SCENE COVER | Yale in pop culture, from Gatsby to Gossip Girl

“Lost in Translation” opens with the soft pink sunrise of Scarlett Johannson’s ass.

It is a Yale ass.

No caption.
No caption.

Lots of things about Charlotte, Johannson’s character, remain mysterious. Why is she married when she looks about 19? Why are her sweaters so lumpy and unflattering? And what is she going to do with her life? (“I tried being a writer, but I hate what I write. And I tried taking pictures, but they’re so mediocre, you know? And every girl goes through a photography phase. Like horses.”) Almost everything, in fact, is hazy — to Charlotte as well as the audience.

But this much we know for certain: Charlotte is a Yalie.

“Not everyone went to Yale,” her squirelly little husband scolds at one point.

Yale!

I watched this movie on the floor of my childhood bedroom, the summer after junior year in high school. I cannot speak to the resonance that it may have had for those not inclined to see themselves in Charlotte — boys, say, or girls whose shirts never bunched in ungainly ways, who didn’t feel a photography phase coming on. But I know that I experienced a particularly intense charge of anxiety, as intense as any I can recall from the long and angst-ridden road to college. Not everyone went to Yale: that would probably include me.

When Sofia Coppola visited Yale in 2005, during the fall of my freshman year, she basically deferred the question of how she chose her protagonist’s alma mater. Coppola wanted Charlotte to be “preppy” and “well-educated,” the News diligently reported. So, Yale. Why not?

But let’s step back to the kid asking the question, the crowd waiting for the answer, the school newspaper eagerly recording the proceedings, and to me, three years earlier, struck dumb on my bedroom room floor: Why do we even care why a made-up person went to Yale?

* * *

We are a studious lot, even when it comes to pop culture vanities. Our impulse is to work backwards, to establish points of reference: if we can figure out what Yale stands for, we can figure out what it says about us.

For Ivy League students, F. Scott is the best starting point. In a recent Slate article, Juliet Lapidos explored the question of how Fitzgerald chose where to educate his characters. Why did Dick Diver and Nick Carraway end up at Yale, while Amory Blaine went to Princeton, Benjamin Button to Harvard? Lapidos finds the best summary of Fitzgerald’s Yale in “This Side of Paradise”: “Yale is November, crisp and energetic.”

Maybe, but it also evokes the entitlement of Tom Buchanan and the emptiness of Anson “The Rich Boy” Hunter. Fitzgerald’s Yale bundles you up in tweed and sends you to the football game, clutching a flask to stave off the cold and the pain.

The rest of the Yale canon hovers in the background, regardless of whether you’ve actually read them: “American Psycho” ’s “coke and homosexuality” dismissal of “the Yale thing,” Salinger’s Franny breaking down in New Haven, Dick Stover’s journey through the J. Press Yale of yore. All of these use Yale in fundamentally similar ways — as an exciting and obvious place to be young, male and privileged.

This image still gets trotted out in things like “Eli’s Coming,” a 2004 New York Times men’s style spread. Accompanying an article by Charles McGrath ’68, the photos featured Yale student models in carefully rumpled tweeds. It came out the month before I submitted my early application, and prompted my mom, (leafing through the Sunday paper) to sigh at the “ugly boys.”

“These were the best ones they could find,” she warned. “And they’re ugly boys.”

As her words suggest, there’s now an acknowledged disparity between the image (expensive tweeds) and the reality (ugly boys — or at least, boys whose whippety fashion-look makes for neither Fitzgerald-type elegance nor maternal approval).

So, the pop culture tendency now is to exploit that disparity. Contemporary young adulthood makes for an exciting juxtaposition with Old Blue.

* * *

Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are the producers behind “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl,” and I like imagining them as nouveaux Fitzgeralds, fantastical chroniclers of the young and rich. Where will they send their characters to college? On “The O.C.,” Brown was the improbable school of choice. On “Gossip Girl,” after a brief flirtation with Dartmouth (Dartmouth?), the prized plum became Yale.

