Class, Masculinity, and Parental Abandonment in the Boarding School Drama

Sure, maybe if you’re lucky at boarding school, you’ll get the kind of inspirational English teacher who shows you how to seize the day and march to the beat of your own drummer (that is, if he isn’t unceremoniously fired after his first semester). But for the most part, the boarding school movie is uniquely bleak in its depiction of the lives of its male students, creating an indictment of the upper class lifestyles that encourage such an arrangement. These films also offer a thoughtful interpretation of the classic coming-of-age narrative: What kind of men are these boys being molded into, and by who?

There’s an inherent tradeoff in the lives of the boys in boarding school films. They come from wealthy families with a lot of sway in the worlds of business and politics, and it’s these connections that will ensure their success as future one-percenters. But at the same time, admission into a boarding school requires the effective severing of these bonds, creating an atmosphere of abandonment and emotional neglect. The Holdovers revolves around a teenage boy who has been left behind at boarding school to fend for himself over the winter holidays, because his mother decided that she would prefer to spend time alone with her new husband. The opening scene of Dead Poets Society shows the new crop of students being dropped off, many of them mere boys who are clearly overwhelmed by the transition of living away from home for the first time at the age of just 10 or 11. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), although much older than the youngest students, struggles with the new environment as well, his crippling shyness making it difficult for him to make connections with his classmates without the support of John Keating (Robin Williams) and an extroverted roommate, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard).

Their parents may not be physically present to provide guidance or a sense of belonging, but their expectations certainly follow their children to boarding school. There’s an implicit contract within these upper-class families: Their children will be given the best of everything, but in exchange, they must lead a life that their parents approve of. For most of them, that means going on to study at Harvard or Yale, then entering into a suitably white-collar career and leading a thoroughly respectable life. There’s not a lot of room for kids to follow their own passions, so subsumed are they by the weighty demands of their parents. All of the boys in Dead Poets Society are pressured into throwing Keating, the only teacher they’ve been able to connect with emotionally, under the bus out of fear of how their parents will react to them getting in trouble. Neil Perry, who dreams of becoming an actor, dies by suicide when his father threatens to pull him out of Welton Academy and send him away to military school in an effort to put an end to his creative impulses. In Tea and Sympathy, another sensitive, artistic, and queer-coded boarding school student faces the constant derision of his father, who’s disgusted by his son’s perceived lack of traditional masculinity.

This element of learned masculinity is a huge part of the boarding school drama. Each of these young boys is desperately trying to figure out what it means to be a man, but they are often left to learn these lessons from the other boys at their school, who are just as broken and bewildered as they are. Tea and Sympathy’s Tom Lee (John Kerr) is ostracized by his fellow students, who see him as strange and effeminate – he prefers music to sports, female companionship to male bonding. Even though one of his classmates takes pity on him and tries to teach him how to act like a man – if only so he stops getting bullied by the other boys – the guidance only makes him feel more self-conscious and out of place. 

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The machismo present on campus in a school filled with teenage boys can be overwhelming, especially when students feed into each other and rely on one another to provide examples of manhood. The British film If…., starring Malcolm McDowell, is largely an indictment of the major governing structures in English society, but it also offers a disturbing glimpse into what it looks like when boys are given power over one another, creating a power dynamic that most closely resembles Lord of the Flies. The older students frequently abuse their positions of authority, administering beatings for minor infractions and choosing younger classmates to force into a kind of servitude. The example they set is hardly an emotionally healthy one, and it underscores how these boys are doomed to be sent into the world with a skewed and toxic perspective on masculinity.

Since the boarding school student is physically and emotionally detached from his parents and finds few role models among his classmates, it makes sense that he would naturally gravitate to one of his teachers to fill a parental role. This is a relationship dynamic we frequently see in boarding school dramas, from Dead Poets Society and The Emperor’s Club to Tea and Sympathy and The Holdovers. In Dead Poets, Mr. Keating teaches his students about the beauty of poetry, and encourages them to follow their own passions rather than conforming to the strict expectations that are placed on them by society. He develops a special connection to the students who form the Dead Poets Society, particularly Todd Anderson and Neil Perry, who seem more emotionally fragile and in need of his support than the others. Mr. Hundert in The Emperor’s Club attempts to impart to his students both a knowledge of the classics and a moral code, even when his emotional relationship with one of his more challenging students (Sedgewick Bell, played by Emile Hirsch) leads him to compromise his own ideals by letting Bell get away with cheating in an academic competition. 

In Tea and Sympathy, Tom Lee finds support not from one of his teachers, but from a faculty wife, Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), who offers him a sympathetic ear whenever his loneliness becomes too overwhelming. She sees in him a creative soul in need of nurturing, and has a strong affection for him throughout the film. In The Holdovers, the twice-abandoned Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) forms an unlikely family unit with Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti), his hated history teacher tasked with supervising him over winter break, and Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. As they eat Christmas dinner together in the empty school dining room, they create the image of a father, a mother, and a son, taking comfort in one another’s company.

A very clear pattern emerges throughout the subgenre of boarding school dramas. The students are left at a school, expected to sacrifice their homes and families in exchange for becoming powerful members of society in the future. Because they lack parental guidance, they rely on fellow students to set an example for their coming of age, which frequently has disastrous results. And more often than not, they form a connection with a faculty member as a surrogate parent, although the limitations of their position at the school prevent them from fully taking on that role. The boarding school drama is often tinged with melancholy, and for good reason: it revolves around a desperately lonely boy abandoned by his family, with other broken children as his primary models of masculinity, who is given little emotional guidance but expected to ascend to great heights as a future leader of society.

Audrey Fox is a Boston-based film critic whose work has appeared at Nerdist, Awards Circuit, We Live Entertainment, and We Are the Mutants, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Jumpcut Online, where she also serves as co-host of the Jumpcast podcast. Audrey has been blessed by our film tomato overlords with their official seal of approval.

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