Girls and Guns – the ’90s films that shaped the ‘frat boy generation’

The likes of American Pie and Fight Club have been blamed for warping a generation’s perception of sex and violence. How does that claim hold up?

Words

Emmeline Banks

Paul Weitz’s American Pie taught a generation of young folk that sex-based humour was the height of wit. The trope of pubescent teenage boys who felt the need to ‘conquer’ the female population was rife, incubated by popular culture that nurtured the misogyny and adolescent ‘boys will be boys’ attitude perpetuated by the landmark film.

In the same way that American Pie allowed a culture of misogyny to run riot, Fight Club and Pulp Fiction seemed to bolster the idea of stereotypical machismo being the ultimate goal for men. Fight Club glamorised societal violence and caused idolisation of the severely mentally ill Tyler Durden, and Pulp Fiction suggested that guns and violence made for an aesthetically pleasing piece of art, and undoubtedly popularised misogynistic language used to describe women (and equating the word ‘bitch’ with weakness, especially in Jules’ infamous “Does he look like a bitch?” scene). These films can now be seen as a lethal cocktail injected into 90s teenagers, encouraging the ‘frat boy culture’ which was already beginning to germinate.

It should be said that ‘frat boy’ is a decidedly American term. Telly Davidson perfectly defines the highly caricatured reputation of the frat boy in terms of cinematic preferences in his book ‘Culture War’: “Picture it: you’re a testosterone-crazed, white hipster high school student or college kid, anytime between, say, 1987 and 1996.”

He goes on to dream up the reaction such a teenage boy would have to the “urban action” section of a Blockbuster, full to the brim with exploitation cinema, kung-fu flicks and slasher horror: “They’ve got the action, they’ve got the chills and thrills, they’ve got the hot Charlie’s Angel-type chicks taking their clothes off and playing with themselves or running around naked and jiggling and screaming.” These elements are what the frat boy crowd wanted, and that’s what they got.

Viola Levy, a freelance beauty journalist, was a teenager in the late 1990s, living in suburban Hertfordshire, England. “Boys would call us names on the way home from school and say stuff to us in the park,” she says. “You could see the effects of it when I went to university a few years later – it was a really predatory atmosphere. All the girls were issued with rape alarms to protect us presumably from the male students, given the campus was really far out of town.”

What is particularly interesting, though, is bridging the gap between film and real-life culture. “The wider culture just felt inherently misogynistic – Page 3 girls, Playboy Bunnies, Eminem rapping about which Spice Girl he would rather impregnate, the American Pie films where a group of guys are filming a woman masturbate without her consent […] It was all seen through a male lens.” says Viola.

Earlier this year Netflix released the three-part docuseries Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, which fleetingly alluded to the release of Fight Club and American Pie in 1999 being partly to blame for the complete chaos that the festival dissolved into. Fuelled by overcrowding, contaminated water supplies and no sense of security or planning, the failed Woodstock revival festival literally went up in flames after candles were given to crowd members during Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance.

Aside from the violence shown by the crowd in setting fire to structures out of pure rage, and following the perceived instruction to “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit, as their song goes, there were multiple reports of rape and sexual assault; constant berating from male audience members towards female performers such as “show your tits” being shouted at Sheryl Crow and abuse at the (only) two other female performers at the festival; and a van being driven by a heavily intoxicated festival-goer through the crowd during Fatboy Slim’s set. Not to mention the three people that died at the festival.

The sentiment was that the violence and misogynistic humour aligned particularly with films including Fight Club and American Pie were instilled into the 90 per cent young male attendance and drove them to near-insanity. Although some viewers see this as a flippant remark, it does spark somewhat of a conversation surrounding the question: how much did 90s cinema really contribute to frat boy culture?

I asked Dr.Alice Guilluy, MA Deputy Programme Leader & Screen Theory Tutor at Met Film School London, about the notion of cinema influencing culture. She argues “on the one hand, there is no question that representation matters: being able to see characters similar to you on screen is empowering and inspiring. Look at the incredible reactions of young Black viewers when Black Panther was released in 2018, for example.

“On the other hand, we need to be careful about overstating the power of individual films. I genuinely believe audiences are much cleverer than we give them credit for. In fact, assumptions about audiences’ gullibility are often rooted in classism and sexism: concerns about the power of film on working-class audiences have existed since the birth of the medium.”

Alternatively, Guilluy’s colleague Justin Trefgarne, Programme Leader of BA Screen Acting at Met Film School London, suggests that “popular culture and cinema are in a constant dialogue with each other. There is no question one influences the other and vice versa. Popular films have the power to move us into new states of thinking and being, even for a short time, and that can have far-reaching effects at both an individual and collective level. Likewise, popular culture can also infiltrate movies – whether it’s obvious things like Harry Styles crossing over into films or the way studios like Disney have embraced diversity and inclusion across all of their intellectual property.”

On ‘frat boy’ cinema – in particular Pulp Fiction, Fight Club and American Pie – Trefgarne suggests “it’s hard to lump these films together beyond the fact that they are mostly populated by male characters.” The sense that these films are not necessarily similar in the sense of being a tangible genre is perhaps the point exactly. The elements of these films adopted by frat boy culture are fairly different, and render them slightly separate. The one thing that holds them together is the idea of white masculinity – outlined excellently over the years by Reni Eddo-Lodge – that was at the heart of frat boy culture in the 1990s.

