Frat Boy Fetishism: When the Goods Get Together
Issue #17, November 1994
A commodity appears, at first sight a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties....It is only by being exchanged that [commodities] acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility.
— Marx, Capital, Volume One
As I was walking across campus one morning last summer I spotted a considerable crowd gathered around the front steps of Wheeler Hall. Grateful for any excuse to put off going to class, I came over to see what unscheduled spectacle had been provided by fate for our amusement. I found an array of cameras and filming equipment surrounding a red, sporty-looking car positively radiating newness parked at a jaunty angle directly in front of the steps. Chevrolet, I was told by a fellow voyeur, was shooting a commercial for the 1995 Cavalier and those large flags with Greek lettering were flapping from Wheeler's roof because our hallowed hall of the humanities was playing a fraternity house for the day. An actor playing the frat boy was expected to emerge from his trailer at any moment and would presumably perform some sort of proprietal action vis-a-vis the car. After ten minutes of waiting around while nothing much at all seemed to happen and eavesdropping as a group of young women speculated about what the actor/frat boy would look like, I decided to take off, confident that at some point in the near future I would be bombarded with the end result of this filming. In fact, Chevrolet's PR department tells me the commercial will be airing 'later this year,' so stay tuned.
Chevrolet declined, however, to answer any other questions about the spot as this particular advertising campaign has not yet been launched. Still, we hardly need Chevrolet to comment on the theory behind this ad in order for us to 'read' it, the set-up so clearly accesses familiar cultural codes. The campus setting and sporty car tell us the target market is the young upwardly mobile group, the sort who have or will soon have college degrees, will join the ranks of white collar middle-class consumers, and will be able to afford a car evocative of their energetic, care-free college life style. Not your heavy duty Ford Ranger [read: blue collar] crowd here. But why is our proto-yuppie consumer specifically a fraternity man? The college ethos, after all, could be produced in numerous ways, so what semiotic signals are being transmitted to the viewer by the figure of the Frat Boy?
When one thinks about it for a moment it's not surprising that the Frat Boy would be figured as a consumer. One need only look at the boorish, belching, would-be womanizers populating Animal House to see the Frat Boy depicted as a concentration of unceasing appetites — in this case mainly for beer and chicks. A glance back to the Middle Ages finds the university structure as we know it arguably founded on this crowd's penchant for consumption. Before universities developed, groups of students would congregate around a given professor and pay him to dispense wisdom. Professors started living near one another in order to share a mutual student base and townspeople, recognizing a lucrative market, began providing facilities for the student population. Rooming houses for the students were built; lecture halls, chapels, and other amenities were produced as the demand grew. Well heeled young men from around Europe came to partake of these facilities and maintained their national identities by congregating in clubs called 'nations' whose members roomed together, ate together, and had rivalries with other 'nations.' Sound familiar? The literature of the time registers the townsfolk's' disapproval of the young men's riotous drunkenness and general unruliness as taverns sprang up around the university to cater to the students' appetite for beer. This antipathy lived on, yet so did the taverns where the students congregated to get drunk and sing bawdy drinking songs — in Latin of course.
However, Chevrolet must be trying to evoke a more nuanced image than merely that of the beer-quaffing philistine by deploying its Frat Boy consumer; another look at Animal House can uncover this subtlety. The film opens with the protagonists schlepping from house to house on Frat Row during rush week and being looked over and rejected by every one — signaled by their placement in a corner with the other 'rejects' (in this case a prototypical 'nerd,' some Arab men in turbans, and a guy in a wheel chair — needless to say this is prior to PC) — while the fraternity brothers' girlfriends trot haughtily past in minute miniskirts, their noses in the air. The lesson to be gleaned from this chronicle of the Failed Frat Boy: that it is not enough to be merely a consumer, the successful Frat Boy is also a desirable object of consumption — a commodity if you will.
