Williams garners name recognition in pop culture

The movie ‘The Graduate’ tells the story of fictional Williams graduate Benjamin Braddock. - Mike Nichols Lawrence Turman Productions
The movie ‘The Graduate’ tells the story of fictional Williams graduate Benjamin Braddock. – Mike Nichols Lawrence Turman Productions

Most Ephs are accustomed to receiving blank stares when we tell people back home where we go to college.

Your neighbor might ask, “Williams? Where’s that?” To which you – perhaps with an edge of weariness – answer that it’s a small liberal arts college in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts – no, not near Boston. Some people may even assume you’ve said your own school’s name wrong and correct you. “You mean William and Mary, right?” they’ll say. You’ll probably sigh dramatically and say, “It’s okay. Most people haven’t heard of it.”

But perhaps this will change. With the College popping up in popular culture, most recently in the TV drama House of Cards, Williams might soon become a household name.

House of Cards centers on politician Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, whose aspirations to become Secretary of State are foiled by the sitting president. Underwood seeks revenge by resolving to undermine and eventually take down the president. To do so, he adopts an unlikely weapon: The Williams Register, inspired by the one and only Williams Record.

One of the president’s cabinet nominees, Michael Kern, played by Kevin Kilner, was editor-in-chief of the paper during his days as an Eph. Underwood is able to find an inflammatory editorial about President Jimmy Carter’s policy regarding Israel published in the Register during Kern’s tenure. Kern didn’t write the article, but Underwood convinces the real author, another former student at the College, to lie that Kern did. The anti-Israeli tone of the article, when leaked to the public, ruins Kern’s chances as a nominee. Underwood’s plot succeeds, and the Williams alumnus does not get the job.

The College has also appeared in another fictional presidential administration. President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen on television’s The West Wing, was almost an Eph. The series often makes note of the president’s intelligence. In one episode, it is revealed that as a high school senior, he scored 1590 on his SATs twice (having retaken the test with the goal of a perfect 1600). Bartlet applied and was accepted to four colleges: Notre Dame, Harvard, Yale and Williams. Yet perhaps strangely to many Ephs, he settled on Notre Dame. His Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney, asks why he gave up the chance to attend Williams, Harvard and Yale in the episode “The Portland Trip.” Bartlet responds that he attended Notre Dame because he was thinking about “becoming a priest” – until he met his wife, Abbey.

The College also makes an appearance in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. The novels, written by Ann Brashares, focus on four close friends and their “magical” pair of jeans. Carmen Lowell, one of the four main characters, has long dreamed of getting accepted to Williams, her father’s alma mater. She is admitted to the College early decision, after which she is free to spend her time watching soap operas called Brawn and Beauty instead of doing her homework. The College is mentioned several times throughout the series as a “great school” and “hard to get into” and even at one point, “more intellectual” than Brown.

In the 2008 movie, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, based on the latter half of the series, however, the college Carmen longs for and eventually attends is changed to Yale. This alteration has never been publicly addressed, though the change might have been prompted by the College’s relative obscurity compared to Yale.

The 1967 classic movie The Graduate, which is part drama and part comedy, features a main character, Benjamin Braddock, who is a graduate of the College. This is no accident; Charles Webb ’61, the author of the novel on which the film is based, had himself only recently graduated from the College when he penned his book. The film begins just after Braddock’s days as an Eph, at his home in Los Angeles. All his parents and their friends want to talk about are Braddock’s career prospects and potential for getting into graduate school. This incessant talk about the future only makes Braddock incredibly anxious. Many current students at the College can relate, although it is certain that Braddock’s ensuing experiences are not ones that are likely to be repeated by any Eph in the real world.

So the next time someone has never heard of Williams, you can casually mention that it’s the home of the newspaper that Underwood uses to forward his ambitions, the place President Bartlet almost attended, the college the book character Carmen Lowell went to and Benjamin Braddock’s alma mater. Of course, they still may not have the faintest idea of what you’re talking about.