Month: November 2010

Why Does Pop Culture Like to Hate on Cornell?

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“Andy, Cornell called, they think you suck.”

-Michael Scott (Steve Carrell)

I am an alumna of Cornell, class of 1999. I regard those four years of college as some of the greatest in my life. I received a top-notch education, met an array of smart, interesting, and hilarious people, and drank a lot of alcohol. I also met my husband at Cornell and so the two of us often wax poetic about our times there: about getting beers at Ruloff’s, hiking through the gorges (“Ithaca is gorges!”), and heading to the Commons for a great meal. Our daughter has been informed that she, too, will attend Cornell (a move ensuring that she most certainly will not attend Cornell), and we have been dressing the baby in Cornell gear in the hopes that he will get Big Red fever by osmosis. In short, we love Cornell.

Jude in his Cornell gear

So of course we were both delighted when one of our favorite comedies, The Office, gave Cornell a big shout out in the Season 3 premiere “Gay Witch Hunt.” It is in this episode that we first meet Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), Jim’s (Jon Krasinski) new co-worker at the Stamford, CT branch of Dunder Mifflin. During one of the show’s signature “talking head” interviews Andy tells us “I went to Cornell, ever heard of it?” This reference is used to provide the viewer with key information about this addition to The Office’s cast: Andy is threatened by his new co-worker, Jim, and believes that mentioning his prestigious alma mater will make him appear more impressive to the show’s fictional documentary crew. It doesn’t. Nevertheless, I gushed to my husband:  “I can’t believe they’re talking about Cornell!”

Over time, however, my enthusiasm for The Office‘s Cornell obsession began to wane. You see, Andy, like Michael, is both incredibly insecure and yet has an inflated sense of self.  He is a fool. A boob. The running joke about Andy’s Cornell name-checking is that it reveals his need to brag while at the same time demonstrating that he doesn’t have much to brag about at all. He thinks his Cornell degree is impressive but no one else does.

The series’ most extended Cornell reference occurs in “Employee Transfer,” when Dwight (Rainn Wilson) decks himself out in Cornell gear and proclaims that he will be applying to Cornell, all as a way to get under Andy’s skin. Andy decides to interview Dwight as part of the application process and the scene culminates with Dwight deciding to apply to Dartmouth instead since it is a “vastly superior school.” Indeed, Dartmouth is frequently ranked higher than Cornell, a fact which rankles many a Cornell undergrad. Things are starting to get personal, people.

All of this joking at Cornell’s expense got me wondering: did someone on The Office‘s writing staff know a Cornell graduate who was a total douchebag? Or was one of the show’s writers rejected from Cornell? [Note: a reader just informed me that the character of Andy Bernard is a tribute to former NBC president Kevin Reilly, class of 1984]. Or, is it possible that a Cornell degree has come to be a signifier for a particular kind of character? For example, the holy trinity of Harvard, Princeton and Yale are referenced when we are supposed to see a character as being particularly smart. MIT is used if that person is a science or math geek. If you’re smart but also a free-thinker? Then you went to Brown. And if your character loves to party? Then it’s Arizona State, Ole Miss, or any school with a good football team.

So does The Office have a bone to pick with Cornell? Or are they simply playing off of well-known Cornell stereotypes? Is Cornell synonymous with self-important fools who are not nearly as smart as they think they are? Let’s take a look at some of the other famous, fictional, Big Red alums:

1. The Simpson‘s Sideshow Mel

Mel first appears in the episode “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge ” as a replacement for the murderous Sideshow Bob. At some point it is revealed that Sideshow Mel is a graduate of Cornell University. Sure, he wears a bone in his hair and communicates via a slide whistle, but offstage he speaks in a lovely British accent (which means he’s smart, y’all!) and once played the role of Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is also lactose-intolerant. Advantage: Cornell.

2. Up in the Air‘s Natalie Keener

One of the first things we learn about young, ambitious Natalie (Anna Kendrick), is that she is a recent graduate of Cornell University. By citing Cornell, the movie is not necessarily highlighting Natalie’s intellectual pedigree; that is what references to Harvard, Yale and Princeton are for. Instead, Cornell is meant to show us that Natalie is a hard worker, a striver, even. She is like a yappy dog that won’t shut up until you crouch down and pet it. Luckily, Natalie becomes more likable as the film progresses and we learn more about her life. In a way, Natalie needs to get past her life at Cornell (and the rigid blueprint she had for her life) in order to embrace what she wants. Advantage: Haters.

3. Ugly Betty’s Nick Pepper

I do not watch Ugly Betty. Or rather, I should say that I watched it once, thought it was awful, and have never attempted to watch it again. But from what I have read, the character of Nick Pepper (Max Greenfield) is a Cornell alum. And from what I have read about him, he is quite similar to The Office‘s Andy: he has an inflated sense of self, annoys his co-workers, and dresses in what he believes to be the trendiest of clothes. Normally, I would give this point to the Haters, but given that Ugly Betty is a terrible show, I am going to go ahead and call it a Draw.

4. Made of Honor‘s Tom Bailey

I don’t even need to describe this character, played by Patrick Dempsey, or his relationship with Cornell. The movie is called Made of Honor. Get it? Nope, I don’t either. Why substitute “Made” for “Maid”? Poor use of puns means Advantage: Haters.

5. American Pie‘s Vicky

Vicky (Tara Reid), one of the horny teenagers in this classic teen sex comedy, is headed to Cornell after graduation. Vicky is actually pretty likable: not too uptight, not too arrogant. Yes, she’s played by Tara Reid, but it’s pre-Taradise Tara Reid, so it’s Advantage: Cornell.

