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The Avatar Wore Cardinal

What Sigourney Weaver's Stanford tank top represents.

Courtesy Weta

By Simon Firth

If you're among the estimated 250 million people and counting who've seen James Cameron's latest sci-fi blockbuster, Avatar, you likely spotted the small but significant role played by a Cardinal women's tank top in the film.

Dr. Grace Augustine is the movie's hard-charging but ethical ecologist, played by Sigourney Weaver, '72. And pretty much whenever Augustine makes the nifty switch into the body of an alien on the planet Pandora, her thin, blue, 10-foot-tall avatar sports a classic Cardinal-red shirt with STANFORD stamped across it.

Indeed, Stanford is one of only two "brands" from our time to be featured in the futuristic drama (the other is the U.S. Marine Corps). While we learn early on in the film that much else from the early 21st century has been lost—greenery has all but disappeared from Earth, for example—it appears that Stanford, at least, endures.

According to Avatar producer Jon Landau, the idea to include the shirt was Weaver's. It was something of an in-joke, apparently: both a nod to her alma mater and an acknowledgement of where her involvement with acting began.

Nonetheless, there's nothing casual about the shirt's inclusion in a mostly computer-generated movie, says associate professor of art and art history Scott Bukatman, who has written several books on cinema and science fiction. "If there was ever a film in which every visual element has been thought about, it is this film," he says.

So what does the shirt signify? The Augustine character is a deliberate throwback, explains Bukatman. "She's like a Howard Hawks heroine. She's damn good at her job. She's a total professional and accords respect to those who've earned it." And in that context, he says, it helps to associate her with a name from our time that credentials her as "the good scientist."

That fits the pattern of how the Stanford name gets used in popular culture right now, Bukatman says. Whether in Grey's Anatomy (the Sandra Oh character attended Stanford Med), the comedy series Chuck (the title character is a geeky Farm dropout) or Star Trek: Enterprise (Captain Jonathan Archer is an alum), modern references to the University, he says, seem "mostly about science and doctoring."

Bukatman contrasts that with the pop culture personality of Yale, where he used to teach. Yale, he says, has generally been portrayed as "a bit effete but devoted to sports. And not so much about intellectualism as an East Coast blue-blood kind of thing." Stanford, meanwhile, seems very much to be "a place that turns out state-of-the-art doctors."

However you want to portray Stanford in popular culture, you're supposed to ask the University's permission first, says Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for university communications. It's her job to ensure that Stanford's name is associated only with people, places and things that reflect the institution's educational mission. Typically, she says, film and TV production companies run a script past her office before they move on to production.

In the case of Avatar, though, the Cardinal shirt came as something of a surprise. But Sigourney Weaver's choice "would be her prerogative as an alum," says Lapin.

Had her office been asked, Lapin says, "it absolutely would have been something we would have approved." Weaver's character, she says, "is completely in keeping with someone who would have attended Stanford. She's a very high-level scientist."

Lapin has received a fair number of calls about Avatar since the movie's release. "People have asked if we paid for the reference," she says. "There are universities that do that, but we do not; we don't even provide the shirts. We send them to the Bookstore."

Stanford may not have had anything to do with it, but that tank top represents a nice bit of free publicity. Avatar is up for nine Academy Awards this week and has already generated an extraordinary $2.5 billion in worldwide box office sales. The value of being seen in a box-office hit of such magnitude "is obviously massive," says Jeff Greenfield, editor of the online newsletter Product Placement News. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation (figuring a total of 30 seconds of movie exposure, times the likely total box office, DVD and broadcast TV impressions, times the typical cost of a 30-second U.S. TV advertisement per thousand views) has him estimating, very conservatively, that the Cardinal shirt represents around $3 million in advertising value to the school.

Even more valuable to the University, perhaps, is knowing that a savvy Hollywood filmmaker figured his global audience would understand what it meant for a character to have the word ‘Stanford' stamped on her clothes.

That suggests the University is now a truly global "brand," says film scholar Bukatman. "People know what it is," he says, and place it "in the company of Harvard and Yale and Oxford and Cambridge—and the Sorbonne, perhaps."

SIMON FIRTH is a writer in Palo Alto.

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