Friday, May 23, 2014
May 23, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: How High
[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On what’s ridiculous, and what’s not, about our most hip hop image of Harvard.
I can’t decide if I should be proud or ashamed of the fact that I’m about to dedicate a blog post to How High (2001), the college comedy starring rappers Method Man and Redman as two smart but unmotivated stoners who end up (thanks to some super-weed and a ghostly intervention during their admissions testing) at Harvard. How High, which for some reason I can’t remember (not involving banned substances, I swear) I happened to watch from start to finish at some point, is definitely on the short list of the most crude and lowbrow works I’ve ever referenced in this space, an equal opportunity offender full of sexism, racism, every imaginable kind of stereotype about Harvard/education/society/humanity, and a fair amount of bodily fluid humor to boot.
So How High isn’t going to win any awards, and I highly doubt it’ll be remembered among the other cultural images of Harvard I’ve discussed this week. But one interesting thing to note is that, its specific stoner focus notwithstanding, the film’s overall narrative utilizes many of the same stories and stereotypes I’ve analyzed in those other films: Method Man and Redman’s working class underdogs are contrasted with Harvard elitists, including a crew-team legacy snob and a staid dean; and their triumph involves uniting the rest of the more diverse and democratic Harvard community (including the elite women who become their significant others) around them and their cause and against those traditional but fraudalent Ivy League types. Across more than 40 years and a striking range of genres and themes, those dual and dueling Harvard stereotypes seem to have held an enduring power in our film representations of the university and its meanings.
Despite those similarities, however, How High is different from any other film I’ve analyzed this week, and not just because of all the weed. While it certainly makes use of ethnic and racial humor, the film also portrays a far more multi-racial and –cultural Harvard community than any of the others, including its African American protagonists and their girlfriends, their Asian American roommate, the African American dean against whom they are contrasted, and multiple other characters. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the protagonists triumph not by rejecting Harvard in favor of a more diverse and authentic world (as does Brendan Fraser’s character in With Honors), but instead by helping make the Harvard community more diverse and authentic, and even converting that staid dean to their cause by the film’s conclusion. Am I saying that How High has the potential to change our communal narratives of Harvard, and through it of American higher ed and society more broadly? C’mon, man, what are you smoking?!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So last chance: other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight? Related texts or works you’d share? Add ‘em for that weekend post!