The Educator as Neurotic: A Rankean Analysis of Impotent Teachers in Film

Daniel Sullivan


The phrase “those who can’t do, teach” is almost literally made manifest in a series of 20th Century films that portray educators as impotent. Beginning with the classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and carried through 1992’s Waterland, a subset of increasingly bleak narratives has centered on protagonists who seem to compensate for an inability to have children of their own by instructing the children of others.

“Impotence,” like any other disability or disease, is socially constructed and means different things at different times in history. As just one example, whereas historically in Western societies impotence was judged purely in terms of the ability to reproduce in successful marriages, it has in more recent decades come to have a more restricted meaning centered on the capacity for ejaculation (McLaren, 2007). I use the term here in a very broad sense, which only rarely explicitly involves a (male) physiological impediment. I highlight instead the high number of films that portray educators as in some way childless – a condition that itself manifests in a variety of ways, either in lacking any children, having stillborn children, or having children who are in some sense viewed by society as disabled (e.g., birth defects, cerebral palsy) – and powerless – unable to influence society more broadly, but also others in their lives, superiors, and the children they are supposed to instruct.


psychoanalysis, Rank, education, cinema

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