Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Phi Kappa Psi and the year of the movie’s release.
“Alpha Class” (2016) documents the removal of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity from Arizona State University (ASU), and the consequent dismemberment of its legacy, Phi Sigma Kappa for hazing. It is produced and shot by the former members of these two fraternities, and aims to make a case against ASU for suspending both of their organizations, and for being an “institution holding [them] back” from their activities (which are mainly hazing and partying – since ASU had no problem with their philanthropic contributions).
Greek life in “Alpha Class” is described by producer Joe Forte as an essential “real college experience,” and this conviction is echoed by the other members as well. One member, Bobby, presents fraternities as being part of the passage to adulthood. He mentions that his father encouraged him to join a fraternity since he met his wife at a frat house. Greek life and fraternities, as implicated by Bobby’s father, are seen to be places where the foundations of adulthood (like getting married) take place. The theme of greek life being an essential part of the college experience is not unique to “Alpha Class”, and this mentality of greek life being “essential” for college students, in this case, college men, is problematic: since the biggest draw to greek life for all the members remains to be partying and girls. In fact, in their selection process, multiple brothers shared how they chose Phi Kappa Psi because it had the best looking members, which meant that their parties attracted the best looking girls.
“Alpha Class” also normalizes hazing practices. Which is ironic, since they had multiple warnings and their two fraternities were shut down because of hazing. When Phi Kappa Psi is expelled from ASU because of the brother’s terrible hazing practices, the new pledges under these brothers still perform hazing at their new fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa. The brothers do not seek to correct hazing, but to reinforce it, and perpetuate it in Phi Sigma Kappa after it led to the downfall of Phi Kappa Psi, for the sake of “tradition.”
The grueling process of hazing is normalized through language. Hazing is verbally glorified as a passage to brotherhood.
The brothers (when interviewed for “Alpha Class”) ignore and do not criticize the fear tactics and abuse that take place in hazing, but rather reminisce on their experiences as something that everyone in greek life must go through, which is simply untrue.
One member (who experienced and performed hazing) even makes the case that “hazing can be good” because it “teaches respect.” Another said “we have to establish something where we are breaking [the pledges] down. . .honestly on a weekly basis.”
If one breaks this down, this brother justifies hazing because greek life sees all pledges as novice outsiders that do not respect the organization because they have not yet been beaten into fear and submission. “Respect” to these brothers is earned by enduring the most physical and mental abuse you can, including but not limited to: static rooms, drinking vinegar and eating cat food, burning genitals with a hot unknown liquid, bracing the impact of full beer cans, being cut from a pledge line at random, and an assortment of verbal insults that is meant to highlight the “weakness” of these novice pledges. If they do not prove they are “man enough,” they are “balled.”
This highlights the issue of toxic masculinity in fraternities: a pledge only becomes a man, or a brother, by enduring as much abuse as he can and by proving his competence with girls. If he cannot, he is not only “balled” but seen as a “faggot” (this is a term directly from the work). Instead of building up their potential brothers by showing them mutual respect and courtesy, and teaching them to respect and be courteous to others (especially women), members of fraternities seek to beat them into submission with fear tactics that attack their manhood/masculinity.
This kind of initiation-by-fear is frequently used by cult leaders to demonstrate power to their followers. Joe Navarro, a veteran of the FBI where he served on the National Security Division’s Behavioral Analysis Program, says of cult leaders and organizations that “they all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special. . .and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged.” These characteristics are eerily echoed and part of hazing rituals in “Alpha Class.”
However, these are not the only problematic and unjust normalized practices/rhetoric produced in the fraternity setting. Since their indoctrination into greek life is through violence, a culture of permissible violence is proliferated in the fraternity setting. One member of Phi Kappa Psi was involved in a violent attack at a fraternity party, and said “I didn’t wanna sit there on the news and just be like ‘yeah I got stabbed in a fraternity.’ That would just totally kill greek life.”
What is worse is that when the brothers are asked by the president of their second fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa, to be accountable for their actions, they are allowed simply refuse. This teaches the brothers that fist-fighting and drunken disorder is permissible. For example, Bobby is asked to sign a contract by the council which instructs him to stay sober for a certain amount of time and to serve as a security aid for parties since he started a drunken fist fight. Bobby refuses to sign the document, since if he doesn’t follow the guidelines, he can be immediately terminated.
He instead makes a verbal agreement with the council that he does not keep, because it is not binding like that paper contract. This scenario is emblematic of how brothers allow each other to take part in unacceptable behavior by not holding them accountable. This is important, because it also carries into their behavior concerning women: the brothers do not hold each other accountable for respecting women, and instead make it permissible and allowable to objectify and degrade them.
The issue of women and their objectification in this documentary cannot be glossed over. Women in this fraternity culture, are many times depicted as objects, and even used as a form of fraternity currency. In talking about their sexual conquests, many brothers speak about women in terms of their attractiveness and use the 1-10 scale to determine this. More concerning, however, is the function of “date nights:” women in these scenarios are objects for pledges to confirm their place in the brotherhood, and are encouraged with phrases like “don’t be gay.”
According to “Alpha Class,” if you don’t bring “five dates” to a date night party, you’re automatically balled. On “family night,” after the new pledge class is initiated and given “big” brothers, they are rewarded with women – “[the pledges] all get a stripper collectively as a class.” Women and heterosexuality are used as tokens to verify and validate one’s manhood and masculinity – another symptom of toxic masculinity. If they pass the abuse of hazing, they have therefore verified their strength and manhood. The disrespect for women by the brothers, however, is worse in the case of sex workers. One of the “bigs” asked two of the strippers/dancers if they wanted to have sex with him, and when one said no he was angry and kicked her out of the party. He felt entitled to her, and disrespected her profession because she did not give him sex. Other comments regarding strippers at the party were “this girl is a whore,” and “we don’t have a lot of rules [regarding behavior toward the strippers]. Just don’t do anything fucked up.”
And all this debauchery is justified by philanthropy – which, as shown in “Alpha Class,” is really surface level community service that focuses on small, pop-up events rather than operating on continual service and sustainable help. The big “philanthropy” in “Alpha Class” was throwing a free Halloween trick or treat party at the fraternity’s apartment complex for their local Boys and Girls Club. While they seem passionate about service, and are arguably the right group to throw a party, setting the bar for more impactful and long-lasting service projects would be of bigger service to their community.
I did my best to watch “Alpha Class” with an open mind: while greek life is not an aspect of the college experience that I support, I still wanted to give this documentary a chance, despite all the reasons not to. However, “Alpha Class” not only confirmed, but verified my belief: greek life, specifically fraternities, are extremely problematic, misogynistic institutions run on groupthink and justified by un-impactful and momentary philanthropy.
Because of this, it is important to pay attention to and to criticize these institutions, since they provide and create male-dominated spaces that operate on principles of abuse/hazing, toxic masculinity, and misogyny. In other words, fraternities provide spaces and platforms for not only debauchery, but extremely problematic language and behavior.
“Alpha Class,” however problematic, is still an important film for seeing the reality of greek life: the footage is unapologetically real, and generally not selective. This is it’s greatest strength, and an important one to note, since the documentary has received a few bad reviews.
While the footage lacks criticism from the brothers/former members on fraternity culture and the current state of greek life, it is still an important text for seeing how hazing and toxic fraternity culture are normalized and proliferated.
Alpha Class is currently available on Amazon Instant Video for streaming, and is currently free for Amazon Prime members.
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