British and American films about college professors tend to depict them stereotypically—as atheistic alcoholic egomaniacs with social anxiety disorder and an uncontrollable desire to have sex with their students. Independent American films such as Smart People and The Visitor sometimes present such characters sympathetically, if satirically, while mainstream films such as Good Will Hunting and Transformers 2 portray them negatively as deeply misguided if not outright evil people. Select action films like The Eiger Sanction and the Indiana Jones series have fun with the notion of professors leading an exclusively cerebral existence by suggesting that some college professors take their glasses off to scale mountains and kill Nazis when they are done grading student papers. However, only in a very few cases are college professors film heroes when they are being courageous within their own profession. In these cases, audiences are expected to admire professors when they inspire in their students a love of learning, defy corporate, toady administrators and reactionary parents, and insist on academic rigor and freedom of speech even when dealing with plagiarizing student quarterbacks and their caveman coaches. Some of these more heroic professors can be found in Higher Learning, The Male Animal, and The Absent-Minded Professor.
The guiding principal behind the stereotyping of male professors in films—Indeed, sometimes the outright demonization of college professors in films—is that they are not “real” men. They are impotent, capable only of intellectual masturbation. Frequently divorced and childless, movie professors have produced nothing—no offspring and no hot, marketable products that can be bought and sold in our consumer culture. These men have never scored—in the stock market, on the football field, or in the bedroom with an age-appropriate sexual partner. In fact, as Transformers 2 illustrates, their one chance to prove themselves as real men is to seduce an impressionable, intellectual coed with daddy issues.
While female professors are less frequently depicted on film than males, they tend to be sexually and emotionally frigid, like Emma Thompson in Wit, or paunchy and sexually ambiguous figures like the reduced-to-a-sight-gag female professor in the deleted scenes section of the DVD of Smart People. Barbara Streisand’s English professor heroine in The Mirror Has Two Faces is homely and single until she finds love with Jeff Bridges, a math professor who, unsurprisingly, wants a Platonic and sexless romance with her. Other married university couples on film, including Richard Burton and Eizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, are generally neither happy nor sexually healthy.
Aside from sex issues, why are movie professors such a depressed and defeated group? Usually it is because they are not only failures in their love lives, but failures as teachers and scholars as well. We are all familiar with the delightful phrase, “Those that can do and those that can’t teach.” Movie math professors are particularly guilty of underachievement and correct to be suffering from imposter syndrome. In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays an angry young math genius without peer. Damon’s character, Will, is offered prestigious and well-paying jobs at think tanks that his professor mentor can’t get because Will is the gifted mathematician and his professor is the pretender.
Meanwhile, Steve Carrell’s character in Little Miss Sunshine is sympathetic but absurd. When the male graduate student he adores chooses his academic rival as a lover instead of him, and when his status as America’s foremost Proust scholar is called into question, Carrell tries to kill himself. The suicide attempt is meant to seem humorous since the unrequited love is homosexual and since a man’s academic reputation—especially as a Proust scholar—is too unimportant to bother getting all that worked up about.
Other professors are depicted as unable to reach their students on any level—either intellectually or erotically. In Animal House, Donald Sutherland tries and fails to win over his class to a love of Paradise Lost. After his first overtures fail, Sutherland turns unexpectedly honest with them and himself. He admits that Milton is not an easy read, that his values don’t translate well to the present, and that his jokes are terrible. Nevertheless, Sutherland exhorts, that doesn’t absolve them of the intellectual responsibility of being aware of Milton or of the social responsibility of doing well in school. The students merely stare back at their unexpectedly frank professor, unwilling or unable to respond to the massive bone he has just thrown them. The bell rings and they all dash out of the classroom. Sutherland then calls after them plaintively, “Hey! We’re talking about my job here!”
In the British film Educating Rita, Michael Caine’s professor faces the opposite problem—students who feel that they know more about William Blake then he does, and that spend too much time reading and not enough time living life. They are also cerebral experts in literature without truly “feeling” what literature really means. Sitting drunk in class one day, Michael Caine dismisses Blake as a dead poet and tells his students, “Look! The sun is shining! You’re all young! Why don’t you go out and do something? Why don’t you go out and make love or something?” Here he is teaching them the ultimate lesson: Don’t be like me.
