Tonight, we don’t even have to rely on Yale TV to watch our world come to life on television. Tonight the small screen features Yale — and on more than one network. The college tournament that JEOPARDY! filmed on campus airs for its second night, the WB’s fictional Rory Gilmore continues her Yale career, and the real Whiffenpoofs have singing cameos on both shows.
Yale, it seems, has been seduced by the media. And we, in turn, have become excited about our very own 15 minutes of fame. But we wonder how the sudden frenzy to include Yale’s name in popular entertainment will reflect upon the University that we have come to know in ways that most television viewers won’t.
For years Harvard has garnered the media attention, snagging mentions in in movies like “Stealing Harvard,” “Legally Blonde” and “How High,” while Yale was nowhere to be seen (with the infamous exception, of course, of “The Skulls.”) Even Comedy Central’s “Porn ‘n Chicken,” which is based events that actually occurred here, only goes so far as to make semi-cryptic references to a “Dean Widehead.” While Hollywood’s searched for university settings, Yale has largely looked the other way, denying filmmakers the right to use its name if it will reflect poorly on the University or interfere with academics.
But suddenly, if tentatively, it seems Yale is beginning to tiptoe into the spotlight. Last spring preteen girls across the nation watched as Rory Gilmore, the WB’s wholesome heroine, chose Yale over her expected pick of Harvard. Last spring the University also allowed some of Hollywood’s biggest leading ladies onto campus to film scenes for Julia Robert’s upcoming movie, “Mona Lisa Smile,” and even let some Yalies perform right alongside them. This fall, JEOPARDY! shot its college championships here, and MTV held a “Real World” casting call looking for Yalies.
Like any attention-starved child, we love the sudden exposure. It was fun to watch for shots of LC on “Gilmore Girls,” or stand outside the gates of Silliman hoping for a glimpse of Julia Roberts. But we worry about the effects of the exposure when the novelty of the glamour has worn off. Harvard’s name seems to be used as a pop culture synonym for higher education, and it’s this type of media oversimplification that troubles us. Television viewers who feel they “know” Yale through sound bites and snapshots projected on their screens may never take a closer look at the true Yale. For years, Yale has established itself as a silent doer, quietly pursuing its mission of providing a world-class education without being wooed by tempting offers of mass market exposure. Becoming a media darling may make it seem like we’re more flash than substance, and is likely to widen the gap between external and internal perceptions of the University.
Of course, this is a danger that anyone in the media knows about. It’s not as if the Yale name is currently unknown, and we know stereotypes and misconceptions about it already abound, media exposure or not. And none of us wants to see Yale retreat from the limelight or miss the thrill of a Yale cameo on “West Wing.” But in embracing the camera’s newfound love of the University, we hope we can maintain what makes Yale Yale, and that, somehow, this intangible can be communicated to viewers through their screens.