Fraternity expert Nicholas Syrett and photographer Andrew Moisey gave a joint talk on Feb. 7 about The American Fraternity, an exhibition of Moisey’s work currently on display at the Gund Gallery. The presenters intended to contextualize the exhibition, as well as discuss Moisey’s book of the same name. Syrett also discussed his recent book on the history of white American male fraternities, The Company He Keeps. Moisey is an art history professor at Cornell University and Syrett is the chair of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas.
In The American Fraternity, Moisey documents life in his younger brother’s fraternity house at the University of California, Berkeley. During the talk, he discussed the inspiration for his work: a worn, old book of rituals that he found in an abandoned fraternity house. Syrett used his knowledge of fraternities and masculinity to provide a more academic perspective on the photography, especially its homosexual undertones.
Moisey and Syrett had not met in person before the day of the talk, although Syrett had contributed an essay to the afterword of Moisey’s book.
After the men finished speaking, they opened the floor to audience members for questions, which sparked a lively discussion. Virginia Kane ’22 began by asking Moisey whether he had ever felt compelled to stop incidents that he’d witnessed at his brother’s fraternity house. “I’ve walked a lot of women home,” Moisey responded. He also added that he sees his project itself as a form of Disintervention.
The conversation intensified after Moisey asked, “Why do the women go [to fraternity parties]? … It’s not like the fraternity’s forcing anyone to be there, right? … A lot of women in [The American Fraternity are] trying to cross boundaries that they think that they’d like to cross, without an awareness of just how misinterpreted and dangerous that can actually be.”
After further questioning from the audience, Moisey clarified that he does not believe that the women deserve unfair treatment, but maintained that they had the power to stop fraternity members damaging behavior.
Grace Royster ’19 said that Moisey “walked into a much more feminist environment than I think he realized he was getting into.” She noted the tension, but didn’t take issue with Moisey’s comments. “I think he was genuinely wondering,” she said.
Royster is conducting an independent study on masculinity with the help of Visiting Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Gilda Rodríguez, who also attended the talk. In response to Moisey’s questions, Rodríguez said that there are complex forces at work that compel women to attend fraternity parties, and that it was problematic to hold them responsible. “At certain points, I think that [Moisey] tended to become rather defensive of the fraternity,” she noted.
During the Q&A portion, Moisey also said that it is “really, really, really, really hard” to convince men in fraternity houses to choose responsibility over pleasure.
“I think your definition of fun is very hypermasculine,” Samuel B. Cumming Professor of Psychology Sarah B. Murnen responded. “There are lots of other ways people experience pleasure that don’t have to do with gender roles.”
Rodríguez wondered whether the debate stemmed from a misunderstanding and pointed out that Moisey may not have been endorsing the fraternity brothers’ idea of fun.