I’m starting a new miniseries on the blog — Film Club! Each episode, I’ll share a short clip from a popular piece of media, and then completely dissect and overanalyze it, because let’s face it, I’m doing it in my head already anyway. You say “buzzkill.” I say “science.” We’ll kick things off with a clip from Gravity Falls I discussed a bit in my previous post: Season 2 Episode 12, A Tale of Two Stans. If somehow you haven’t watched this show yet (?!)… spoilers incoming!
This episode is one of the best in the series in my opinion. I had a lot of fun going back and rewatching it for the nth time — vimeo has the whole thing for free. (the caltech honor code obliges me to say that this blog does not condone piracy! this is a morally upstanding viewing link 😀 )
No need to watch all of it for this meeting of Film Club, though. I want to talk about one scene in particular, which paints a rather negative picture of college admissions. It even has the nerve to include a thinly veiled parody of Cal(ifornia Institute of) Tech(nology). I’ve uploaded the relevant clips to Youtube for your viewing convenience — legally considered fair use since I’m using it as a work of commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or news reporting!
Yikes. Let’s get an F in the chat for Stan, y’all. This scene really pulls at the heart strings of academically-minded students everywhere. Watching this for the first time in high school, it definitely hit me hard. Brutally denounced by his dream school as a fraud? Forced to enroll at his insultingly mediocre Backup school? How could his life have gone so disastrously wrong?
OK, enough with the drama. While this clip was obviously written as comic exaggeration, I really do think it helps perpetuate a toxic perception of pursuing higher education. Let’s break it down shot by shot.
Very first frame: bam. Dipper and Mabel, two impressionable early adolescents, are already being indoctrinated by their great uncle Stan into the four-year college pipeline. Sure, it was the right path for Stan, but it’s a little pretentious of him to act like not going to West Coast Tech makes him a disgrace to society!
It’s hard to fault him, though; and we see why in the next scene. Young Stan is nervously awaiting his interview with the West Coast Tech representatives. He feels as though his entire life has been in preparation for this moment. And how could he not? His parents have been pushing him to become a great success and make the family proud — and more importantly, rich! His school counselors have gone to great lengths to arrange this interview for the most promising student they’ve seen in their careers. And on top of that, Stan is about to present the outcome of the most challenging intellectual endeavor he’s ever undertaken. He’s created a perpetual motion machine. Stan has LITERALLY made the impossible possible. I’m not even mad about the egregious violation of the laws of physics — that’s good writing. He takes a deep breath, greets the interviewers, and with renewed confidence and pride in his creation, performs the grand unveiling.
Without even a beat, the West Coast Tech dude spits out an utterly disrespectful retort. A womp-womp sound effect plays as we watch the light drain from Stan’s eyes, realizing that his invention had malfunctioned and shut down in the middle of the night. They don’t even give him a second glance — West Coast Tech lady freehands an inhumanly straight line through Stan’s name on her clipboard, West Coast Tech dude continues to lambast him, and as if they’d practiced it, all three representatives heelturn in perfect synchronization. The lady, spine rigid and nose turned up, and the old professor, face twisted with — is that disgust? — march out of the room. The dude adjusts his meticulously double-windsored tie, regards Stan with the same look he’d give a stain on his exquisitely pressed suit, and with the most insulting self-important swagger imaginable, joins them. They don’t waver when Stan rushes after, begging for a chance to explain.
What just happened? More specifically, how does Stan not walk away from that believing that it’s all his fault; that it was his incompetence which made him fail to live up to expectations? Further, if a single mistake disqualified Stan of all people, how does a young ambitious viewer not internalize that fear of inadequacy, of having their dreams disintegrated by the slightest deviation from perfection?
Up next: the brain-melting fears of inadequacy continue to come true. We immediately cut to a sign displaying the name “Backupsmore University” and subtitled “EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE!” This is evidently where Stan was forced to enroll after his rejection from West Coast Tech.
First, let’s look at this scene removed from context. Apart from the odd name, what we’ve seen of the college so far has been lovely! The banners display cheerful rainbows and warm colors — you really do get the vibe that truly everyone is welcome here. This is a place where collaboration and fundamental respect for life are valued above all else. The new students in the room all look genuinely happy to be there. They’ve come not so that their community can serve their talents, but so their talents can serve their community. I don’t know about y’all, but I’d come here over the soulless, number-oriented, insipid reality of West Coast Tech any day.
Now, add the context back in. The tone immediately shifts, doesn’t it? Gravity Falls doesn’t pull any punches here: the very first frame hits you straight in the gut. Since Stan is “not West Coast Tech material,” he’s clearly had to settle for the better-than-nothing option. The backup school. The college that the writers want you to know was created for all the people who just weren’t good enough. Backupsmore. To add insult to injury, they’re trying to sugarcoat it with peace symbols and sunshine! The whole joint and everyone in it reeks of — well, President Business (Film Club #2 sneakpeek??) said it best:
I won’t even feed the fed horse (a humorous alternative phrase to "beat the dead horse" suggested in a controversial press release from PETA) by breaking down the provost’s welcome speech. It only says what we’re all already thinking. Although, I will add that “mostly-bug-free dorms” are actually a huge plus. A lot of undergraduate dorm buildings won’t even try to keep the bugs out.
