Major spoilers for Dead Poets Society & trigger warning near the end for suicide.
Before I dissect the many issues I have with the movie itself, I want to shed light on why this is important. Being a cult classic starring the legend Robin Williams, the movie is integral to this save the arts idea, the reminder that poetry is worth studying and enriching. And yet, there is no studying poetry in this movie.
And people today love it — with the Dead Poet’s Society tag on Tumblr having 14k followers and over 403k posts on Instagram. There are iconic dark academia accounts such as @deadpoets tribe on Instagram and at least 4 large and active ship blogs on Tumblr.
Young people love this movie as much as the millennials did when it came out. I think the movie is misguided and maybe and even a little dangerous due to the pedestal it’s put upon. Not only is it full of intense themes taken to terrible extents, but it also portrays poetry as this passion over intellectual art as well as something to be loved rather than understood in the classroom.
Why It’s So Beloved
One of the reasons people see the movie as something that aged well is how relatable it seems. Parents who want their kids to be a certain way, kids who don’t want the pressure, but feel guilted into it. Many of us know that; hell, I know that.
The reason people seeing Dead Poets Society as relatable rubs me the wrong way, though, is because these boys are rich. Todd throws away a likely pricey good-quality desk set because they can just buy another one. These kids have access to the best education, top colleges, guidance I personally would kill for — and this is not to invalidate their struggles, but — these boys are not the 13 and 14-year olds who have current obsessions with this movie.
There’s also the theme of valuing the arts that people like — which I have a bone to pick with. The problem here is Mr. Keating himself.
The setting is an English class. It’s not Tumblr where you look at short excerpts and pretend you understand Virginia Woolf, it’s not the old lady book club where you gush about fictional romances, it’s an English class. Dead Poets Society was about appreciating poetry in a class where you’re supposed to analyze and understand it.
Keating literally misquotes Robert Frost. He misquotes the Road Less Taken. An English teacher at a prestigious rep school misquotes Robert Frost to give himself this high ground over his students and coworkers. Look how different I am, look how I never refused to grow up, don't you all want to be me?
And there’s the essence of his character. He wants people to see things his way. And who better to mold into this idea than literal children?
Carpe Diem, My Ass
I think most people have made, or will make, a variety of big and small mistakes as teenagers. That’s part of the age, it’s part of trying to figure out where you belong, or what sort of person you want to be.
Carpe diem is a wonderful sentiment. It’s trying to make sure your youth doesn’t slip through your fingers, but that doesn’t goddamn mean that it’s an excuse to be stupid. It doesn’t mean that you are entitled to every little thing you want.
Before Charlie kisses an unconscious girl on the forehead (who he later ends up with), he whispers the phrase Mr. Keating taught him — carpe diem — an excuse to get whatever you want whenever you want.
He is later apologetic, but that doesn't change the fact that Mr. Keaton intentionally gave this vague description of carpe diem with no limits. It sucks, in all honesty, but limits are important when you're growing. It doesn’t have to be an authority figure, maybe just yourself — but these kids went from "no, you can’t do anything" before Keating to Keating who told them "do whatever as long as it makes you happy."
And if it hurts someone else? You are young, and you are entitled.
(It’s also so messed up that the character ends up with that girl, but I’ll be kind and chalk it up to the time period.)
The Kids and The Content
When I talk about the dark academia community, I mean the high schoolers who follow these accounts and love this movie. I mean the kids who come to the internet for escapism, I mean the kids who relate to this movie, who dream of going to a school like Saint Andrews, studying something they love.
I object to the way this movie portrays teenagerhood and maturity, though. I find myself sympathizing with the parents and teachers that are trying hard to make these kids succeed in a tough world. Keating is right — don’t get me wrong; that school is a terrible environment, but it doesn’t mean children should have free rein. The more recent audience seeing this movie, idolizing it, scares me because all the movie shows are two sides of an extreme.
