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Reel vs. Real: Peace Corps, Pop Culture, and Public Perception

How have movies and television shows shaped the way Americans view Peace Corps service over the past 60 years?

By Tiffany James

In the ever-evolving landscape of pop culture, the Peace Corps has not only made its mark as an international force for world peace but has also found its way into the hearts and minds of creative storytellers across the decades. From the early sixties to the digital age of today, Peace Corps has left an indelible imprint on the silver and small screens, offering the community a unique thrill — spotting those unmistakable Peace Corps references that hit close to home.

The experience of volunteering abroad is a tapestry of triumphs, trials, and transformation. Peace Corps’ complex tapestry has been woven into the fabric of movies and television shows over the years, sometimes celebrated, occasionally challenged, but always captivating. While some references shine a positive light on Peace Corps, others merely serve as a shortcut for stereotypical character development, a source of satire and comedy that plays on the image of Peace Corps as a “do-gooder” endeavor.

 

According to the 1985 New York Times article titled “Behind the Jokes ‘Volunteers’ Ponders Altruism,” director Nicholas Meyer stated that Sargent Shriver described an early script of Volunteers as comparable to “spitting on the American flag.”

 

The 1985 film Volunteers, starring Tom Hanks, is one of the few films in the Peace Corps canon that uses the experience as plot anchor, and the movie didn’t escape scrutiny from the agency. According to the 1985 New York Times article titled “Behind the Jokes ‘Volunteers’ Ponders Altruism,” director Nicholas Meyer stated that Sargent Shriver described an early script of Volunteers as comparable to “spitting on the American flag.” Meyer also revealed that the agency requested that he make three major modifications to the script: set the film in Burma, since Peace Corps did not have a post in Burma at the time; refrain from mentioning the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the same breath as Peace Corps; and use a fictional name instead of Peace Corps. Obviously, Meyer did not comply because by the time filming was underway, almost six years later, Shriver had left the agency and the new agency officials viewed the movie as an “affectionate spoof ” and endorsement of Peace Corps by all those involved in producing the movie. That later outlook aligned better with the writers’ stated intention of using Peace Corps as a metaphor and means of critiquing “mindless patriotism, ideologies, idealism, the pomposity of the rich, and the American Way.”

Before the early 2000s, Peace Corps made sporadic cameo appearances on screen — often in beloved classics like The Pink Panther (1963), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), Airplane! (1980), and Dirty Dancing (1987). A few popular TV shows casually tipped their hat to Peace Corps in an episode or two. Yet, as we ventured into the 21st century, Peace Corps began to occupy a more prominent position in pop culture, with references nestled among the revered television series and beloved characters of our time — think Buffy the Vampire SlayerBoy Meets WorldFriends, and Family Guy.

 

“The reality is that right now Peace Corps is not sexy. It’s not a part of pop culture, it’s not trending, it’s not viral,” said RPCV Nicole Banister (South Africa 2013–16).

 

However, in today’s fast-paced media landscape defined by multi-channel digital platforms and social media, it’s worth ques-tioning whether Peace Corps has lost a little bit of its earlier appeal and a prominent place in the national discourse. “The reality is that right now Peace Corps is not sexy. It’s not a part of pop culture, it’s not trending, it’s not viral,” said RPCV Nicole Banister (South Africa 2013–16) — now a television host, presenter, and social impact influencer — during a panel discussion at NPCA’s Peace Corps Connect conference in September. “We have to integrate Peace Corps into the media and into pop culture in a way that it currently doesn’t.”

The following portrayals, sometimes flattering and sometimes not, are a testament to Peace Corps’ enduring influence and the myriad ways this complex experience has permeated our collective consciousness. The list here is in no way comprehensive. There are likely many more Peace Corps references out there for you to discover if you haven’t already. I encourage you to email us and share any we’ve missed.

Peace Corps in Pop  Culture Over the Years

1963

The Pink Panther

“You know, he’s thinking of joining the Peace Corps. Imagine a Lytton in the Peace Corps. You be very careful, or you’ll be giving the family a good name.”

— Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) about nephew George Lytton (Robert Wagner)

1978

National Lampoon’s Animal House

“Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the f***ing Peace Corps.”

— John “Bluto” Blutarsky  (John Belushi)


1985

Volunteers

“To Lawrence Bourne Jr.,  1 Bourne Lane, Darien, Connecticut: Lawrence, Have made grave error. Have joined the Peace Corps and gone to Thailand. Please arrange for my immediate return. Your loving son, Blah, Blah, Blah. Lawrence.”

— Lawrence Bourne III (Tom Hanks) dictating a telegram message to a Pan Am flight attendant.

Photo courtesy: Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo

 


1987

Dirty Dancing

“That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”

— Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey)

1989

Saved by the Bell “Cream for a Day,” S1, E8

“This is great…Hey, I won’t have to join the Peace Corps. Yes!”

— Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to Screech Powers (Dustin Diamond)


1995

Jumanji

“…I’ve been in Jumanji…” Judy Shepherd interrupts, “Indonesia. He was in the Peace Corps.”

— Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst) about Alan Parrish (Robin Williams)

Photo courtesy: Tristar Pictures

1996

Seinfeld “The Bottle Deposit,” S7, E20

“It was the Peace Corps that gave me my start in this business. Clothing the naked natives of Bangtubesh.”