Dan, with his allegedly awesome brain and goofy ambitions as a writer, might appear to be the most legitimate candidate. But Dan barely matters. On this show, Yale is “for the Blairs of this world” (as Serena puts it): polished little strivers who stop at nothing to get what they want, whose headbands squeeze a bit too tightly. So Yale it is, and the cast decamps to “New Haven” (played by Columbia’s Morningside Heights) for a weekend on campus.

It is easy to grouse about factual inaccuracies — the dean doesn’t have a private admissions party! Skull and Bones doesn’t tap freshmen! The campus is neo-Gothic, not Beaux-Arts! — but it is not very interesting. More profitable, then, to consider the “Gossip Girl” Yale as a dream you might have if you fell asleep while reading the University’s Wikipedia page: there’s Handsome Dan, and something about Hillhouse Avenue, and Chuck Bass, looking oddly plausible in red pants and an ascot.

“Gossip Girl” portrays Yale as a shiny bauble: “Nate — my mom — the girls at school — you wouldn’t take this from me!” declares Blair when Serena threatens her prize. Yale is the most coveted luxury good of them all, with just the right combination of old-money patina and impossible exclusivity. The show’s evocation of a Fitzgerald playground seems self-conscious: Blair wears a kicky little flapper look, complete with cloche hat, on the final day of her campus visit.

“Gilmore Girls,” the previous series to take up the University, worked more earnestly to capture the texture of Yale life. Rather than preoccupying itself with the school’s exciting exterior, it delves into the problem of laundry-dumping, the challenge of finding the perfect place to work, the persistent irritation of a roommate’s alarm clock. The show’s most grievous inaccuracy is that the barrier between home and college appears to be totally permeable: on Rory’s first night at Yale, her mom stays over and throws a slumber party for her daughter’s new classmates, and inexplicably, they love it.

This is possible because the Yale of “Gilmore Girls” doesn’t just have the advantage of physical proximity to Rory’s fictional hometown, it also has the exact same personality — a cozy asylum for quirkily intense and good-hearted people. Rory has the convenience of going home to do her laundry, and the writers have the convenience of maintaining the show’s tone. Of course, the same could be said of “Gossip Girl”: its Upper East Siders come to Yale in search of glamorous intrigue, and they find exactly what they’re looking for. To both shows’ credit, each version has a glimmer of truth. Sometimes you’re in class with the sons and daughters of crazy European scions. Sometimes the whole campus will turn out for free hot chocolate at a library opening.

Both TV Yales are true (sort of), and both have insinuated themselves into our experience of the place. TV shows, unlike books or movies, unfold alongside our real lives — we don’t just take them in once and file them away. The Yale of “Gossip Girl” becomes an ongoing presence at the real Yale, something we can visit and relish and rehash ad nauseum.

* * *

Relishing and rehashing is what we do best.

One of the earliest things I remember from freshman year is a classmate talking about how her family — a longish line of Bonesmen — liked to watch “The Skulls” for giggles. In one sense, this was intimidating: what had I gotten myself into? Moments like this proliferate in the canon of Ivy porn; humble students are forever meeting imposing WASPy families and wondering whether they themselves can possibly belong.

In a more important sense, though, it was sort of disarming: So we are all big dorks.

Our narcissistic fascination with pop portrayals of Yale betrays a deep vein of dorkiness. If we were cooler, smarter, more naturally elite, less striving, we wouldn’t care. But we do. Accuracy tickles our vanity; flaws give us the opportunity to nitpick and feel superior, which we also enjoy. Seeing Yale onscreen — however far removed from reality — reassures us. Even “Gossip Girl” has the good sense to wink at this tendency: on the eve of Blair’s admissions decision, she stays up all night watching “Gilmore Girls.”

