Courtesy of Rogue Pictures

September 5, 2018

SWAN | Unpacking the Frat Aesthetic

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During events like homecoming or reunion weekend, I love listening to the older alumni of my fraternity tell stories about their time at Cornell. I suppose that I’m a nostalgic person — an old soul — and I really enjoy trying to discern the similarities and differences between the campus dynamics of now and then. Some of them, the “’80s brothers,” share memories of their flippant college years, of wild parties, inside jokes and ridiculous traditions. All of their memories conjure in my mind an image of Cornell, 1984, like some Richard Linklater movie where boys will be boys and chase girls, Van Halen is always playing in the background, Ronald Reagan is president and it’s morning in America again – think Everybody Wants Some!!.

Of course, this world excluded a lot of people, dismissed much of the agency of women, and cast away individuals of minority cultures to mere supporting roles. My mother, who attended Rutgers during the 1980s, can offer a different perspective from the one highlighted above, one that paints all of these antics in a different light. What is fun for a few is certainly not fun for all when most people have less of a say than the dominant group. Have things really changed since this time? Looking from the outside in, things appear almost eerily similar to the ’80s. For one, there is another arch-conservative in office, one who actually borrows a great deal of imagery and glory from his ’80s predecessor. Walking around Collegetown, into Hideaway or some other locale, you can still see a lot of those old, less-than-equitable dynamics at work.

Yeah. I don’t think that the game has really changed; even if some of its teams have gained a bit of power over the years, the rules and stipulations might not have evolved much. I suppose I’m alluding to heteronormative courtship here, its zero-sum ways and all, but I may be in over my head in discussing such matters that may possibly be answered more adequately by contemplations of human nature. However, one thing I’m sure about is that fraternities, significant remnants from earlier times, are still thriving, quietly if not boldly, despite all of the recent allegations and expulsions.

The title of this piece refers to the art-frat aesthetic. While some of you may know exactly what I’m talking about, I’ll avoid writing in broad generalizations and explain what I mean. Fraternities often bring to mind thoughts of the machismo, of hyper-masculinity, of cold, insensitive hazing and Keystone abuse, and ultimately, a gritty, who-cares mentality. Let’s call this the conventional frat aesthetic. The art-frat aesthetic, meanwhile, operates under a different guise. It’s the house of musicians, of guitarists and DJs who produce music. It’s the party hosted by English majors and architecture students. It’s when you walk into a frat boy’s room and instead of an American flag and letters on the wall, you find a Joy Division poster and a van Gogh painting (guilty as charged). This latter group does indeed practice the same traditions as the former, but it merely trades the tank top for the eccentrically printed, button-down shirt while it takes part in it all.

From the outset, it may seem great that fraternities are liberalizing and progressing their images in such a way. Something about it certainly looks more inclusive. Frankly, I think the more conventional frat aesthetic is waning and is more of a stereotype at this point in time. I remember feeling rather surprised by the whole thing when I rushed; I was shocked to learn that talking about my favorite Miles Davis albums actually made me seem cooler than the guys who just wanted to mention the girls and partying they had experienced. On one hand, I am tempted to deem it an entirely good thing that some of these groups are embracing such an aesthetic, allowing young men to express themselves where in many other spaces they might not find the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, there is a specter at work here, as the aesthetic may be nothing but an added layer. Under the artsy image there exists the old potential for the same conversations, the same homogenous viewpoints, the same dismissals and objectifications of women.

I don’t mean to castigate anyone, especially those individuals who have a true love for what they do. To them, I urge you to continue being genuine. I certainly don’t believe that all or even most members of fraternities are like this, nor do I assert that fraternity members are the only ones capable of feigning artistic profundity, objectifying people and exploiting heteronormative inequities just to get what they want. Rather, I simply do not want to see certain institutions mistook for being something that they are not. Keep up the art aesthetic, but at least acknowledge, if not with a little irony, that it’s there.


Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.