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All images courtesy/copyrighted by Andrew Moisey from the book The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual, published by Daylight

Halfway through his book of photography documenting the debauched state of American fraternities, Andrew Moisey presents an unsettling pair of images. They appear similar in subject but worlds apart in tone: the first shows a woman incapacitated on a mattress in a slightly askew room, presumably within a frat house. Chin to the ceiling, she lies unconscious with legs open and arms outstretched. The second image reads almost like a parody of the former; it depicts a male college student painting a surreal picture of a bikini-clad woman lying unconscious in what appears to be a crow’s nest. A blunt allegory for the seething libidinal violence that has become synonymous with fraternities, the student paints a murder of crows circling above his sexualized subject.

Published in October 2018, Moisey’s The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual chronicles a startling pantomime of stunted, rapacious youth alongside the text of a 60-year-old “ritual book” discovered on the floor of an unnamed fraternity at University of California, Berkeley, which the artist attended for his BA and PhD degrees.

Image courtesy the artist

Image courtesy the artist

For two years before he became a photographer, Moisey hung out around the fraternity. “I thought it was mostly a benign waste of time and only occasionally truly malignant,” he explained to Hyperallergic. After seven years of observation, however, he came away from Greek life with a different view. “In no sense is joining a college fraternity about purifying the world. It’s about capitalizing on your male privilege.”

American Fraternity begins as a sympathetic ode to the idealized conception of what brotherhood could be. As Moisey observes, Greek life remains “sacred” for many men “because it’s the only modern tradition left that acknowledges the wildness of human beings.”

The hitch, however, is that fraternities often present themselves as premiere incubators of noble leadership. Accordingly, Moisey begins his book with an epigraph from a fictional character he created, William Archibald Scott, who regurgitates some extent frat philosophy from the likes of Beta Theta Pi. Scott says in the epigraph: “We shall create Men of Principle. For America’s image the fraternity man will one day be other countries’ image of the American.” The book continues with a list of 18 American presidents who once belonged to fraternities, including Thomas Jefferson and George W. Bush.

This lofty vision of genteel brotherhood is a ruse obscured by meticulous patriarchal systems, initiation rights, and prayer ceremonies. American Fraternity details these bylaws in its text while undermining their decorous façade with visual documentation of flippancy, racism, exhibitionism, and violence. Sometimes, these malevolent forces coalesce into microaggressions. One of the book’s first images, for example, is a fraternity yearbook portrait of the house secretary and “resident Asian,” Joon Kwon.

Another yearbook photo depicts a fraternity brother alongside the house’s cook (image courtesy the artist)

The problem with microaggressions, however, is that they never stay micro for long. One-quarter into the book, there is an image of some lewd stick-figure graffiti on a hallway door that features a sex act. Doltishly, the cartoon’s creator has made sure to clarify the genders of these silhouettes as “dude” and “chick,” lest anyone mistake their sex act as gay.

It’s ironic, then, that the dozens of pages that follow depict homoerotic parties where groups of men either gather around naked women or compare scrotum sizes. Like a sexually distorted version of Thomas Eakins’s 1875 “Gross Clinic” painting, one photograph depicts nearly 10 men in a room examining the bare rear end of a woman who spreads herself across their coffee table.

Image courtesy the artist

Like Moisey,  Jeffrey Augustine Songco is another artist who has spent his career investigating the values of fraternity life. “While it’s easy to place judgement on the fraternity system as an outsider looking in,” he said over email, “there’s still a perpetual curiosity and attraction among American teenagers to join these social groups.”

Songco sees an indelible link between fraternities and American machismo, because both derive from the same place: the aggressive sexual impulses of male teenagers. For that same reason, the artist is not certain that abolishing campus fraternities would quash this country’s masculinity issues. “There’s that saying ‘life finds a way’ and I think it makes sense here because if fraternities were to be removed from American colleges, teenagers would continue to find a way to group together based on similarities,” he said.

Nevertheless, American Fraternity envisages Greek life as a Boschian hell of earthly delights. Take a tour of the depravity: here is a hooded frat bro vomiting while a woman rubs his back. Here is another man cradling his exposed genitalia as his “brothers” ladle beer down his gullet. And here are two others, harassing a dog as another swoops in to punch the animal in the face.

Image courtesy the artist

Image courtesy the artist

Every year, nearly 100,000 men are initiated into college fraternities. Statistics show that many of these former pledges will go on to lead America in government and business. In Alan DeSantis’s 2007 bookInside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, he cites data from the Center for the Study of College Fraternity claiming that 85% of US Supreme Court justices since 1910 belong to frats. Additionally, 63% of all US presidential cabinet members since 1900 and 85% of Fortune 500 executives have engaged in Greek life.

Situate those stats next to a few others: men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape, and women who join sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women.

The #MeToo movement may have shined a spotlight on America’s rape culture problem, but Greek life arguably propels such misbehavior into an accepted pathology. “Nearly 40% of college graduates voted for [President Donald Trump],” notes Moisey. “What part of college taught them to appreciate him?”

“The fraternity has far more influence over its members’ values than a college’s professors do. That’s certainly not what we think we’re getting when we imagine sending our kids to college. Imagine now how much influence fraternities have over the values of our society.”

Image courtesy the artist

Image courtesy the artist

The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual by Andrew Moisey is published by Daylight Books and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

7 replies on “The Curdling of American Masculinity in University Frats”

  1. pathetic – no wonder there’s problems in American society – it is run by man-boys such as these…

    1. Well, they seem to be a central part of a hierarchy of systems of privilege, like patriarchy, capitalism, the American education industry (and most others) and so on. It is hardly surprising that young males would gather together to ape the behavior and absorb the beliefs of their more powerful elders. What is the alternative for those not disposed to be radically at odds with the social structure we live in?

      1. in my case, it was joining the Army (the Canadian Armed Forces) at 17… but I would say working for a living, taking on any responsible job – whether construction, social work, policing, volunteering, agriculture, mining… having responsibility and being part of a team of responsible people knocks away much silliness…

          1. note I said responsible people – I’ve had the misfortune to be with the opposite far too many times….

  2. I hated frats in my university days so much that I transferred to a college that had none.

    That said, this article is unbearably tendentious and does not allow the reader/viewer a chance to view the subject unmolested. The constant hammering of clichés from the academic/journalism world (e.g., “patriarchy”, “seething libidinal violence”, “the country’s masculinity issues” etc.) makes me think the writer has little real-world experience and takes these abstract constructs and psychological projections for some sort of reflection of reality.

    They are not. Only those versed in the same nonsense will nod sagely at this twaddle. The worst of it is that such a skewed perspective not only fails to shed light on the disturbing phenomena it is discussing, but it thereby makes impossible any fruitful understanding of them. The upshot is that the exponents of “toxic masculinity” (to use another of those favorite clichés, which does not appear here but is implied) will remain as though in a world apart–which is, in reality, our world–unchanged and ready to do their harm as fully fledged adults.

    And that is the ultimate failure of identitarian “critical theory.” Absent any analysis of class and economics, it has no practical value and leaves the core of the problem untouched. But those who apply it get to feel superior as they walk away from the problem, in most cases back into their privileged social context.

  3. And here we have another example of the intersection of misogyny, racism, animal abuse, toxic, masculinity, white male privilege, and shit rising to the top in government and industry.

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