that offer gender-neutral housing options (Henshaw). Despite this the standard male character in college movies is almost invariably straight and gender conforming.
The driving motivation behind many male character’s behaviours in the media is to “get the girl”, college comedies are no different. American Pie 2, one of the first college comedies I ever saw, is a prime example of this. In this film five friends come home from college and attempt to throw the best summer party of all time, with the ultimate goal of having sex with girls. Most of the humor and action in this movie is either a result of or in pursuit of girls. American Pie 2 isn’t the only movie to do this: Van Wilder, Road Trip, Revenge of the Nerds, all of these movies (and many more) center around heterosexual men chasing women. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it presents a very one sided representation of college men.
While gay men are almost never main characters in college comedies, it’s not uncommon for straight male characters to be put into gay situations for comedic effect. American Pie 2 and 21 & Over both have similar scenes in which two of the straight male characters are forced to kiss each other in order to resolve tense situations. In the case of American Pie, the two men agree to kiss because they think it will help them in their goal to “get the girl”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EUeDFn-6Sc. The comedy in the situation comes from the awkwardness or discomfort the characters feel from the supposed violation of masculinity that same-sex activity represents to them. This representation of masculinity is another stereotyped representation of college men.
As I have mentioned before, the characters in college comedies are fairly similar in terms of ethnicity and sexuality, however there is another trait that is often synonymous with these types of characters: a sort of exaggerated masculinity. One of the most common ways that this hyper-masculinity is displayed is through the physical body of the actors portraying the characters. Many times you will find characters like the titular Van Wilder who are impossibly handsome and well-muscled, who are surrounded by male characters that are also handsome and muscled. These characters might be pretty to look at, but they are in no way an accurate representation of real life, which can be easily seen by walking around any college campus.
The problem with the portrayal of college men as white, straight, and masculine by these films isn’t because the characters are white or straight or even hyper-masculine, many men are. The problem is that these are the ONLY representation of college men that we have in the media, effectively ignoring those men that don’t conform to some or all of these characteristics. This isn’t to say that any of the movies that I have mentioned are bad; in fact I love most of them. They are however, formulaic and unrealistic in their approach to college aged male characters.
Henshaw, Ashley. “LGBT College Statistics.”. Campus Explorer, n.d. Web. . <http://www.campusexplorer.com/college-advice-tips/DC54CA9B/LGBT-College-Statistics/>.
Taylor, Paul . “Milliennials in Adulthood.” . Pew Research Center, 7 Mar. 2014. <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/>.
Taylor, Paul. “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” . Pew Research Center, 11 Feb. 2014. . <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/>.