Under the Influence

A popular course examines the impact of the media on student alcohol use and abuse.

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

The class is called Drunk on Film. Course number 30635. Subtitled: The Psychology of Storytelling with Alcohol and Its Effects on Alcohol Consumption. It is offered through the departments of psychology and film, television and theatre (FTT). It meets once a week for two and a half hours. Via Zoom. Almost 300 students signed up for the course this spring semester.

Students write reflection papers, keep journals, give oral presentations, produce a final paper and get graded on class participation. They discuss assigned readings and watch a lot of films and film clips and alcohol commercials; they see videos of TED talks and other speakers discussing the alcohol industry, the billions of dollars spent on advertising aimed at college students, the damage that alcohol inflicts on their bodies and their brains; they learn exactly what various media do to make drinking the toxic ethanol so appealing.

“Alcohol Use Disorder is a chronic relapsing brain disease,” says the syllabus. “But when presented on screen, it’s entertainment.”

The class is taught by Ted Mandell ’86 from FTT, who says the fact that his three high schoolers would soon be entering college got him thinking more personally a few years ago about the college drinking scene. Having taught here for three decades, he says he had a pretty good sense of student drinking behavior — based in part on student documentaries.

Anré Venter ’94M.A., ’96Ph.D. is a Notre Dame social psychologist interested in the self and storytelling. Around the same time Mandell approached him about co-teaching the class a couple of years ago, Venter recalls overhearing several students talking about their weekend escapades. The female student explained that it wasn’t “the sober me” who did that; it was “the drunk me.” Venter found it interesting that she thought in terms of two selves.

The strategy is for students to gain a better grasp of the storytelling techniques that films use to depict alcohol use and abuse, the ways these presentations shape attitudes and behaviors and the psychological processes that lead to those attitudes and behaviors. In essence, the class shows students how advertisers, filmmakers and profit-driven industries seduce them into thinking that excessive alcohol consumption is a normal, desirable component of college life.

Drunken partying, Mandell will tell you, is certainly not unique to Notre Dame. It is part of American college life. Still, there are deep and serious concerns that need to be discussed in educational communities — and he believes Notre Dame is a very good place to examine this culture and the forces that help create it. While the University has resources, programming and counseling to address this perilous aspect of student life, the two professors’ academic approach to understanding the big business of selling intoxication expands the meaning of “under the influence.” By analyzing the stories told in film and on television aimed at younger consumers, Mandell and Venter are asking students: Do you see what is happening to you?           

Twenty-five faces, including Mandell’s and Venter’s, appear in the little boxes of a Zoom grid on a computer screen. The students are casually, unassumingly settled into their dorm rooms and apartments. Mandell says the discussions are aided and enhanced by the impersonal nature of the Zoom format as well as the heightened comfort students feel when alone in their own surroundings. Mandell leads the class; Venter asks questions, proposes insights, monitors the constantly running chat — “the jam board” — takes real-time surveys and reports the results. Mandell plays three or four clips per class. Feature-length films — Trainwreck, Young Adult, The Hunting Ground, Smashed, Drinking Buddies, Animal House — are required viewing outside of class. Not all glamorize drinking; see The Way Back and Manchester by the Sea.

Mostly the students talk, tell stories, relay experiences, share their opinions. As students speak, their faces appear on the primary screen, with the others a quick scroll away. Venter calls out students who turn off their cameras and go dark. Quick quizzes ensure attendance.

For now, there is a discussion of the expectation to drink: With everyone else going out, they say, the alternative is usually staying home alone, knowing that going out means drinking. Venter asks if it’s possible to have fun without drinking. Students say they go out to drink, drinking is fun. Mandell asks if you can have fun going out, but not drinking, if all your friends are drinking. Venter asks whether, in those circumstances when you are sober, your friends are as funny as they think they are.

