How Stanford women, fictional and real, transform the university’s image in films

April 5, 2023, 12:07 p.m.

TV shows and movies often contain references to outside institutions and can shape the audience’s impression. Stanford University, specifically, has a significant footprint in film. Stanford-affiliated women, whether fictional characters or real Stanford alumni in the industry, are actively shaping how the University is perceived.

The second Avatar movie, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” premiered in December of 2022. The movie focuses on humans using advanced technology to try to take over the planet Pandora, home to the Na’vi, an extraterrestrial species with blue skin.

The popular sci-fi movie contains an intriguing Stanford reference. The protagonist in the first “Avatar” movie, the brilliant xenobotanist Dr. Grace Augustine, always wears a dark red tank top with the word “STANFORD” written on it. Augustine is played by Sigourney Weaver ’72, who decided to wear the cardinal shirt to pay tribute to her alma mater, where her acting career began. According to Scott Bukatman, Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford, the reference to the university helped the audience to see Augustine as “the good scientist.”

Other productions have more explicit connections to Stanford. The TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” popular among young adults, includes the character Dr. Cristina Yang, who received a medical degree from Stanford University.

Stanford medical experts also contributed behind the scenes to “Grey’s Anatomy’s” scientific accuracy. Adela Wu, Resident Physician for the Department of Neurology at Stanford University, helps fact-check the show’s plot in collaboration with others.

Perhaps the most well-known fictional Stanford alumna in popular culture is Gabriella Montez in “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” the third movie in the High School Musical series. The film features Montez, one of the leads, getting accepted into Stanford University and going to campus to attend a pre-college program for high-achieving students.

A small part of the movie was filmed right on Stanford’s campus. Many locations on campus were pictured in the movie: the History Corner, Green Library and the New Guinea Sculpture Garden. Although Stanford rarely grants permission to filming on campus, it accommodated this film because it could help portray Stanford as an accessible institution.

As portrayed in the series and others, the aforementioned women’s Stanford affiliation seems to be a direct testament to their academic and professional success. They make significant scientific discoveries, save lives and pursue their dreams.

The high-achieving Stanford alumni in the film industry seem to further correlate the university with success; many become acclaimed directors, actors and more. The student body currently includes talents, such as Ethan Josh Lee ’23, who was cast in Wes Anderson’s newest film “Asteroid City,” and Lauren Boles ’26, who appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Glee.” Even the co-founder and the current CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings ’88, is a Stanford alumnus.

However, like other prestigious universities, popular references to Stanford tend to be associated with a common stereotype of being over-achieving and preppy. Stanford alumni in the film industry have been changing this stereotype.

Issa Rae ’07, who created and starred as the African-American character Issa Dee in the TV series “Insecure,” did just that. In the series, a group of friends reunite at Stanford for their 15th anniversary of graduation. During the reunion, Dee meets successful classmates, whose achievements enhance Stanford’s positive image.

However, the show goes beyond portraying Stanford as a high-achieving institution. The show revolves around Dee’s desire to work hard despite uncomfortable situations. It tells the audience that success is not given to the Stanford alumni on a silver platter. The series does not shy away from portraying racial tensions that Dee faces.

Through Dee’s friendships, Rae gives the audience a peek into Stanford’s tight-knit community that could last for more than just the undergraduate years. “Insecure’s” exploration of alumni’s real-life struggles also leads the audience to consider the university as a dynamic place, which fosters relationships that help one navigate those tensions.

Films have an increasing influence on people. The image of Stanford University in films is constantly evolving, and women affiliated with the university have been a strong driving force.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Aarushi Dedhiya is a high school writer in The Daily's Winter Journalism Workshop. Contact The Daily's programs at workshop 'at'

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