I had the great pleasure of catching a matinee of Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages yesterday (winter break=weekday matinees=bliss). The accolades for the film are everywhere, so I’ll spare you my own review here. What struck me in off moments, however, was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, John—a depressed, overly-rational expert on Brecht and a professor of drama in Buffalo. Despite significant differences in characterization, I couldn’t help but think of Steve Carrell’s Frank, a depressed/suicidal, emotionally-distant “foremost expert on Proust” and a professor of literature in Little Miss Sunshine. I’ll admit that like most of America, I took a pass on The Human Stain, but having read Roth’s book, I can imagine the characterization of Coleman Silk that stems from his lifelong elision of his past, his dismissal from the college, and disturbing relationship with a cleaning woman decades younger than him. Let me guess: depressed? Unable to cope with the real world? [Sidenote: K. just reminded me that Dustin Hoffman’s professor in Stranger than Fiction is the exception here: quirky and a mainliner of coffee, but seemingly a relatively happy chap with an improbably large office. Of course, he studies living authors, and that might account for the difference. :)] And, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s probably necessary to note that all of these characters are literature professors.
This is by no means a comprehensive study; let’s instead call it an intuition with a few examples. But, dear reader, what on earth is going on with representations of professors?!! Who are these guys?! Does anyone really know them? Worse yet, did anyone ever take a class from one of them? I understand that professors, like psychiatrists, occupy a certain region of the American pysche, and thus cliches and caricatures are born. But there are two things, specifically, that chap my hide here.
First, it’s the equation of literary expertise and depression. More: John/Frank/Coleman each have a failing or failed relationship that they’re engaged/engaging in. Isn’t that just too Madame Bovary? Emma isn’t the only one who is led down the path to ruined love by books. Even Jules (the Hoffman character) seems unattached at best—in fact, do we ever see him outside the confines of the school? He bears a torch for an author who famously kills people in her books. In short: the equation seems to be a redux of an old chestnut about the dangers of literature (makes you incapable of “good” love!), with a dash of American anti-intellectualism (too much book-learnin’ will make you weird!) for good measure.
Second, on a note of perhaps useless call for some sort of realism, is it impossible to imagine a woman as a professor? Maybe just one? Somewhere? Is that asking too much? It’s not such a new thing for women to have doctorates in literature, I’ve heard—just ask the MLA. I’ve been out of undergrad for over 10 years, and I had a good-sized handful of smart, quirky, engaged female professors even back then. In graduate school, there was a collective of brilliant, well-published, psychologically-sound, sartorially-gifted lady doctors. I can only imagine that there are more now than there were then.
So what gives, Hollywood and indie-filmmakers? How about one measly female professor who’s not eating barrels of Zoloft in 2008? I’d consider it a personal favor.