Beauty Versus Brains: Can Female College Students Have Both? Or Even Either?

After asking my friends what their favorite “college movie” was, most of them said Pitch Perfect or Legally Blonde. Given the demographic of my sample population, these responses did not surprise me at all. Both are classic comedies starring an overly-female cast of well known celebrities in today’s era. Also, these films are simply enjoyable. Pretty sure I’ve seen Pitch Perfect at least twelve times! However, in an attempt to dive deeper into not these films but the representation of the females that star in them, I read “Titillation, Murder, and Romance: Hollywood’s Objectification of Women College Students” by Tamara Yakabowski and Saran Donahoo. This article focused primarily on the portrayal of female college students and how the media reinforces popular beliefs about the roles of women in society. Anti-intellectualism is a popular theory that has been applicable in all parts of this class that can be further applied in this week’s topic as popular media legitimizes the ideas that women are for looks and are not capable of obtaining independent success in society. Yakabowski writes that, “The anti-intellectual movement is visible directly in women-centered college movies where recycled plot lines of women characters focus on romantic or sexual pursuits rather than academics or, more blatantly, that sexually objectify college women’s bodies.” There are countless examples of female college students in movies exemplified to be sexual objects, whether it is a wet t-shirt contest scene or they are depicted incoherently drunk with a male at a party. With the rise of feminist movements and advocation of gender equality, one would think that the media would change its portrayal of women in college movies to align with the ideas of female empowerment. Sadly, college movies simply serve as backlash to these ideas, continually objectifying and sexualizing women. Most college women in movies are seen to be sexual but intelligent. Although female enrollment in higher education numbers have topped those of men, college movies “recycle time-worn motifs for new generations and in the process reproduce perceptions of campus life” The problem is, these are the movies that sell. The storylines continually feature women as the love-interest of the leading male or going to college to find the men of their dreams, placing their educational goals aside. Being a college female, I constantly hear students referencing the “Mrs. degree.” It is honestly upsetting that society places such importance upon women to find a husband in college rather than to succeed academically and be prepared for the future. Instead of supporting the ideas of the redefined, modern-day woman, Hollywood casts women as props for male leads. 

If the goals of higher education are to provide today’s generation with the knowledge and resources they need to build a better future, then why are these goals only one-sided in movies? Aside from overly objectifying women, horror movies put women down by continually casting them as the victim. Yakabowski states that, “These films depict college, particularly women’s spaces, as settings for horror suggesting that much on a college campus has nothing to do with learning and reinforces anti-intellectual messaging around college women.” Not only is the media providing a poor representation of female students, but it is also giving a false impression of what college is actually like, rarely showing students studying or scenes in the classroom. For example, Pitch Perfect is set on a college campus, but is the inside of a classroom or an interaction involving academics ever shown? 

Another common theme regarding female college students in the media is the battle between beauty and brains. College is shown as the pathway to a happily ever after, as girls meet their future husbands and end their education with marriage rather than a degree. Even in Legally Blonde, Elle Woods ends her graduation from Harvard Law with a proposal. This provides viewers with a false sense of importance placed on marriage and romantic relationships that come with the college experience. The women that are portrayed as “successful” in today’s films have it all. They are smart, beautiful, and creative. The “superwoman” persona is typically embodied by female lead characters, but again, this just is not realistic. Watching these movies can cause girls to feel as if they are not good enough for society because they do not necessarily have all of these qualities. What is not portrayed is that this is normal. No one should be expected to have it all. Yakabowski references a study in her writing, revealing that “Some research confirms that Hollywood’s portrayals of superwomen female characters influence college women’s perceptions of self and other women, and create body dissatisfaction and psychological distress as they compare their lives to on-screen women.” 

These portrayals of female college students really do influence the way we perceive college and the people that go there. What is more interesting is that they also affect how we see ourselves. In an effort to lift women up rather than put them down, it is important that we speak out on the representation of women in popular media. In order to provide viewers with a more accurate and uplifting perception of female college students, the media must focus on scholarship and friendship rather than sex and dependence. If we want those around us to feel confident and comfortable when entering an institute of higher education, this common, yet anti-intellectualist portrayal must change. 

2 thoughts on “Beauty Versus Brains: Can Female College Students Have Both? Or Even Either?

  1. Anne,

    First of all, very insightful response on how college women are portrayed in the media! After last week’s discussion on faculty and having watched “Mona Lisa Smiles,” the topic of women in college is definitely on the brain.

    I think it is interesting how you bring up the dichotomy between “beauty and brains,” as discussed in the article you read on the objectification of college women. It does seem that in almost all of the movies and TV shows, the typical college woman is used as a representation of sex and male pleasure. I’m personally thinking back to scenes from “Neighbors 2” with Zac Efron and Seth Rogen and how the women in that movie were constantly shown to be wearing very minimal clothes, always partying/drunk, and almost ‘submissive’ to the men. This is just one of many media examples where women are sexualized, without any real consideration or even minimal focus on their academic and/or personal pursuits. I agree with your takeaway that it seems there are no examples of women in a collegiate environment thriving in the social and academic scene. On top of the consideration that you “can’t” have beauty AND brains. I believe this specific claim to be nefarious, as I believe all of us women of COM 440 are real living proof of this falsehood! To continue, how this impacts, on an individual level, the female psyche at college? Like you mentioned, it does impact how we women view ourselves in the context of other women and students at the University. If the media is creating this unrealistic standard for college women as sexualized beings, how can we, as a generation of new college women, combat this? My hope and belief is that, as you mentioned, with the increasing number of women graduating college (especially in comparison to men) hopefully we will start to see women dominating all of the different career fields which will directly have an impact on the perception of females in the education system. I think it also needs to start at a young age, where young women can be evaluate more by their merit, rather than their looks.

    Again, great job!

    – Viansa Portesi


  2. Anne,
    This is very insightful! I agree with the way Hollywood continues to write scripts / story line of women impacts the way females are portrayed in the education system. It will take Hollywood to come out and start producing movies with a female role paving her own path for people to start having respect and acknowledging women can be self sufficient on their own without a male figure in the picture.
    – Sydney Clanton


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