Representations of Male Educators in Popular Culture

The amount of screens and images our society now process on a daily basis is mind blowing.  I feel as though I am one of the last of the millennial generation without a smartphone; no twitter, instagram, facetime, tinder, pinterest, I even use paper maps.  Despite this Luddite app-less world so many people seem convinced I live in, I am still absolutely saturated in screens, media and popular culture.   This Mirror Essay has presented me an opportunity to reflect on popular culture and how it influences and portrays the kind of person I imagine myself to be.  We are all many things to many people, but for the sake of clarity, I will be investigating the role of my profession, a male educator, and it’s depiction through three films Bad Teacher, Dead Poets Society, and The Great Debaters as well as a recent Times article focusing on “Bad Apple Teachers”.  These pieces of media will paint a complex portrait of an essential profession, a dichotomy between the sternness of old school disciplinarians and the out of the box thinking, imagination and warmth associated with more progressive educators as well as portrayed laziness and the thanklessness of the position which are both portrayals of educators represented in popular culture.

Bad Teacher is a 2011 Comedy film starring Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith and Jason Segal.  It was directed by Jake Kasdan and written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky.  Intended for a wide adult audience and made as a commercial venture, the creators’ portrayals of educators aren’t found within the lead actress but in the supporting cast of teachers.  They are shown as being over emotion airheads, ignorant to sarcasm and manipulation.  Some might view this media as a reason to hold grudges against teachers for their perceived laziness.  Much is made about having 3 months off and the ability for a teacher to turn on a movie every day and nurse a hangover.  The movie at first made me laugh because the main character was so ridiculous I couldn’t feel personally offended in any way; it was a dumb gag comedy that happened to be about a teacher.  The other teachers in the film who were supposed to be regular teachers, however, seemed very thick and about half way through the film I was personally offended by the lack of a portrayal of a normal, decent, flawed but passionate teacher in this film. This movie was clearly written by Hollywood to make as much money as possible with little thought given to the social ramifications of their depictions of educators.  This influences the content by depriving it of any emotional gravity, focusing instead on jokes and gags that would look good in a movie trailer.  It’s hard to explain that I liked this movie fine but I think the only people who come out of it in a positive light are the children.  Everyone else seems pretty crappy- except maybe the gym teacher Russel, who is easily the most relatable character.  Although he remains grounded from the ridiculous cheeriness and stupidity “good” teachers seem to have (his sarcasm with teachers displaying strangely misplaced enthusiasm is a constant in the film) he is shown as being genuinely engaged with his students when he is having a yelling debate with a sixth grade boy about whether Lebron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan was in his prime. That being said the film does not ever show him in his classroom or have him discuss any passion for his profession, when asked he shakes off the question (while smoking weed during a school dance).

Dead Poets Society is a 1998 film directed by Peter Weir, starring Robin Williams and written by Tom Schulman.  Released in theaters across America and in various countries around the world it was produced to entertain and make money as well as for artistic merit.  The beliefs the creators of this movie hold are that Poetry, art, education and self-exploration are a vital part of coming of age. Some might be bored by the subject matter and at times slow storyline but this film was very inspirational to me and motivated and affirmed the life I have chosen.  The main teacher Mr. Keating and his students are shown in a positive light while the school’s administration and adults who do not challenge the notion of conformity are painted negatively.  I believe that the main reason that the parents and administration need to be shown so negatively in this film is so that the positive impact of a great teacher, individuality, art and poetry can be shown as such positive things, this exemplified by a student’s suicide when his father forces him into military school after he finds his son has been spending time acting.  Mr. Keating’s passion and prowess as an educator awoke the students passion but his influence, for the sake of drama is met with a shadow in the form of the boy’s father.  The film utilizes music and dramatic lighting to make its points stronger throughout the film.  I think that the genre expectations of this film as an Oscar seeking Hollywood film are what you would expect- fine acting performances and an intense but uplifting film.  The fact that Keating’s out of the box approach to education- while being very effective, is clearly at odds to the other teachers and the administration is very surprising for such a prestigious school in which the film is set.  Also, it must be noted, the entire film exists in the world of rich straight white males almost exclusively.  These issues can partially be addressed by the film’s time period.  Due to the dress at parties as well as the music played by the boys’ homemade radio we can assume the movie takes place sometime in the fifties.  This would explain why such a prestigious school would not take in minorities or women.  Placing the film in a time before the beatniks had gained appreciation and the countercultural movements associated with Vietnam had taken place may explain why Keating’s values of original thinking and perspective were not held among higher values in education.  That being said, art existed before Woodstock and Keating’s complete lack of support by any adult in the film is very surprising if one takes the film as a slice of life set against a New England private school in the fifties.  It makes sense dramatically, however, as it highlights the traits of Mr. Keating which the filmmakers are proponents of.

