As the 2015 enrollment data shows, the real UC Berkeley is an extremely diverse place. But UC Berkeley as depicted on television? Not so much.
TV Land has been slow to surrender its use of Berkeley as code for Birkenstock-wearing, bean-sprout-loving, radical feminist tree-huggers. Only a few shows are acknowledging the contemporary reality of an institution perennially ranked at or near the top of the public universities worldwide.
“There are a handful of schools in the United States that have a mythic identity, and Berkeley is one of those,” says Robert Thompson, the nation’s go-to professor for pop culture expertise and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Script writers deploy that identity as a kind of shorthand. Carmela Soprano in The Sopranos fretted to a neighbor that although she is “hoping and praying to Jesus” that her daughter gets into Georgetown, “She keeps talking about Berkeley….Berkeley!” On Family Ties, ex-hippie parents Steven and Elyse Keaton fondly recalled their “Blowing in the Wind” years at Berkeley while struggling to raise kids they fear are too conservative and materialistic, not to mention enamored of Ronald Reagan. And in Gilmore Girls, Type AAA overachiever Paris Geller lampoons one of her teachers for his Berkeley degree, saying, “He may have majored in math, but what did he minor in? Bean sprouts? Forget it.”
And that’s just for starters. Check out what TV shows really think of Berkeley in this CALIFORNIA mashup:
Many Cal students agree that their university’s radical reputation is outdated. “The city of Berkeley is still ‘hippie-ish’ but the university itself isn’t—at all,” one student writes on the popular message board College Confidential. “It’s a pretty normal university, at least compared to the 60s and 70s.”
Increasingly, Berkeley is coming to signify something else entirely: a tough school to get into. Just listen to alum California Gov. Jerry Brown, who attended Berkeley in the 60s. “It just feels that whatever used to belong to the normal people of California—assuming the Brown extended family is normal—it’s not available anymore,” Brown said at a University of California Board of Regents meeting earlier this year. “And so you got your foreign students and you got your 4.0 folks, but just the kind of ordinary, normal students, you know, that got good grades but weren’t at the top of the heap there—they’re getting frozen out.”
Thompson suggests the entertainment world may eventually catch up to reality. “If you were to go up randomly to an overachieving 17-year-old who was getting ready to decide where they’re going to apply to college, and you said ‘Berkeley,’ I think that they would be much less likely to give you a series of descriptions that I grew up with for Berkeley—protest, hippies, all the rest of it,” he says. “They’d be more likely to say, ‘Oooh, I don’t know if I have the SAT scores to get into Berkeley.’ ”