[The Montana Professor 21.1, Fall 2010 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The female professor on film

Bethany Blankenship

—Bethany Blankenship
Bethany Blankenship

In a February 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled, "The Thrill is Gone: Recent films portray the malaise of academic life," Jeffrey Williams describes the prosaic lifestyle of the professoriate portrayed in recent films The Visitor, Smart People, and Elegy. Uninspired in the classroom or by their research, these aging professors belie the popular stereotype of the beloved tweedy professor pontificating to groups of adoring students.

Though much of Williams's article focuses on recent portrayals of the professoriate, the author claims "The professor has long been a staple in film" and briefly outlines the popularity of the professor character in films such as Horse Feathers (1932), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), and Animal House (1978).

Do you see a trend here?

Williams's film selections only feature white, male professors.

Unfortunately, not only does Williams neglect to mention women, but also he assumes his audience is male: "We are overachievers who can only wistfully imagine the days of the relaxed, leisurely pipe-smoking professor." We are? Certainly pipe smoking isn't limited to men, but the gendered stereotype is clear. Professors are male.

At first, I reasoned that Williams refers only to male professors because few films depict women as college professors. I quickly discovered that this isn't true. In fact, I found several films that portray women as professors./1/ Recent statistics showing the rise in the female professoriate also bear out this trend in films. According to a study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2005, women constitute 41% of all full-time, tenure-track faculty members in all ranks.

Even though the number of women in the professoriate continues to trend upward (from a paltry 19% in 1970), there are several films as far back as 1941 that feature female professors. In Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), Martha Scott plays the protagonist, Ella Bishop, an English professor at the fictional Midwestern University. In 1943, Greer Garson played Madame Curie in a film of the same name, and she shows a Paris academy what it means to be both a woman and a scientist.

However, no matter the time period in which films are produced, balance is the overarching theme that emerges from most all films in which women are portrayed as professors. Several films portray women as enjoying successful academic careers with disastrous personal lives while others show only one small facet of a female professor's life.

In The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), Rose Morgan (Barbra Streisand) is a popular professor at Columbia University. Her students listen with rapt attention as she discusses the nature of love in medieval texts such as The Art of Courtly Love. She encourages students' participation, calls on them by name, and moves around the classroom with ease and grace. Outside of the classroom, Rose schlumps around in ill-fitting clothes, fakes colds to cancel dates, and capitulates (at first) to her mother's and sister's advice to change her eating habits.

More tragically in Wit (2001), Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) is a brilliant scholar dying of cancer. She refers to herself as having made an "immeasurable contribution" to her field (the study of John Donne's Holy Sonnets). Her former student (and her current doctor) describes her in the classroom: "She gave a hell of a lecture. No notes. Not a word out of place. It was impressive." However, as Vivian endures endless chemotherapy treatments, she, for the most part, suffers alone. Only one person other than the medical staff visits her. Ironically, Vivian's visitor is a female professor, one of Vivian's mentors, who encouraged Vivian as a student to "go out. Enjoy being with friends." Instead, Vivian went to the library and says later, "I thought being extremely smart would take care of it."

Interestingly, in Wit and The Mirror Has Two Faces, neither character's work life seems to be adversely affected by her personal life. Both Vivian and Rose are accomplished teachers and scholars despite their isolation and loneliness, and neither let these parts of their personal lives into their classrooms. Not so in Mona Lisa Smile (2003). Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is deeply affected by a student's editorial about Katherine's decision to encourage a student to attend law school. Following the publication of the editorial, Katherine shows ads to her art history class depicting "the perfect housewife." These ads from the 1950s depict women cheerfully vacuuming and ironing to please their husbands and families. Katherine asks the students, "What will the future scholars see when they study us?" When the students fail to respond, Katherine exclaims with great disappointment, "I didn't realize that by demanding excellence that I would be challenging the roles you were 'born to fill.' My mistake." She storms from the classroom shouting, "Class dismissed!"

Similarly, Elaine Miller's (Frances McDormand) outburst in Almost Famous (2000) in her classroom shows her personal life seeping into her professional life. After a few months of sporadic phone calls from her teenage son on the road with fictional band Stillwater, Elaine, in the middle of a lecture about Carl Jung, blurts out, "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!" and she flees from the classroom.