The Great Debaters is 2007 Drama film directed by Denzel Washington and written by Jeffery Porro and Robert Eisele.  The film stars Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker.  It, like Dead Poets Society is marketed to a very broad audience and was created to make money and for artistic merit.  The main assumption and belief the creators of The Great Debaters hold is that racism is wrong and education and intelligence is the way to overcome it. Like Poets some might interpret this movie as slow, boring or melodramatic but those emotionally invested will surely be affected emotionally in the way the creators intended.  This movie was also motivational from a teaching perspective but also very horrifying in its depiction of racial violence and segregation.  The commercial purpose of this film is to make money for the studios who produced it and the artists involved.  It influences the violence implied versus the violence actually shown, the language used in the film and the films length.  Racism is clearly shown in a Negative light in this movie as the film focuses on people marginalized by its existence.  Education and intelligence is shown as an essential, noble trait, as a way to break down barriers of hate and as a path to understanding and tolerance among blacks and whites.  These things are at the heart of the movie not only because they serve the story but because they are nearly universally considered to be moral and true.  I thought that this movie was very interesting because of Tolson’s political and social double life.  This film is different than the others I’ve compared because it deals with a very right or wrong moral issue about race.  Tolson’s hard nosed demeanor and double life create an extremely complex character with a lot of drive and dedication to see justice in the world.  He is scholar during the day but at night attends rowdy parties and meetings amongst the lower class sharecroppers in order to spread his ideals to the masses.  This makes him different from many teachers in that he quite openly has an agenda and pressing that on his students is his main goal- as opposed to many teachers whose philosophies revolve more around their students self discovery.

Looking over these sources it seems that passion and compassion are the linking bonds in what these medias use to describe a good teacher.  Tolson and Keating are both great educators, their style, though, couldn’t be more different.  While Keating is warm and out of the box Tolson is an old school disciplinarian who yells at students, presses his own views upon them and is generally no-nonsense.  They both care deeply about their students and have a passion for education and the subjects they teach.  This is undisputably their linking bond.  The characters in Bad Teacher, however, do not provide a mirror into a wonderful and inspiring teacher like the other two films but reflect modern and underthought stereotypes of educators.  Deeply fleshed out characters are not a staple of the type of comedy Bad Teacher aims to be but the insulting way that teachers are depicted: overly emotional, ignorant of sarcasm and decidedly unhip or lazy, manipulative, and alcoholic cannot be ignored when watched by anyone who is a teacher or cares about one.   These dichotomies presented in the sources produce a lot of different feelings, the teachers are either superheroes or seemingly the last people you would want working with your children.  While I found it very inspirational reflecting on Tolson and Keatings portrayals I still found myself uneasy with the lack of a flawed, human portrayal of a male teacher who is still motivated by passion and compassion.


Works Cited

Bad Teacher. Columbia Picture, 2011. DVD



Dead Poets Society. Dir. Peter Weir. Touchstone, 1989. DVD.



The Great Debaters. Dir. Denzel Washington. Harpo Productions, 2007. DVD.


One thought on “Representations of Male Educators in Popular Culture

  1. I was immediately drawn to your essay because I did my essay on how twenty year old females are portrayed in the media. This was a really unique topic you picked because I don’t think many people have representations of the female male educators. The best example you used was Dead poets society because Robin Williams was an amazing teacher in that film. Great job and really enjoyed reading your essay.

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