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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Fraternity Debauchery or the Ivy League Elite?

A look at Dartmouth’s reputation in pop culture

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NATIONAL LAMPOONS ANIMAL HOUSE, John Belushi, 1978. ©Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

When people think of Dartmouth, its picturesque location and Ivy League status might come to mind, but oftentimes, the first question posed is, “Isn’t that a party school?”

Throughout its history, Dartmouth has been set forth as the definition of  “work hard, play hard” — a reputation that outgoing President Phil Hanlon ’77 began his tenure trying to beat. Most depictions of Dartmouth in pop culture concern its “fratty” nature — most clearly and infamously depicted in the 1977 film “Animal House,” co-written by Dartmouth alumnus and National Lampoon writer Chris Miller ’63. The movie focuses on the antics and experiences of Delta Tau Chi fraternity, which was famously inspired by Miller’s experience as a brother in the now-defunct Alpha Delta fraternity — ironically the same fraternity to which Hanlon belonged as a student. 

In the movie, as with most Dartmouth depictions, the brothers of DTX engage in much more debauchery than class discussion. Without the famous “college” sweatshirt, audiences might have trouble identifying the fictional campus as a place where learning takes place. Much like the embattled DTX in the movie, AD has since been de-recognized as of 2015. But what do current students think about “Animal House” and its effect on the perception of Dartmouth? 

When Sophie Reynolds ’26 considers Dartmouth in pop culture, she said that she first thinks about Keggy the Keg. Dartmouth’s unofficial mascot — an anthropomorphized keg — was created in 2003 by writers for The Jack-O-Lantern after a school-wide vote for a new mascot ended with nothing. In any case, having the College’s unofficial mascot be a literal beer keg certainly plays up the fratty stereotype seen in “Animal House.”

Reynolds acknowledged that, to outsiders at least, “Animal House” reigns supreme as Dartmouth’s number one stereotype. When she discusses Dartmouth with those not in attendance, what stuck out the most was “definitely the amount of people that have referenced ‘Animal House’ to me, especially older generations… I think that’s definitely the first thing they think of.” 

Reynolds is not the only student who thinks of “Animal House” when they think of Dartmouth’s reputation, but it’s not always a welcome comparison. Robert Victor ’25 is of the mind that these representations don’t truly reflect Dartmouth. 

“I think that the representation of Dartmouth in pop culture is probably of a school that parties instead of studying,” Victor said. “I think that most people don’t know what Dartmouth is, but those who do from things like ‘Animal House,’ and ‘Superbad’ maybe less so, would probably have that perception of our school, and I think that's an uneducated and misguided view.” 

As Victor noted, “Animal House” is not the only depiction of Dartmouth in the media. Other famous representations include “Superbad,” “The Mindy Project,” “22 Jump Street,” “The Colbert Report,” “The Simpsons,” “The Sex Life of College Girls,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” Much like “Animal House,” these depictions mostly focus on Dartmouth’s party reputation. 

Interestingly, it’s not outsiders who are perpetuating these stereotypes, but oftentimes the school’s own alumni. These include directing duo Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, who met at Dartmouth, comedian Mindy Kaling ’01 and screenwriter and producer Shonda Rhimes ’91. 

In Lord and Miller’s “22 Jump Street” and Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” pong gets a spotlight. In “22 Jump Street,” undercover cop Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) attends a frat party and plays “doubles” with a brother. In Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” Dr. Peter Prentice is the pinnacle of a pop-culture Dartmouth alum. He is a successful doctor, but seems to still be stuck in college, both in maturity and school pride. In the episode “The Devil Wears Lands End,” he attends an alumni pong tournament which even features Shonda Rhimes ’91 as herself and a reigning pong champ. Like Prentice, the other alumni are white, affluent, affiliated and decked head-to-toe in Co-op merch: stereotypical frat guys. 

In a self-aware moment, “The Mindy Project” pokes fun at Dartmouth’s reputation when fellow doctor Jeremy Reed masquerades as a Dartmouth alum in order to play as Prentice’s partner in the tournament. The uptight, British Reed puts on an exaggerated American accent, taking on the backstory of having an assault accusation and a subsequent probation in order to conceal his status as a non-alum. This not only works, but endears him to the group. 

Curiously, in this scene, Kaling depicts pong as “Beirut,” the more universally popular version of throw beer pong, rather than the traditional Dartmouth variety with handleless ping-pong paddles. Miller himself called Kaling out for this disparity on Twitter, which she then attributed to a lack of filming time. Despite this gameplay inconsistency, the emphasis on drinking games and debauchery falls in line with the pop culture precedent set in “Animal House”

If its own alumni and the outside world still see Dartmouth in an “Animal House” light, what about current students? According to Eme Stark ’26, that image of Dartmouth is still prevalent, but it might be on the decline.

“I don’t think our generation watches that movie anymore or don’t know the association,” Stark said. “However, once they do I think it does affect it.” 

In Stark’s eyes, the more influential and accurate references lay in shows which current students grew up watching, like “Gossip Girl.” During one episode, two students are competing for the chance to be an usher for the Dartmouth alumni representative (and thus curry admissions favor). Wealthy Dartmouth legacy Nate Archibald has little interest, whereas it is the dream school of Dan Humprey, one of his classmates on financial aid. Despite his disinterest, Archibald is given the role of usher over Humphrey.

Stark pointed to this interaction as more representative of today’s Dartmouth than “Animal House.” 

“I think people see [Dartmouth] as a destination school, kind of how they act as it was in ‘Gossip Girl,’ but they are also so pushy to get in,” Stark said. 

This representation — which was not written by an alumnus — plays up Dartmouth’s non-partying-related reputation as an Ivy League school. In “Gossip Girl” — and, often, in real life — non-legacy students are on the outs in Dartmouth admissions, compared to students with previous connections and wealth. Recently, this element of college admissions came to a head in real life, with investigations like the “Varsity Blues” scandal and controversies over legacy admissions, which started at Dartmouth in the 1920s. 

Whether it is the reputation for frat-based debauchery or the Ivy League elitism, pop culture’s depictions of Dartmouth stick to the school despite Hanlon’s best efforts. However, all of these representations are almost a decade or older, so what comes next? Whether it’s Kaling’s newest TV show or one of our current classmates destined for media producing fame, Dartmouth’s future reputation is up for grabs.