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Blue Mountain State camps out on the line between irony and sexism

This week brought the release of Blue Mountain State: The Rise Of Thadland, a film based on the Spike TV series Blue Mountain State, which ended in 2011. The little-seen but much-beloved show now celebrates a triumphant Kickstarter campaign by giving its devotees the movie they’ve been waiting several years to see. Detailing the goings-on at a fictional university that boasts one of the top football teams in the country, it brings back good-natured protagonist Alex Moran (Darin Brooks), lunkheaded team captain Thad Castle (Alan Ritchson), blustering coach Marty Daniels (Ed Marinaro), and excruciatingly obnoxious team mascot Sammy Cacciatore (Chris Romano). Around them swirl a rotating roster of other players and—not to put too fine a point on it—an endless parade of interchangeable and scantily clad women. For fans, this was great news. But for others, this announcement was probably greeted with a sigh of dismay. Because when it comes to shows that glorify the reactionary and misogynistic behavior of frat-bro culture, Blue Mountain State is the alpha and omega. Its values are appalling—at least on the surface, and possibly to its core. Here are two ways of looking at it:

Argument #1: Blue Mountain State is a reprehensible show that evinces a view of women slightly less enlightened than that of Tom Cruise in Magnolia. It makes heroes out of the kind of nauseating dudebro jock monstrosities that populate college campuses, before graduating them into an equally retrograde pro football culture. BMS plays like a show designed by finger-tenting Wall Street assholes who think nothing of expensing the prostitutes they’ve hired to eat sushi off of before a night of midget bowling. Imagine Revenge Of The Nerds, only you’re supposed to root for the bad guys.

Argument #2: Blue Mountain State lampoons a clueless fratboy culture, one that has passed through a looking glass of absurdity and takes place in an cartoonish exaggeration of our own universe. It highlights the idiocy of male behavior and suggests, David Brent-style, that these men will always live in a stupider, reduced version of reality. Most importantly, it openly acknowledges its status as a parody of reality: It’s an over-the-top performance of maleness, which essentially makes it camp.

These arguments are in conflict, but neither is necessarily wrong. Conflicting interpretations of art and entertainment are a given, but at a certain point—especially once political opinions come into the mix—we’re no longer so willing to grant an opposing point of view the same validity permitted by a degree of cultural relativism. We tend to single out those we think are valuing something from a retrograde or politically dangerous place and tell them, “You’re doing it wrong.” Whether it’s the insecure married men who walked out of American Beauty feeling validated that the problem in their own lives wasn’t them, but rather their hen-pecking wives, or the homophobic and racist Nirvana fans that Kurt Cobain eventually told to “fuck off” in the liner notes to Incesticide, the idea that people could be taking away the “wrong thing” from a cultural artifact we value is upsetting. It suggests that something we hold dear is being misused. When Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello said that Paul Ryan was clueless about his band—despite the politician listing them as one of his favorite musical acts—he was voicing the frustration of anyone who has seen their favorite art appropriated for something they oppose.

You may think this merely sounds like another fratty jock sausage fest that deals in tired and boorish treatment of women, à la Entourage. It is not. Blue Mountain State is misogyny on amphetamine—and not the medical kind, but the dirty trucker speed that leads to Florida residents eating other peoples’ faces off. But that gonzo sexism is what pushes it over the top, taking the offensiveness to a reductio ad absurdum that makes it seem laughable, like a 10-year-old boy’s idea of what it would be like to party in college. The opening credits convey all of this rather well.

But the show, for all its horrific surface-level gender (and racial) politics, is also campy as hell. It acts out the concept of sexist, entitled college-age man-children with such smiling bravado and hollow soul, it goes over the top and becomes a parody of that same culture, whether the show intended that to be the case or not.

Except, for a large percentage of its fan base, that’s not what’s happening at all. To many of the collegiate kids who embrace it, it’s just a rah-rah celebration of playing sports, screwing anonymous girls, and partying as hard as you can. The characters are heroes, not jokes. And the question of how it can be both at once—of whether it’s even acceptable to find enjoyment in a show that treats women like diapers to be used and thrown away—gets at the very heart of both the idea of camp and the question of political entertainment.

On one level, all art and entertainment is political, and it’s often easy to get a sense of the ideology at work behind movies, music, and television. But there also can be a sense that pop culture which conforms to a different set of political standards than our own is failing in some way. (“Problematic” is the preferred nom de label.) This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with such critiques. Indeed, they’re an invaluable method of assessing a work, as well as a necessity for pushing culture forward, and challenging outdated, offensive views. But the idea that a TV show is wrong if it doesn’t line up with a particular set of political beliefs bespeaks a lack of respect for the cultural pluralism that makes progressive change possible. And more importantly in this case, it evacuates the possibility of camp. Which, given camp’s historical value as a means for traditionally marginalized groups to read themselves into dominant narratives, is a mistake.

Polarizing entertainment—especially television, which captures of-the-moment social issues with a speed rarely afforded film or literature—lends itself to a rhetorical tug-of-war, in which the intentions of its creators matter less than how the end product is received. BMS is only the latest in a series of televised entertainment meant to display over-the-top machismo and a culture that rewards it. Like Entourage or The Man Show, it’s a product of a social context that New Yorker writer Ariel Levy has termed “raunch culture.” For Levy, this is a new culture in which women are not only encouraged to think of their sexuality as a performance, but to see it as the empowered outcome of feminist struggle, one in which they are equal participants. In short, by seizing control of your own sexual identity and exploiting it before others do (read: men), woman can see themselves as participating in a liberating rebellion against rigid gender codes.