So what exactly makes one a marketable Frat Boy? By what process does the house determine who will be a good 'fit,' — the term bandied about in rush week literature? A fraternity brother I interviewed tells me, 'Well, nobody will admit it openly, but with the higher profile houses they are basically looking for the guys with money, and the best looking ones.' Rush week conversations, he says, generally come around to questions of what a guy's parents do for a living so they can get a sense of his class background which may not have been provided by his physical manifestation alone, though they 'do it in a social way, so you don't feel interrogated.' The reason — 'the house with the best looking guys is going to hook up with the best looking girls,' and 'you want to make sure that the guy can pay the dues, you know, that his parents will back him up.' So, desirability as an object of consumption rests on one's ability to contribute to communal consumption (dues run around $150-$400 per semester, not including living expenses) and procure desirable commodities — namely beautiful women. The more popular [good looking] fraternities are more likely to do functions with the best looking sororities, he tells me, so its important that guys who will not reinforce the group's identity during rush week be kept from what is known as 'falling through the cracks.' The standard coded rejection?: 'he's a dork.'
It's interesting to note the term 'falling through the cracks,' when an undesirable member is mistakenly pledged into a fraternity, suggests that a barrier has been breached, some cultural citadel invaded. As both a literal and symbolic space, the Fraternity house becomes the locus for the conflation of economic and sexual exchange-values, the space whose 'cracks' must be guarded against infiltration by people who might hinder the fluidity of the interchanges taking place therein. For the 'House, ' I am told, (note the metonymy of the physical space for the imaginary one), is very conscious of how it markets itself. For instance, my source tells me, 'a house wants really cute little sisters, because you look better with good looking girls around you, good guys are more likely to join, and the whole thing keeps piling up.' Women perceive that a certain fraternity gets the best looking girls and aspire to be one of the chosen few. Desirability then, in this social economy, is self-reflexive; the greater one's value as a commodity, the more one can participate as a consumer. In essence, the successful Frat Boy consumer — avid quaffer of beer and discerning aficionado of female flesh — is that because he can present himself as such, rendering himself a desirable commodity. He is in fact, a highly stylized manifestation of one of the earmarks of late capitalism — the tendency, the almost unavoidable necessity, to not only consume but to imagine oneself in the act of consuming. Note the Oaktree sportswear slogan, 'just because you shop in mall doesn't mean you have to dress like it.' Implicit in the consumption of the clothes, is the image of oneself consuming the clothes (that Oaktree is in fact located in malls is irrelevant — it is selling the effect, not the reality, of not shopping in malls). Likewise, the Frat Boy doesn't just consume, he reinforces his value in his social economy by self-consciously foregrounding his acts of consumption. He is, if you will, late capitalism's uberconsumer — a literalization of the consumer/consumed nexus.
In her essay 'When the Goods Get Together,' (1977) Luce Irigaray notes the homo-social nature of trade relations in a patriarchal society where women, signs, goods, currency all pass from one man to another. Reading 'goods' as female, she argues that 'goods can only enter into relations under the surveillance of their 'guardians.' It would be out of question for them to go to 'market' alone, to profit from their own value, to talk to each other, to desire each other.' Although Irigaray would no doubt turn over in her grave (if she were dead) hearing her theory thus expropriated, I would posit that the Frat Boy, by at once occupying the position of buying-selling-consuming subject and that of the consumed object (which Irigaray had coded as exclusively female), enacts Irigaray's vision of the 'goods getting together' to profit from their own desirability — an outcome she insists would be impermissible in our society as it would inevitably lead to endogamic trade relations and economic incest. Which in fact it does.
