What do we mean when we call a Will Ferrell movie, a Jack Johnson album, or a trucker hat “fratty”?
Like “hipster,” the “frat” denomination uses interchangeable stereotypes to connote arrested development: College-age dudes in madras shorts, Ralph Lauren polos, flip-flops, puka shell necklaces, and backwards baseball caps, chugging 16 oz. cans of Natural Light while singing along to “Living on a Prayer”; sweaty Adonises engaging each other in homoerotic tests of strength and masculinity, then heading off to parties where they commit vicious acts of misogyny in order to affirm their heterosexuality; blue-blooded sophisticates, looking down their noses at the saps who can’t afford to buy a trim set of friends; trust-fund stoners in perpetually dirty laundry, perpetually high, and perpetually lazy.
Writers swap these stereotypes in and out to fit their criticisms, which saves them from having to dig for adjectives with real value.
Yesterday, Slate‘s Jonah Weiner wrote about Fred Durst’s “frat-bruiser psyche,” which plays to the violence stereotype. Rolling Stone‘s Brian Hiatt referenced the latent homophobia of fraternity life (the companion of misgony) when he wrote that Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen (neither of whom was in a fraternity, but whose works are frequently described as fratty) coined “every frat boy’s favorite barroom query”: “Do you know how I know you’re gay?” Salon‘s Camille Paglia conjured up Bon Jovi and OAR when she accused President Barack Obama of leading “an oafish bunch of drunken frat boys” after he criticized Rush Limbaugh last month. And the Economist combined the image of a drugged-out loser with that of an aristocrat promoted beyond his merit when it published an article towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency titled, “The Frat Boy Ships Out.”
There’s plenty to get riled up about in these examples, and it’s worth mentioning that what keeps “fratty” from joining the un-PC ranks of slutty, thuggish, and Jew-y—all terms that reduce entire identity groups into caricatures—is the pseudo-intellectual belief that all fraternities exist only to train the next generation of bigots, wife-beaters, and corporate ass-hats, and that it’s OK to smear all fraternity men in the service of undermining the patriarchal institutions to which they belong.
The moral implications aside, the better reason to stop using “fratty” is that it stands for so many things that it ends up standing for nothing. Which means that if you use “fratty” when you really mean “homoerotic,” you’re either lazy, stupid, or hungry for vengeance against the guy who kicked you out of that smoker party your freshman year.
Mike Riggs is a member of Phi Sigma Kappa. At no point in his life has he worn a Puka shell necklace.