For Levy, this ideology is more of a striking conformity, in which women not only subjugate themselves to the same old sexist social norms as before, but are taught they should like it—that they should embrace it as some potent statement of their own power. Hence the existence of things like Girls Gone Wild, or The Chive: Young women are only too happy to bare themselves for free, because behavior formerly seen as degrading has been recontextualized. They own their sexuality; they’re just being “one of the guys.” Or, to quote a Reddit thread headline: “I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like boobs, even if they are a female or gay, everyone loves boobs.” If everyone’s on board, the thinking goes, surely there’s nothing wrong with it. This, to Levy, is what makes it so insidious.

Complicating this picture is yet another history: the role of camp in popular entertainment. Art that’s routinely seen by the mainstream as offensive or trashy can be understood through a very different perspective by filtering it through a subcultural lens. Russ Meyers may have indeed loved boobs, but films like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! have been appropriated by cult audiences as feminist cinema. Reading between the lines has long been a tactic for queer interpretations of culture (Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet is the most famous historical account of these practices), and supposed “trash” is often the beneficiary of this counterintuitive perspective. John Waters, America’s reigning king of cinematic camp, is far from alone in having his works celebrated by the very cultures that mass media first assumed he was disparaging. Mainstream commentators have roundly criticized just about every film by the brilliantly subversive Paul Verhoeven, only for his works to be retroactively recognized as biting satire, excessive camp, or simply parodic undermining of the ideas they espouse on the surface.

Darin Brooks and Alan Ritchson

And that interplay with camp appropriation is what makes engagement with raunch culture entertainment so difficult to critique. It’s hard to say where trash like Girls Gone Wild ends and absurdism like Blue Mountain State begins. Because ultimately, Levy’s argument requires you to assume women who love and participate in websites like The Chive are laboring under a form of false consciousness. In other words, they’re fooling themselves if they think there’s anything emancipatory or worthwhile about supposedly being “in on the joke.” It’s not so different from progressives who find themselves thinking that working-class citizens who support far-right corporatist candidates must not be very smart, or clueless about the actual policies involved. In thinking this, there’s a refusal to acknowledge that other things might be more important to such citizens, like rolling back abortion rights, say, or imposing harsh immigration policies. That’s not to say there can’t be an element of truth to this “they’re just misguided” view—you can’t reason someone out of a position they haven’t reasoned themselves into—but it puts critics in the potentially condescending position of claiming that these supporters don’t know what they’re really doing. It’s a demeaning argument that is all too familiar to women and minorities.

For comparison, consider the way that many queer and feminist thinkers watched The Man Show, Comedy Central’s celebration of boorish male behavior that starred Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla. Many read it as a campy and gleeful absurdity—men performing a ridiculous parodic version of men, in short—and enjoyed it for the over-the-top histrionics and smart writing contained therein. Only a fool, this line of thinking goes, could watch a show that ends every episode with women on trampolines and not treat it as a campy joke. Conversely, you can see it the way many loyal viewers did: As a celebration of beer-swilling, girl-ogling misogyny, the embodiment of a mentality meant to be lauded by its viewers. It’s not gender performance so much as gender blackface. In this reading, you’re either horrified by it, or you’re a happy and willing participant of the raunch culture in which it traffics.

However you choose to view Blue Mountain State, the crucial aspect of a genuine engagement with the show and film is to be aware of its broader social context. When others choose to find pleasure or transgressive value in a program that appears prima facie reprehensible or puerile, there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had about how to read it. The audience is not the art. Kelly Clarkson’s Bible-thumping fan base doesn’t make up her identity, and frat bro viewers don’t define Blue Mountain State. But those who do enjoy it ironically can’t discount the common real-world reception of the program at face value, because misogyny is too prevalent in our society to dismiss concerns that the show contributes to such toxicity. Put simply, if Dave Chappelle can walk away from a $50 million deal because he’s worried about his work being appropriated by racists, audiences can at least make the effort to interrogate the pop culture they love.

The show has smart writers and directors behind the scenes, a number of whom have gone on to create more widely beloved pop culture. And some of the men who embody these gross male archetypes are talented actors. Alan Ritchson, whose earnest idiot performance is the epitome of camp, is certainly aware of the strange place such entertainment holds in culture. In a recent interview, the actor pointed out the awkward nature of such engagement. Ritchson says that “hundreds of girls” have approached him and begged him to call them a “sloot”—his character’s mispronounced use of the term “slut”: “They’ll be like ‘Oh my God! Are you Thad Castle? Please call me a sloot!’ I’ll be standing there with one of my infants and I’ll be like ‘Sloot? Okay… uh… You’re a sloot.’” Ariel Levy might be right—these are female fans wanting to be “in on the joke.” But it’s also possible these are women who see the show from a different perspective: as a silly program in which the clueless male heroes never think to bring women in on the joke, because the boys don’t realize the joke is on them. Camp scrambles accepted interpretations of entertainment. That’s the source of its beauty—and its difficulty.