In this week’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne return to stave off impending suburban oldness with a new baby and a new house while Zac Efron and his impeccable abs are also back to reexamine the tender fragility of modern hypermasculinity. But it’s Selena Gomez, pop princess of the new millennium, who’s the messenger of hard truths.
In The Big Short, she explained to America how betting on synthetic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) amplified the disastrous subprime mortgage crisis. And in Neighbors 2, the “Hands To Myself” singer turns in another brief but pointed cameo to inform us that across the college campuses of this great nation, women still lack a basic freedom afforded to generations upon generations of keg-standing, high-fiving frat bros: sorority girls don’t have the equal right to party.
Director Nicholas Stoller, like Oscar-winning Big Short helmer Adam McKay, knows that when Selena Gomez speaks, a nation will listen. “In the United States, sororities are not allowed to throw parties in their own houses,” Gomez lectures a roomful of freshman pledges as the prim and ultra-feminine leader of the hottest sorority on campus. “Only frats can.”
It’s a matter-of-fact reality of Greek life that most girls in the movie seem to accept. Except one named Shelby, played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Shelby nearly chokes on the joint she’s puffing on when she hears the news, then decides to start her own independent sorority with a gang of misfit girls to fight the system (and launch the plot). She’s got a real salient point. Why can’t college girls party just like the boys?
Well, because they can’t drink in their own houses. That in itself will come as a surprise to many, although it’s become an increasingly heated issue in the Greek world in recent years. Even Rogen and co-writer/producer Evan Goldberg were shocked to learn that American sororities can’t throw the same kinds of parties as their male counterparts.
“When we started researching how sororities work, we were shocked at how sexist the system was,” Goldberg explained while promoting Neighbors 2. “Seth and I are from Canada and assumed that they threw parties just like the frats did.”
In real life, the 26 member sororities governed by the National Panhellenic Conference indeed forbid drinking in sorority houses as a rule. No alcohol means no hosting of house parties on par with the fraternities. The problem is, that puts all the power in the hands of male-run social events on campuses across the country. Sororities can host parties, technically speaking—but they either have to co-host them with fraternities, or hire a third-party vendor in order to do so. Which means they require either male permission or outside help to throw their own parties.
But the rule is neither a legal requirement nor a mandatory mandate, according to the people who govern the sororities of America. Dani Weatherford, the Executive Director of the National Panhellenic Conference, explains that the no alcohol rule is one voluntarily adopted by the organization’s individual sororities.
“Our member organizations have each made a commitment to provide substance-free housing, but chapters regularly host social functions, sometimes elsewhere on campus or at venues off-campus,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “The key difference is that our members look to provide third-party vendors for alcohol as at least one key way to make sure they’re creating a safe environment. While we don’t expect our members to abstain from alcohol, our member organizations do want to create an environment where they learn to drink responsibly and safely.”
The net result, some argue, sends sorority members seeking social interactions in unsafe environments. “It pushes us into the fraternities,” University of Michigan student and sorority resident Martha McKinnon told The New York Times last year in an article suggesting that allowing sororities to host house parties might counteract the campus rape epidemic. “The whole social scene is embedded in the fraternity house, and makes us dependent on them. I find this a dangerous scenario.”
But it’s not just the parties that the young women of Kappa Nu in Neighbors 2 are fighting to upend, but a massive tidal shift in Greek culture that reinforces gender stereotypes, misogynist power structures, and rape culture.
A 2007 Department of Justice study on campus sexual assault found that “a surprisingly large number of respondents” had been attacked at parties. Eighty-nine percent of those raped while incapacitated had been drinking alcohol; 82 percent of those raped while incapacitated said they had been drunk; and more than 25 percent of those assaulted while incapacitated “reported that the assailant was a fraternity member at the time of the incident.”
While campus rape is not specifically addressed in the film, Shelby and her friends visit a typical frat party and discover that it’s designed to cater to the sexual gratification of the fraternity by preying on young coeds. There, other scantily clad young women are eagerly subjecting themselves to the horny gaze of leering douchebros simply because that’s the social expectation. It is, as co-star Kiersey Clemons’ sex-positive Beth notes, “super rapey”—not really a punchline, but it lands nonetheless.
There’s some beauty in the fact that within the confines of an R-rated studio comedy sequel, the battle for gender equality in America is embodied by a group of college students flinging their bloody tampons at Seth Rogen. That’s over the line, Efron’s Teddy admonishes as he mentors Moretz and her crew, but it makes its point. Young women want and deserve places of their own to explore, feel safe, form bonds, and yes—also drink, do drugs, and have sex, on their own terms. Who’s to tell them how they negotiate the terms of their own independence?
According to Weatherford of the NPC, it’s not where sororities party that makes the difference—but how.
“The efforts needed to create safe campuses and battle sexual assault are fundamental, regardless of the location of a party,” she said. “The key is to change behavior, to put in place programs—like bystander intervention initiatives—that help prevent sexual violence, and then to make sure that victims of sexual violence are supported.”