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"Beer in Hell" Puts NC State on Hot Seat

The N.C. State appearance of raunchy "frat boy" writer Tucker Max and his movie raises a whole lot of questions about campus culture.

By Jay Schalin

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August 31, 2009

North Carolina State University seems to have an affinity for learning the hard way. It is almost as if NCSU stands for “No Clue State U.”

The university’s 2008-9 school year was dominated by the Mary Easley case, in which the former governor’s wife was given a sweetheart employment deal. The complicity and subsequent cover-up attempts by the school’s top administrators revealed an elitist sense of entitlement run amok.

The new school year has now started off with another example of how academic administrators universally fail to grasp their proper roles and the importance of their actions. In this case, it shows how the modern university has cast off many of the important components of education for the sake of popularity with students.

On Tuesday night (August 25th), N.C. State’s Campus Cinema held a preview showing of the movie “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.” The decision to have the movie was made primarily by Will Lamb, the student head of the school’s film committee, and tickets to the performance at the 460-seat Witherspoon Student Center quickly sold out.

The movie is the latest of the “drunken frat boy” film genre (“fratires”) that have become increasingly popular since the seminal “Animal House” appeared in 1979. “... Beer in Hell” is the creation primarily of Tucker Max, a Duke Law School graduate who first started blogging in explicit detail about his out-of-control sexual exploits and general, all-around bad behavior in 2002. He then turned some of the more outrageous blog entries into a best-selling book and now a movie (with the same name as the book).

The movie and Max’s personal appearance on campus for a question-and-answer session and autograph signing drew an outraged reaction from the campus’ feminist community. Not only were they aghast at Max’s blatant disparagement of women (“all women are whores,” he once wrote), they felt that Max promotes rape, in the sense that deliberately trying to seduce women who are too drunk to make good judgments constitutes rape.

Shannon Johnson, director of the campus Women’s Center, said in a phone conversation that the activities Max describes in his blog meet “the legal definition of rape and other felonius offenses.”

Between 50 and 100 protestors lined the sidewalk leading to the Witherspoon Center before the performance, with signs suggesting that Max promotes a “culture of rape.”. In a response to them published on his website, Max emphatically denied that any of his actions constitute rape: “I have never in my life forced myself on any woman in any way nor been accused of rape by anyone….” He suggested that the protestors were merely “using me to get attention,” said that they are “cheapening and devaluing the awfulness of real rape,” and denied that he was a misogynist—“I love women…is it not obvious that everything I do is to impress women?”

While the Women’s Center very likely has missed the mark in its depiction of Max as a rapist, especially in a legal sense, it is not hard to see why he galls the many women. At a question-and-answer session after the movie, he mocked the protestors, saying that one of his new goals in life was to “hook up with a protestor…Only if she’s sober and I’m drunk. Then I’ll accuse her of rape.”

His fans wholeheartedly agreed with his opinion of the protest. Brooks Hester, a sophomore engineering student, said that the protestors were “overreacting.” He also said that Max’s behavior was not necessarily that unusual: “The thing about Tucker is that he was smart enough to write it down. If he can make a living at it, all power to him.”

There is a deeper undercurrent to Tucker Max’s work, according senior film studies major Andrew Johnson, who is on the committee that is responsible for choosing the films shown at the Campus Cinema. He said that Max’s popularity is a reaction to the sort of radical feminism that often is supported by campus officials. “Without events like this, there wouldn’t be any dialogue about manhood on campus.”

He may very well be right. After decades of feminists’ chipping away at the traditional concept of masculinity—such as men’s natural inclinations to take the lead and to be protective—masculinity for college males is now somewhat defined by the hyper-aggressive “narcissism” (his own term) represented by Tucker Max.

Perhaps the unintended consequence of feminism is that the best qualities of men have been cast aside for the worst. No longer is the ideal the “strong, silent type” who upholds decency and the law. No longer is the ideal the men who jumped into the icy waters to attack the Nazi stronghold at Normandy during World War II, nor the unflappable, resilient leader who refuses to be unnerved under pressure. Nor is it even the countless honorable men who do unpleasant jobs everyday to put food on the table for their families.

In its place, the feminist movement has sought to impose a new male ideal—one that is less aggressive, more emotional, and subservient to women. But a large portion of the newer generation of college males have been so alienated by these feminist constraints that, without the traditional model in place, they have adopted the worst part of their own natures—sexual predation, abusive and juvenile humor, and contempt for basic standards of civility—as the new masculine ideal.

It would also appear that many young women are buying into this new concept of masculinity as well. There were far more women in the audience—between one-third and one-half—than there were protestors on the sidewalk. Many of them were dressed for attention (Max leeringly told one young woman wearing a revealing outfit “now that’s how you dress for a movie like this”), and several prefaced their questions to him with comments such as “I love you,” and “I want to be you.”

To suggest that Max has no influence on the campuses he visits is foolhardy. “Like it or not,” said Andrew Johnson, the film studies major, “Tucker Max is very popular among the college crowd.” And it is such adulation that makes a second criticism by Shannon Johnson of the Women’s Center carry more weight than the accusations of rape. “Not only is the film coming to campus,” she said, “but he and his entourage are coming to campus. He’ll be doing a Q & A after the film and signing autographs, which is promoting him as a role model on our campus.”

And he does indeed promote a culture of anti-social drunken behavior. He declared that “at 25 I was an unguided missile of debauchery,” and shortly thereafter he told the audience that they should also seek to “have as much fun as possible” while in their college years. He also offered this gem of advice: “if you haven’t had your ass kicked, you’re probably not living right.”

It may be hard to fathom why a university would invite somebody to campus who promotes such a life-style. Statistics of college-age alcohol abuse are appalling—according to a Harvard University study, 44 percent of U.S. college students participate in binge drinking in an average two-week period. Another study published in the Annual Review of Public Health found that 1,700 college students die annually in alcohol-related incidents and that one-quarter of students “report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.”

And the Associated Press discovered that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, literally drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.

The answer is that, like N.C. State, many colleges have long shed some of their most important missions: to provide moral guidance and to serve as the arbiters of taste and culture. In the case of the College Cinema, administrators delegated determination of the campus culture to students, and the students responded by bringing crass, vulgar, immoral, and juvenile entertainment onto campus. Once the student film committee makes its choice (with little or no staff oversight), the school—being a government entity—cannot stop the performance based on its content due to First Amendment free speech rights.

Other selections in the Campus Cinema’s offerings for this fall aren’t much better: “The Hangover” is another fratire that has been compared to “… Beer in Hell;” “Pulp Fiction” mixes hip cynicism with violence, drug use, crudity, and perversity; “Dogs of China Town” seems to be little more than a trite plot draped around martial arts fighting; “The Girlfriend Experiment” features a real-life hooker in the lead role—as a hooker.

In other words, lots of gratuitous violence, degrading sexuality, and Beavis-and-Butthead level potty humor. Certainly a campus should have entertainment available, and not everything has to be at the level of high culture. But if a school does not seek to elevate with its entertainment choices, as it should, then it should at least not promote raunchy garbage (one of the main scenes in “Beer in Hell” featured the protagonist and his “date” suffering diarrhea and fouling themselves and the lobby of a hotel in graphic detail).

Despite a perception in academia that making judgments is wrong, it is the administration’s duty to judge. A. Lee Fritschler, the former president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, described this well at a recent Pope Center conference in Washington—he said that if he had left the decision-making up to students, they would have chosen to have “kegerators” in their rooms and ended requirements for foreign languages and such. He said it was his job to make better decisions than they would, for their own good.

That sort of judgment that is all too often absent on the American campus. N.C. State has apparently thrown up its hands and decided to let students create the campus culture. Rather than providing guidance, which is the school’s proper role, the school becomes party to juvenile impulses. It is one thing to ignore the duty to elevate the sensibilities of its charges, but is far worse to directly contribute to their coarsening. That is what N.C. State did by bringing Tucker Max onto campus.

Perhaps it is time to restructure the procedure for bringing entertainment onto campus. Instead of leaving decisions completely in the hands of students, there should be a more mature voice on entertainment committees that will seek to persuade students to make better choices. The campus is also no place for “gangsta” rap groups that promote violence, misogynism, and an anti-social attitude as well, no matter how popular they are.

Tom Stafford, State’s vice chancellor for student affairs (the department with authority overentertainment), agreed that some adult input into entertainment choices might be necessary. He said that the Campus Cinema series has operated “without my involvement” until now. “We’ve renewed our interest,” he said. “Now that we’ve had such an uproar from a lot of folks about it, I’ve asked my people to always think about whether or not any given film that the student committee might look at is appropriate.”

But just a quick procedural fix might not be enough. Just as N.C. State must now undergo a reevaluation after the Mary Easley incident exposed a culture that was unaware of its own capacity for corruption, perhaps, given the issues raised by the Tucker Max appearance, it should undergo an examination of what its true relationships to students and to society are.

But State is not alone. Its lack of awareness is symptomatic of the same cluelessness that pervades most of academia. All schools should reevaluate—they should at least show some concern toward what influences they are promoting. Boys have always been boys—and some of them will behave badly. There has to be some, if not acceptance, then understanding of why they do what they do. But it is not the school’s job to encourage them in their pursuit of drunken debauchery; the school’s duty is to limit it, and to guide them past it to a more mature sensibility.

 


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