I grew up in a quiet middle class suburb in Northeast Ohio. My parents weren’t overly protective or strict, but I had enough rules to keep me home at a reasonable hour and out of the places I shouldn’t have been (for the most part). So up until my senior year of high school, the only things I knew about ragers, college, and fraternities I learned from watching ’80s, ’90s, and early aughts party movies. Eventually I came of age and experience these things first hand. Things clearly weren’t just how they portrayed them on screen, but here’s what each decade got right and wrong about life on campus.
I was born in the late ’80s, but wasn’t in tune with the decade’s fine cinema until I was old enough to appreciate the films via daytime Comedy Central. When you are stuck at home all summer long, too young to drive, and too lazy to go outside, you watch movies like Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and Fast Times at Ridgemont High on an endless cable TV loop. On the surface, these films are feel good comedies jam packed with coming of age tales. Under the surface, this entire decade was one long coke fueled pastel blowout.
The one thing an eager 18 year old me was really excited for when I got to college was the endless and gratuitous frontal nudity. I don’t know if the FCC loosened the reins on toplessness in the ’80s, but all the best movies are chock-full of bare, naked ladies. And I’m not just talking about the party movies. I’m talking about everything from rom-coms to horror films. Boobs. Everywhere. I’m not saying I didn’t end up seeing my fair share of exposed mammaries, but it was nothing like the movies I had grown to love.
The American Dream is alive and thriving. College is the great equalizer. It is a chance to reinvent yourself in a whole new place. It doesn’t matter who you were in high school, you can be anyone you want to be in College. Dorks, Nerds, Geeks, Betas and anyone else who didn’t quite fit in can remake themselves and find their niche in a countless number of communities and subcultures. The ’80s were all about the zero becoming the hero, different worlds and cultures colliding, and putting aside differences in the name of getting straight gurked.
In the 90s we see a sharp decline of “R” rated movies. I don’t know if it was regulations or religious influence, but the F word and boobs went right out the window. They were replaced with curbed sexual innuendos and plots focused on romance and life lessons. Though there were far fewer boner-inducing scenes, there was plenty to learn from this decade’s films. For reference, see Can’t Hardly Wait, PCU, Dazed and Confused, American Pie, Ten Things I Hate About You, etc.
The “good guy” doesn’t always get the girl. If there is one thing this decade of film indulges way too often, it’s underdog romance. I’m all for a good old fashion happy ending, but that’s not generally how things turn out in the real world. These movies set up an entire generation of awkward teens for the worst heartbreak they will ever endure. It’s gonna take more than a handwritten letter to win over Jennifer Love Hewitt’s heart, chump.
College is a time to explore yourself. Living out your four years to the fullest is going to mean different things to different people. Having a significant other during your time in college works out really well for some. For others, it ruins the entire experience and ushers them into an unwavering hellscape. There is one universal truth most of these movies dispense: mistakes and poor choices lead to life lessons, amazing stories, and unbreakable bonds of friendship.
Here we find the return of raunch in party and college movies. Nudity, drug and alcohol abuse, hazing, and everything else you would come to expect from the glorification of the college experience. By the time this decade hit its stride in the late 2000s, I was deep in the college thicket, but that didn’t mean I didn’t pick up a thing or two. For reference, watch Old School, Van Wilder, Accepted, Superbad, Orange County, etc.
Not all frat guys drive BMWs, sleep on trust funds, study pre-law/med, and generally want to see everyone who isn’t in their frat suffer via a series of diabolical schemes. Many of these films paint fraternities and their members with pretty broad strokes. They are uptight, vindictive, shallow, and generally impotent closeted homosexuals. Maybe it’s unreasonable to attempt to drum up sympathy for a demographic that has brandished its fair share of cartoon-like headlines. But don’t put us all in the same unflattering box, Hollywood.
These truly are “The good old days.” This is the high-water mark. You spend your time in high school dreaming about your college years. Then you spend the rest of your life pining for the days with few responsibilities and even fewer moral standards. I’m not saying you won’t go on to do fulfilling and enjoyable things after college, I’m simply saying they will all be a different kind of fulfilling and enjoyable. Old School has a funny premise until you’re 28 and you genuinely start asking yourself, “could we really do this in real life?” The 2000s focused on early ’20s being one of life’s great “sweet-spots,” and they weren’t wrong.
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