OK, wow. That was a little overboard, even for me. Let me catch my breath.
Right. Now let’s pull everything back together. Including the tether to reality that the story managed to coax from us. I mean, full props to the writers — they did their job, and they did it well. But do you see what I mean by “a toxic perception of college apps”? (Seeing it is, after all, the first step.)
First, on the topic of "backup schools" or "safety schools" — obviously, there is no Backupsmore University. What counts as a reach / target / safety is different for everyone. For some people, using those labels can help set expectations, but I suspect that just as many people use them instead to measure success. (There’s always that one kid who’s like "ugggghhh, [ivy league school] rejected me! that was my safetyyy where did i screw up") I honestly think the idea of backups and safeties does more harm than good — without even knowing anything about the schools except their acceptance rate and "prestige," you’ve already established them in your mind as undesirable; subpar; inferior. If that ends up being your best option, then very likely you’ll start feeling the same way about yourself.
My high school physics teacher, Mr. Siegel, would always share an alternate perspective that I found really helpful. There are two axioms: 1) All schools are good schools. Truly. Especially for undergraduate studies, even if you don’t end up at the top 10 university of your dreams or whatever, chances are you’ll have just as many opportunities to learn and just as great of a community to experience it with. (And you’ll probably pay a lot less.) I know that might be hard to convince yourself of, and I know I’m speaking as someone who did end up at the university of my dreams, but this perspective will leave you with a much healthier mindset, I think. It did for me! 2) Chances of admission for "top schools" are quite unpredictable. That’s not to say it’s a lottery — academic savvy is still the most important standard for acceptance — but it’s also a fact that the number of applications they get each year has been increasing sharply. For example, the Caltech admissions officers — the ones who read every single applicant’s essays — are always talking about how hard it is to narrow down the ~500 people they want to accept, when easily thousands of others would have been equally meriting admits. But sometimes they just have to make a choice, and at that level, it simply can’t be made based on a single GPA point. Instead, it comes down to a qualitative judgment of who is the best fit for this particular college. The Caltech Admissions website has a great description of what they look for in a “good fit.” I highly recommend you read it if you want to apply, but for a TL;DR… You should be seeking to better yourself and your peers through an extremely challenging academic experience that will push your mental, emotional, and physical limits; be prepared to persevere through the best and worst of times; and overall be driven by a deep passion for learning.
Anyway, that’s a lot of rambling, but it’s all to say that getting rejected from your dream school does not mean you didn’t work hard enough. It doesn’t mean you’re not a phenomenally talented person in your own right. It just means you didn’t happen to win the “not-a-lottery.” Moral of the story: don’t gamble, kids. (I mean, do! I mean, take the risk, but don’t bet your mental health on it!) (Seriously, have you seen last year’s acceptance rates?)
To close this episode of Film Club out (how did I write almost 2000 words about 47 seconds of a TV show? I wish I’d been that efficient with my college essays lol), I want to offer a defense of Caltech, and denounce the vile excuse of an Institute of Technology portrayed in the show. In stark contrast to wEsT cOaSt TeCh, the Caltech Admissions team are genuinely some of the kindest, most humble human beings I know. I really do think we’re more similar to Backupsmore than that other impostor. Caltech would never abandon someone at the slightest sign of failure! We would congratulate them! We would be thrilled to join Stan in solving the mystery of what went wrong with his experiment. (Sabotage??) I’ll spare you my rehashing of the whole “you learn more from failure” cliché, but allow me to point out that due to West Coast Tech’s cowardice, it was Backupsmore who had the pleasure of working with possibly the greatest anomalologist of all time — the guy who robbed ancient aliens, ripped apart spacetime to build a cross-dimensional portal, and fought demons — all while writing not one; not two; but TWELVE PhD theses. So even if West Coast Tech did manage to recruit a thousand high school students that met their inordinate standards, which I seriously doubt, not a single one would prove to be as dedicated to science as Stanford Pines. All of that to say, yes Caltech holds its applicants to high academic standards, but that alone does not define a person. Caltech isn’t just a place where people spend all day studying string theory equations and writing research papers; it’s also a place where people take risks and throw themselves into new and challenging problems. We’re always coming up with foundation-shaking theories. And we can’t wait to hear the next new idea that might-just-be-crazy-enough-to-fail!
I am a sophomore undergrad at Caltech, not actually part of the Admissions team, so I feel like I should say that the views and opinions in this post are my own. That said, if you have any questions about Caltech or college apps in general, I would totally love to help! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂
Gravity Falls: A Tale of Two Stans, written by Alex Hirsch and aired on Disney Channel
The Lego Movie
@insleyy on TikTok for the "feed two birds with one scone" video which I was reminded of by the "feed the fed horse" joke I wrote, and then spent many many minutes trying to find in my camera roll, which I also used for the article cover photo because I thought it was funny, it fit the tone, and also I couldn’t think of anything else.