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Drugs, sex, and studying: University life on-screen

TV and film is real life, isn’t it? After living in the US for a few years, one of the most common questions I was asked by my Australian friends was ‘Is school there really like it is on TV?’ For the most part, yes. Perhaps this experience of the media I consumed fairly accurately representing the real-life school experience lulled me into a false sense of security, but I do still wonder why no TV or film representation of university life has in any way reflected my own experiences.

Cheerleading can be hell in Hellcats

Cheerleading can be hell in Hellcats

Of course, I went to university in Australia and the UK, neither are the most common places for the media to cover. But even then, when they are featured, the on-screen depictions are nothing like what I lived through. Whether this is a shameful indictment of the boring, social pariah I was (and, let’s face it, still am) or something else, I’m not sure. What we see on-screen is a long list of clichés and overused tropes. And yet, we still can’t seem to get enough of them.

Here are three of the most common university/college tropes we see on-screen across both TV and film.

Permanently off the wagon

Despite being broke students, the availability and ubiquitous nature of drugs is astonishing. Even the good kids go off the rails at some point. Someone introduces them to a bit of weed and before you know it they’re having their stomach pumped in hospital while their friends give them a high five and the epitaph ‘Legend’. The substances explored may be purely recreational, studying aids, steroids, anything. But according to TV and film, no one goes to university without at least dabbling. Many a college football star has been undone by drugs, like on the unfairly-maligned Hellcats.

College drinking in Veronica MarsDrugs’ faithful companion is alcohol, even in the US where the drinking age ought to limit access. Going to class still drunk, hungover, running out in a hurry to ram your head in the toilet. Perhaps even getting drunk with your professors. Making poor decisions while intoxicated is a must while at university, it seems. Those who don’t are strange outcasts. Think of Rory’s ‘naked guy’ (aka the lovely Marty) in Gilmore Girls or Josie’s drunken puncturing of a patient’s cheek in Fresh Meat.

Partying in general links into another common trope of university stories – cheating. Too much partying equals not enough studying. So what happens when you need to write an essay for tomorrow? Buy a fake essay, of course! How could this possibly go wrong? From Veronica Mars to Undeclared, students learn the hard way that cheating never pays off.

Take me, professor

If on-screen antics are anything to go by, part of the university experience is getting fucked by a professor – and this experience is not just for the undergraduates, but mature students as well (I’m thinking Educating Rita here and Community). I have questions, though. Where were all the hot professors when I was at uni? I feel cheated.

Professor preys on student - Boy Meets WorldTV is full of this particular university-life trope. Buffy found a season-long love with her TA Riley, Kelly briefly tastes the waters of professor romance in Saved by the Bell: The College Years, Paris literally fucks her professor to death in Gilmore Girls, and Oregon finds love with her English Professor (and then his son) in Fresh Meat. Katie Holmes couldn’t get enough of professors, having flings in both Dawson’s Creek and the film Wonder Boys. Interestingly, few of these representations look at the seedier side of things – the pressure a student might feel with a teacher attempting to take advantage of them, except for the always brilliant Boy Meets World.

Drowning in pussy

Veronica Mars investigates on-campus rapeTraffic light and foam parties, the invention of Facebook… university is all about getting laid. We aren’t there to study literature or zoology, it is all about the pussy. We enjoy seeing cocky young men with terrible pick-up lines fail miserably while we rejoice at seeing young women embrace their sexuality and let loose. Thankfully, we are seeing a few of the shows go beyond the Toga! Toga! Toga! approach and actually highlight the seedier sides of the university quest for pussy. Veronica Mars was particularly good at this, tackling college rape and the way fraternities shamed women (the ranking system and points for nailing certain women, for instance).

Let’s not forget that most straight women apparently dabble with lesbianism in on-screen universities – because lesbianism isn’t real, is it? It’s just a phase. I particularly hate this trope. As though experimentation were just about ‘having fun’ at uni or, more often than not, used to titillate men. This trope is positively damaging.


Whatever the appeal of these tropes (and yes, they are appealing, I can attest to that fact… I watch far too much shit TV), TV and film about university life look to be here to stay. Maybe one day I’ll see a version that remotely represents my own experiences… or maybe not. After all, watching fictional characters sit around watching tv/reading/being stressed about exams probably isn’t all that interesting.

About Megan Leigh

Writer and editor of Pop Verse. Co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper. My special interests include publishing, creative writing, and geekery.

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