'Goat' Is A Cautionary Tale About Toxic Masculinity

After making the film festival rounds, the independent drama Goatwill be released Sept. 23 in theaters and on demand. The movie stars Ben Schnetzer (Warcraft, Pride) and Nick Jonas as two brothers who attend the same university looking for the college experience they believe themselves entitled to: four years of nonstop partying with only periodic breaks for books and lectures. Schnetzer's Brad, the younger sibling, endures a harrowing ordeal at the beginning of the film that leaves him physically and emotionally bruised, but he barely has time to catch his breath before he's installed in his dorm and swept up in the exhaustive pledge process of Brett's fraternity. Yet the frat's physically demanding and psychologically debilitating hazing techniques impede Brad's recovery and in fact, make matters worse; when his untreated trauma meets an unchecked hazing culture, the consequences are great. Like far too few movies have before, Goat bravely spotlights the way society can fail men by disregarding their emotional needs in favor of celebrating uber-masculine behavior.

Goat is based on a memoir by the real Brad Land, who attended Clemson University and pledged the Kappa Sigma fraternity (the film is set at a fictional college). The humiliating, often dangerous pledge and "Hell Week" duties that Land claims he underwent in and that the film presents in long, unflinching takes would be an endurance and dignity test for a young man in the best of health. For Brad, who is experiencing symptoms that resemble Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they're nothing short of a living nightmare.

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As is all too common, the professional and personal follow-up to Brad's assault in the movie is nil (spoilers ahead!). What he experiences early on in the film — a vicious beating by two strangers who lead him down a dirt road, steal his car, and leave him for dead — is highly traumatic, and there's no question in Schnetzer's performance that Brad is sure he is going to die. Yet while the teen's wounds are patched up by a doctor, Brad never speaks with a mental health professional about the deeper, invisible scars he carries. His parents appear only once in the movie and simply sit across from him silently as they eat their dinner. The first police officer Brad speaks to, meanwhile, addresses Brad using victim-blaming language; Brad and viewers alike are incredulous as the cop explains that a drug deal gone wrong is the only possible explanation for an able-bodied young man to have been so brutally attacked.

The only person in Brad's life who actively tries to help him is his brother, Brett, but he is just as clueless about proper treatment as their parents. His solution is to simply get Brad's mind off of the attack, and what could be more distracting than a nonstop parade of kegs, topless co-eds, and slaps on the back from prospective "brothers for life"? Unfortunately, the path to joining the fraternity is strewn with all sorts of activities that might be triggering for a survivor, such as being blind-folded, duct-taped, and thrown into the back of a van; drinking to excess nightly; and watching your new friend and roommate be locked in a dog cage for a night.

Over and over again in the movie, the brothers contend that these tests are necessary so that these pledges can prove themselves worthy of frat membership. The reward, therefore, is the opportunity to become the task masters for the next class of "goats," aka new members. The fraternity prizes silence and endurance in their men, and brothers are encouraged to put partying over studying, though they expect to go on to lucrative careers after graduation. Brothers should find homophobic hazing rituals funny, and they should never turn down the opportunity to exploit their female classmates. Any show of weakness will be ridiculed, and empty platitudes take the place of actual support. "I love you, man," the president tells Brad over and over again after watching him be degraded for hours.

This would be harmful for any young person, but for the traumatized Brad, it's even more dangerous. The National Center for PTSD says that teens who suffer from PTSD "are more likely than younger children or adults to show impulsive and aggressive behaviors." And while there are moments in Goat when Brad seems disgusted and offended by the hazing rituals in which he and his fellow "goats" are required to participate, that hesitancy typically gives way to chest-beating euphoria when he succeeds at something, exhibiting the manhood he appears to believe he lacked before his assault.

Even worse, the brothers repeatedly tell Brad that nothing like his assault will ever happen again once he's one of them. It's a ridiculous statement that underlines the false belief that men — real men — cannot be victims. The frat's ideas about masculinity leave these young men woefully unprepared for damaging situations, and so victims of assault like Brad aren't given the proper tools to deal with their traumas; rather, they're made to think that inflicting trauma on others is an appropriate coping method. The two men who attack Brad at the beginning of the movie may be extreme examples, but they exhibit all the traits the fraternity likes in its members: a lack of empathy, a wealth of aggression, and the belief that they can simply take whatever it is that they want, no matter the consequences.

And while Goat focuses on Brad's past, each pledge in his class comes to the fraternity with his own set of experiences. Goat leaves the exact details up to the audience to imagine, but also contends that the frat environment would be toxic even to men not suffering from the aftermath of trauma. Brad's roommate and fellow pledge Will, for instance, is determined to get through the hazing to prove something to himself and to the brothers who marked him from the beginning as a loser and a weakling. He will literally do anything to belong, even though these trials are meaningless outside of the university, and the consequences to his actions are severe.

Goat emphasizes the idea that while our culture tends to rightfully focus on masculinity's effects on women, men, too, can suffer as a result of the harmful ideals associated with what it means to be a "real" man. There's a gaping gender divide in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, and men who suffer are, as shown in Goat, too often not given the respect and treatment they warrant. In a study presented by Viren Swami of the University of Westminster titled "Mental Health Literacy of Depression: Gender Differences and Attitudinal Antecedents in a Representative British Sample, respondents read short stories about a person and then described the character's mental state. When the subject of the story was male, respondents of both sexes were less likely to describe the subject as depressed than they were when the subject was female. This bias, the study concluded, encourages men who may be experiencing treatable mental health symptoms to simply "man up" and try to handle it themselves rather than seek help.

As Goat makes all too clear, when the emotional needs of men go ignored, any situation — whether it's being locked all night in a beer and vomit-soaked room or simply being surprised by a backfiring car — can become a mental health minefield. The frat that Brad pledges may intend for its rituals to promote loyalty and a sense of belonging, but instead, they simply harm the pledges in sometimes irreparable ways. According to HazingPrevention.org, the effects of hazing can include alcohol poisoning, depression, and even suicide. Many colleges and universities have anti-hazing rules in place, and all-male fraternities are not the only forms of Greek life to engage in these behaviors. But through its depiction of Brad's frat, Goat makes an unforgettable statement about the hold toxic masculinity can have on young men.

Image: Paramount Pictures