Understanding the Female College Student through Popular Culture

Adrienne Wallace

To be a woman in college is entirely different from being a male in college. College was once only accessible to men and the image that women have collected as a result of neglected access may not always be a positive one. Stereotypes are generated through various sources, popular media playing a huge role in the more recent years of TV, movies, Internet and cellular telephones.  Mass media tends to depict an image of college women as inferior to men, constantly striving to look a certain way, drinking, smoking and partying. The identity chosen is of a female college student. How might the image of female college students compare to those of modern day male college students? What connotations are expressed through sources of everyday media? By delving into some American sources of popular culture, these questions can begin to have an answer, as the reality and the stereotypes are compared.

Taking a closer look into the multitude of images, videos, advertisements and mass media depictions of the female college student, one artifact to look at comes from ABC Family’s Television Series: Greek (2007-2011).  By viewing the trailer for this series, a few images standout: college life revolves around partying, drinking, and relationships. This is clearly an assumption and generalization of what it means to be in college. Although the show is set at a fictional university, the series is generating an image for viewers of what college might be like. Most people might say that college is meant for learning, for furthering ones knowledge and stretching the mind through critical thinking, problem solving and time management. Although this is only one definition as to what the purpose of a college experience is, by watching the show Greek, you could say something completely opposite of that. Without watching the series itself, the trailer sets a viewer up for the experience of watching a lot of drama unfold through drunken nights, sexual encounters, and fraternity parties.

A prominent detail from the trailer exhibits a strong divide between females and males. Males at the university are living at a fraternity, drinking, having sex, cheating, fighting and walking around without their shirts, while the females are shown with tidy rooms, worrying about their image and being promiscuous. This is not to say that the show is faulty and only paints a negative image of college life in general, but the hidden images may be reflective of popular culture and mass media.

In a review of the show from the website pluggedin.com, one of the first points made is that, “classes are little more than a daily annoyance interrupting the real course of study: getting drunk, having sex and navigating the bewildering maze of Cyprus-Rhodes’ social structure” followed by the portrayal of women through what is described as, “sorority sisters parad[ing] around in bikinis and other skimpy outfits” (Paul Asay, 2008). The show does little to exemplify the educational aspect of college, yet they do include it in the show but not in the trailer. There are many positive and negative aspects of the series, but without watching the entire thing, you may leave feeling that as a female college student you should be partying more, wearing less, focusing on finding a significant other, sleeping around, competing and joining a sorority to be “popular”. A main takeaway of this show, is that through popular culture, an idea of what it means to be in college is not always reflective of the reality- and such might be said for a large span of identities portrayed in mass media today.

As a second artifact, the Spring Breakers movie trailer proved to show some images that can only be propagations of all of the negative stereotypes about women in college. You see 4 girls going on a trip for Spring Break and become involved with a guy they meet while out at a party. You only see the girls in bikinis, looking for money and partying. This is exactly what mass media feeds to society and although it isn’t always untrue- it makes a large generalization for all of the other girls in college who don’t go partying for spring break. The carefree element of this movie, not only the trailer, is that as a female college student, it may not be true that every spring break, all there is to worry about is where the “hottest” party town is to travel to. Getting drunk, sun tanning and lounging in a bikini is very stereotypical of how a skewed reality is drawn. The carefree life that leaves out study time, money troubles, self-consciousness and social or familial pressures, is the one that Spring Breakers propagates.

As a last look into the pop culture mirror of how a female college student is portrayed, the Mundovision documentary titled: College Days, College Nights (2004) is chosen as an artifact.  The description found on the Films on Demand website reads as follows: “Sixteen students search for knowledge, fun, love, sex, and a path to a rewarding career…partying, clubs and sports compete head-to-head with classes and sleep-but campus life is only one part of this compelling story… a team of eight film students who capture events that the pros could not have witnessed.” (Zaritsky, 2004). By  watching this film, a few things become apparent. First is that each individual within this documentary has a different story to tell yet shares concerns or experiences of all college students. Second is that the way in which the film is presented, provides true honesty to the story of college life. Instead of the popular media making assumptions or generalizations that may propagate stereotypes of women in college, this documentary only shows real life stories from real college students as they experience life in university. The refreshing reality of “College Days, College Nights” is that the females are concerned with things other than just parties, sex, drugs and drinking. They experience home sickness, they worry about their friends and relationships, just as they are concerned with their educations. Overall, the images found in this documentary are a refreshing change of pace from what was seen in Greek and Spring Breakers.

