Sounds Right To Me: An Analysis Of ‘Overheards’ At The 5Cs


Ear with hand cupped to it
Graphic by Elodie Arbogast

Salmon shorts. Intersectional feminism. Particle physics. Birkenstocks. Pretentiousness.

“Squaremont” is a tiny place, and anything that can help divvy up the grounds can make one’s home campus feel more defined. Stereotypes are an efficient way of doing that, and one of the fastest ways to make a stereotype itself is by making a noun an adjective (at the risk of sounding a bit doge) — “so CMC,” or “very Pitzer.”

These campus-tagged stereotypes can be, first of all, wrong. Claremont McKenna College, home to the white guy par excellence, has fewer of them per capita than Harvey Mudd College, according to public enrollment statistics.

Furthermore, these stereotypes are hard to measure beyond anecdotal evidence.

Who or what is the exact average “Scrippsie?” Is there a Pitzer student out there who fills their stereotyped shoes perfectly — without socks? What do Mudders even look like when they’re not in dark basements, lit only by the warm glow of nuclear fuel rods?

We can start to approach an answer by turning to the Facebook group (yes, loyal reader) “Meme Queens of the 5cs.”

One of the most popular recurring posts in Meme Queens is the “overheard”: funny, ridiculous, or interesting quotes tagged with their locations.

“OH @ CMC: ‘Embezzling never killed anyone!’” to quote one from last October, or “Overheard @ PZ: ‘let’s get lit tonight and pretend like we’re middle class,’” from November.

Overheard and “eavesdropping” columns have been around for quite some time across a range of newspapers, all with a common purpose: to show the humanity of a city or campus to its own residents. In short, to bring people together.

The New York Times has included submissions to its Metropolitan Diary since 1976, when it first invited readers to submit “odd fleeting moments at Bloomingdale’s, at the deli around the corner, in the elevator or at the movies” that would paint a portrait of the city at its most human.

Half a century later, New York University’s “Overheard at NYU” Facebook page was created for “every member from NYU’s community to connect,” its creator told NYU News.

Post by post, quote by quote, Claremont looks to be doing the same thing — until you zoom out.

By reviewing and coding the 164 overheards posted to Meme Queens from the page’s creation until Feb. 27, 2018, patterns emerge that match 5C stereotypes at their most basic and meanest — those that aren’t joked as readily among classmates or near-strangers, but still live in our heads.

For example, one in five quotes from Scripps College are about sex. Not only is this rate higher than any other 5C, but also the quotes are skewed toward explicit discussions, especially when it involves a man and/or a penis.

Why is it so notable that students at a women’s college would discuss sex or men, compared to any other 5C?

Additionally, relative to the total amount of overheards, Scripps and HMC are overrepresented relative to their student body sizes.

Why? Scripps and HMC students may very well just say more notable things. They may talk more overall.

Or they’re listened to differently.

Overall, overheards appear worthy of posting for one of two reasons: either they fit all too neatly into recognized stereotypes, or they’re notable exceptions.

For the former, it’s posts like “OH @ CMC: Getting pocket squares revolutionized my life.” And Pitzer takes the cake for quotes about social constructs.

For the latter, especially for overheards at Scripps, the exceptions not only prove the rule, but become the rule.

Indeed, for a truly popular overheard — in terms of Facebook reactions — what is stereotypical and what is notable are flipped. The stereotypical overheard is one that is not stereotypical at all.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Of the ten most popular overheards, ranging from 431 reactions to 240, only one relies on a common stereotype — Pitzer and succulents. “OH @PZ: i can’t stop adopting succulents. i bought a stroller for them. i’m taking them on a play date tomorrow with the big succulents at pitzer.”

The other nine are either stereotypes of 5C life writ large —  “Should I just take the L and watch vine compilations?” — or flip the stereotypes — a HMC student admits they’re not really into STEM anymore.

That 1/10 number is an important metric because it’s not at all similar to how stereotypes are represented in other genres of Meme Queens posts.

Map memes, for example, can’t function without stereotypes. In these posts, the official 5C map is overlaid with characters from TV shows or other franchises who are perceived to represent the respective college.

If there’s a character that wears a suit, they’re normally matched to Pomona or CMC. Mad scientists and nerds are HMC. Hippies and younger siblings are Pitzer. And the token female character, regardless of much other characteristic, is Scripps.

To use a more recent example, the post “5Cs as Vines,” which garnered over 1,000 reactions, matched the six-second videos to each of the 5Cs (plus Keck and CGU).

To name but a few: CMC got a cringey party and homophobia; Pitzer got weed and a (meta) meme-ing child; HMC got a (legendary) spelling bee contestant and a math joke; Scripps got an eccentric girl and a kid with a faux-stuffed chest lip-syncing to Real Housewives; Pomona got a self-entitled kid insulting a cashier and Bo Burnham jamming to the wisdom that “a really good book” is better than sex.

Without stereotypes, the Vine post wouldn’t have been as popular as it was, and the entire genre of the map meme wouldn’t have existed. There wouldn’t be anything to “get” — no way to glow in the recognition of a socially recognized stereotype, whether it’s good or bad.

To put it differently, let’s back up a bit. The term “stereotype” doesn’t come from home or car audio stereos, but rather the literal stereotype, an early printing press plate technology used to reproduce images en masse.

(According to the Oxford Dictionary blog, “cliché” comes from a similar place — an onomatopoeia of molten metal contacting a mould.)

Etymologically, then, a stereotype is not a categorization (or miscategorization) of people or objects. It’s a production of them.

Feminist theorist Judith Butler and plenty of others have a lot to say on the matter of this sort of productive representation, like the way in which gender is performative and must be actively done rather than passively inhabited.

The same applies, in broad strokes, to the performance and production of the stereotyped 5Cer — something that must be repeated, by the person filling it and the one measuring them, in order to exist at all.

Map memes and other genres — including the “5Cs as…” school substitution memes, which nearly ripped the memetic fabric of Claremont net culture, among other factors — produce the same stereotypes that they rely on to exist at all.

Overheards, meanwhile, are a chance to push back.

Rather than reaching out to other parts of popular culture to match them to parts of Claremont, overheards match Claremont to itself. The inside of the Claremont bubble is mirrored, and it distorts. But sometimes that’s what we need.

As I was researching and writing this piece, one quote overheard at the Motley kept popping back out to me from my spreadsheet:

“‘Do you go to Scripps?’

‘No I go to Mudd.’

‘Oh, you look pretty normal for going to Mudd.’”

Two hundred and sixty-six reacts.

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