Sophie Henry

Yale is known for many things: rigorous classes, Ivy League sports, Bow Wow scandals and more! But let’s be honest here, what Yale is most recognized for is simply its name — or even just its first letter when it’s written in the Yale font in Yale Pantone blue or decorating the front of a sweater. By just saying the word ‘Yale,’ you unleash a slew of background and context that goes back until 1701 if you can trust the Yale Athletics sweatshirts. You may be asking yourself right now, “what does this dude know about what effect of name-dropping Yale has?” and that’s a fair question. But, the proof lies in how much fucking media uses Yale as a plot point. So, welcome to at tour of Yale in media… and I promise I won’t use this platform to once again talk about ‘Gilmore Girls.’ 

I would be remiss to not begin with my favorite film of all time, ‘Lady Bird,’ and its ingenious name drop. The protagonist, Christine — aka Lady Bird — sits across from her guidance counselor in a standardly decorated office at the beginning of her senior year. The woman has Lady Bird’s academic file open and the two are talking about colleges, a moment we all probably remember too well. When asked what colleges she had been thinking about — which is one of the worst questions any adolescent in high school can be asked — Lady Bird tells her, “those East Coast liberal art schools. Like Yale but not Yale because I probably couldn’t get in,” which tells you everything you need to know about what type of school she wants to attend.  The guidance counselor laughs and responds, “You definitely couldn’t get into Yale. Part of my job is to help you be realistic.”

Christine simply meant she wanted to go to a liberal arts school with a prestigious, intellectual atmosphere … Yale certainly fits that criteria, but the guidance counselor’s response is what truly reveals Yale’s character. Yale is not just at its essence a liberal arts school but also a sort of unattainable accomplishment that only a select few can afford the privileges of. While I don’t know your life like that, you may have confided in someone that Yale or some other prestigious university was your dream school. The person may have scoffed disbelievingly and said something like “That’s a really hard school to get into,” or even—my personal favorite— “Can you afford that?” This simple and short scene explores and satirizes one of the most influential characteristics of the name Yale: its exclusivity.

This is not the only source of media to do so. The infamous CW network series ‘Gossip Girl’ features an obscenely rich, poised and controlling girl named Blair Waldorf whose dream is to attend Yale just like her father.

Side note: the Waldorf family were a bit too obsessed with Yale in my honest opinion … I understand all of the gear and whatnot, you can even get Yale-themed food for all I care, but buying a whole bulldog— who you name after Handsome Dan— on decision day is a bit overkill, but I suppose if you have means then why not? I wonder what happened to that bulldog. We never see him again after Blair is rejected. 

Anyways, the intense fan-favorite, Blair, is paralleled by “lonely-boy” Dan Humphrey who turns out to be Gossip Girl… the show is a decade-year-old so if you didn’t know this yet, you only have yourself to blame. While we’re here, Vader is Luke’s father, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time and McDreamy gets hit by a truck. Dan also wants to go to Yale and become a writer, but he struggles with whether he, a middle class scholarship student, can assimilate to such a prestigious environment. Honestly, it’s hard to sympathize with Dan seeing as he believes his family is broke, yet they live in a large flat in Brooklyn and his father was a part of a best-selling rock band and owns an art gallery — only rich people own art galleries — but I digress.

This clear dichotomy between these two individuals who so eagerly want to go to Yale for such distinctly different reasons exemplifies the wealth that permeates Yale. During the first two seasons of ‘Gossip Girl,’ it is almost too obvious that someone like Blair belongs somewhere like Yale. She was came from a social class typically associated with the Ivy League. The mere fact that she was a legacy afforded her a much better chance at getting into school compared to Dan. However, the series subverts this trope: Blair gets deferred and then rejected by Yale and Dan gets in — though he inevitably was unable to afford to attend the school after a financial scandal because, you know, it was a CW show.

Yale students also deal with the assumption that they earned their attendance because of an impressive string of individual accomplishments … The internet often jokes about Ivy Leaguers who frame their personality around their alma mater. That brings me to the next piece of media, the genuinely hilarious HBO Max series ‘The Other Two.’ The series follows siblings Cary and Brooke Dubek as they attempt to restructure their lives while their younger brother and widowed mother find fame. Cary, an actor, meets the Fast and Furious celebrity, Jordana Brewster, who reveals to him that his love interest was using him for publicity. When they meet, Jordana tells him that she is seen as “this badass action chick” when really she is just a “total nerd.” She then confides to him that she was a theater studies major which disgusts Cary and that she “went to this college in New Haven,” and that “it didn’t really matter which college but it was in New Haven.” Only one drama school could have bring Meryl Streep to Connecticut. 

This individuality complex is even further shown in the film ‘Booksmart’ where Beanie Fieldstien’s character, Amy, believes that she is the only one from her school going to Yale and out of faux sympathy for her ostensibly dumber classmates, only tells them that she’ll be studying in New Haven in the fall. To her surprise, one of the popular girls who she constantly slut-shames (See: this amazing bathroom confrontation) is also going to Yale. In fact, many of her peers are going to prestigious universities even though they weren’t as singularly obsessed with academic achievement as she was. It is one thing to be proud of where you’re going to school but to believe that you are the only one worthy of attending a university of such a caliber is arrogant, patronizing, and ignorant of your classmates’ accolades. While I’m sure this scene is comical for everyone, it’s even funnier when you know Amy-esque figures at real-life Yale. 

So Yale is exclusive and rich and individualistic, but it’s also powerful. HBO’s ‘VEEP’ mocks this perfectly when — spoilers again — former president Selina Meyer wants to build her presidential library on Yale’s campus. When her team contacts Yale, they reject her due to an investigation into the land’s relationship with slavery. This leads to an incredibly gif-able string of  “F*** Yale” lines. Meyer attended law school at Yale and she feels that her political success entitles her to take up space on its campus. No matter what, institutions like Yale help build and sustain some of the most powerful individuals in history. Although it’s easy to laugh and disagree with the comically evil Meyer, prestigious institutions give a leg up to those who already possess power and in effect, truly influence the state of the world as we know it.

For as much media representation Yale gets, I do hope to sometime soon see more diverse representation when it is mentioned in popular media. Much like Issa Rae cultivated and shared the intersection of black representation and prestigious environments such as her alma mater, Stanford, I hope that other creatives will begin to dismantle Yale’s exclusive, rich, individualistic and power-hungry reputation and represent the diverse array of students who’ve donned the bulldog blue. Yale will always be an influential name. It will always have assumptions and stereotypes aligned with it. But rather than denying them, why not find the nuance, or maybe write about some other university for once?

Christion Zappley currently serves as the Co-Editor for the Podcast Desk. He was previously a lead producer for the "Full Disclosure" series and created and ran "The Rundown." Originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, Christion is a Davenport College junior double majoring in English and Comparative Literature with a Film Focus.