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  • Anna Dugdale

The representation of university in film and television

The representation of university and college education within films has always been a massive part of many people’s decisions to go into higher education. I know when I was younger I thought that high school was going to be identical to High School Musical. But it soon became clear that if you burst into song in a high school in England it’s likely that you’ll never live it down. The depictions of university and college education are such a far cry from normality.

One example that always strikes familiarity with me is the show ‘Fresh Meat’. I watched it in my first year of university and felt like I related to it more: the grubby kitchens, friendship dramas, the one seedy pub that you go to because it’s cheap and convenient. It felt like the experience I was living at the time. I don’t know if it was because I go to university in Manchester that it struck a chord with me, but it did. Of course, some things are sensationalised which is to be expected. On the whole, they live a pretty standard student life. They struggle with food shops and people are pretending to be different to who they are and reinventing themselves. It’s a good representation of student stereotypes in the UK and had some identifiable character types. I think there is a definite shortage of media about British university made by broadcasting companies in the UK, not all portrayals of university in the UK are accurate or relatable.

I think one thing that hits you when you go into higher education is the workload and how hard it is. In films like ‘Legally Blonde’, Elle Woods is working out whilst studying and attaining great scores at Harvard Law. It seems effortless. It creates a narrative that higher education is easy, it’s a breeze which is an unattainable standard to live up to, especially for a law degree at one of the most prestigious schools in the world. A university workload is not easy and not always manageable, especially if you want to sleep enough, see your friends, family, or partner, or work a part time job. I think that this links to a toxic culture of productivity, that being productive should be easy and come naturally to you. Elle Woods always seemed put together, always has her hair and make-up done and wears the cutest outfits. Turning up to my lectures in some worn out joggers and a hoodie was about as good as it got. I don’t know many that turned up looking their best to lectures, especially not at 9am.

‘Normal People’ was a show that I think represented university life perfectly. Connell and Marianne proved that being popular in high school doesn’t mean this will translate to being popular at university. Once you leave your small town you have a chance to reinvent yourself entirely, you don’t need to let high school define you. It also shows you that feeling lonely at university is normal. For some people, university isn’t the time of their life, it can feel so lonely. It also shows that you can drift away from your friends at high school, that you were only really friends because you saw each other every day, not because you were compatible or connected on a deeper level. Whilst it isn’t romanticising university, it is giving a more accurate depiction of the harsh side of university. It gives two contrasting perspectives: Connell is not comfortable at university and Marianne thrives in such a new environment.

The glamorisation of university can be helpful to prospective students and applicants but I think that realistic representations are just as helpful. Showing everyone that university may not be the time of your life will help it hit home for some people that the feeling is normal.

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