In 1970, following the wake of the Kent State University shootings, three art students from the university formed a band around the concept of de-evolution, their theory that humanity was degrading.
The resulting band, Devo, had its peak from 1978 to 1984. During this same time span, Hollywood released a series of movies that, taken as a set, reinforced a perspective that manhood, at least, was devolving. These were the movies I grew up on.
The first of these was National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). As a ten-year-old, I was not allowed to see this movie in the theaters. All the same, my knowledge of its contents shaped my perspective of the world, and more personally my perspective on manhood.
I’ve written about racism and the impact of the white gaze on the movie. But even more consistently problematic is how the movie treats women. I’ll address three separate items.
The most visceral is the voyeurism scene. Bluto (John Belushi) climbs a ladder to look in the windows of Mandy (Mary Louise Weller)’s sorority. He watches a pillow fight in which most of the women are topless before moving on to watch Mandy taking her clothes off.
In the middle of this scene, Bluto breaks the fourth wall by turning his head to look into the camera and wiggle his eyebrows. He is including us, the men in the audience, into the scene. He is reminding us that we are voyeurs of his voyeurism, complicit in his act of violation.
This is perhaps not fair to the audience, since his awareness of us is a reminder that he’s consenting to our presence. But this alpha male behavior is not fair, and Belushi (if not Bluto) knows it. This is the way in which male toxicity spreads: The men who are objectifying women bring other men into the fold, willing or not.
Mandy fondles herself, leaving us to imagine that she’s thinking about Eric “Otter” Stratton (Tim Matheson). Just as she reaches into her panties, Bluto falls backward with the ladder, ending the scene.
This scene is the culmination of a separate story line. First we see Otter and Mandy in the cafeteria. He flirts with her, referencing a previous encounter they’d had; she turns him down with “It wasn’t that great.” Next we see Mandy and Greg (James Daughton) at Lover’s Lane; she’s giving him a handjob, but he’s too focused on Delta House and their antics. He mentions Otter, she responds wistfully, they argue, and the scene ends. And then we see Mandy fondling herself as she undresses in her room.
While the story line in this short arc focuses on Mandy, it’s clear that she’s an object. Each scene involves a different man in a different way. Otter is shown repeatedly trying to seduce women as a matter of masculine pride, and there’s nobody who’s off limits: Greg’s girlfriend, Dean Wormer’s wife, and even Flounder’s “steady girl” are fair game. Mandy is just another conquest.
Greg, meanwhile, sees her as a machine for his own pleasure. There is no intimacy in the scene, a point driven home when she removes her gloves during the argument. She is there solely to please him. Later, after Greg and his frat brothers ambush and assault Otter, Greg returns to Lover’s Lane with Babs for the same mechanical handjob. It is irrelevant to Greg who pleasures him; his anger is over some other man taking “his” woman.
Finally, Bluto is strictly an observer, as with all the men in the audience. This view of men as observers of women as objects is repeated briefly during the parade chaos: A young boy is looking at a Playboy when a woman dressed like a Bunny falls through the window. He thanks God.
This is how women are to be seen in the male gaze: As conquests, as pleasure machines, as objects. Not as human. Meanwhile, Mandy’s masturbation approves of Otter’s conquest of her: A repeated message throughout the “raucous comedies” of the era (epitomized with the rape scene of Revenge of the Nerds) is that, secretly, women want to be treated that way.
Perhaps the most troubling story arc in Animal House is that of Larry “Pinto” Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Corlette DePasto (Sarah Holcomb). After Corlette, the cashier, lets Pinto shoplift from a grocery store, he invites her to the frat party. When she shows up, she slams back several drinks, and he takes her to a bedroom.
They make out; she takes her top off, including her bra, and then passes out. Pinto then debates going through with sex. An angel appears on one shoulder, and a devil on the other, trying to convince him in either direction.
Eventually, Pinto decides to do the right thing, prompting the devil to call him a “homo.” This is typical of the dangerous messages that boys often receive: That doing the right thing concerning consent makes you less of a man. This contrasts with the rape in Revenge of the Nerds, where Lewis’s status as a man is solidified by his tricking Betty into having sex with him.
Later, Pinto visits Corlette’s house. They go out, this time without alcohol. As they’re making out on the football field, Pinto admits he’s a virgin, and Corlette admits she’s 13.
The scene ends there, and if that had been the end of it, the viewer could be left with their own assumptions. Maybe Pinto takes her home. Maybe Pinto has sex with her. To repeat the angel/devil routine would be overkill, and so the audience, primed with the first angel/devil scene, would be left in the air.
And this is crucial: When Pinto, a college freshman who is presumably 18, was faced with the choice concerning having sex with a presumed woman who was passed out, he chose not to. He made a clear choice against rape.
But what will he do when faced with the choice of having sex with someone who is underage? This scene could have been about “dodging the bullet”… it could have been a moment of realization that, had he gone through with it the first time, he would have committing two forms of rape instead of just one.
Instead, we cut to the next scene, with the question hovering, presumably not to be answered.
It is answered, though, during the chaotic Homecoming parade: As the city collapses around them, Corlette introduces Pinto to her father, announcing, “This is Larry Kroger, the boy who molested me last month. We have to get married.” The obvious implication is that Corlette thinks she’s pregnant. And the obvious way she’d think that is if they’d had sex.
At the end of the film, we learn what all of the major characters went on to do. Pinto went on to be editor of National Lampoon, suggesting that the movie makers identify with Pinto more than any other character.
The messages: Rape is funny. Objectifying women is funny.
This is the climate in which I grew up. Here are some major comedies from 1979 to 1985:
1979: Animal House and Meatballs
1982: Fast Times at Ridgmont High
1983: Risky Business and National Lampoon’s Vacation
1984: Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles
1985: Weird Science
The consistent theme through these movies and others of the era is that women are there for men’s amusement, that consent is a gray area, and that rape and other sexual assault is funny.
As Vox explains, the attitude of the era was that “rape” involved men jumping out of dark alleys. The scenes we see now as rape were seen as typical teen shenanigans, as “boys will be boys.” It wasn’t a terrible thing because, secretly or openly, the girls really wanted it anyway.
This is echoed in Robert Arieil’s cartoon, in which he confuses what Brett Kavanaugh is accused of (ambushing, assaulting, and attempting to rape a woman) with making out at Lover’s Lane, a consensual act. Not surprisingly, Arieil also lived through the era of movies I’ve described here.
The messages in these movies affected a generation of boys becoming men. Like Pinto, men of my generation were faced with a decision: Give in to the temptation and act as we know we shouldn’t, or resist the temptation and be rejected from the Cult of Manhood.
I myself have long struggled with this choice. After half a century of life, I am solidly on the side of choosing morality over the Cult, but I have not always done that.
If we want to move past this, we need to make it clearer to boys at a younger age that the messages of these films, messages that have been amplified in the last few weeks by people defending Brett Kavanaugh against the accusations, are not healthy. Rape is not funny. Sexual assault is not funny.
In 1970, Gerald Casale saw two of his friends die, shot by the National Guard. Concerns about what this said about humanity led to the formation of Devo.
The current travesty from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the swarm of “boys will be boys” apologists suggest that, maybe, masculine models are indeed collapsing.