4-Step History Of The Life And Death Of Frats
Frats have always been polarizing, leading to "in-or-out" battle lines drawn for and against. Those for Greek system cite life-long connections, philanthropy, and leadership opportunities as some of the benefits of fraternities and sororities. Those opposed -- often referred to as GDIs (God Damn Independents) -- argue that frat life perpetuates problematic behavior, including sexual assault, bullying, and bigotry among their members. And as our social climates shift, many wonder if these sometimes centuries-old institutions are capable of changing with the times.
Like nearly everything else last year, the Greek life debate reached a complete uproar in 2020, with full-fledged movements calling for its complete abolishment on campuses. But before you can write its epitaph, it helps to take a look at how it was born ...
Birth of a Movement
Fraternities were not always full of the same Sperry's boat-shoes and Vineyard Vines-wearing Chads we think of today. Before 1776, they took the form of literary societies at private schools like Yale and Princeton, where students often debated topics like politics, literature, religion, and who would be the five people that outlasted 18th-century life expectancy to attend their 20-year reunion. This evolved with the forming of the first fraternal organization, Phi Beta Kappa Society, on December 5, 1776, at William & Mary. It established the precedent of using Greek letters for their fraternity/sorority naming conventions because three Greek letters are cheaper to get engraved than 13 English ones on a student's budget.
More and more fraternity organizations popped up over the decades, especially after the Civil War. (Including the ... uh .... Ku Klux Klan.) Because of a large influx of university enrollment after the War, more students found their way to Greek life, and this period after the 1860s became known as the "Golden Age of Fraternities." In general, all Greek life organizations tended to share the same characteristics: same-sex membership, ownership of residential properties, a two-part joining process called "rushing" and "pledging," and secret rituals.
Popularization in Pop Culture
The growth of fraternities over the years happened organically, but their iconic status (for better or for worse) in the zeitgeist of the American university experience was largely due to pop culture. And few movies were as instrumental as National Lampoon's Animal House. It's a tale as old as time: a fraternity and its rowdy members duke it out against the stern, fun-sucking university dean to save their fraternity. It set up the classic fraternity image we all know today, and its popularity brought that idea of the fraternity as a bunch of fun-loving, drunk hooligans just looking for the good life to screens across America ... Which was a bit strange as the antagonists in the movie more resembled the traditional d-bag frats that pop in non-frat people's minds:
This misfits vs. pops (along with disturbing sex scenes that have aged terribly) thing would carry on with Revenge of the Nerds:
And continued with modern takes like Van Wilder and The House Bunny, before blending both sides into popular and misfit frats being one and the same with things like Blue Mountain State and the Neighbors:
There's no question that these portrayals of Greek life glamorized the experience, which likely led to droves of college students pledging in the hopes of partying like Belushi/Reynolds/Efron. This again is odd since the plot for a lot of these movies involves students having to create their own frat or sorority because the existing ones kind of suck.
Controversies on Campus
The realities of life in fraternities can be much less glamorous than the keg stands and toga parties in the movies above. Over the past few decades, a constant stream of allegations has flowed to the point of occasional national discussion, especially when a literal crime is involved.
The hazing period of new recruits during the pledging process often culminates in a "Hell Week" finale, in which pledges spend the last week of their initiation performing their most brutal tasks and undergoing extreme tests. The extent of hazing obviously varies from house to house; when I was a pledge, the worst part of my hazing was sleep deprivation and being forced to listen to White Houses by Vanessa Carlton on repeat for several hours while blindfolded. The same can't be said for other pledges, though, some of whom have suffered long-term effects and even death from hazing. Since 1959, there has been at least one hazing death a year at American universities. November of 2019 was particularly dangerous, as it saw four fraternity hazing deaths at schools like Penn State and Cornell. And in a move for gender equality (yay, ladies), many sororities have also been called out for hazing their members as well.
In response to these hazing incidents, colleges and national Greek organizations shut down social events and ban specific fraternity chapters outright. Many fraternities and sororities have been more vocal about advocating against hazing with the now-meme-worthy "These Hands Don't Haze" philanthropy movement, which many see nothing as more than a symbolic gesture falling on deaf ears. The opposition to fraternities has been increasingly vocal in using hazing as a major argument for why fraternities are prone to problematic behavior and shut down.
Unsurprisingly, fraternities have been accused of fostering toxic environments that impact those beyond their immediate members. By wielding significant influence over the social scene on campuses with parties, fraternities are often the main source of alcohol for underage students, leading to goofy shit like having to hold a press conference to dispute allegations of butt-chugging ...
... but also creating dark power dynamics that put female students at risk. This ranges from only granting entrances to their parties based on the number of women in a group or how attractive they are, to straight-up drugging women's drinks. Which has, unsurprisingly, led to studies coming out showing that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than other men on campuses.
Discrimination vis-a-vi homophobia and racism are also bound to be present in primarily white and affluent institutions. There are long-standing allegations of having racial biases in the recruitment practices, party themes featuring blackface and other racially appropriated features, and -- at its worst --racial slurs and hate crimes. One of the most infamous examples of this was the video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma singing a trash racist song. We're not going to link to it, but enjoy this press conference where the university president kicked their racist asses right out the door instead:
The Conversation Today
2020's progressive movements, especially the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer, reignited the firestorm over fraternities and sororities being banned on campus in lieu of many of the issues previously discussed. Opponents argue that they are institutions of power and privilege that have no place in our modern society and are not essential to the university experience. This has led to countless IG Stories and accounts sharing threads about why fraternities and sororities should be expunged completely.
What has been most interesting about the conversation this time around is that some Greek organizations are ready to pull the plug on themselves. The most notable was the sorority Zeta at Northwestern University. After the @abolishnugreeklife Instagram account began sharing accounts of students feeling excluded from Zeta and other organizations, Zeta held an emergency board meeting with its executive board. The result: the majority of its members tried to disband the organization. This almost worked ... until the national Zeta organization stepped in. It led to a similar movement across campuses, where many fraternity and sorority members began leaving their chapters in pursuit of less controversial organizations.
The big question is, where do we all go from here. Some argue that fraternities will always be around. Universities get a significant portion of their alumni donations from fraternities, and even if abolished completely, likely, underground secret societies will always exist. Others argue that fraternities and sororities can be reformed and should not be completely abolished, as they do yield positive impacts on their members and do good through philanthropic activities. And still, many insist that fraternities are an antiquated institution that needs to be shown the door. In this post-COVID world, it's still to be seen how university life will recollect itself and adapt once campuses are open again and what this means for Greek life. Whether fraternities are there are not, the only constant we are sure of is that for college students parting, uh, finds a way.
Top image: Sabphoto/Shutterstock