Saturday, December 6, 2008

Popular pictures of professors as pitiful pedants: Puh-leez

On the advice of Litchik and Funderwoman, 78rpm recently rented a movie called Smart People, starring Dennis Quaid as an English professor. It was interesting to see Quaid turning in a performance at about 15% of his usual energy level, and the characters were all likable and sympathetic (at least by the end), but... the story seemed pretty familiar.

Thinking about it more, it's really not the story itself that was recycled; rather, the story could only go a certain way since the main character was A College Professor, As Depicted In The Movies. In other words, he wasn't so much a fully-developed character as he was shorthand for "you know this guy already, so let's dispense with any unique backstory elements and get straight to the typical romantic comedy stuff."

In Good Will Hunting, this shorthand had a slight variation, from "romantic comedy" to "dramatic conflict," and the story differed because the central character was a student, and the professor, played by Robin Williams, had a supporting role as a psychology instructor working as a therapist on the side. The professors themselves were the same character. Quaid's professor is a widower who's still pining over his dead wife. So is Williams's professor. Quaid is alienated from his job. So is Williams. Quaid dresses like a nebbish and has a scruffy beard. Ditto for Williams. Quaid is a crank who needs exposure to vibrant youth to be reborn. Same for Williams.

Quaid is alienated from his family. So are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the professor in Savages and Jeff Daniels as the professor in The Squid and the Whale and William Hurt as the professor in One True Thing and Michael Douglas as the professor in Wonder Boys and... you get the picture. Quaid is also obsessed with publishing, disdainful of students, dismissive of colleagues who likewise dismiss him, like Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. He's such a schlub, he shuffles with a pronounced slump even though he may be all of 50. He's ignorant of the world and only becomes animated when discoursing on trivia and theory about old, dead books by old, dead writers. Otherwise he's so low-key, so unanimated that he's most likely suicidal, like Steve Carell the professor in Little Miss Sunshine.

Oh yeah, we've seen this guy before, several hundred times. He is The Professor — and nothing more has to be said, because The Professor rarely varies from one movie to the next. But simply recognizing that we recognize him isn't enough. The larger question is, why do we recognize him? A classic 1993 article titled "Dancing with Professors" tries a theory:

We must remember...that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.... What one sees in professors, repeatedly, is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sidelined under the crepe-paper streamers in the gym, sitting on a folding chair while everyone else danced. Dignity, for professors, perches precariously on how well they can convey this message, "I am immersed in some very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. Thus, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me."

Okay, sure, a professor wrote this description of professors and explanation of their antisocial behaviors, so that must make it all true, right? But thinking about all of this led to a 2007 article by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, where it gets even richer:

[W]hat is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?

Good questions all — and exactly the ones that came up while watching Smart People, and especially afterwards, when the flood of stereotypes had a chance to settle. Deresiewicz goes on to look at cause-and-effect relationships that the movie depictions set up:

The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence: he can only hit the easy targets; he feeds on his students’ vitality; he can’t succeed in growing up.

In other words, it's a playbook for writing shorthand. Given that, the concept of "creative sterility" applies more to screenwriters than to the thin characters they keep reproducing rather than challenging themselves to depict three-dimensional, fully human figures who happen to teach at the post-secondary level. Yes, doctors and lawyers and cops can all file the same complaint against screenwriters — so what was that point about professors being "failed writers," anyway? Seems like some psychological projection's going on: I'm a lazy and unimaginative hack, so this prof's gonna be an exact clone of... ME!

But Deresiewicz concludes differently:

...The first possibility is that today’s academics are portrayed as pompous, lecherous, alcoholic failures because that’s what they are.... [F]or professors, vanity is a sort of occupational disease. Precisely because they don’t possess the kind of wealth that accrues to doctors and lawyers or the status wealth confers, academics are more apt to parade their intellectual superiority than members of other elite professions.

In the author's defense, he does go on to challenge all of this, noting that some professors are philanderers and drunks and that many of them are not that way at all, but faithful, sober, loving husbands and attentive fathers. And then Deresiewicz buries something in parentheses:

(That there are now a substantial number of female academics is a circumstance the popular imagination has yet to discover.)

Exactly! Cloning the stereotypical male professor isn't just lazy writing, it's a refusal to acknowledge reality. Women cops, women lawyers, and women doctors are so plentiful in TV and movies that it'd be weird to even comment on their number — but quick, name a famous female professor. Come on, just one; if you can't remember her name, then what movie was she in? And what was her role in the story?

(Okay, if you came up with Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession, or Emma Thompson in Wit, then bonus points all around. But you'll have to subtract half because Paltrow's professor starred in a box-office bomb that made only $10 million at less than 300 theaters worldwide, and Thompson's professor appeared in a TV movie on HBO.)

But back to the main point. Getting anyone to recognize the reality of professors' lives is a huge job, since even someone like film reviewer A. O. Scott, who sees movies and consumes their tired stereotypes for a living, can still fall for the shorthand trap:

[T]he excellent script for Smart People is the work of Mark Jude Poirer, a fiction writer who has clearly spent enough time around English departments to have studied the tribal ways of the literary professoriate with ethnographic rigor. The scenes of [Dennis Quaid's character] in the classroom or in department meetings are among the most frighteningly, comically accurate such moments I have ever seen on film.

Nonsense. In real life, professors know a lot of stuff and share it in the classroom, where displays of knowledge best belong, but then most of them leave it at work because there are other things to know when the job is done. What they do isn't who they are, regardless of how the movies prefer to show it. And see that photograph way up there? It's Kenneth Burke, probably the most important rhetorician of the 20th century. Notice the single glove, the funky coat, the newspaper, the pipe, the curl escaping from the mortarboard, the big goofy smile. He's not self-important, or alienated, or insecure. He's a nut, and he's having a blast.

In real life, professors build houses and plant trees and serve on boards and play basketball and go golfing and run marathons and meditate and make furniture and volunteer and support local theater and play instruments and join bands and go camping and grill steaks and play cards and smoke and drink and cuss and fish and hunt and know how to skip stones and spit watermelon seeds and rebuild a busted axle when the bearings give out.

Even some of the women.

So hey, Hollywood hacks — enough with the endless stereotyping, and keep that picture in mind when you think "academic."


Michael Arnzen said...

Brilliant post! I'm sick of this stereotypical character too... it's almost always anti-intellectualism in action, in my view.

Anonymous said...

These stereotypes of professors might be hackneyed (and they do evince yet another example of how much Americans hate the idea that someone—anyone—is smarter than they are), but they exist for a reason. These film characters are depressingly familiar to women students, undergrad and grad. These types might only represent a minority of all male profs, but they are everywhere in higher ed. How many older male profs do you know who have a significantly younger wife? And how many of them found their replacement wives sitting in their classrooms, taking notes and flirting during office hours? Ick.

78rpm said...

True, the type does exist -- I know at least three white-haired professor husbands of young, blond wives -- but what about the thousands of older, sober, student-appreciating, job-involved male profs who are still on their starter marriages and still reading love poems to those wives after 40+ years? The movies could at least include a couple of them as eccentric neighbors down the department hall, right? :)