— J. Peterman (John O’Hurley) to Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)


2000

Boy Meets World “Brave New World: Part 1,” S7, E22

“I did it. I joined the Peace Corps…I’m gonna sit in a hut and eat mud.”

— Jack Hunter (Matthew Lawrence) to Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong)


2001

Friends “The One with the Halloween Party,” S8, E6

“We’re both teachers, and we were both in the Peace Corps…In fact, when we were building houses in Uruguay, we were just two towns apart and we never met.”

— Eric (Sean Penn) sharing how he met Ursula, his girlfriend and twin sister of Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow)


2002

Buffy the Vampire Slayer “As You Were,” S6, E15

“I went down to Central America with the Peace Corps. One night, my entire infirmary got slaughtered by…I didn’t know what they were. I got saved, quit the Corps, joined the squad. My first firefight, I met Riley. We started talking, you know? First about tactics, mission, stuff like that. And then about you.”

— Sam Finn (Ivana Milicevic) sharing how she met Riley, her husband and ex-boyfriend of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar)

 Photo courtesy: Plex

2004

Christmas with the Kranks

“Please stop worrying about this, okay? The Peace Corps is not going to send her someplace that’s dangerous.”

— Luther Krank (Tim Allen) to Nora Krank (Jamie Lee Curtis)


2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

“I wasn’t in the Peace Corps…” John Smith responds, “I really liked that about you!”

— Mrs. Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) and Mr. John Smith (Brad Pitt)

Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

 

Family Guy “Jungle Love,” S4, E13

“Look, you can’t run away from your problems, Chris. That’s what I tried to do. I joined the Peace Corps, and a day later I was two continents away…but 6,000 miles and all the dope I could smoke still couldn’t separate me from my problems.”

— Brian Griffin (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) to Chris Griffin (voiced by Seth Green)

Lost “The Other 48 Days,” S2, E7

“What are you, a boy scout?” Goodwin Stanhope responds, “A grown-up version — I’m in the Peace Corps.”

— Goodwin Stanhope (Brett Cullen) to Ana Lucia Cortez (Michelle Rodriguez)


2006

The Devil Wears Prada

“Andy, I make port wine reductions all day. I’m not exactly in the Peace Corps.”

— Nate (Adrian Grenier) to Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway)

Blood Diamond

“Peace Corps types only stay around long enough to realize they’re not helping anyone. Government only wants to stay in power until they’ve stolen enough to go into exile somewhere else. And the rebels, they’re not sure they want to take over. Otherwise, they’d have to govern this mess.”

— Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) to Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly)

Ugly Betty “Four Thanksgivings and a Funeral,” S1, E8

“On a plane coming home from Kenya. She was there for a photoshoot, and I was working with the Peace Corps…I figured there had to be more to life than modeling and racing sports cars. You know, I spent a year setting up this irrigation pump. Seeing these tribal kids’ faces when they saw fresh water for the first time …”

— Hunter (Teddy Sears) sharing with Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius) how he met Sofia Reyes (Salma Hayek)

How I Met Your Mother “Drumroll, Please,” S1, E13

“Yeah, I ship out tomorrow — two years. You know some people say the Peace Corps is the most noble thing a person can do. To those people, I say, ‘Is it?’ And usually they say, ‘Yes, it is.’”

—Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris)


Photo courtesy: IMDb

 


2009

Grey’s Anatomy “An Honest Mistake,” S5, E16

“I have experience to give…life experience, like the fact that I was married. Did you know that? Or that I was in the Peace Corps? Botswana. That’s what convinced me to go to med school.”

— Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) to Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw)


2011

Breaking Bad “Open House,” S4, E3

“That’s a problem. My brother’s in the Peace Corps and won’t be back for 18 months, and I said I’d hang on to his furniture.”

— Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) 


2022

Shotgun Wedding

“Darcy talked a lot about her time in the Peace Corps in Bali. And I thought, you know, how cool it would be if we got married there. And then I realized that Bali was un-Bali-vably expensive. I think the Philippines are better.”

— Tom Fowler (Josh Duhamel) about his fiancee Darcy Rivera (Jennifer Lopez)


Photo courtesy: Ana Carballosa/Lionsgate

 


Additional Notable Mentions

Airplane! (1980); Saved by the Bell: The College Years “A Thanksgiving Story,” S1, E11 (1993); Shallow Hal (2001); What a Girl Wants (2003); The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004); The West Wing “The Wedding,” S7, E9 (2005); How I Met Your Mother “Game Night,” S1, E15 (2006); Grey’s Anatomy “The Time Warp,” S6, E15 (2010); Breaking Bad “Fifty-One,” S5, E4 (2012); Orange is the New Black “Moscow Mule,” S1, E8 (2013); Bob’s Burgers “Like Gene for Chocolate,” S7, E12 (2017); When We Rise “Night I: Part I,” S1, E1 (2017); The Flash “Therefore She Is,” S4, E20 (2018); UnREAL “Oath,” S3, E1 (2018); Orange is the New Black “Trapped in an Elevator,” S7, E6 (2019) / “The Hidey Hole,” S7, E9 (2019); Nine Perfect Strangers “Ever After,” S1, E8 (2021).


Tiffany James is Associate Director of Strategic Communications at the National Peace Corps Association. She was an AmeriCorps Volunteer (2009–11) and VISTA Volunteer (2015–16).