Dead Poets Society shines brighter through a queer lens
A lot of movies have a queer subtext. Whether intentional or not, subtext can seep into a film in a variety of ways and provide interesting insight into the film and its characters. Sometimes it can be as simple as homoerotic tension in an action movie between friends and other times it can be in the finer details of themes or presentation. Like any lens you can apply to film, a queer lens simply gives us another dimension in which to interrogate a film and its meaning. But some films lend themselves more than others to this kind of analysis. And if queer film theorists were asked for films with a noticeable gay subtext, you wouldn’t have to ask much before hearing about Dead Poets Society.
Dead Poets Society (1989) directed by Peter Weir is a film that needs little introduction. The film is widely acclaimed for its story and performances. The story follows John Keating (Robin Williams), a new English teacher at the prestigious Welton Academy with a different approach to teaching. Keating is a breath of fresh air in the oppressive halls of Welton. With his encouragement and teaching, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), and their other classmates begin to come out of their shells and speak up. Despite its 1950s setting, it has proven to be a timeless piece about adolescence and coming of age. And like any beloved film, it’s been the subject of years of critical analysis and discussion with fans.
The movie isn’t explicitly queer, but queer critics and viewers have been reading the movie’s queer subtext for years. It’s a read that not only offers an interesting new perspective on an already brilliant film, but also one that can enhance one’s own engagement and understanding with the film’s characters.
One of the first things many queer viewers notice when watching the film for the first time is how much the story reflects one’s struggles with living as a queer person. Welton Academy applies tradition to all of its students from the very first scene where they highlight how their conformity to tradition has produced academic excellence, but we quickly see how this excellence comes at the expense of the student’s sense of self. . Welton students must conform to the standards of the school and society as a whole to succeed, and they are penalized and criticized when they do not. While this experience is not exclusive to queer people, forced conformity is certainly something that resonates with queer viewers and this association only grows stronger as we get to know our characters.
Neil Perry is gifted. Like most of Welton’s other students, his parents have planned his whole life and he’s just been in on it. But Neil yearns to express himself, and he finds an outlet for it through Mr. Keating. His course opens up a world of literature and performance that immediately fascinates Neil. Over the course of the film, he comes out of his shell thanks to the Dead Poets Society, his friendship with Neil which pushes them both to be more authentic, and the nurturing influence of Mr. Keating. He became passionate about acting and even got a role in a production of Dream of a summer night. But his dreams crumble when his parents find out and reject his passions entirely. And in the end, rather than not being able to be himself, Neil commits suicide.
It’s not hard to see how Neil’s story could be a metaphor for homosexuality. He’s a young man who comes of age and finally begins to find himself under the influence of an understanding adult who finally lets him be himself and friends who applaud him for doing so. He is drawn to acting, something demeaned and considered feminine, less so by his parents. Neil becomes himself during the film and when this truth is discovered by his parents, they reject it outright. This could very easily be replaced by Neil being gay. He comes to accept what he wants in the safety of the community he has created, but that space is destroyed when his parents discover his identity and alienate him from that community. It is a tragic story but unfortunately not unknown.
Todd Anderson has a slightly less obvious weirdness to him. He is also suffocated by his parents’ expectations, especially to live up to the heights achieved by his older brother. Todd is a quiet, insecure boy who begins to come out of his shell when Mr. Keating notices and encourages his talent for writing. His story is to learn to be and to accept himself. He always bowed to pressure from others, especially his parents, even going so far as to sign the letter accusing Mr Keating of being responsible for Neil’s death when he was forced to do so. Yet in the end, he is able to stand on his own two feet and say “O captain, my captain” as Mr Keating sets off in his most daring act of defiance ever. It is in the face of the loss of his two greatest pillars, Keating and Neil, that Todd finally finds the strength to challenge.
Todd’s homosexuality can be seen as more repressed than Neil’s. Neil discovers this new side of himself only to be rejected for it while Todd seems to be aware of his own nature and preemptively suppresses it. It is with the encouragement of his new friends and teacher that he finally opens up and expresses himself with authenticity. His homosexuality is self-repressed in order to appease others, but upon seeing Neil’s defiance and his friends’ acceptance, he is able to begin to act on his own accord. The poem that Mr. Keating makes him interpret where he loosens up and fights a madman with sweaty teeth, confronts the concept of truth, expresses a transgression. His dissatisfaction with life and the way he was ordered to live is evident and only through art can he be authentic. Todd is himself but he’s also this sweat-toothed lunatic, choking and telling him the truth (or what he claims is the truth) is enough, but Todd knows it’s a lie. Todd is a queer person so inundated with the world telling him he’s wrong that he eventually started to believe it, but throughout the film he comes back to life and questions the truth he has. was forced to accept. He is not victorious against the oppressive force of the society he lives in, but he still ends up defiant.
The relationship between Neil and Todd is remarkable in many ways. Their closeness is a major factor that pushes them both to pursue their passions. Neil encourages Todd’s writing, and Todd admires Neil’s pursuit of acting despite fearing for both of them. Their relationship, through this lens, could be seen as a kind of doomed first love. They are able to be themselves with each other, but the world at large does not accept them. When Neil dies, Todd is the most destitute. The other boys have known him longer, but Todd’s closeness to Neil was unique and seeing Todd sitting broken in the snow after hearing of Neil’s death, it’s indistinguishable whether he’s mourning a friend or a lover. The relationship between the two boys is a driving force for their characters. As they blossom, they grow closer, but this closeness is challenged and destroyed by the enforcement of conformity by those around them.
Even outside of the two leads, there are other elements of quirkiness in the film that make this critical focus seem appropriate. charlie (Gale Hansen), in particular, is a beacon of non-compliance. Although it starts out as a joke, her character as Nuwanda expresses a transgression of gender norms that evokes homosexuality. He dons lipstick as a form of self-expression and takes on a more girlish personality that allows Charlie to act more authentic. There is also the prominent inclusion of works by Walt Whitman, himself a queer man. His words are used to encourage the boys to be themselves and seize the day which, when the characters are also viewed as queer, reinforces a message of self-acceptance and defiance that was already in the text itself.
Dead Poets Society is not a queer movie, but it is a movie that knowingly or unknowingly dips its toes into aspects of the queer experience. Reading the characters or the film as queer adds an extra dimension to the story. It offers another aspect of self that these characters learn to define for themselves rather than accepting who they are told to be. The film is about striving to live in the moment and be authentic even in the face of adversity. It’s a message that’s universal but also particularly relevant to the queer experience. Neil, Todd, Keating and their friends face countless obstacles that seek to tell them who and how they should be, but they seek to define it for themselves, rejecting the idea that society should dictate their whole being. . Queer people know this experience intimately, our whole existence is one of challenge. And with this challenge, we produce unique and wondrous beings, all with our own stories to tell, our own verses to contribute. Dead Poets Society shines even brighter through this odd lens as it reveals something about the story and the characters that makes it all the more authentic.