Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat. Graphic by Nozizwe Msipa / North by Northwestern

By the time I was applying for college, I was fervently convinced that Northwestern was the school for me. Not because of the valiant advertising by the NU admissions team, but solely because of specific characters in films and TV! Around the crucial college decision time, I watched The Newsroom and The Devil Wears Prada completely coincidentally within a week of each other…and the rest is history.

The Newsroom’s opening scene is set at Medill, where Jeff Daniels’ character goes off on why America isn’t the greatest country in the world, but it could be, if only we watched the news! This was before my personal falling out with Aaron Sorkin, so I was extremely moved by the sentiment – at least enough to go follow CNN and Reuters on Twitter.

Everyone knows that Andy Sachs, the young, plucky protagonist of The Devil Wears Prada went to Northwestern. She was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern, then landed a job straight out of college working for Meryl Streep at a magazine that was NOT Vogue. This is the dream! This is Princess Diana-in-NU-merch levels of iconic. A fierce young woman taking on the world. It was exactly what I needed at an extremely formative time.

A few years into my time here, and I’m still thinking – what is it with Northwestern popping up on our screens sometimes? It so often comes out of nowhere, but as soon as a random side character mentions they’re a Wildcat, it feels like that one Leonardo DiCaprio meme. A moment of identification. Revulsion. Hilarity. What is NU doing there? What does it mean?!

My initial speculation is that Stanford is the enemy that forces couples to either break up or date long-distance (High School Musical 3: Senior Year; In The Heights; To All the Boys: Always and Forever). Yale is where overachieving high schoolers aspire to go. Northwestern is where the quirky, goofy side character ends up going.

The Evidence

“Where’d you go to school again?” asks Ann Perkins in an episode of Parks and Recreation. She’s talking to an obnoxious radio host played by Nick Kroll, whose job is based around making degrading comments about women to the delight of his similarly-boneheaded audience.

“Northwestern,” he replies. “I studied semiotics and wrote a thesis on narrative forms in the digital world.” A major in semiotics is not a thing, but the thesis idea seems extremely School of Communication, so that could be a thing. More importantly, what was guest star Nick Kroll doing at our beloved #9 institution?!?!

In another universe, Mr. Peanutbutter, the overbearingly cheerful labrador retriever on BoJack Horseman, is also an NU man. When asked if he’ll run for governor of California in season four episode one, he says, “You bet I will. And you know why? ...Because this whole ski race was a joke. Of course Woodchuck was gonna beat me. He went to Dartmouth! So where’s the candidate for regular schmoes like me, who went to Northwestern?” (To be clear, this is a joke, because regular people? lmao! Who are admitted in a completely not shady way? LMAO!!!).

It is very telling that Mr. Peanutbutter, whose unrelenting optimism is often seen as a nuisance, states multiple times across the show that he’s connected to Northwestern. It adds to the complex (and kind of douchey) image of the type of person a Northwestern graduate is.

Analysis (featuring a special guest legeNBNd)

How did we get here? Why is Northwestern so frequently the punchline, the quirky fun fact brought out for comedic effect or to be part of a recurring joke? And what are the implications of these findings on the current student body? Are we a school of silly, goofy, insufferable side characters?

To answer these questions, I talked to Medill fourth-year (and NBNtertainment legend) Bailey Richards.

“Sometimes on a bad day, I get home from work and I’m sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I hear Northwestern mentioned and I'm like ugh, why can’t I escape this school?!?” Richards said. (Though Buffy gets into NU, she doesn’t end up going.)

While it sometimes feels like there’s no escape, Richards also pointed out that our school isn’t that pervasive.

“It’s not like the Rory Gilmores of this world, where all their lives have led up to this moment,” Richards said. “It never really pops up in shows where it’s all about getting to that school, it always ends up being an offhand comment that we find out later. It’s not like a major part of their personalities.”

J-school girlies seem to be the anomaly. Whenever there’s something that’s news, magazine, or publishing related (The Devil Wears Prada; The Bold Type; The Newsroom-ish), the Northwestern character will likely be very specific. They are focused, driven, passionate and insufferable. They want to be taken seriously as a Reporter of The News™️, a committed journalist and they will make it your problem. While it is likely I would never be friends with these people irl, they do make compelling stories. Carry on, I say!

More broadly across the field, from Criminal Minds’ Derek Morgan to Bones and others, the only thing that seems to unite these other fictional characters are the fact that they’re multilayered personalities.

“All these characters are like ‘Oh they’re smart AND they’re also interesting in other ways,’” Richards added. “They’re academically driven but it's not their whole personality. [Buffy] is a slayer; she doesn’t have time to be Harvard smart but she is smart enough to go to Northwestern.”

I propose that being normal is a good thing actually! It leaves room for more story!!

“When you name drop Harvard or Yale, it becomes a big thing even if you don’t want it to be,” Richards said. “But Northwestern, [the audience] knows what it is but it's not in your face. It seems like a very normal place to go to school.”

Richards joked that it might not feel so great as a first-year, adding, “It's funny, when you’re a [first-year] coming to Northwestern, you literally almost killed yourself getting into this school and to see yourself represented as average is pretty crazy.”

I think this speaks to the often monolithic state of writers’ rooms when films and shows like this were written. When the people writing the thing are overwhelmingly white, male and college-educated, details like the fact that this character went to a top 20 college is taken as a given. Though the culture seems to be changing, the evidence of systemic disparity is clear.  

The actual famous people who went here

In real life, Northwestern has alums that include Ziwe and Meghan Markle (extreme slay, stream Archetypes!). We also have Chet Hanks and Billy Eichner (extreme yikes, watch Bros I guess). The point is, it's fun to laugh! College is so often reduced to the butt of the joke because it makes fun of people whose entire personality is a school they spent a few years at.

I encourage anyone twisted into knots about your school being made fun of to take deep breaths and touch grass. It is also time to be honest and give the Chicagoland college crown to DePaul, who have produced Joe Keery, Jaboukie Young-White and YouTuber/filmmaker Karsten Runquist. If only we were so lucky.