But what is it that professors do with all their spare time in these cushy, tenure-track positions that Bill Gates and the Wall Street Journal keep lobbying to abolish? Well, if you look at films such as The Visitor and Smart People, they are not doing much. In The Visitor we see a political science professor attend an arid conference on global poverty in a ritzy hotel in the East Village in Manhattan. He eats hotel food and wears a silly nametag, and is the only person at the conference who realizes that all the Power Point Presentations are too dull to stomach and what he should really be doing is exploring the wonders of the East Village.
In Smart People, Dennis Quaid plays a self-satisfied English professor who skips out on office hours, can’t remember the names of his majors, refuses to attend department meetings, mocks the scholarship published by his colleagues, and lobbies to become the chair of a department that he despises. These professors lead empty lives and are bitter about it. They take their bitterness out on their young, virile students. In the film Wit, for example, Emma Thomspon makes snide remarks about football and humiliates a student athlete who has a poor grasp of the basic concepts of prosody. She also refuses to grant one student an extension on his paper’s due date so that he can attend his grandmother’s funeral. Smarmy and self-satisfied, she doesn’t believe that his grandmother has really died when—in fact … his grandmother has really died.
The African-American creative writing professor in the NC-17 film Storytelling commits two appalling sins against his students. First, he has rough anal sex with his white female students as some form of race revenge against white privilege. Secondly, he publicly rips apart the sophomoric short stories his students submit to workshop – including confessional, autobiographical tales overflowing with the naked emotions of visibly fragile students.
Even Nicholas Cage’s science professor character in Knowing, who has a friendly relationship with his students and seems to have taught them a lot about science, arguably imposes upon the trust they put in him by articulating his atheist religious beliefs publicly. “I think shit just happens,” he says, primarily because he’s depressed that his wife is dead, not because of any real intellectual reasoning. Naturally, the science fiction parable will later demonstrate to the film viewer that the universe does indeed have order and that life has meaning, only that meaning is provided by aliens and not the Judeo-Christian deity. Still, these aliens are obvious stand-ins for the God of Adam and Eve. Like Hilary Swank’s skeptical professor in The Reaping and Virginia Madsen’s secular humanist graduate student in Candyman, Nicholas Cage is a fool; otherworldly forces humble him for his hubris and punish him for making his students doubt their existence.
While several professors in film occupy the role of villain, embittered movie professors often actually do have a reason to be bitter. In The Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis’ Professor Kelp is, indeed, prejudiced against jocks, and he is rude to his athlete students. Still, his prejudice seems well founded when a jock beats him up in front of the entire class for denying him permission to go to football practice.
In The Absent-Minded Professor, Fred MacMurray fails the son of a trustee member for not getting a single question on his exam right and adding insult to injury by misspelling the name of the college on the cover sheet. He offers the student the chance to retake the exam and the student refuses. When the failing grade sticks, MacMurray’s integrity as a professor endangers the college’s financial stability and the college basketball team’s winning record. After all, the boy is the basketball team’s star player and he has now been benched because of his GPA. Furthermore, his enraged father has just refused to grant the college any more multi-million dollar loans. MacMurray is glad that his supervisors reluctantly back him up when the administrators at a rival school, Routledge, pay “their basketball players more than their English teachers.”
In Ghostbusters, Bill Murray plays an academic fraud that seduces attractive coeds, but the audience is asked to feel sympathy for him when he and fellow science professor Dan Akroyd are denied tenure and ejected from their cushy lab at Columbia University. Worried about his future, Dan Ackroyd says to Bill Murray, “Personally, I like the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You never worked in the private sector. I have. They expect results.”