Trefgarne highlights what he sees society took from each of the films: Pulp Fiction, “an appreciation of the peculiar artistry that Tarantino brought to movies”; Fight Club, “a profound warning – and one that very few took seriously at the time” in terms of disconnectedness and a sense of belonging within society; American Pie, “gross-out” comedy offering up some fairly obnoxious behaviour.

But I would argue that the culture it presented had long existed in the real world. So did [American Pie] make things worse? Hard to tell. But it is also a comedy and so anyone who actually thinks these kinds of things are a blueprint for living already has some serious problems.” Of course, it is important to note that, mostly, the films are not to blame, and audiences should be considered to have autonomy, as Dr Guilluy mentioned.

“There’s no question that frat boys still exist, but as a community of more considerate film lovers, most can be trusted to enjoy these films for what they are.”

Frat boy culture seemed to be bolstered by what those partaking in it wanted to draw from certain films. They took inspiration from Vincent Vega and Butch Coolidge; seeing men being violent for a living (as a hitman or prizefighter) gave them something to aspire to in terms of the height of masculinity.

They felt connected enough to Tyler Durden to get carried away replicating certain behaviours of his, such as right-wing extremists starting their own ‘fight clubs’ rather than looking inward and understanding themselves better, and their teenage humour seemed validated by what Jim Levenstein and the gang found hilarious. At a very formative age for this generation of young men, these films supported and moulded them into a particular ideology, but only the parts they wanted to see.

It’s no surprise that we still regularly refer to these films from the 1990s. They tend to be readily available for streaming and are often dissected in the classroom, and as the 90s kids have come of age, their favourite films seem ripe for reappraisal. To be fair to the frat boy generation, American Pie, Fight Club and Pulp Fiction are great films – all three combined made almost $40 million just on opening weekend in the US (according to BoxOfficeMojo), and were each nominated for and won countless awards. But how are they still affecting our culture?

Although not nearly as predatory or ill-meaning as the frat boy, the ‘film bro’ did carry forward the skeleton of its frat boy predecessor into the 2010s, sharing some elements of their film preferences and attitudes taken from frat boy cinema. I spoke to YouTuber Daniel Simpson, AKA Eyebrow Cinema, who suggested that a key component that would draw a film bro in was “movies that were often the introductory texts to adult cinema for teens.”

Arnav Srivastav for High On Films picks up on this point, writing “The American Pie movies are probably every 1990s kid’s first dirty film.” We can pick up that sense of ‘adult’ themes: Pulp Fiction introduces us to everything from hard drugs, to sex, to hyper violence; Fight Club gives a complex reading of the male psyche and consumerism, as well as its own brand of hyper violence; American Pie reflects back to teenagers the dirty, adult humour and graphic, adolescent sex that, before this film was available, these late-’80s babies were yet to indulge in. For teenagers in the late ’90s, these films broke the taboo and opened the door into adulthood, which is perhaps what made them so popular. They’d never been pandered to like this before.

Simpson continues, “I do find it interesting how the term ‘film bro’ can be a sort of albatross to the movies that get hit with that label. I often see very reductive reads of ‘film bro’ movies based less around what the movie is actually doing and more its reputation as a ‘film bro’ movie.”

That “albatross” seems to exist both for ‘film bro’ movies and frat boy films from the 90s, but aside from the odd bit of film Twitter snobbiness, many films of this calibre seem to have stood the test of time. Pretty much the entirety of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, including Pulp Fiction, is still referenced as the height of cinematic sophistication, blending a self-reflective, homage-dependent style with non-linear narratives that excite audiences who are overwhelmed with superhero narratives and neverending prequels and sequels.

Similarly, Fight Club tends to be appreciated for its commentary on consumerism and ahead-of-its-time focus on mental health, rather than a sense of glorifying violence, and while American Pie tends to be looked upon as a product of its time, it’s something audiences can still get a cheap laugh from, albeit from the perspective of a much-improved societal psyche that doesn’t blanket-condone misogyny.

In a way, we are post-frat boy. There’s no question that frat boys, and their ideology, still exist, but as a community of more considerate film lovers, most can be trusted to enjoy these films for what they are, not let them mould and shape our attitudes. Perhaps this was also true at the time, but having gone through so many changes and cultural moments between then and now, the distinction is that, in general, we know the difference between entertainment and instruction a little better.

Surely ’90s cinema will have contributed to frat boy culture somewhat, but the context of the time makes it easy to see why many teenage boys were so easily influenced. Revisiting Viola’s sentiment that the entirety of pop culture was seen through a male lens, and the imagery and attitudes in general surrounding masculinity in the ’90s, there was a bubble surrounding impressionable teenagers that pushed frat boy culture to the fore. The bubble engulfed everyone and everything, often leading to internalised misogyny and. victim-blaming. We’re far from perfect in 2022, but I’d like to think we’re doing much better.

Published 1 Nov 2022

Tags: American Pie Fight Club Pulp Fiction

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