Brain like Berkeley: The campus in popular culture

Illustration by Lauren Glasby and Photo by Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

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Let’s get down to the facts: Going to a school so well-recognized that it’s casually mentioned in the media is really cool.

Who among us hasn’t felt a little rush of excitement upon watching Frank Abagnale lie to his girlfriend’s parents about obtaining a degree from the UC Berkeley School of Law  in “Catch Me If You Can, or hearing Frank Ocean’s alliterative UC Berkeley reference in the song “Novacaine” (“Brain like Berkeley”)?

Frank Ocean cares about the school you attend! Maybe he’s even been here. He thinks it’s so intellectual that he included it in a stealthy double entendre.

But on top of the obvious validation that it brings, references to UC Berkeley in pop culture also represent an attempt to capture the exhilarating energy surrounding it. There’s something electric about the campus: some combination of passion and history and drugs and youth that instills it with an intoxicating quality that pop culture keeps returning to.

In “The Crying of Lot 49,” Thomas Pynchon captures this vibe in a spot-on description of Sproul Plaza, writing “She came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blonde hair, horn rims, bicycle slopes in the sun, bookbags, swinging card tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM’s, YAF’s, VDC’s, suds in the fountain, students nose to nose in dialogue.”

Though the book was published in 1965, it’s fair to say that the campus hasn’t changed much, aside from a few more snapbacks and the drought-inspired draining of the fountain. Nonetheless, the spirit remains the same.

Of course, the campus’s famous (or notorious) liberalism and its prominence in various counterculture movements also tend to be the basis of its reference in film, television and music. Some stock Vietnam protesters in “Forrest Gump” purport to be from UC Berkeley, Lana’s skinny-dipping parents are campus professors in “Archer” and singer Ezra Koenig chimes, “Your girl was in Berkeley with her communist reader,” in Vampire Weekend’s “Step.”

UC Berkeley is unique in the fact that it’s a top-ranked university, but it’s also a public school. We get all the brains, but we also get diversity and an open campus, allowing for the presence of prominent Berkeley figures such as The Guy Who’s Always Doing Tai Chi in Wheeler Hall. We’re smart, but not preppy, making the school a haven for fringey, radical ideas that you just can’t find in “proper” company — and there’s nowhere else quite like it. It fills a niche in media that no other school can.

And it’s true: Most of the depictions of UC Berkeley in media fall into a familiar trope. They show us as a school of spaced-out hippies, angry social justice warriors and naive idealists.

While this stereotype certainly doesn’t even come close to capturing the average UC Berkeley student (though I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t apply to some of us), the guiding principle of these portrayals presents an undeniable truth about the culture of our school.

We believe in change, no matter how far-fetched it may be. That’s why sometimes you pass more than one protest on your way to class, why your roommate studies 20 hours a day to figure out something about cancer research and why you’re near-assaulted by people with flyers every time you pass through Sproul Plaza. We may all have our own ideas about how to get there, but we’re willing to put in the work to achieve progress.

In “The Graduate,” UC Berkeley is the site of Benjamin Braddock’s romantic but completely illogical decision to propose to Elaine Robinson, the daughter of the older woman with whom he’s been having an affair. Whereas, in “Dharma Bums,” Ray Smith spends a great deal of his time on and around campus hanging out with his friend Japhy Ryder, a Buddhist scholar who helps him begin his path to enlightenment.

In both cases, these hopeful, crackpot ideas don’t really work out for the characters, but it’s the intention behind it that speaks to the spirit of the school. Maybe sometimes we Berkeleyans get ahead of ourselves. We get a little overzealous and idealistic, but it’s all part of our charm, or sometimes it’s even the key to our success.

As Meadow reminds her father when she wants to attend UC Berkeley in “The Sopranos”: “There are more nobel prize winners in the San Francisco Bay Area than anywhere else on the planet” — and seven are actually professors here. So, maybe our penchant for believing in the impossible has some backing.

Either way, beneath all the images of UC Berkeley students as dirty marxists screaming about how they’re going to change the world is the revelation that our university is the premiere symbol for youth, hope and change, no matter the attached ideology.


Contact Jessica Lynn at [email protected]