Venter says he notices that the word “stress” keeps appearing in the chat. A student says she and her friends work really hard, so they drink hard. Others cite FOMO — the fear of missing out. Drinking, most agree, is a form of social bonding. Venter asks whether they also don’t want to be left out of a good story . . . because bad drinking nights often become good nights in Monday’s storytelling. A male student laughs about the time his friend got his nose bloodied. 

The documentary shows how pervasive are such ads, how wedded is alcohol to America’s sports industry, how alluring is the lifestyle being depicted.

Students acknowledge the peer pressure to drink. And the peer pressure of “Dis-O” — for Disorientation, those unofficial dorm-bonding traditions, actively discouraged by residence hall staff, in which first-year students get pulled into the Notre Dame drinking culture at the beginning of the fall semester when they’re new and uncertain of themselves and trying to fit in. Drinking is the easy path. It’s an acculturation thing. One student tells about going to his girlfriend’s home for dinner and the parents pushing drinks; another talks about tailgaters where alumni are freely passing out drinks to underage students.

Excessive drinking is so normalized; but what is “normal”? Mandell, days before, had described “the extreme level of binge drinking” as “10 drinks a night, three nights a week.” There is talk of drinking fast “to catch up to others,” and how much is consumed — always more than the drinker thinks — and then a video that explains brain chemistry and alcohol’s effects on people with words like dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, adrenaline and neurotoxin. Alcohol as poison.

Some students talk about what it’s like not to drink. Fish out of water. Another emphasizes the need to stand up to peer pressure, that drinking doesn’t line up with his goals and values; a person, he says, is “the accumulation of the people around you.” The implication is clear. Venter adds, “It’s good to be comfortable in your own skin.”

Mandell launched the class in 2020, with 25 students. This spring semester, with Mandell and Venter trying to limit the class size to 48, some 284 students enrolled. It was too popular — and important — to turn any of them away. Some think it should be a requirement. “We are cultivating addiction,” Mandell says, explaining his rationale for applying three decades of film study to this unique venture. He and Venter have adapted the curriculum for high school teachers. When Venter does an in-class poll, more than half the students say they had their first drink by their sophomore year of high school. It is difficult, says Mandell, to enter college and not get swept into the drinking culture — but it’s a new kind of drinking culture.

Students always drank; the drinking these days — say Mandell, Venter and others — is more intentional. At one time, students went to bars to socialize, to hang out, to be with friends and drink. Eventually, the drinking had its predictable impacts, its expected repercussions. But the purpose wasn’t to go out and get drunk, says Venter. Some, if not many, or most, students now say they get drunk so they can have fun, as if they can’t have fun without being drunk. So they down shots to get started, sometimes before going out. As in “pregame.”

Mandell cues a 20-minute sequence from Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse, a documentary by media scholar Sut Jhally. The clip deals with commercials pushing alcohol — groups of laughing, dancing friends, bikini-clad women and buff men standing around swimming pools and beachside campfires, festive bar scenes and party-filled living rooms. It’s all good. The documentary shows how pervasive are such ads, how wedded is alcohol to America’s sports industry, how alluring is the lifestyle being depicted.

Do you see what is being sold here? Mandell asks. It’s not the product, he points out, it’s good friends and community — made possible because everyone is holding a drink. It’s belonging to a group and finding happy camaraderie. And it’s romance and sex. The commercials sell dreams, a fantasy. Maybe this night will be a good night, despite all the previous bad nights. The question is posed: Do you think drinking makes you more desirable, more seductive? We are all subconsciously processing ads over and over, Venter says, being shaped by stories in which “the narrative truth” is very often “far from the truth.”

A week later the class reviews clips from a couple of movies — The Edge of Seventeen and The Kissing Booth, a Netflix production that became its most-watched movie in 2018. One is more realistic, a student observes, the other is a fantasy.