In other films, female professors' personal, rather than professional, lives are almost entirely the focus of the film. In Desert Hearts (1985), Helen Shaver's character, Vivian Bell, is never shown in the classroom or in an office (though at one point she is shown leafing through several books and discusses preparing some lectures). Desert Hearts certainly explores the stereotype of what a literature professor should look like (prim) and be (prudish), but the focus of the film is Bell's exploration of her sexuality in light of her budding relationship with a young, female artist.

Likewise, in Away We Go (2009), Maggie Gyllanhaal's LN Fisher-Hirren, is only shown once in her office where she is breastfeeding her two children simultaneously. LN, in fact, is completely defined by her role as a mother, and though she refers briefly to Simone de Beauvior, LN never reveals what she studies or teaches.

LN isn't the only female professor character to be defined or characterized by her gender. There are a few films that sexualize the female professoriate./2/ In Bickford Schmeckler's Cool Ideas (2006), Cheryl Hines plays Professor Adams, a cosmology professor. While discussing Bickford's cool ideas, she loosens her hair from its tight bun and says to Bickford, "You penetrate me." Later, as she reads Bickford's book, she receives oral sex in a hot tub and orgasms, gripping his book tightly.

In Back to School (1986), Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) enters the classroom to a wolf whistle. She then reads Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Joyce's Ulysses and after Rodney Dangerfield's orgasmic agreement with her reading, she thanks him and tells the class that she'll describe the reading list to "see what else turns you on."

On the other hand, some films show female professors only as professionals. In The Sure Thing (1985), Professor Taubs (Viveca Lindfors) is only shown in the classroom where she has a profound effect on students Walter Gibson (John Cusack) and Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga). Her writing assignments ("Life's the ultimate experience," she exclaims) encourage the students' romance from the beginning to the end of the film. Though it's clear from Professor Taubs' advice that her life outside the academy influences her pedagogy, we are never privy to that life.

In Madame Curie (1943), Marie Curie spends the majority of the film in her lab at Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Though we do see her interact with her children these interactions take place off school grounds and discussion in her lab doesn't include her children. On the other hand, many of her interactions with her husband take place in the lab, though the discussions are mostly professional in nature. Though the film shows Marie as having achieved somewhat of a balance between her personal and professional lives the most powerful images of Marie are of her in her lab by herself or on stage receiving awards.

Despite these numerous one-sided portrayals of the life of a female professor, there are two movies that show a successful female academic who has found a sense of balance.

In Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), Ella Bishop is a student-cum-professor at Midwestern University in 1883. Ella is an excellent teacher who demands excellence in the classroom while supporting and mentoring her students outside the classroom. Respected by her colleagues and loved by her small family (her mother and cousin), Ella enjoys her life. She is, however, disappointed in love. She becomes engaged only to find her fiancé bedding her cousin Amy. When Amy and the fiancé leave for New York, Ella is upset, but she is comforted by her long-time friend, Sam (who tried to propose marriage to her in the past). Amy returns in a few months, pregnant and abandoned. After Amy dies in labor, Ella happily takes care of the baby. Many years later, Ella falls in love again, but the man's wife refuses to give him a divorce. After rejecting his offer to go abroad where no one will know them, Ella looks in a mirror and spits out: "You're a teacher. You set yourself up to carry a beacon for boys and girls to see by. Well, carry it!" This is really the only point at which Ella seems utterly exasperated by her life. Though she is disappointed, Ella continues to teach. In the final scenes of the film, the university gives her a retirement party in which several of her former students, a U.S. Senator and a Nobel prize-winning astronomer among them, thank Ella for her mentorship. After the party, she dies at home with her faithful friend Sam by her side.

Cheers for Miss Bishop is the only film that shows a university professor from the beginning of her career until its end. It shows us someone who doesn't achieve all that she had wished in her early days (a husband and her own children), but she does appear to be happy with her life and values her role as an educator in and outside the classroom. In one scene, Ella gives advice to her grandniece about not running off with a married man. Ella discourages her, not to save her reputation, but because it would be a missed chance to become a mother.