But narcissism is only the most obvious side of Yalies consuming Yale culture. There’s a broader way that our awareness of these products (whether we’ve sought them out or not) allows us to enter a kind of magical proximity to fantasy. Yale is an electric point of intersection. Yale — like New York City, for example — is a place densely packed with myths and pasts and present realities, all rubbing up against each another. To participate is thrilling.

The most dramatic and unusual kind of participation Yalies have is making their own contributions to the pop-Yale canon — writing fan fiction about their own world, if you will. Several chick lit examples of this phenomenon have made their way back to the Yale library system, their pink and lime-green covers lurking on the shelves of Bass.

The most famous, of course, is “Chloe Does Yale.” Back in the first flush of “Sex and the City” copycatting, Natalie Krinsky ’04 wrote a sex column for the News. Her piece on blow jobs (“Spit or Swallow? It’s All About the Sauce”) remains the most-read article on this paper’s Web site. With journalism professor Steve Brill’s ’72 LAW ’75 help, Krinsky got a book deal as a junior and set about cobbling her columns into a fictionalized account of Yale life.

The results are not good. For all her self-consciously scandalous affect, the most surprising thing Chloe does is to strongly advocate hand jobs. The book caters to the public hunger for stories about smart kids doing dumb and sexy things, the same hunger that made national news out of sex in Calhoun shower stalls two years back. Chloe recounts her escapades through a string of Candace Bushnell mannerisms passed off as Yale observations — but lunch in Commons is a poor substitute for dinner in Manhattan, and the whole project has the soggy familiarity of a knee-jerk joke about Toad’s.

Diana Peterfreund ’01 has proved both more prolific and more successfully entertaining than the legendary Krinsky — she has written three zippy novels set at a thinly veiled Yale, and a fourth, “Tap and Gown,” will be released this spring. The “Secret Society Girl” series follows Amy Haskell’s adventures in “Rose and Grave,” a stand-in for Skull and Bones. “Rose and Grave,” “Eli University”: careful and pointless pseudonyms, are central to these books. The Rose and Grave tomb is on High Street, near the old art-history offices; characters do cups at “Tory’s” and buy burgers at “Lenny’s Lunch.” But this sort of strategy (also employed in “The Skulls,” which takes place at an unnamed university where athletic uniforms bear blue Ys) means that the anonymity actually becomes the point. The painstaking avoidance of Yale’s name seems intended to remind us of how daunting and dramatic and potentially dangerous Yale might be.

Still, Peterfreund’s vision of Yale seems more founded in actual lived experience than Krinsky’s recycled tropes. The devices that move Peterfreund’s plots ahead are appropriately mundane. As one book chugs toward its climax, Amy attempts to write a paper: “But the words didn’t come, and the rereading-significant-passages phase failed to uncover any paper-worthy insights. This was going to be a painful one.” I find it winning that this is how Peterfreund applies pressure to Amy’s situation — by assigning her a paper or putting her on MetroNorth. These cumbersome trappings of Yale life in fact become the stuff of fantasy.

(By way of contrast, a turning point for Chloe involves meeting a dashing Englishman on the minibus. This doesn’t even illuminate Yale in a fanciful way — this isn’t Chuck Bass in an ascot. This is Bridget Jones in Yale sweatpants.)

The obvious criticism would be to accuse these authors of somehow prostituting their Yale experience. But I have a hard time mustering that kind of indignation. There’s something too earnest and appealing in their efforts. She and Peterfreund both show a tour-guide-like enthusiasm for Yale ways: shopping period, residential colleges and the Harvard-Yale game are all explained with rosy-cheeked eagerness. If anything, these novels are documents in the same category as the admissions viewbook — designed to excite, but also carefully to explain a world in which the reader might wish to participate.

It strikes me as a large-scale version of what Yale students do when they wear school sweatshirts on the flight home — not bragging, quite, but knowingly courting the onlooker’s interest. We don’t just dwell in proximity to myth; we create it. And when we see ourselves through others’ eyes, we feel that we’re living it.

