Human beings categorize each other for convenience; it’s a way to make a complex world easier to understand. When we stereotype, we don’t take into account individual differences. But how about when the subjects of our daunting world put themselves into uncomplicated boxes for us?
Greek life in college does just this. It allows people to have the ability to describe 50 to 70 people using a few derogatory words. “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about the severity of sexual assault on college campuses, devotes a portion of its run time to illustrate the problem of rape in American fraternities. Sitting in the theater, listening to statistics and personal accounts of Greek life, the characters created realistic identities for people whom I didn’t even know.
The classic sorority girl stereotypes are often prevalent in movies, but few are so overwhelming as “Legally Blonde,” a film about Elle Woods, (Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”), president of her sorority’s chapter, who follows her boyfriend to Harvard Law School. Elle eventually realizes that she is more than her sorority’s letters, but her friends continue to be portrayed as well-dressed, manicured morons.
More recently, “The House Bunny” and “Sydney White” create an obvious binary between the mean and exclusive sorority girls who are portrayed as the “bitchy” and “slutty” villains juxtaposed with the sweet “I’m not like others” girls who are allowed to care about other things, but who are often valued for their non-sexual innocence.
The female characters in these movies encourage the sexism of the system of Greek life. These stereotypes let people say that they’re all the same; they’re dumb; they’re “basic.” Sometimes even women who don’t participate in Greek life fall into this trap; they don’t want to be identified with what the “sorority girl” has come to represent, so they join the ranks of people who look down on them.
Ask anyone on campus, even someone not affiliated with Greek life in any way, to give you one to two words describing a certain sorority and they can do it without hesitation. But we can’t describe “other” people in one to two words as easily. And these stereotypes perpetuate the idea that we can take multi-faceted humans and turn them into “basic” things that don’t deserve respect. By taking away the humanity of these women, we take away incentive for others to treat them like real people. This depreciation of sorority sisters contributes to hazy understandings of consent – if someone isn’t seen as deserving of a voice, they are not seen as deserving of control over their own body.
Men also become victims of misogyny in the cinematic portrayal of Greek life. In films like “Neighbors,” fraternity brothers are depicted as beer-guzzling “basic bros” whose main objective in life is to sleep with as many women as possible. However, their stereotypes are fundamentally different from those of sorority girls, because when they adhere to their social norms, they are celebrated – laughed with and not at. The main frat boys are never characterized as villainous or dangerous. The issue of sexual assault is rarely touched upon in the web of Greek life interpretations. The most prevalent example is in the satirical film “Animal House”, when, after much internal debate, a fraternity character does not rape a passed out girl and he is lionized as a hero.
Greek life itself may or may not be inherently sexist, but its portrayal in films almost always is. One of the statistics in “The Hunting Ground” points out that the population of rapists is small in comparison with the number of people who experience sexual assault, because the majority of men who do rape will be repeat offenders. However, because of the stereotypes that films perpetuate about sorority sisters as being hypersexualized and vapid, it makes it easier to not take them seriously and guiltlessly commit crimes against them.
The gorgeous houses in the inevitable montages of films about Greek life are built brick by misogynist brick. The worst part is that we take those constructions at face value and we use them to judge people in our actual lives. But with films like “The Hunting Ground” that tell the stories of individual girls and frankly discuss facts about the correlation between Greek life and rape culture, we can see the structure of sexism slowly crumbling.