Alpha male epsilon

Although an exact definition remains elusive, most people know a frat boy when they see one. And suddenly, they're seen everywhere.


Andy Dehnart
February 23, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

They're everywhere; we must be obsessed.
Images of XY chromosome
carriers who radiate youth, exuberance,
confidence, sexuality,
athleticism and smugness are all over ads,
TV, movies and politics.
Suddenly, frat boys
are ubiquitous.

Consider the evidence: CBS's new "Late Late
Show" with Craig Kilborn
mines the tension between the host's
vaguely lascivious guy-jokes and
his self-consciousness about his hair. Jude
Law's tan, beautiful Dickie
in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" frolics abroad
with his girlfriend and
newfound male admirer on daddy's dime.
Coke's newest campaign features
a spot about well-toned college boys diving
off a colossal waterfall.
Ben Affleck appears on this month's People,
identified as "part frat
boy," an image that helped him and friend
Matt Damon become
the certified It Pair when "Good Will Hunting" was
released. In Iowa, on caucus
day
, George W. Bush ripped off his jacket,
stuffed his tie into his
shirt and -- confident of his impending
victory -- joined a pick-up
basketball game, high-fiving the kids when
he made a basket. What do
men like Bush and Kilborn have in common?
The same
thing that these images -- from pop culture
and politics, Middle
America and magazines -- have to do with
one other. They're indicators
of our latest national obsession: the frat
boy.

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You can't put people as disparate as Bush
and Kilborn in the same
category without defining the criteria; yet
-- although an exact
definition remains elusive (actual
fraternity affiliation is not a
strict requirement) -- most people know a
frat boy when they see one.

They're the men who can use gobs of hair-care products and fret about
their clothes but still retain their
masculinity and "guyness" in the
eyes of their peers. They can jump into a
pick-up basketball game with
a group of strangers. They can gawk at and
objectify women and still be
considered endearing and cute. Frat boys
take various forms, but what
they all convey is the impression that
comes from the right combination
of physical traits and personality
characteristics: striking good
looks, inexplicable popularity, overt
self-confidence, pervasive charm
and just a hint of self-deprecation.

An air of entitlement or wealth also helps
define a frat boy, as does a
certain proclivity toward aggressiveness.
(That's not to say that frat
boys are all rich, but they probably act
like they're swimming in money.
Nor are they all violent -- that's
unquestionably not the case -- but
unchecked machismo, which they exude in
great quantities, can sometimes
have its downside, from frat house hazing to incidents of
date rape.)

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Does G.W. qualify as a frat boy? Yep. Steve
Forbes? No way. Matthew
McConaughey? Definitely. Jerry Seinfeld?
Nope. And even when it's
obvious, there are degrees of difference.
For example, both of the men
who have hosted Comedy Central's "Daily
Show" (Jon Stewart, the current
host, and Kilborn, who left to take over
"The Late Late Show" from Tom
Synder) give off that frat-boy vibe.
Kilborn, however, is decidedly
more obnoxious; his demeanor is much more
drunk-and-hanging-out-at-the-house.
Stewart's is a more reserved
eating-dinner-with-the-boss-10-years-later
air. Same holds true with
President Clinton and George W.; both frat boys,
but different approaches.
The difference is academic.

So why has this image -- modeled on guys
who exalt in drunken vomiting and nameless
Saturday night conquests -- so captivated
us? It's anyone's guess, really. Maybe it's
an effort to dust off the
"clean-cut" white boy and reinstate him as
the linchpin of our society. Maybe it's
part of a backlash against feminism and the
civil and gay
rights movements. Or maybe we're just
becoming more comfortable with men's sexuality -- we've long fawned over
images of youthful women, now it's the
guy's turn. Whatever the reason, the look
is everywhere.

During the latest season of "The Real
World," MTV's long-running
docu-experiment that features seven captive
cast members "interacting"
in a palatial house, Colin, 19, was, at
first, rejected
from the applicant pool. Later, he was
invited to host the show's
casting special, and his warm personality
and easy banter led the
producers to cast him after all. He showed
up on the first episode of
"The Real World: Hawaii" with a sharper
haircut, better muscle
definition and the attitude that the show
belonged to him. Almost
instantly, he became the season's
heartthrob, capturing the hearts of
male and female fans -- which was odd,
because he was the most
obnoxious of the seven cast members:
arrogant, unctuous, even
malicious.

