During his charged hearing last week, the supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s detailing of his teenage viewing habits was illuminating: Animal House, Caddyshack, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Kavanaugh invoked these 1980s teen movies as an excuse for the “goofy” things he was up to at the time, which certainly didn’t include blackout-level drinking or sexual assault – allegations that Kavanaugh has denied.But that’s pretty much what those movies served up. Looking back, those frat-house movies of the late 1970s/early 80s look less like a celebration of masculine “goofiness” and more a dodgy celebration of rape culture and male entitlement – if not a training manual.
National Lampoon’s Animal House went all-out to champion heavy drinking, inane pranking and broadly misogynist campus culture. Alpha-sleaze John Belushi would have felt right at home drinking in Kavanaugh’s 100 Kegs Or Bust club, but the movie’s abiding scene was when freshman Pinto’s prospective conquest passes out, drunk and topless, at a party. A comedy devil appears on his shoulder: “Fuck her! Fuck her brains out!… You know she wants it,” the devil urges. She is 13 years old. An angel appears on the other shoulder and implores Pinto to do the right thing. He decides to dump her outside her parents’ house in a shopping trolley.
So many of these films teach men that some women (not the respectable ones they will later marry, of course) are bitches who unfairly withhold sex, or sluts who enjoy sex too much. Either way, they are fair game for objectification and gratuitous nudity: Caddyshack is full of it; Fast Times is one of the most perved-over movies of the era (but at least has some decent female characters). Elsewhere, voyeurism was perfectly acceptable. In Animal House, for example, Belushi smirks to the camera as he spies on women undressing through the window, just as the men in Porky’s spy on the women in the shower through peepholes. In Revenge Of The Nerds, the nerds go one further and install hidden cameras in the sorority house, then sell nude photos of the women. One of them tricks a girl into having sex by pretending to be her boyfriend in disguise. They wind up getting married.
Even apparently innocuous movies of the era were shot through with dodgy rapeyness. There is the (rightly) forgotten Zapped!, from 1982, in which Scott Baio uses his telekinetic powers to rip off women’s clothes, abetted by his best friend, who enjoys photographing up cheerleaders’ skirts. In John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, the supposed hero hands his drunken girlfriend over to the luckless serial-harasser known as The Geek, telling him: “She’s so blitzed she won’t know the difference.” It sounds uncomfortably close to Julie Swetnick’s allegations of drunk women being passed between men at parties involving Kavanaugh’s social circle. The next morning Caroline tells the Geek she enjoyed the sex.
People who watched these movies weren’t inspired to go out and sexually assault other people, of course, but if you were a horny young guy in the 80s, movies such as Animal House suggested there was always a devil on your shoulder urging you to do the wrong thing to get sex. And if you did so, it would be within the bounds of “goofy” behaviour. Nor would such behaviour be an impediment to high office in later life. At the end of Animal House, Belushi’s character is revealed to have become… a US senator.