There’s a certain kind of group picture you sometimes see in 1970s college yearbooks that greatly appeals to me. Or did until recently.
The window of time for these kinds of shots, in my experience, is narrow. You start to see it emerge in fraternity and residence-hall photos around 1972. And by 1978 or so, its essence had already boiled off; dudes were moving back to sitting in orderly rows, dressing similarly, smiling, and looking at the camera when prompted.
No, these photos radiate a clannish chowder-and-marching-society freakiness, often marked by:
- Avoidance of matching or formal outfits, with a preference instead for clashing, unusual or outlandish clothing
- A refusal to pose formally, and in some cases, a refusal to so much as look at the camera
- Open display of alcohol
- The introduction of unusual props
- And, in general, a single-minded devotion to Doing One’s Own Thing.
Not for them the suits-and-ties poses of their fathers and older brothers. The old rules are for the old guys, they seem to be saying. We may spit a lot, but we don’t polish.
I assume our collection of junior Zonker Harrises picked up this stylistic loosey-goosiness from looking at album covers and pictures in Rolling Stone. (Some of these photos look as if a festival’s worth of rock bands were all posing together backstage, with each cluster of five or six guys trying to out-cool the rest.)
Wherever the influence, they wore it wholeheartedly and without apology.
In my research — admittedly limited and fragmentary — I’ve yet to see a photo of a black fraternity or residence hall, or a sorority of any hue, cutting up this way. It seems to be pretty much a white-guy specialty.
And therein lies the rub.
I’m pretty good at ignoring social trends, but even I’m aware of the #MeToo movement. I’ve learned how easily white masculinity seems to topple over into toxicity, especially in the presence of alcohol.
I had no trouble believing the stories I read about Brett Kavanaugh and his high school classmates. The ones about drinking ’til they ralphed and then coming back the next night sounded kinda familiar, actually.
(I have never tried to sexually assault anybody, nor am I aware of it happening at the high school or college parties I attended, but I would not be stunned to learn that it had. My attention at the time was firmly on the alcohol.)
And so, even Out-Of-Touch Middle-Aged Me can no longer look at these kinds of photos without perceiving a dark side beneath the irreverence.
I don’t believe all these guys were pigs, or that none of them had a sense of decency. Many of them were, and probably still are, better human beings than I am.
But young white men plus alcohol plus old social attitudes no longer equals charming insouciance to me.
I can’t look at ’em without thinking of guys in basements, going farther with semi-comatose girls than they would have gone with sober ones, and then bragging about it later. Or leaving public digs at those young women in the barely coded messages that ran alongside the group photos. (Not to mention other irresponsible behavior that goes with youth and alcohol, like driving drunk. Certainly, nothing about these pictures suggests discipline.)
One of the yearbooks from which these photos are taken includes a picture of an on-campus building with a breathtakingly crude and misogynist banner referring to the school’s biggest football rivalry. Just from seeing that, you can tell the old days were in no way woke.
I guess the point of this is that you no longer get to dictate your own story (if you ever did), and the impression you aim to leave isn’t always the one that lingers.
Or maybe the point is that good taste is timeless. Rows of plain, understated neckties and obedient smiles maybe would have been a better idea after all, however confining it seemed back in the spring of ’75.
Or … maybe I’m on the wrong track and overthinking, and you still find these squads of determinedly ragtag young men wholly charming, and you’re willing to let their foibles pass with time, forgiveness being divine and all that.
Just a couple of years ago I probably would have agreed with you. I can’t manage it quite so well now.