So how can professors who are so emasculated by being thinkers instead of doers in our productive, capitalist society ever feel good about themselves or triumph over adversity? One way is for them to be a professor only part of the time and to have a more “manly,” real job in the real world. For example, when they close their dusty books and leave their libraries behind, they can be secret agents, superheroes, or imperial adventurers. Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most masculine college professors. He teaches archeology and proves his academic credentials by finding the most sought-after archeological discoveries of all time, including the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the alien artifacts the government is hiding at Area 51. Even more impressively, Jones has personally killed something like a hundred Nazis, Communists, and cultists on screen over the course of four films, and has bedded at least three gorgeous women.
Now, that’s a real man.
The same can be said of Clint Eastwood’s character in The Eiger Sanction. Eastwood plays a former U.S. Government assassin who now teaches college art history and appreciation. Like Indiana Jones, Eastwood is capable of murder, has turned down attractive students who have offered him sex in return for an A, and has even gotten applause from students even after he has mocked them to their faces for being philistines. Other combat-hardened professor characters are less romanticized and more morally ambiguous, such as Dustin Hoffman’s antihero professor in Straw Dogs. At the beginning of the film, Hoffman makes the mistake of taking a sabbatical in rural England to find the peace and quiet to do research on solar radiation. Instead of a haven for academic research, Hoffman finds himself in an uninhabitable Darwinian battlefield. He butts heads with pubcrawlers who refuse to drink with him, country parsons who push religion on him, and hick construction workers who rape his wife. At the end of the film, Dustin Hoffman snaps and murders most of the hicks who have been giving him a hard time.
But not all movie professors need to be a hired gun or superhero or vigilante to be heroic – or “real men.” In fact, the most truly heroic college professors on film are not those that moonlight as superheroes, but those that do their jobs well – despite being underpaid, demonized by conservatives, put upon by dullard administrators, and menaced by jocks.
In the 1942 film The Male Animal, Henry Fonda plays an apolitical college professor who plans to read his English composition students a beautifully written speech on social justice by Italian immigrant Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Vanzetti, of Sacco and Vanzetti infamy, was a controversial figure because he was an anarchist who may have been wrongly convicted of murder and executed. While Vanzetti’s outspoken supporters included Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, his left-wing views and ethnic background did not inspire empathy from most American conservatives – then or now. In the film, the student newspaper condemns Fonda for exposing impressionable minds to the writing of a socialist murderer and the conservative board of trustees threatens to fire him if he doesn’t pull the Vanzetti speech from the curriculum. Fonda gives an impassioned defense of academic freedom, standing firm against the demonization of immigrants and left-wing intellectuals, and for a complete, uncensored education for his students.
Laurence Fishburne plays another strikingly heroic professor in the film Higher Learning. A political scientist, Fishburne believes that a democracy can only thrive with an informed electorate, and he exhorts his politically ignorant students to keep up with current events, vote, be active participants in public debates, and think long and hard about their positions on controversial issues. He tells his students: “Your assignment for the semester is to formulate your own political ideology that will be dictated by your sex, background, social and economic status, personal experience, etc. etc. This course will be like anything else in life. It will be what you make of it. I will not be a baby sitter.”
Though he can be harsh at times, Fishburne’s character respects his students and genuinely wants them to learn to think for themselves. While his goals are political, he is seeking to empower his students, not humiliate or brainwash them. Outside of the classroom, his manifesto becomes more overt when students actively seek his advice. He tells two students, “Information is power. If you do not have information, you cannot seize power. You must work to be intellectually competitive.” One student insists that he often feels like just a pawn in a larger, rigged social game that he doesn’t want to bother participating in. However, Fishburne presses his point. “Used intelligently, a pawn can create a checkmate or become a very powerful player himself.”
The professors of The Male Animal and Higher Learning are role models who risk their own reputations and livelihood by giving their students access to an uncensored education. These professors live a life of the mind and are, first and foremost, readers, thinkers, and conversationalists, but they are not “unproductive.” They are producers of knowledge and of culture and they are the educators of future leaders. And they are, indeed, real men. These characters demonstrate that not all professors are drunken, misanthropic perverts. Professors like these are actually doing their jobs and doing their jobs well. Professors like these, in both the world of fiction and in the real world, should be thanked and supported, not stereotyped and demonized.