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An Oral History Of The Media’s Portrayal Of College Students

College is many things. It’s a precursor to being an adult ready to embark on a new life in “the real world.” It gives you a taste of independence and opportunity — and that taste may even be unappetizing dining hall food and cheap beer, if you’re lucky. But, contrary to popular belief, college is not a universal experience — even though the media’s portrayal of college students tends to treat it as such.

Yes, there are generally shared experiences many college students can relate to, like finding lifelong friends, the less than pleasant communal bathrooms, and the anxiety-inducing agony that is registering for classes the day of. But Hollywood gives us a cappella groups spontaneously battling in “riff-offs” à la the Pitch Perfect movies, or just a lot of binge-drinking and partying, as demonstrated by any loosely-plotted movie or show that resorts to drunken tomfoolery as a means of comedic delivery. This distinction has effects beyond a few cheap laughs, though.

The on-screen portrayal of something that’s both common (there are around 20 million college students in the U.S.), yet extremely individual, can shape students’ ideas about what a “good” college experience is supposed to look like. With the college media landscape being relatively small in comparison to, say, high school teen movies, how accurate can on-screen portrayals of college be? How have the limited options thus far changed our own ideas about what college is supposed to look like? The portrayal of college on-screen can resonate on a larger societal and cultural level, beyond simple entertainment. And the timeline of the on-screen college experience, though not very extensive, still demonstrates this impact today.

Animal House: The depiction of the college experience in film 

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In the beginning, there was National Lampoon’s Animal House. The 1978 comedy classic is arguably one of, if not the most iconic movie about college and has remained highly influential and popular since its release over 40 years ago. It set unprecedented expectations of what college life is or could be, and everyone wanted to live out their Animal House fantasy — probably including your own dad. 

The film is a tale of two fraternities at the fictitious Faber College, the snooty Omega Theta Pi House versus the unhinged and reckless Delta Tau Chi House as the college dean tries to secretly take down the Deltas. However, the dean’s secret vendetta against the Deltas and the rivalry between the two frats isn’t really what Animal House is about. The true focus of the film and what gave rise to its unparalleled success are the toga parties, hilariously quotable lines, cafeteria food fights, drinking, partying and more drinking. Animal House not only showed the whole world what college could be, but it also encouraged pretty unrealistic and even potentially harmful standards at the societal level, going beyond just college. 

With its raunchy sexually suggestive themes, rampant cultural insensitivity and generally low-brow humor, Animal House is really just a drunk frat guy kind of movie. While there is nothing wrong with that, it does make the film’s relatability and accuracy for a wider college-aged audience questionable. 

The film is also a prime example of how the college experience is primarily shown through the male gaze by way of oversexualizing and objectifying female characters and keeping female characters almost entirely one-dimensional. Examples in the film include one of the Deltas, Bluto, spying on a group of sorority sisters engaging in a half-naked pillow fight or when another Delta, Pinto, discovers the girl he invited to their party is only 13. 

Greek life on U.S. college campuses is constantly faced with issues of sexual assault, racism, discrimination, and general toxicity. College women in sororities are 74% more susceptible to rape than their female peers, according to a 2013 study published by researchers at Oklahoma State University. And so while Animal House is not the sole cause of long-standing problems within Greek life on college campuses, it does contribute to its toxic culture, and even makes light of it.

Animal House also helped establish a certain tone and recurring themes on-screen in college movies, which can be seen in subsequent releases like Revenge of the Nerds, Old School, American Pie Presents: Beta House and 22 Jump Street, just to name a few.

Greek: College life on TV

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Television shows about college are pretty few and far between. And, for the TV shows that do involve college life, do they actually focus on depicting the average college experience? The much-loved comedy-drama Greek looks a lot like Animal House on the outside, considering it also revolves around on-campus Greek life, but the show has a slightly more modern take that sets it apart. 

Released in 2007, Greek ran four seasons and became a pivotal example in how college and young-adult life is portrayed. The show not only focuses on Greek life as freshman Rusty Cartwright tries rushing one of Cyprus-Rhodes University’s fraternities, relationships, drama and new social spheres, but it also shows the real-life process of learning to coexist with others and confronting more mature, adult-life realities and decisions. Which, honestly, is much more relatable to the average college student.

Greek also checks major boxes regarding inclusivity in ways that don’t contribute to negative and or harmful stereotypes. Amber Stevens, who played sorority president Ashleigh on the show, reflected on the show’s inclusion in an interview with Popsugar, saying, “It was highlighting the college experience in a way that hasn’t been done before and just seemed so necessary and obvious.” Stevens also said that the ways in which the show focused on inclusion were also sincere rather than performative, adding, “It was also showing the experience of what it was like to be a gay man in school, but not using it as a gimmick. [Calvin] was just a regular boy who got to date. It was a lot of visibility for people on that program.” The show’s representation and better take on the realities of college life are what makes Greek such a celebrated series.