In Teacher's Pet (1958), Doris Day plays Erica Stone, a journalism instructor at an unnamed city university. As in Desert Hearts, stereotypes abound, but they are quickly debunked and thrown out. When Clark Gable, as newspaperman James Gannon, marches into Erica's classroom to tell her why journalism can't be taught in a classroom, he begins to lecture a frumpy brunette with glasses. She looks at him confusedly and indicates that she's not the teacher. When Doris Day enters the classroom as Erica, James stares at her blonde coiffure and his face registers surprise and then delight that she is the teacher. Later in the class, Erica reads a letter from James turning down her request for him to speak to her class about journalism. She dismisses the letter and paints a portrait of what this hardnosed journalist probably looks like for the class. She gives him a smirk, a cigarette, a wrinkled suit, and a great disdain for formal education. "But," she says, "education teaches you how to spell experience." James stays on in the class (though he changes his name) to prove her wrong. As he gets to know her, he sees that she is smart and honest in her drive to educate her students about journalism. When he asks her why she teaches, she tells him, "Occasionally, a musician wants to be a conductor. He wants a hundred musicians to play music the way he hears it. If I can influence a few students who might some day become reporters and eventually editors, well, I think it's worth a try. You see, I have my own ideas about what newspapers should be, and I know they can be a great deal better than they are." When she discovers who James really is, she doesn't lash out but is merely disappointed by him. She tells him that he's been unfair to the other students in the class who have worked hard to be there. He grabs her in a kiss, but she doesn't respond physically and only says after he releases her, "Are you finished now?"

This is unlike a similar scene in Mona Lisa Smile when Katherine Watson complains bitterly to a colleague, Italian professor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), about Wellesley women who want little more than a finishing school education. When she leaves his office, he runs after with a gift and catches her in a kiss. From that point in the film until she discovers that he's been lying to her, she seemingly forgets about her anger toward Wellesley.

Conversely, in Teacher's Pet, both James and Erica are changed by their intellectual relationship to one another. James begins to believe that she's right about education being more important than experience. After all, Erica is an educated woman who worked on her father's newspaper (her father won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism). However, James changes his mind when he reads one of her father's articles and discovers that her father's newspaper is little more than a small town gossip rag. James tells Erica to take off her rose-colored glasses where her father is concerned, and she too reads her father's work with a critical eye, seeing it for what it really is. By the film's end, James and Erica have reached an interesting balance. James has accepted her invitation to be a guest lecturer in her class, and Erica has convinced him to run fewer "blood and guts" stories in favor of a few "think" pieces.

What I like about Teacher's Pet is that Erica Jones doesn't appear to be unhappy or dissatisfied with either her personal or professional life. She's single, employed, and ambitious. She has reached a balance in her own life and thus is able to achieve another one with a future colleague whom she educates and who educates her.

It's unfortunate that the only two films which depict the female professor as fulfilled both personally and professionally are more than fifty years old. As women continue to enter the professoriate in the U.S. in growing numbers, we need more big screen portrayals that complicate, rather than simplify, the life of the female professor. Instead of the lapsing into the personal/professional dichotomy, films could show how this dichotomy exists to keep female professors from meaningful promotion within the academy (i.e. women are fulfilled at work or at home, never both). Though such dichotomies are certainly not limited to professions inside the academy, I would argue that because teaching is one of the most visible professions portrayed on film these dichotomies are strikingly prescient for women in this traditionally male field . Debunking such dichotomies is important for the ever-rising population of students entering college today. According to a survey conducted by National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in degree-granting institutions has grown from 7.4 million in 1970 to 15.6 million in 2007. Of these students, over 50% are women. These women need to be exposed to their professors' lives as ones that are rich, complex, and oftentimes, deeply satisfying both inside and outside the classroom. Unlike Williams' claim that "The thrill is gone" for male academics on the big screen, for women, the thrill has just begun.


  1. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to films that only offer white women as part of the professoriate. Women (and men) of color are rarely if ever portrayed on the big screen as professors. Queer and transgendered folks are also under-represented as professors in films, though as secondary school teachers they are discussed at length in Mary Dalton's book The Hollywood Curriculum (2004).[Back]
  2. For a more thorough discussion of the teacher as object of the sexual gaze, check out Dale M. Bauer's article "Indecent Proposals: Teachers in the Movies."[Back]

[The Montana Professor 21.1, Fall 2010 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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