National Lampoon’s raunchy frat house comedy "Animal House," which celebrates its 40th anniversary Saturday, is widely regarded as an all-time great movie. But four decades later, it feels less like a comedy classic and more like a toxic showcase of racism, homophobia and jokes about sexual assault.
There's a clear reason why this movie became an instant favorite: It's hilarious. Spit-your-beer-out funny, even, when Dean Wormer (John Vernon) tells the Delta brothers: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." Or when John "Bluto" Blutarsky (John Belushi) tries to inspire his frat brothers by asking if it was "over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor." (Hint: It very famously was not the Germans who bombed Pearl Harbor.)
Every fraternity on every campus in the country has a guy who looks, sounds and can throw back a handle of Jack Daniels just like Bluto. Many of them still don his generic “College” shirt.
This is a movie widely credited with pioneering the "slobs vs. snobs" genre (making way for "Caddyshack" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," among others) and introducing the toga party to a new generation. It's even been immortalized in the Library of Congress, joining an elite group of film greats like "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind" and "Titanic."
But rewatching it in a time of hyperawareness about issues of sexual abuse, there are a handful of parts that don’t sit well and make appreciating the movie as a whole frustrating and troublesome. There’s a scene where Bluto climbs a ladder to watch a group of sorority girls engage in a half-naked pillow fight. There’s the fact that every woman in the movie exists to have sex with one of the main male characters.
And then there’s the plot where shy freshman Pinto (Tom Hulce) debates taking advantage of the girl he invited to a party after she passes out topless. Theirs is framed to be the most pure love story of the movie — until the punchline reveals that she’s only 13, and jokingly introduces Pinto to her father as “the boy who molested me.”
The final scene features freeze-frames to give a glimpse into the future for each character. Among frat brothers ending up as a sensitivity trainer, gynecologist, public defender or U.S. senator, Greg Marmalard (James Daughton), a member of the rival frat Omega, ends up getting raped in jail. (The underlying joke here is that the sexual assault is funny because it happened to a man.)
Sexual assault is a huge issue on college campuses. The problem here isn’t that it’s a part of the story; plenty of stories include difficult situations as a way to shine a light on how society needs to change. The problem is how it’s a part of the story: The main characters are presented as good people who do harmful things – like rape – without any trace of consequence.
This wasn't a movie meant to be taken seriously, but that's an issue in itself when it comes to toxic young male culture: Things found seriously offensive by some are deemed “just a joke,” and those who find it hurtful are berated for not understanding comedy. Using sexual assault as throwaway humor perpetuates the idea that the destruction these people leave in their path is meaningless simply because they didn’t intend to destroy it.
It’s in the nature of raunchy comedies to touch on taboo subjects. But there’s a stark difference between commenting on a taboo topic in a funny way and using something terrible as the punchline for a character the audience is supposed to hate.
A movie can be funny without suggesting that a guy won’t be accepted to a fraternity because he’s Middle Eastern, or that the cute love story was actually statutory rape or that the ultimate punishment for a male villain is sexual assault.
The hard part of discounting this movie is that so much of it is funny without being harmful. But the era of #MeToo calls for an in-depth shedding of the parts of our culture that make assault seem OK.
By today's standards, "Animal House" would have a tough time getting greenlit by any studio, and would face inevitable wrath on Twitter if it did. That doesn't necessarily mean that we need to ban this movie from being watched ever again, but we do need to become more mindful about the entertainment we consume and be especially cognizant of what it's telling us about acceptable social behaviors. For now, we'll just put "Animal House" on double secret probation.