Okay, this week I’m really going off the deep end to talk about something I really, truly love: my alma mater. I suspect most of us get a little thrill whenever we hear our college get name-dropped on a TV show, in a movie, or in a song. I’m kind of a super nerd (could you tell?) and I get really, really excited when I catch a reference to my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, in a TV show or film. Especially since my college–an all-women liberal arts institution in Massachusetts–often gets lovingly lampooned. Women’s colleges often get satirized or represented in the extreme in movies. We single-sex attendees are often portrayed as man-hating collectives of feminists with Sapphic desires. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of women’s colleges abound–in both real life and fictional universes. I can’t count how many times people have asked me what it was like going to a college where men weren’t allowed and we had curfews (newsflash: much to the chagrin of parents everywhere, men are allowed at our parties and our dormitories, and you can come and go as you please.)
MHC is often used as a means of setting up a quick backstory for women in film and TV. In dramas, characters who are said to have graduated from MHC are often presented as intelligent, independent women (woot!), but they are also outsiders. This list includes the character Donna from the TV show “Judging Amy,” an intelligent but socially awkward law clerk, and Helen Bishop, the (gasp!) divorcee neighbor of Betty and Don on “Mad Men”, who is essentially shunned by her friends because she is divorced and (golly!) makes her own living. The most well-known TV reference to MHC is probably a 2003 episode of “The Simpsons”, when Lisa dreams of attending one of the Seven Sisters (America’s seven historically all-women colleges). Each of the Seven Sisters is satirized, and MHC is personified as a martini-swilling woman who promptly passes out after imploring “Come play with me!” This episode, which aired when I was still attending MHC, was the talk of the campus. (Side note: I never drank a martini while attending MHC, though I did enjoy a few cocktails and attended you know, only a couple of parties before focusing largely on my studies and never ever flirting with boys or making bad decisions, okay mom? Right, so…
Perhaps the most famous reference to my alma mater is present in the early minutes of Dirty Dancing: “Baby’s starting Mount Holyoke in the fall!” Incidentally, the reference to MHC is two-fold, as Baby is actually named “Frances,” after the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet and an MHC graduate herself. My first week at MHC the Student Union sponsored a screening of Dirty Dancing, and everybody cheered at this line (and I still do every time I watch the movie because, as we’ve established, I’m a nerd). Of course, if you think about it, this reference isn’t particularly flattering. Yes, the namedrop is meant to indicate that Baby is intelligent or worldly–the entire scene is meant to set her apart from her flighty sister–but it’s also part of a negative set-up, as well. This is the start of the movie, before Baby has learned her lessons about class and the real world–our indication that for all of her liberal talk, she’s prone to assumptions about social class and
status. The reference to MHC–or at least its placement in the script–seems to suggest that she’s both learned, independent, and kind of a snob.
Lastly, many people consider MHC the basis for the women’s college featured in the Jim Belushi fraternity comedy Animal House. Yes, legend has it that MHC was the inspiration for Emily Dickinson College, the women’s college the boys plunder for Saturday night dates with a fantastic story about dating the girl who died in a “tragic kiln accident.” The protagonists’ school (the fictional Faber College) is based on Dartmouth College, a school with which MHC has long been affiliated. In addition, Emily Dickinson grew up near MHC and is touted as one of our most esteemed graduates (although ::cough cough:: she never actually graduated.)
In the end I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to represent the varied and amazing moments that comprise my time at MHC, but I can’t help but smile and cheer every time I hear it used as a reference point in popular culture–even if the reference isn’t perfectly flattering. My only complaint is that the summer before my first year at MHC I was decidedly not making love to Patrick Swayze. But I guess I can’t expect my life to be exactly like Baby’s. On the plus side, at least my nickname wasn’t Baby.
So, what I want to know is: do you catch yourself perking up your ears whenever your school gets name-dropped? How is it usually represented? And do you agree with it?