In conclusion, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Cornell’s screen image is. Certainly the Cornell screen image is not as solidified as Harvard’s or Penn State’s screen image. So for now, I’ll take the Andy Bernards and the Sideshow Mels as evidence that Cornell has some significance in popular culture. And that’s all we self-important, type A Cornell grads want in the end — a little recognition.

Cornell grads: can you think of any other prominent fictional Cornell alumni? If so, discuss below. And, of course, Go Big Red!

Welfare Queen Redux: TEEN MOM, Class and the Bad Mother

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The bully at work

Earlier this fall I wrote a post about Teen Mom. In it I praised the parenting skills of some of the mothers, such as Maci, and was extremely judgmental of other mothers depicted on the show, like Amber. In several episodes we see Amber physically and verbally abuse her on-again, off-again, fiance, Gary. In one particularly harrowing scene, Amber repeatedly punches Gary in the head and kicks him in the back, all while calling him a “fat fuck.” Gary, a passive, lump of a man, accepts these blows without retaliation, calmly asking Amber “Are you done?” What is most amazing about this scene is that it was caught on tape. In other words, during this violent fight, MTV’s cameras continued to roll. No one intervened on Gary’s behalf. No one called the police. As many commentators have pointed out, had this abuse been reversed — if Gary had been the one beating the shit out of Amber — there would have been a very different reaction. But our society has some very odd double standards when it comes to violence and who may wield it. Men should never hit women. But women? They can beat their men as much as they like because they’re just women. They can’t do much harm with those teeny tiny hands!

She's at it again.

Beyond the damage inflicted on poor, doughy Gary in this scene, we must also account for the damage inflicted on little Leah. Where was she as her mother repeatedly beat her father? Was she playing, unsupervised, by an open window again? A more likely scenario is that she was sitting by the feet of one of MTV’s cameramen, watching this primal scene unfold. What lessons about love, family and basic human decency are being conveyed to an impressionable little girl at such a moment? We giggle when we see little Leah imitate her mother by tottering around in her high heeled shoes. But it would be far less amusing if Leah walked up to her father, punched him in jaw and called him a “fat fuck.”

Also here.

Yes, we can all agree that Amber is a Bad Mother. In addition to beating up her significant other in front of her child, she seems completely unaware of how to care for her daughter. When Leah throws a tantrum, Amber’s response is to scream “SHUT UP!” over and over until Leah quiets down. Sometimes this technique even works (who knew?). Amber is also fond of lounging in bed, listening to her I-Pod or texting on her smart phone, as Leah runs around their bare apartment, looking for some way to amuse herself. In these moments I am amazed at how well-behaved Leah is. When my daughter was 1 she required constant attention and supervision. But at a young age Leah has clearly learned how to fend for herself. And how not to fall out of an open window. Way to go, Leah.

Leah's favorite toys are big girl shoes and open windows.

I’ve devoted the last 450 words to criticizing Amber’s parenting and I could easily write another 450. And that’s exactly what MTV wants me to do. You see, Amber is the arch villain of Teen Mom, its prima facie case for teen abstinence. The message is: “If you don’t use a condom, kids, you WILL become a Mom-monster, just like Amber!” The network has come under fire for “glamorizing” teen pregnancy. But to refute these charges, Teen Mom‘s executive producer Morgan J. Freeman needs only to point at Amber. A villain like that will make even the horniest teenager jump into a cold shower.

However, my opinion and my judgment of Amber was radically altered after watching her on the Teen Mom reunion special that aired on October 19th. The Amber that appeared on this show was a very different woman from the one who appears in Teen Mom. This new Amber was clearly on some kind of medication (anti-depressants, Lithium, valium?). But it wasn’t just the medication. This Amber was sad and contrite. This Amber had clearly watched the Amber that appeared on Teen Mom and did not like what she saw. Indeed, after reviewing a “highlight reel” of her poor behavior, she told Dr. Drew, that cunning exploiteer of human suffering, “If that was said to me, I’d go crazy on somebody.” Self reflection. This is something new for Amber.

Amber on the TEEN MOM reunion special.

Throughout this devastating — yes devastating — interview, Amber alternately sobbed or covered her face with her hands. When Dr. Drew asks Amber if her own childhood resembled Leah’s, Amber truly looks shocked, as if she had never considered the parallels between the abuse she suffered/watched as a child and the abuse her daughter now endures. Dr. Drew asks “Is that what you were exposed to as a kid” and we can actually see the wheels turning in Amber’s head. Her face crumples and all she can say is “Fuck,” before bursting into tears. As I watched Amber I felt empathy for her. I realized that despite her horrific behavior, she was a victim too. This revelation does not excuse her behavior, but it certainly explains it. And I wish MTV had done a better job of giving viewers this background. Instead, Teen Mom presented Amber as a simple villain, which is exactly what they needed her to be in order to promote their message about safe sex. Talking too much about Amber’s shitty childhood would complicate a message that needs to remain simple: “Don’t have sex, kids! For the love of God, DO NOT HAVE SEX! Because if you do, then we will need to cancel the third most watched original cable series! And we really don’t want to do that. Now please watch this sexy music video.”

Leah, making a break for it.

In many ways, Amber is similar to that other archetypal Bad Mother, the mythical “welfare queen” invented by the Reagan Administration as a way to dismantle what they saw as a corrupt and flawed welfare system. If you are interested in reading more about the parallels between Amber and the welfare queen of the 1980s,  please read the article I just published at FLOW, where I discuss these and other illuminating arguments in more detail. Or you could just stay here and look at this picture of Leah stuck in a steering wheel. Don’t babies do the darndest things?