Hollywood’s Harvard Problem

“I can't believe it. I'm actually standing outside of Harvard.”—Rory Gilmore, “The Road Trip to Harvard,” Season 2, Episode 4 of “Gilmore Girls”

Harvard is no stranger to the big screen. The University is often employed in film and television, and it’s rarely reduced to a character’s alma mater. Instead, Harvard features as a centerpiece of their plotline, a cobbled red brick road to follow. With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, Harvard becomes the brand name school of choice without which a screenwriter’s script falls flat.

“Legally Blonde,” the 2001 film that freshmen watch every fall on the steps of Widener, is premised on Elle Woods’s presumed inability to get into Harvard. She’s a ditzy sorority girl studying fashion who, in a boy-crazed attempt to win back an ex, decides to apply to Harvard Law.

“You … got into Harvard Law?” her ex-boyfriend Warner asks incredulously.

“What? Like it’s hard?” she responds, the joke being, of course, that she must be only person in the country who missed that Harvard has been one of the most selective universities in the country for decades.

“Gilmore Girls,” a wildly successful show that ran for seven seasons in the early 2000s with a 2016 Netflix mini-series revival, is premised on Rory Gilmore’s life dream of attending Harvard. At the beginning of the show, Rory’s mother, Lorelai, begrudgingly reconnects with her parents, who she despises, because they promise to pay Rory’s tuition at an elite prep school that will help her gain admission to Harvard. Harvard, with a mix of a mother’s love, outweighs the stress that comes with over a decade of unresolved family drama.

These shows use Harvard as a crux, but not Harvard as many of us students, faculty members, and custodial workers have come to know it. “Legally Blonde,” “Gilmore Girls,” and the number of other shows that wield the name, rely on what most viewers imagine this university to be.

A randomly-selected American probably could not tell you much about Harvard—who its president is, the different schools at the University, and other things students take for granted. But these same individuals might be able to tell you that Harvard is extremely prestigious, that is incredibly wealthy, that it is incredibly difficult to get into, and that those who attend are intelligent. Those are the most important assumptions made of Harvard, regardless of how accurate they may be.

Viewers find movies and shows infused with the Harvard brand name so compelling because a character’s ability to attend Harvard marks them as having a superhuman affinity for rising above their circumstances. Elle Woods graduates at the top of her class, and viewers rejoice because she’s intellectually surpassed the ex-boyfriend for which she was much too good. Though she ends up choosing Yale, Rory Gilmore is accepted to Harvard, fulfilling a lifelong dream after overcoming a pitiable start at an academically rigorous private school. More importantly, both do so relatively unscathed. Rory and Elle both struggle, but their Harvard storylines culminate with them giving graduation speeches to their classmates.

While catering to people’s imagination, it fails to acknowledge that Harvard doesn’t just churn out fresh, polished, unscathed young minds. Yes, Harvard produces intelligent, well-rounded individuals who often overcome their own personal story arcs and graduate into wildly successful careers. But Harvard is also the place where people’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, where people begin to resent the institution, where they collect trauma like trading cards.

And, worst of all, Hollywood’s Harvard problem is also ours. This motion picture-perfect version of Harvard is the one that clouds our own stories. We offer it when a classmates asks us how we’re doing, offering them a quick “fine” or “well.” We hide behind it when our friends and families ask about how school is going. Like those in television and film, these retellings of our Harvard experience are sanitized, utopic, idealized.

That version of Harvard is as false as the supposed shots of the University in films and television, many of which are filmed at UCLA. Come graduation day, all the good, generative treasures Harvard offers us will be accompanied by a substantial amount of newly-acquired, negative baggage. Slowly, media is acknowledging these unglamorous bits, with Harvard alums serving as the protagonists in shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Friends from College” that thrive off their dysfunctional, imperfect, morally-reprehensible characters.

But we, as intimate dwellers of this aged institution, have strides left to make in order to truly confront the things about this place we’d rather not see on TV. If we hide behind our smiling faces, short answers, and purposeful omissions, we run the risk of being left only with Hollywood’s Harvard. Identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, whether it be something as large as mental health or something as simple as building a campus that better fosters kindness and human connection. We resign ourselves to the status quo if the only people we are comfortable being, for ourselves and the general public, are Elle Woods and Rory Gilmore.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.