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But Colin was loved by all -- including the
show's own sorority girl,
Amaya. The two embarked on the first on-screen romance
between cast members in the show's eight-
year history. For a thousand
idiotic reasons, their romance quickly
stumbled, and we were treated to
Colin's dark side. On-camera, he treated
Amaya with equal parts passion
and cruelty (though Amaya wasn't exactly
without responsibility in the
situation), yet Colin came out of the show
blazing. He's undeniably the
most recognizable and lusted after member
of the cast. He has since
appeared as a judge for a televised beauty
pageant and has landed a
role in NBC's forthcoming midseason comedy
"M.Y.O.B."

If you missed "The Real World," you
probably haven't missed Abercrombie & Fitch, so you know
the frat-boy look. The clothing store -- a
step up from the Gap, a step
sideways from Banana Republic -- is the
definitive source of the frat-boy image. That's mostly due to its highly
controversial
catalog/magazine, the Abercrombie & Fitch
Quarterly, which contains
everything from alcoholic-drink recipes to
highly erotic pictures of
men and women in various pairings. The
catalog's male models embody the
image with their perfect abs and sly
smirking grins. The look in their
eyes says without question that they know
you're looking at the photo
with lust or envy but probably both. And
the clothing store knows
you'll cover yourself in A&F gear just to
try to look like the
Adonises gazing out from the photos.

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While clothes definitely contribute to the
image -- just look around
at all the young men wearing button-up,
long-sleeved shirts tucked into
khakis and topped with white baseball caps
-- it's not just clothing or
perfectly proportioned muscles and a strong
jaw line that construct the
image. It's not even always about youth.
You can almost always see the
glints of a former frat boy life in older
men; although the image fades
into baldness and extra padding, the golden
boy at the center of it all
is still there.

At 54, Bush may
be the nation's oldest, most
photographed frat boy, proving that there
are no age limits to the
phenomenon.

While A&F would instantly go out of
business if it plastered its
catalog's pages with boxer-clad Bush and
his friends hanging on each
other, he still has the athleticism -- real
or perceived -- the smarmy,
cocky attitude, the smirk. He pouts when
things go wrong. His parents
apparently clean up his messes. During
debates, when other candidates
ask Bush questions, he answers them as if
his time would be better
spent picking lint off his suit. In short,
G.W. doesn't just expect to
get the nomination and be elected president
-- he knows he'll
get it in the way a beloved, doted-upon
6-year-old knows that Santa
won't stuff his stocking full of coal, no
matter what he's done.

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It doesn't really matter whether a
frat boy has ever pledged a
fraternity or even considered it. In fact,
only a true fraternity boy
could pull off the look without ever having
set foot in a fraternity
house. To be a frat boy one may just need
to conform to a certain
lifestyle, image and behavior. And
"conformity" is the key word. From
kindergarten on,
we feel better, more comfortable, when we're
among others who look, act
and think like us. And when that mold is a
powerful, sexual one like
the frat boy, it's not hard to see why
people flock to A&F and swoon
over Colin.

In 1995, Mark Adams wrote in GQ that being
a frat boy involves more than the look, but
learning a fundamental
"tolerance and commitment" toward other
people and applying that.
"That's why fraternity men make such good
brokers and congressmen," he
wrote, "they already know that in the real
world one has to cut deals
with cretins and idiots, and that you can't
run away from everyone
whose interests and foibles don't jibe with
your own," he
wrote.

In other words, they possess the great gift
of balancing conformist,
self-centered and often thuggish behavior
with their warm
personalities, arresting good looks and
endearing masculinity -- coming
across as honorable, American and even
downright charming. And that may
just explain their broad appeal, because
who doesn't secretly wish they
could do the same?

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Andy Dehnart

Andy Dehnart is a writer living in Chicago.

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