Diplomacy on the Silver Screen: Model UN from a Pop Culture Perspective

by arhoades on December 20, 2013

MUN is a many-splendored thing—when given your all, it simultaneously serves as your academic, social, and professional lives. It can provide you with a vast and varied knowledge of global affairs, ensure you attend awesome parties, and help you form invaluable professional and personal networks. It weds scholastic and social pursuits, and puts you through your paces in the most unconventional of ways.  But even for those of us who are veterans of the circuit, describing and defining Model UN and all it entails is no easy feat.  Ultimately, Model UN is one of those things that you have to experience to truly understand, which is why, when asked about MUN, my gut reaction is always to tell people, “You had to be there.”

Of course, here at Best Delegate, one of our goals is to enable as many people as possible to “be there” for the MUN experience. Over the past year, we’ve regaled our readers with tales of conferences far and wide, talked you through tips for delegate strategy, established metrics for measuring success in Model UN, and provided you with insight into trends across the MUN circuit. But as 2013 winds to a close, it seems a fitting time to take a step outside of the bubble and look at how Model UN is portrayed in other arenas, and by people who are not actively engaged in the MUN experience.

Public perception of Model UN has evolved from supposing it to be a stuffy school activity to identifying it as an intriguing, socially-vibrant experience. MUN has slowly been gaining more recognition in the mainstream media, and the entertainment industry has taken a few stabs at depicting these diplomatic endeavors on the silver screen. The results range from hilariously inaccurate to inadvertently ingenious, but all provide us with invaluable insights into how the rest of the world views our favorite pastime. And so, without further ado, let’s look at some of the greatest MUN-themed hits in the pop culture parade.

Take One: Winning London (2001)

Winning_London

Few would describe the works of the Olsen twins as visionary, but their 2001 film Winning London was years ahead of its time when it comes to pop culture portrayals of Model UN. To my knowledge, it remains the only film with an exclusively MUN-centric plot, and for this reason, has become something of a cult classic for Model UN teams around the world.

Much like any Mary-Kate and Ashley movie, the plot of Winning London involves boys, shopping, and lots of teenage spirit. This time, however, the usual shenanigans are set against the backdrop of an international high school-level Model UN conference hosted in London. If this movie is to be believed, participating in MUN will land you a royal engagement, allow you the chance for endless sightseeing and mingling with nobility, and launch your career as a runway model, all while representing the United Kingdom in a cutthroat committee.

While Model UN may not be the promised land it’s depicted to be in this movie, there are elements of truth to this depiction. Model UN does allow for extensive travel and experiencing of other cultures, in limited windows outside of committee sessions, of course, and can certainly spark the kind of inter-committee romances seen in the film, though not necessarily with nobility. Additionally, the seemingly ridiculous methods—including bribery with food and trinkets, kidnapping delegates, and gathering signatures from bored or uninterested parties—the Olsens’ MUN team uses to win over other delegates, while perhaps not so overt in real-life GAs, are definitely a component of MUN. Therefore, while the film certainly plays up the extra-committee elements of MUN, it entertainingly captures the “Vegas” element of Model UN—the idea that the rules of everyday life are suspended during conferences, and anything that does happen in committee stays in committee.

Take Two: The Decemberists, “16 Military Wives” (2009)

military wives

Released in 2009, the music video for The Decemberists single “16 Military Wives” utilizes Model UN as a convenient vehicle for illustrating their political message.  Inspired by the lead-up to the decision to go to war in Iraq, the music video riffs on the playground politics so often seen in real-life diplomacy. The video opens with an introduction of various delegates at what appears to be a high school MUN simulation, identifying the delegate representing the US as a power-hungry delegate, the delegate of France as an academic and sports superstar, and the delegate of Luxembourg as the US’s punching-bag. In the course of committee, the US delegate is portrayed as a bully who deals in extremes, almost instantly resorting to declaring war on Luxembourg as an expression of his personal frustration. Like Winning London, the “16 Military Wives” video depicts ludicrous committee antics. In this case, committee strategy becomes an extension of personal vendettas—pursuant to his declaration of war, the delegate of the US uses his minions to prevent Luxembourg from eating lunch or using the bathroom, to attack him with paper balls and airplanes, and to generally make his life miserable. Other delegates band together to stymie the US’s advances, through the medium of, what else, song.

Again, while doubtlessly entertaining, the depiction of Model UN in this video is definitely a caricature of the truth. If anything, this view of Model UN would be most similar to a crisis committee on a Sunday.

