Since viewing Andrew Neel’s new film Goat, currently screening in theaters and on pay-per-view, I have been haunted by images of the underbelly of toxic hypermasculinity, which our patriarchal cultural system imposes on all boys and men as it assigns us a sex at, or even before, our birth.
The film exposes the paradox of promoting and maintaining the seemingly contradictory notions within all male environments of members operating in homosocial and homoerotic contexts mediated by deep and profound expressions of homophobia and misogyny.
Throughout the opening credits, in extremely slow motion, seemingly all-white shirtless, young, college-age men in close proximity observe some sort of spectacle off screen while gulping beer and carrying broad grins of joy. This surreal scene of young men moving animal-like transforms in regular motion to a pre-pledge fraternity party on the campus of a Midwestern university. Revelers consume massive quantities of beer and hard liquor, young women expose their breasts, and two women engage in passionate kissing to the utter excitement of male gawkers.
The film’s chief protagonist, 19-year-old Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) enters college determined to get his life back to normal following a horrendous, brutal, humiliating beating at the hands of two off-campus men he offered to give a ride home.
At this point in his life, Brad feels desperate for acceptance and connection. His brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), a confident, charming, and popular student on campus and a fraternity leader, convinces Brad to pledge Phi Sigma Mu with assurances of security, protection, popularity, and life-long friendships.
Mitch (James Franco), an older alum who returns for a fraternity party, promises Brad that the brothers will always protect him from the abuse he underwent. And Mitch demonstrates his strength and power.
“Slap me in the face,” he yells at Brad. “Slap me in the face.” When Brad refuses, Mitch rips off his own shirt. “Okay, punch me in the stomach!” To force him to do so, Mitch slaps Brad in the face. “Punch me in f’ing stomach.” Brad punches and Mitch slaps back. Eventually Mitch tightens his muscles, pounds his chest like a gorilla, lifts his arms tightly in the air, and shouts, rather paradoxically, within the entire circle:
“We are the greatest group of gentlemen the civilized world has ever known!”
Throughout the pledge training (read “hazing”) process, established fraternity brothers pressure pledges on numerous occasions to strip down and perform dehumanizing and brutalizing trials. These include everything from violent mud wrestling and bobbing for penis-shaped sausages, which they must pass mouth-to-mouth through the pledge line; to placing an assumed cock of a brother in their mouths while blindfolded; to slapping one another with rapid and intense blows to the face and spitting at one another; to being force-fed blazing Tabasco sauce squirted down their throats; to having their hands and legs all bound together as a group for an entire night; to the group guzzling a full keg of beer within a certain timeframe, after which, if not performed to the liking of the pledge leader, each pledge must sexually molest and rape the fraternity goat mascot from the rear.
Throughout the film, young men torture other young men. Some do it for control and power, while some do it for a sense of connection.
Chance (Gus Harper), the pledge leader, singled out Will (Danny Flaherty), Brad’s dormitory roommate, as an example of what happens to anyone who fails to sufficiently tolerate the “training.” Brothers lifted an animal cage into the training site, and scolded Will to place himself inside. Once they locked the enclosure, brothers grabbed their swelling penises from their pants and proceeded to rain down golden showers onto the squealing and nauseated pledge below.
Throughout the hazing process, fraternity brothers shouted orders and debasing terms at pledges, most commonly “faggot,” “pussy,” and “goat” interchangeably. The choice of terms used as epithets is most informative of what exists in the taunters’ minds in which gay men equate to women, and both equate to subhuman creatures.
Undergoing the hazing, images continually reoccurred in Brad’s mental library of the beating he endured at the hands of the street thugs just before coming to campus. While he could not label it at the time, both the beating by strangers and hazing by the fraternity brothers amounted to very similar forms of male-on-male violence.
What the pledges and their brother masters, as well as most people in the larger society do not realize, however, is that this “perfect” celestial norm, this iconic form of masculinity stands unattainably well above and far beyond the grasp of all mortal men and boys. From our birth, our culture, through its socializing masters, place the goal and target out in front of us just beyond our reach like race masters place the puppet rabbit just in front of greyhounds at the track after which they run until exhausted.