An identity can evolve, develop and ultimately mean something different for every person. It is for those reasons, that trying to define an identity, or properly describe what it means for someone to define themselves through the tools of popular culture. Including, but not limited to: Facebook, Twitter, Television, Internet, Blogs, Movies and Advertisements. The previously mentioned sources, could not completely depict a female college student without generating misguided attempts at reality, yet they provide an array of images that many will watch and affect their view of female college students. Aside from solely generating an image, what mass media can result in, is a pressure for those who identify as a female college student to strive to be a certain way. By seeing females in college being promiscuous, drinking alcohol and doing drugs, the subconscious may push someone to think they have to act that way. Media affects the popular image but more importantly can shape a personal image. The stereotypes that were only seen as that, can turn into reality for many.

Through all that is seen in movies, TV, and the Internet, college girls get a bad reputation. This is not true in every scenario, but from what I have found it is still the dominant stereotype that shines through- college girls are partiers, they are promiscuous and they are carefree. As the identity as a whole contains so many different stories and individuals, there is not way that mass media could properly portray them all, yet there is still a very dominant image that will hopefully one day become just a piece of the image. Some questions that arise from this analysis include: Why must an identity be so complicated to depict to the world? Will there ever be enough popular culture media that can paint the true picture? Is it possible that the female college student is so broad that defining it is too difficult? How might a healthy image be presented, and viewed through critical media analysis, so that everything is not taken as truth, but simply an idea to consider?

Works Cited

Asay, Paul. TV Reviews. June 2008. February 2014

<http://www.pluggedin.com/tv/ghi/greek.aspx&gt;.

College Days, College Nights. Dir. John Zaritsky. 2004.

“Spring Breakers Trailer 2013.” 30 January 2013. YouTube. February 2014                         <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GnUAaeHbEw&gt;.

Youtube. “Greek Trailer.” 2 July 2007. Youtube. February 2014           <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-86etz3cGw&gt;.

6 thoughts on “Understanding the Female College Student through Popular Culture

  1. Adrienne, I really enjoyed reading your essay! As a female college student, I definitely feel like I am misrepresented through the mass media. The media portrayals actually gave me a very false image of what college would be like when I got here. Yes, there are some females that fit the stereotypical description, but the rest of us are hard workers trying make something of ourselves. Your essay was very well thought out and it flowed very nicely. Also, I really enjoyed your last two paragraphs because you talk about how the media can have an affect on shaping someones identityas well as portray it inaccurately. You made some great points and did a great job!

    • Thank you! It’s always hard to write a paper where there are an infinite amount of ideas, especially when it relates to my personal identity and i’m just glad you were able to get what I was trying to say!

    • Hey!

      I also had a really skewed idea of what college would be like before I moved to Portland. Do you think the target audiences for shows like Greek are college students? Or high school students? Or alumni, or dropouts? Who knows!

      I do think there is some validity to the college partying. I experienced it when I lived in the dorms.

      Also, PSU doesn’t exactly have much of a “Greek” society, does it? Maybe our school would be a lot different if our campus wasn’t in central downtown Portland and if we encourages these kinds of groups.

      I agree though, wonderful essay, great explorations and references. 🙂

      • Hello,

        I really enjoyed reading your essay. Personally, I think that all female students get misrepresented through popular culture. I think that it gives a negative portrayal for college. Your last two paragraphs were really interesting, because you talk about how the media can have an affect on shaping someones identities, which I think is totally true. Your essay was well written, and formatted. And you used great artifacts related to your identity.
        -Alejandra H

  2. Hi,

    This was great insight into the misrepresentations of female college students. I personally don’t have time to party. When I don’t have school, I have work. Although, my first year of college at Southern Oregon University, I did see some crazy things. But, it was never as often or as out there as often times shows and movies portrayed them to be. Overall from what I’ve seen at school, people are genuinely trying to better themselves and take initiative in their education and their future careers. With my attendance at Portland State University, I have never seen anything like what they portray in popular culture. And that could definitely be because it is a commuting school for the most part and not in small town where students would get bored easily. Nonetheless, I think you shed light on the hyperbole’s and extremes of popular cultures representation of female college students. Great read!

    • Thanks for your feedback. It was very hard for me to express my frustrations with this identity because there are so many different stories behind every identity and there is no way to properly portray it all.

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