In The Edge of Seventeen, a pair of teenage girls have the typically spacious, suburban, parentless house to themselves, so they drink and dance and sing and drink. It’s all fun — until one girl is holding her friend’s hair while she hugs the toilet. The worst thing, she says, is that she will have to spend the rest of her life with herself. The class discussion moves in several directions: that alcohol numbs you to the problems of living with yourself, that it provides a short-term solution to long-term issues, that the scene is a bonding moment familiar to female students, and that, while both girls drank the same amount, one is clearly more wasted than her caretaking friend. So that the ability to hold one’s alcohol is a subtle signal of a character’s maturity — or a bridge to maturity, says one student.

Despite their sterling credentials, Notre Dame students have unhealthy levels of stress and social anxiety, the psychologist says. They’re afraid of being judged. They feel freer when drinking.      

In the scene from The Kissing Booth, the film’s “nice girl” lead soars out of character by impulsively drinking — lots — at a raucous teen bash. Emboldened by partygoers chanting, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” she throws back a succession of shots, flees her inhibitions and dances on a table — to cheers — stripping down to her underwear and dancing provocatively while boys laugh and take pictures. She wakes in a strange bed the next morning, wearing only a football jersey and her underpants. She watches the movie’s main male heartthrob — clad in a towel, low beneath a sculpted torso — striding around the bedroom. It is not as suspected; he says he slept elsewhere.

The woman, says Mandell, starting the discussion, “is out-of-control drunk,” while the male is her “sober protector and white knight.” He notes the objectification of the body, and how the “morning after” scene is played comedically. His mother knocks at the bedroom door, the two scramble and end up rolling around on the floor together. There is no hangover, no sickness, the students observe, and no consequences to her behavior. It’s OK to be “blackout drunk”; she got what she wanted — into the arms of her schoolgirl crush. Venter points out that college students may see through all this, but not younger teenagers — the film’s primary target audience. The media, he says, are pushing a fantasy, but the same narrative may be playing in your mind when you go out and think about hooking up.

The textbook for Drunk on Film is Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker. It is a raw, readable, very open account of the author’s drinking life, an explication of alcohol’s damaging consequences and the road she has taken toward recovery. When published in 2019, the bestseller sent Whitaker on a tour of network talk shows that included a stop at Notre Dame, where she and Mandell shared the stage. She now sits in on classes. 

“Drunk on Film is probably the most ingenious ‘recovery-related thing’ I’ve been a part of,” she wrote on her online newsletter, “if only because it simply gave information to people who are in the absolute thick of developing lifetime drinking patterns, and allowed for a completely non-judgmental conversation around personal drinking habits.” Mandell and Venter, she writes, guide students “through extremely complicated, sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking conversations around alcohol.”

Her January 30, 2022, posting on Recovering continued, “There is no ‘don’t drink!’ message imparted; there is no shaming for the twenty beers a student might drink on a Saturday; there is no controlling the conversation or assertion of right vs. wrong; no morality play,” only a “compassionate, non-judgmental, ‘here is the info, do with it what you will’ forum.” The result, she writes, is that “a lot (and I mean a lot) of students end up changing their drinking habits.”

Adam El-Hajj did not change his drinking habits because of the class. The senior from Lebanon is a nondrinker. But, alarmed by the drinking culture he found on campus, the neuroscience and entrepreneurship student was interested in learning about why people drink, what alcohol companies do to encourage it and how alcohol consumption affects behavior. The best part, he says, were the class discussions with so many students contributing.

“We want students to think about their relationship with alcohol,” says Venter, “and to see what’s happening, why they do what they do.” It’s partly the culture and the narratives being pushed, the media manipulations, the peer pressures and expectations of partying in college. Despite their sterling credentials, Notre Dame students have unhealthy levels of stress and social anxiety, the psychologist says. They’re afraid of being judged. They feel freer when drinking.

Excessive alcohol consumption, says Mandell, “is not a Notre Dame problem. It is a universal college problem. But we should be the ones talking about it.”

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine