“Vodka Sam” Redux: Why Hannah Horvath May End Up Attending the Iowa Writers Workshop but Never Actually Set Foot on the University of Iowa Campus

In an earlier post, “’Vodka Sam’ May Be a Symptom of a Problem but She Herself Is Not the Problem, Not Even the Public-Relations Problem” [https://academeblog.org/2013/09/11/vodka-sam-may-be-a-symptom-of-a-problem-but-she-herself-is-not-the-problem-not-even-the-public-relations-problem/], I wrote about the University of Iowa’s being named by Princeton Review as the Top Party School in the United States. Coincidentally, at around that same time, a female student at the university earned the dubious nickname “Vodka Sam” and somewhat more than “fifteen minutes” of digital notoriety for a video clip that showed her partying with a blood alcohol level of .341.

I argued that, beneath some very thin expressions of concern about the young woman’s well-being, the university administration seemed very intent on turning “Vodka Sam” into a sort of scapegoat, suggesting that her brief notoriety was somehow linked to an exaggerated broader perception of the university as a “party school.”

Somewhat later, the young woman compounded her notoriety by appearing on one of the morning news programs and unburdening herself about some other emotional issues that may have been connected to her bout of heavy drinking and about the even heavier toll that her notoriety had taken on her.

Although I thought that the interview was an ill-considered attempt to repair the damage done by the viral video, I thought about writing another post that would recommend that “Vodka Sam” stop beating herself up. On the same day that she was appearing on the morning news program, a TA at the University of Iowa eclipsed her notoriety by accidentally e-mailing a nude photograph of herself to all of the students in the courses that she was teaching. That seems a little harder to explain and to live down than a night of heavy drinking.

And that illustrates the one thing that has remained a constant even as the Internet and other digital media seem to be dramatically changing almost every other aspect of our news media: a story gets “old” just as soon as there is a more sensational story.

Do you remember how, during a summer devoid of other sensational news, the news media focused mercilessly on a missing Washington intern named Chandra Levy and her ambiguous relationship with Congressman Gary Condit? Do you remember why that story suddenly disappeared from media attention? Yes, Al Qaeda operatives flew passenger jets filled enough fuel for transcontinental flights into the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

The missing Malaysian airliner is the current media obsession. I thought that the mudslide in Washington might be the event that suddenly moved the airliner story to the margins, but a neighborhood suddenly crushed beneath thirty feet of fast-moving mud seems to provide not enough video interest and not enough possibilities for physical and digital mock-ups. There isn’t even the sort of debris field left by a tsunami. Instead, there’s just a largely featureless, gray expanse of mud, with some mud-caked debris just barely poking through the surface here and there. It’s almost impossible to imagine the evidence of catastrophic destruction and of terrible deaths that lies in the depths of that mud.

And unlike the weather reporters who stupidly stand out on beaches or on boardwalks as hurricane-force winds begin to lash against their windbreakers and suck away their voices, the only comparable opportunity for a reporter at the site of the mudslide would be to find a soft spot, where the mud is like quicksand, and hope that someone other than the camera operator will to come to the rescue before the reporter is more than chest-deep in the muck. (One wouldn’t want to get that stuff in one’s hair!)

Which brings us back, however circuitously, to the University of Iowa and “Vodka Sam.” Last week, the producers of the hit HBO series Girls let it be known that because of a storyline that has the main character’s being admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop, they had asked the university for permission to film some episodes on the campus.

But, despite all of the obvious marketing advantages of having one’s university featured as the setting of a hit television series—and, in particular, as the setting of a television series very popular among college-age viewers—some of Hannah Horvath’s misadventures seem to have been too reminiscent of the “Vodka Sam” story. Rather than risk resurrecting that public-relations debacle, the university seems to have chosen to reject what could have been a public-relations bonanza.

But, to reiterate the main point that I made in that earlier post, I don’t think that “Vodka Sam” is as much to blame for this turn of events as the way in which “Vodka Sam” was blamed for the earlier events.

According to USA Today, a “university spokesman” named Tom Moore initially explained the decision in this way: “’While we are pleased that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is receiving national attention and that our graduate is doing well in her career, our general practice is to not allow filming, due to potential disruption to campus.’”

But by the next day, when many began to second-guess the decision publicly as well as privately, Joe Brennan, the university’s “vice president for strategic communication,” offered an explanation that reiterated the earlier explanation while framing it quite differently: “’After reviewing the script, I felt the storyline placed the city and university in an unfavorable light, and considering the potential for disruption, I made the decision to deny the request. I won’t share details as I don’t think it fair to reveal the plot in advance. I understand this is a popular show, but it’s my job to safeguard the reputation of the university.’”

Once again, I think that they are miscalculating. The way to make the “Vodka Sam” story disappear is to replace it with something much more memorably outrageous because it is celebrity-related. They should have provided the opportunity for Hannah Horvath to vomit up vodka mixed with half-digested salmon salad over a neat stack of Richard Ford novels and short-story collections that are so new that their spines have not yet been cracked. Or even better, Lena Durham might go on a bender at one of the local watering holes and puke on a local reporter while exclaiming about how “B-O-R-I-N-G!” Iowa City is.

I’m betting that that would make Iowa City seem anything but boring to a lot of prospective students. But it would simultaneously provide a salutary illustration of just how disgusting and boorish binge drinkers can end up being. A win-win, at least in terms of a marketing strategy.


5 thoughts on ““Vodka Sam” Redux: Why Hannah Horvath May End Up Attending the Iowa Writers Workshop but Never Actually Set Foot on the University of Iowa Campus

  1. It might not be Hannah Horvath’s drinking that worries the U of Iowa administration but perhaps more notably the propensity of the show to engage in rather mindless exhibitionism. For example, in one segment where Hannah Horvath was having a brief and torrid affair with a doctor, she pranced throughout the majority of the episode and throughout many rooms of the doctor’s residence fully naked. Viewers were not, however, treated to an equal display of the body of her notable guest male co-star, by the way. So, “Girls” may be a hit but it is not clear just how much of the student body administrators at U of Iowa (or any university) might feel comfortable revealing on the tube.

    • Yes, her exhibitionism has become a salient feature of the show.

      But it’s kind of a jump to suggest that because the university served as a setting for some episodes of the show, it would then be associated with a behavior that she had already turned into a salient feature of the show.

      As far as I know, Princeton Review doesn’t do a survey of the schools most likely to attract students who are exhibitionists. But, unless the University of Iowa were somehow at the top of that sort of list as well, I don’t really see any danger to the university’s reputation.

      In contrast, I think that they way in which the drinking-related stories have been handled has served only to make them into more, rather than less, of a public-relations issue for the university.

      That may be largely my impression. But the “Vodka Sam” story came to my attention not because it was inherently unusual. The Web is a storehouse of video clips of inebriated college students doing things far more ridiculous, compromising, and dangerous than anything that “Vodka Sam” did.

      This story went viral because it was reported at the same time as the Princeton Review rankings were announced and because the university administration then chose to treat that coincidence as something closer to a cause-effect relationship.

      • Yes, but are we sure that there would be no potential accessory liability involved for the university in the case of sexual story lines as opposed to those involving drinking? After all, universities must pledge to abide by all anti-discrimination laws in order to receive Federal funding including but not limited to grants and student loan funds. When in doubt, err on the side of safety would be the advice of a university counsel.

  2. Pingback: Improved Responsiveness to Sexual Assaults on Campus: The University of Iowa’s Plan | The Academe Blog

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