* * *

On the outside looking in — that’s where I was when I first watched “Lost in Translation.” But whatever my anxiety at the time, I did get into Yale. I came. And now I’m about to leave.

I hope not to write any Yale chick lit. But Joan Didion says that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and I can already feel my college life calcifying into the stories I will tell. They make up a privately curated collection of Yale lore that shares brain space with “Blair Waldorf Must Pie.” There’s the night of the blizzard freshman year, when I met my first boyfriend. There’s the junior year birthday party where we all danced on tables among the dinner dishes.

How have I spent the last four years? Watching, reading, figuring things out. With apologies to Bret Easton Ellis, the whole Yale thing.

Comments

  • Edgerton

    Until 1963 there stood at the edge of Yale a Gatsby-esque estate of 85 rooms on a twentyfive acres at the edge of Whitney Avenue behind a 10 foot stone wall which is still there today. It was called Edgerton and was created in the style of an English manor house. It cast a romantic shadow between town and gown and created part of the Yale mystique alluded to in your article.

  • Recent Alum

    This was a very good piece.

  • YDN Alum

    Haha, I love the "ugly boys" rip on the NYT spread. Biting the scene hand that fed you in a few ways, but so true.
    And this is a great feature, kudos.

  • Elm City

    Edgerton park is still a very nice place to spend time.

  • Anonymous

    George Patsourakos
    I believe that college undergraduates should be required to have a major and a minor, in order to be eligible for a bachelor's degree. When I was an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, I needed to have at least 48 credits in my major field of study, and at least 24 credits in my minor field of study, in order to graduate. I think this is a good ratio for graduating, because it gives the student a solid background in his or her major as well as his or her minor. The fact is that if there is no requirement for a minor, the student will probably take many unrelated courses, and that will not be of much assistance to the student when he or she is seeking employment!

  • Anon

    One of the best YDN pieces I've read in a very long time. Excellent writing!

  • It's "Dink" Stover. "Dink.&quot

    The problem with tackling broad questions like this is that there aren't any overarching, meaningful answers. That said, there are nice deconstructions of a lot of media references to Yale in here. The writing's good enough to make you wonder if she can report, too.

  • anon

    John Knowles,best known as the author of the boarding school-set classic "A Separate Piece" also wrote a novel called "The Paragon" in 1971, loosely based on his time in Pierson College. worth a read, as clearly was Molly's article for today's YDN. How about a collection of short stories by current and/or former Yalies on the theme? Does such a thing exist yet?

  • yay!

    Thank you for this wonderful piece, molly -- what a treat to read.

  • Alum

    Gag me with a silver spoon.

  • Third Person

    Fantastically written article. You're quite the master of the segue.

  • Anonymous

    It would be cool to look at this in the context of famous Yalies, celebrities who come to exemplify Yale for the general public, and see what "fictions" about or romanticizations of Yale arise through them, and how it all relates to the actual Yale experience.

  • Y07

    A wonderful piece and a great deviation from the kind of stuff Scene usually publishes.

    I really enjoyed it - thanks Molly!

  • Reader

    I really enjoyed your piece.

    I am actually a University of Washington student who reads the YDN sometimes when at work, and I find articles depicting real and fictional Yale experiences to be quite entertaining.

  • D.S.

    One of the hardest decisions of my life was deciding not to go to Yale (I attend Stanford), but I check in periodically to see what I'm missing… if anything.

    Very fascinating article - rarely do I have the patience to read an article of such length.

    Impressed by the self-awareness.

    Wish you had compared the reality to the fantasy so eloquently presented. I'm always just so damn curious to know about what lies beneath - I know the myth, and I never wanted to choose a college based on mythology. So I went elsewhere, where my interests lay.

    So, what is deeper? Does existence at Yale ever part from the myth and pop-view?