As much as Greek was a step forward, however, it still contained the college experience within a very narrow box. The presence of Greek life on college campuses is somewhat overexaggerated in Hollywood — membership varies by school, and many 2021 college students likely struggle to relate to the late 2000s misadventures of the students in Greek. With growing calls for the abolition of Greek life on college campuses entirely, college life on-screen still has major gaps.

Community: A different type of college experience

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The sitcom Community, which debuted in 2009, is about a different kind of college experience, one that is majorly overlooked but still very real. Community follows a study group made up of a uniquely diverse set of students attending Greendale Community College. The quirky cast includes a single mother, a disbarred attorney, a former athlete and a senior citizen. 

It’s important to keep in mind that community colleges are more popular than the media makes them seem. Since 2017, the enrollment for community colleges has been over 8 million and students who attend are part-time students, young parents and even people who have fully established careers. Going to college doesn’t look the same for everybody, and this show speaks to that. 

What sets Community apart is the show’s unconventionality. The concept of the show and its eclectic, diverse group of characters appealed to viewers, even if they hadn’t attended community or junior college themselves. And while the show was able to enjoy success from viewers of all backgrounds, it also offered visibility to alternative education in a way that felt genuine. It includes a certain type of college experience that is often dismissed in everyday life, let alone on-screen, despite being a valid higher education.

Grown-ish: A “modern-ish” depiction of college life

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While most of the earlier films and shows came out when Gen Z was still in elementary school, we can find a lot more of our own experiences in 2018’s Grown-ish, a spin-off of the ABC fan-favorite Black-ish

Grown-ish follows a young Black college woman named Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi), and her new life as a freshman at Cal U. The show makes a point to include experiences such as meeting new people, partying and the pressures of balancing life and school, but it also includes certain themes that feel more relevant to Gen Z, in ways that films like Animal House never could. Figuring out hookup culture, exploring sexual identities and the widespread use of “study drugs” (the use of non-medical prescription stimulants for improved academic performance, in this case, Zoey’s Adderall use) in the show’s storyline are relatable for the show’s younger, college-aged audience. Out of any other age group, people aged 18-25 use stimulants or “study drugs” at a much higher rate and the use of “study drugs” among college students is a little under 20%, according to a 2021 report by Affordable Colleges Online.

Another crucial feature of the series is its inclusion of social activism and conversations about current social and racial issues, from Black Lives Matter to LGBTQ+ issues. While college campuses are known for activism and the open flow of ideas and conversations, representing these issues in a series with a predominantly Black cast lends greater perspective to how these important topics and coming of age interrelate. 

While Grown-ish is popular and well-received, though, there’s been a shift in recent years toward a newer perspective on the college experience in mainstream media: that is, the perspective of college students themselves.

YouTube and TikTok: The new wave of college life on-screen

Social media has bred an entire new wave of creating, sharing and communicating. YouTube has long been a prominent platform for creators of all kinds to create and share content, and college students are no exception. Young YouTubers took “vlogging” to college and began sharing their daily lives as college students, and so began the rising trend of videos titled such as “A Day in the Life of a College Student” and content centered around dorm room décor, hacks and “College OOTDs.” College-aged YouTubers involved in Greek life even found a way they could participate by sharing their experiences with videos like filming style and outfit videos for Rush Week. 

With the takeover of TikTok, creators on the app have essentially taken the preexisting format and model for college-related YouTube content and made it work for a new audience. We now see all the same kind of content trimmed into 60-second videos on our FYPs with trending hashtags like #college essentials and #college outfits with thousands and even millions of views. Accessibility is higher than ever, and virality seems inevitable — clearly, college students and hopeful applicants are hungry for the nitty-gritty of college life on-screen brought to us by creators like Brooklyn and Bailey on YouTube and collegegirlies on TikTok.

Content centered on a “real college experience” can be considered a reclamation of college media in response to the many unrealistic and irrelevant depictions, but social media is still social media. It’s often described as a “highlight reel,” meaning we only see a sliver of people’s real lives and more often than not, the bad stuff gets pushed to the wayside. And even in 2021, Hollywood still can’t accurately represent college; at this point, it doesn’t really try.

Why is that? Perhaps it’s too daunting a task for major studios, with the growing diversity of university campuses and the increasingly individualized college experience. Perhaps Hollywood is just far too stuck in its old ways to see the need for change. But here’s hoping the new wave of Gen Z creators will share the stories we’ve all been dying to hear. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping we can move on from the straight white frat boy movies into something that represents more of us.

Sources:

Bannon, R. S., Brosi, M.W., & Foubert, J. D. (2013). Sorority women’s and fraternity men’s rape myth acceptance and bystander intervention attitudes. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

Affordable Colleges Online. (2021). Dangers of Study Drugs In College. Affordable Colleges Online.

Zoë Skvarka is a senior MDS major at WVU. Zoë grew up living overseas, going back and forth between Turkey and Greece. Zoë is passionate about activism, fashion, alternative pop culture and art in all of its forms.
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