A peek through the 'cracks' into the cultural space of the Frat House reveals a microcosmic economy of desire and desirability where distinctions between social, sexual, and economic values are elided as these values circulate freely among 'brothers.' A source tells me his father encouraged him to join a frat because it is a good way to make business connections — 'a lot of the people my dad does business with were in his fraternity.' Future economic connections are enacted as social connections wherein participation in the consumer/consumed economy is performed in the realm of the symbolic. We are all aware of the rituals — hazing, secret handshakes, pins, etc. — that mark the participant (sometimes literally in the case of branding which a few frats indulge in) as a member of the chosen/choosers. One brother tells me how in his house pledges are required to wear their fraternity pins at all times, 'on our shirt during the day, on our underwear while we sleep, in our mouths while showering, and on our socks while screwing.' In the collectivist enclave of the Frat House, the pledge must demonstrate his commitment to this microcosmic capitalist social economy (for in capitalism we frequently relate to one another through the exchange and consumption of objects) by this symbolic sharing of even his sexual conquests with the never-abandoned pin demonstrating that not only he, but the fraternity as a whole, is present during any act of consumption. Economic, sexual and social values manifest as Booze, Broads, and Brotherhood — exchanged both literally and figuratively within this cultural space. It is no wonder that on Beverly Hills 90210 Donna can only safeguard her sacrosanct virginity by entirely dropping out of this sexual-economic exchange system and literally fleeing the fraternity house to drive off with her blue collar love Ray — in his truck of course. Just as Ray's class situates him firmly outside the rubric of desirable participants in the Frat House economy — recall Frat Boy Griffin's seethingly contemptuous reference to Donna's 'deliver boy' — it simultaneously negates the role of predatory consumer; Donna's virtue is safe with the homey proprietor of the pumpkin patch.
Yet just as undesirables may 'fall through the cracks,' into this cultural space, in the true spirit of a fetishized commodity the figure of the Frat Boy has accumulated meanings abstracted from its literal exchange value in its endogamic economy, which have leaked out through the cracks in the House to be consumed by other groups — specifically the gay male community. Just as the requisite girl-on-girl scene can be found in every heterosexual porno flick, the frat-boy-on-boy topos haunts the homosexual male pornographic imagination. Many a graffitied fantasy/confession on men's bathroom walls begins with something like 'so I met this frat boy and we went to a party at the House and we ended up going back to his room and before I knew it he was giving me a blow job. Queer friends tell me a crucial element of the fantasy is entering the literal/symbolic Frat House — storming the citadel of hypermasculinity and inhabiting the terms of the sexual economy (desire/fetishized object/desire) while simultaneously subverting them. As one friend put it, 'all those boys running around with their matching brands on their butts, taking showers together...ummm-hummm! You can't tell me there's nothing dirty going on. The Frat Boy's self-fashioning as simultaneously the 'Pretty Boy' and the ultramasculine consumer of booze and women marks him as a site for erotic identification — the desirable and the unattainable attained. The universally recognized homosocial ethos is transformed into the homoerotic, supplanting the homophobia implicit in the traditional performance of masculinity while keeping the *effect* of that performance intact. Or as my friend says, 'they're just so *boy*.' The thrill, he says, lies in the challenge of penetrating the veneer of aggressive heterosexuality and transforming the homosocial into the homoerotic (or revealing it as such) while still participating in this sexual economy of self-reflexive desire on its own terms. Queer men refer frequently to the Frat Boy's perceived arrogance and homophobia as a chief element of this desire; in a way, he becomes a marker for heterosexist mainstream culture that can be penetrated, seduced and subverted — the uberconsumer consumed.
So by deploying the Frat Boy in its new ad campaign, Chevrolet has its semiotic cake and eats it too. The traditional tropes of the husky, masculine discerning consumer and sexualized objectified women which are frequently used to sell cars are combined (with a parenthetical queer icon thrown in which may or may not have been Chevrolet's intent — gay men are after all a powerful purchasing force) to offer the viewer a continuum of desire, neatly blending Be Him/Have Him into Have What He Has. I don't know when they plan to show it but I would hazard a guess it will crop up during 90210.
Freya Johnson is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. She is studying contemporary American fiction, mass media, and popular culture.