Take Three:  Community, “Geography of Global Conflict” (2011)

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The Community episode entitled “Geography of Global Conflict” centers on the rivalry between two newly-formed Model UN teams at the college. Two students each get the idea to start a Model UN team at Greendale, their community college, but must battle for their survival when their professor advises them that there may only be one Model UN club at the college. The ensuing competition is based on a proposal from one of the students that there can be two United Nations, and their professor agrees, with the qualification that each UN serve as an envoy for two parallel worlds. In order to judge which Model UN team is better, the teams are assigned a conflict, to which they must come up with a solution. The team with the better solution (as decided by the professor) wins and gets to stay on as the school’s team. A series of hilarious exchanges and theories later, one group finally gains supremacy over the other by trying to forge a peace treaty between the two UNs. Hilariously enough, their politically-jaded professor sees this as the most true-to-life diplomatic action (deeming this offer of peace an “empty promise”), and declares the initiating team the winners of the competition.

I’ve been in many a joint-crisis committee in my MUN career, but never have I seen dual and dueling UNs! While the premise of this episode is comical, this depiction of MUN does reflect the basic model of being given a problem or crisis and having to craft a solution. This is, of course, the basis for resolutions and directives. Unfortunately, this episode of Community is more pantomime and less documentary when it comes to  the resolution-writing and lobbying process, but it is an entertaining piece nonetheless, and reminds me of select training exercises for my own team where we would pick the most impossible and elaborate issues and crises as the basis for our simulations in order to test our extemporaneous speaking abilities and to force ourselves to think outside the box when coming up with solutions.

Take Four: Parks and Recreation, “The Treaty” (2011)

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To the delight of MUN fans everywhere, around the same time as Community aired their take on Model UN, Parks and Recreation released an episode called “The Treaty,” in which Amy Poehler’s character runs a simulation of the Security Council. As City Councilor, Leslie Knope is put in charge of the local high school’s Model UN conference, and participates as the delegate of Denmark, while her ex, Ben, is assigned Peru. The task set for the session is to solve a food crisis; however, the conference quickly devolves into declarations of war and backroom negotiations to cut other countries out of the treaty the delegates are drafting. In the end, the delegates end up completely ignoring the food crisis issue in favor of focusing on the war that has been declared between Denmark and Peru, and the rivalry between the two countries’ delegates.

While no self-respecting chair would allow their committee to fall to pieces in the manner that the Parks and Rec’s simulation did, this episode reflects the unlikely (and often unrealistic) alliances that can be formed in the course of MUN committees (where the alliances are based on relationships between individual delegates rather than country policy), as well as the common pitfall of voting as blocks based on theoretical regional alliances. In fact, this inane fictional war between Denmark and Peru isn’t even the most absurd event I have witnessed on the MUN circuit. In the various committees in which I have chaired or participated, I have seen the formation of a Middle Eastern-based P5 (comprised of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Afghanistan), the entirety of Africa voting as a unified block, and war declared between the US and the UK (well after the American Revolution). Now that’s entertainment.

Take Five: Mad Men, “Favors”(2013)

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Most recently, Mad Men released an episode called “Favors” that sees Sally (daughter of the scotch-ad-gorgeous Don Draper) attending a Model UN conference in Manhattan. While the episode does not show much of the simulation, the most insight can be gained from Mrs. Draper’s characterization of Model UN (or diplomacy club, as she calls it) as “just another excuse to make out…just like everything else in this country.” Her concerns over letting her daughter attend the conference are exacerbated by Sally being only one of two girls in her Model UN club, and the largely unsupervised social events at the conference. Still, while Sally’s friend Julie seems to be in it for the social events, Sally appears to have a genuine interest in the club and the conference.

Of course, being set in the 1960s, the Mad Men rendition of Model UN isn’t entirely consistent with today’s realities, but if the New York Times feature on MUN is anything to go by, MUN is still a promiscuous and socially-fueled enterprise. Still, let us not forget that while fun and socializing is an inherent part of any conference, the committee sessions are where the bulk of a delegate’s time and energy are spent. Through the forum of committee, delegates can gain a unique perspective on the world, learn how best to express, defend, and negotiate for their ideas, and meet some of the most interesting people to populate the earth, all while having the time of their lives.

 

While it is a wonderful thing that MUN is starting to permeate pop culture and reach a wider audience, the various portrayals and view of MUN in the media should be taken with a grain of salt, as the MUN experience is a deeply personal and unique one whose lasting impact is difficult to describe to those who have not experienced the MUN phenomenon themselves. The magic of Model UN happens in the unscripted moments—the rush you get when taking the podium to defend your ideas and ideals, the thrill of the chase for that vital vote, the satisfaction of collaboration, the broadening of your mind to encompass all perspectives, and the intense joy you feel realizing that, exhausted as you may be when returning from a conference to your everyday life, you feel more awake and more invigorated than you have ever felt before. So by all means read about Model UN, watch it played out on the screen, and soak up all the pop culture references. But if ever you’re given the chance, be there.

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  • alum

    you forgot about Model UN in How I met your mother–most of season 9

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