Course explores the psychology of alcohol culture in media
Reyna Lim | Monday, March 21, 2022
Spring 2020 marked the introduction of a new Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) and psychology course “Drunk on Film: The Psychology of Storytelling with Alcohol and its Effects on Alcohol Consumption.” Currently in its fifth semester, the course has become increasingly popular among students of all majors for its uniquely intriguing content and takeaways.
The course is co-taught by FTT professor Ted Mandell and psychology professor Anré Venter. Combining the studies of film and psychology, it is an integration course many students seek to add to their curriculum.
The course encourages students to question the culture of alcohol consumption, specifically the ways it is cultivated through media such as film.
Venter said the goal of the course is not to tell students not to drink but rather to encourage them to question how they are drinking and why.
“So the big question is, ‘Why do students drink the way that they do?’” Mandell said. “The story we’ve been sold since we were kids in Disney films or Budweiser ads is that drinking is all about community and that it brings you friends, romance, sex, status.”
Venter said students are asked to think about the effects of media and discuss how alcohol is present even in the movies we watch earliest in life.
“Take ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ when Gaston gets turned down by Belle, he gets drunk. Many people don’t remember this scene,” Venter said. “We make the mistake that if we don’t remember such media from our childhood, it won’t shape our attitude when, in reality, it all does.”
Students in the course watch around 20 movies and read “Quit Like a Woman” by Holly Whitaker, a book that looks at today’s drinking culture and the road to quitting addiction. When Mandell and Venter reached out to Whitaker regarding their course and her book, she gave full support.
Venter pointed out the psychological perspective on the matter, highlighting how storytelling is a very important social phenomenon.
“The moment you share a story with other people, it makes it much more real in many ways,” he said. “It’s like the idea of a therapy session where people are articulating their emotions, and when you discuss it with them and think about it, you gain emotional and intellectual insight.”
Comparable to opening up in therapy, students are encouraged to share personal insights and stories during class discussions. The course takes place on Zoom, an adjustment made by Venter and Mandell upon seeing an increase in participation when the course took place online in spring 2020.
“It was interesting because the course started out in person, and halfway through the semester, we went online,” Mandell said. “What we found was that when students are online and in Zoom, we feel that they are more willing to open up and talk about issues like this than when we are together in the classroom. Fortuitously, that worked out for us, and that’s how the class blossomed.”
Senior Kiki Carney, who took the course last year, agreed that online learning works well for this particular course.
“I think Zoom cultivates a more informal environment, and students feel more comfortable as they are in their own dorm room or apartment,” she said.
Mandell discussed the spectrum of different experience levels with alcohol among students in the course.
“We have students that are non-drinkers. That’s another aspect of college culture. Why is it that the non-drinkers are the outsiders? Is it possible to be the non-drinker and be socially accepted?” he said. “Think about all the wellness initiatives taken up on campus with exercises and diets. We promote all these things wellness-wise, but at the same time, binge drinking seems to be promoted on tailgate weekends.”
Venter described the dangers of binge drinking’s normalization among college students.
“If during the four years at college you become a habitual binge drinker on Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, you’re making a mistake if you’re thinking that when you graduate you’ll stop this behavior,” he said. “There is this belief among students that you can’t be an alcoholic in college. We’ve normalized this drinking.”
At the end of the course, many students feel they have gained the insight to take a step back and reevaluate their approach to drinking culture. Students often also look at media and analyze films from a new perspective.
“Students are allowed to think, say and share anything they want regarding their views on the specific topic, and no one is judged or ridiculed for holding certain beliefs,” Carney said. “This course transformed and changed how I perceive the college drinking culture.”
Students taking the course can expect weekly assigned films and readings along with five reflections and a final paper.
In comparison to its class of 20 students during its first semester, there are around 200 enrolled in the course this semester. However, Venter and Mandell expect to begin limiting the class size. The course is taught during both spring and fall semesters as well as during the summer.
Libby O’Brien, who is currently a teaching assistant for the course, described Mandell and Venter’s co-teaching as a “power duo.”
“It is one of the best classes taught at Notre Dame, and I believe everybody takes on a very different perspective after taking the class,” she said. “Although I know most people won’t necessarily stop drinking because of the things they learn in the class, I do believe that they benefit from the reflections because they become self-aware of why they drink, how much they drink and what could happen to them as a result.”
The article previously referred to the course as a Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) course. The course is cross-listed for both the FTT and psychology departments. The Observer regrets this error.