The new James Franco–backed film Goat stars Nick Jonas as Brett Land, a frat brother who mercilessly hazes his real brother, Brad Land, played by Ben Schnetzer. Based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir about his time pledging Clemson University’s Kappa Sigma, the movie offers an unflinching view of fraternity hazing, including the homophobic, obscenity-laced mental and physical bullying the pledges (or “goats”) experience.
Among other things, pledges are pelted with hard objects, forced to fight each other, made to believe they are eating feces, and (of course) drink until they puke and pass out. In the film, like in the memoir, a pledge dies during this initiation period. Last night at the New York premiere of Goat, the Cut spoke with director Andrew Neel (King Kelly) about the ongoing dangers of fraternity hazing, why problems for women begin with the problems of men, and how fraternity hazing is rooted in a basic human need for community.
The memoir this movie was based on, Goat, came out 12 years ago, and now there is more awareness of hazing. Is it still like this?
Yeah, I don’t think it has changed at all. The fact that people in the administrations in these colleges or in athletic institutions toe the party line of “boys will be boys” is astounding to me. People are regularly breaking the Geneva Convention in our colleges. I do hope that people do something about it, but I didn’t make this film as a polemic. I made it for my own personal aesthetic interests and anthropological interests, but I hope it has this other bonus or effect on culture that will start a dialogue about masculinity. I think that a lot of the problems that women have are a product of male problems. We can teach women how to combat these problems and combat being victimized, but we can’t really solve a lot of these problems until we solve a lot of these issues.
What are those male problems that are leading to female victimization?
I think that men at particular moments in their life, basically men between the ages of 16 and 24, are pulsing with testosterone and other chemicals that are potentially dangerous and people have to be aware of that. It’s not that I think that young men shouldn’t be allowed to have fraternal organizations but we need to be aware that you can get into dangerous situations with young men who are functioning in a vacuum, and have not had a substantial dialogue about some of the things that are happening to them in that moment biologically. We are animals, and we forget that and for some strange reason we have decided that young men should be exempt from examination when it comes to their behavior. And I don’t know why that is, and I don’t think it is good for men, I don’t think it is good for women, I don’t think it is good for anybody. All I hope is that on the level of a cultural phenomenon the film motivates a dialogue about what men are going through.
The memoir Goat was set at Clemson, and about two years ago there was a case where a pledge may have died while being hazed. What should colleges do about hazing?
I don’t want to present myself as an authority that knows all the answers to these questions but like I said, I think if people are breaking the Geneva Convention and torturing people on your college campuses, someone should do something about it. It seems just irrational to me that people wouldn’t. Does that mean abolishing the fraternity system? Not necessarily. I think there are certain schools where it is so entrenched and so complicated and baked into the culture that maybe that is necessary to kind of wipe it and start from zero. If you don’t abolish the organizations you have to at least apply a really strict educational system to what is happening. At that age we are programmable animals and at that age men are particularly vulnerable to accessing the darker parts of their psyche.
Would you let your son join a fraternity?
I would never tell anyone what to do, and I would never tell my son what to do. I don’t have kids but if my son came to me and said I want to join this frat, I would say I believe in self-determination, and you can do what you want, but here is what I think about it. I don’t think that fraternal organizations are a bad thing. Basically, neotribalism is an attempt to access the part of us that desires community and visceral experiences, so frats in their worse instantiation are a bad attempt to do something that represents a human need. The fact that shared trauma binds us together as a community is a very natural thing. The goal is to try and find a way to nuance those experiences in a way that is positive, and does not damage other people. I think there is a way to do that.