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.
Like the young fraternity brothers and pledges, though, as we run and run and run around the course, we invariably stumble and hurt ourselves, we build and accumulate frustration turning to resentment and then turning to anger and often rage because we can never truly reach, grasp, and consume the promised patriarchal bait.
I leave it to viewers to witness the results of one pledge in particular who figuratively and literally ran the track in pursuit of these treasures.
Any sign of challenge or deception to the “rules” will not be tolerated. Fraternity brothers secretly fed the goat a box of laxatives and deposed it in a pledge’s room whom they suspected of snitching to campus authorities about the hazing.
Earlier, at the fraternity party, older alum Mitch symbolically represented not only an elder “statesman,” but could be viewed as representing the voice of the patriarchy, his persona subliminally shouting to all men and boys: Challenge me, punch me, attack me, and I will survive and thrive. No amount of counterattack will topple or replace me. Resistance is futile. I will literally and figuratively crap on you and muck up your personal space and your life chances for success and connection if you defy.
Invariably, though, our training takes hold of us. We thus indoctrinate the next and the next and the next group of pledges/generations, often resulting in attempts to control and prey upon girls and women in so many ways. Consider Donald Trump’s campaign of body shaming and “slut” shaming so many girls and women in his life, for he is simply a clear and present dangerous example.
For those men and boys who survive, the masters dispose of us as dog trainers dispose the overworked greyhounds. We, the pledges of life, are stalked, controlled, used, wasted, and ultimately slaughtered. We see clearly how boys and men are consciously taught to deny and never talk about their needs. We are taught never to express emotion except in the trials of competition, when inebriated, and during the heat of sex.
The latter backfired for Brad, however, when he blurted out “I love you” to the young woman he was about to engage in a sexual encounter. The woman, upon hearing this, immediately cooled her passion and demanded Brad leave her room.
Girls and women, who also grow up in a patriarchal system of domination, are certainly not immune to internalizing these messages and thereby, they often collude, in this instance by requiring her sex partner to deny and inhibit all feelings of intimacy or to show any signs of vulnerability except lustful passion.
Fraternities, of course, perform many benefits for its members and for society. Friendships and networks often endure well beyond graduation. Brothers perform great service projects for their campuses and communities. Brothers also often learn many poignant and important life lessons. And they certainly can engage in good, lighthearted fun.
I personally do not call for the elimination of Greek letter societies. In fact, I served as a proud faculty advisor for seven years to Delta Lambda Phi, a social and service fraternity at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa designed to support gay, bisexual, and other progressive men. I found working with these young men to be one of the most rewarding and inspirational experiences of my university career.
Nevertheless, compulsory toxic hypermasculinity demands of all boys and men their surrendering of their critical reasoning in challenging the system, along with their individuality, their moral and ethical compasses, their emotions, and their very integrity and humanity for some promise of security, support, and sense of camaraderie and the privileges that automatically accrue to followers of the patriarchal system of domination and control.
All-male societies, like fraternities, though, have important decisions to make along a wide continuum from continuing to maintain and promote the systemic patriarchal domination, to redefining what is means to be boys and men.
“Goat” serves as a cautionary tale, and is based on the probing memoirs of Brad Land.