It adds fuel to these already angry kids, makes them almost see their lives as worse than they are — and this couple with the man cast’s acts of rebellion (that end in tragedy) make me wonder how these viewers see themselves. Do they think they will be tragedies too? Do they, repressed and ancois and hopeful, think a life like this will eat them alive?
The characters of Dead Poets Society end the movie as teenagers still — and do these young viewers know that high school is not this end-all be-all?
Sometimes it scares me that young fans I interact with genuinely believe that carpe diem will end the second they step into adulthood, so they have to live life in this hormonal mess or forever hold their peace.
Maybe it’s the fault of the real world for often being a terrible place for the arts too which is where you get these communities feeding off each other as much as this movie, but regardless --Dead Poets Society is a mess of messages taken too far, and by some fault of itself, being consumed by an audience of amateurs.
Misrepresenting Arts Education
One of the most important problems here is the juxtaposition of the iconic “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race” and then constantly reading and quoting poetry without making an effort to understand it.
No, Mr. Keating, we read and write poetry to learn, to analyze and to understand. That is what being human is. It’s not running off to this cave and misquoting racist authors. It’s not using poetry to impress girls.
It is a school, Mr. Keating. In school, you read things you hate — and you learn from them. Sometimes, you learn that the author was a twisted person, or that certain book wasn’t your type.
Dead Poets Society makes a mockery of the arts, and that may be what infuriates me most. Art can be a beautiful escape, but the study of art is rooted in hard work. What is this movie telling kids?
The first time Neil ever acts, he gets a lead role. With half my best friends being extremely talented thespians, I can confidently tell you that is not how theater normally goes. It’s this sick glamourized idea that arts are this thing that can just be in a school setting, which I don't disagree with, but studying art can’t be misquoting Robert Frost and discrediting professionals.
Reading and writing good poetry — which is the essence of school — is hard, and while the Dead Poets Society is a club for enjoying poetry — that bleeds into the classroom poorly with kids learning virtually nothing.
Mr. Keating Changes Their Life
Another thing that annoyed me about this movie was the sheer impact Mr. Keating had on their lives. Honestly, I thought it was messed up that this guy who didn’t know these boys as anything but the caricature of the rich kid with high expectations went in and decided to change their lives.
The amount of power they gave Mr. Keating over them was quite frankly terrifying. Both the standing-on-desk scenes illustrate this perfectly — with them marching to Keating's drum. It’s the bunch of teenage boys latching onto the first thing that gives them a rush, and Keating encourages it.
No one person will change your life, and I hate that that’s the message Dead Poets Society sends.
Also, I want to talk about safety for a minute here. It is acknowledged in the movie when one of the students, Charlie pulls a dangerous stunt in the name of expression, and Keating tells him to be careful — but the rest of it too. These kids are given the freedom and permission to do whatever they want, to piss people off, so they do. Charlie risks his crush’s boyfriend’s wrath and Neil risks his father’s disapproval. While living life at this age, it’s not an end all be all, and I thought the importance given to this childish idea of authority figures being the enemy was messed up, and again, makes me worry about the audience.
— TW suicide --
Neil’s Suicide Glorified
Speaking of too much importance, let’s talk about the perhaps heaviest, most heartbreaking moment of the film: where Neil returns home from the role of his life as Puck in A Midsummer's Nights Dream, to his father’s disapproval and his mother’s silence.
He walks to his room in solemn silence. Framed by the romantic moonlight, takes off the band of branches on his head, and shoots himself in his father’s study.
I hate that scene. I hate everything about that scene. I hate how romantic that scene is. I hate how the moonlight is twistedly beautiful and how the study’s flooded in this kind orange glow.
His suicide is seen as this final act of rebellion — almost a moment of tragic poetry. A young I-will-be-what-I-want-to-be-or-I-will-not-be-at-all. I hate how it's seen, I hate that all the blame is placed on Mr. Keating because I hate that Mr. Keating had that power to not only influence his decisions, but knew he was suffering and didn’t do more. And yet, he’s the hero.
Keating sets them on his much-needed path of rebellion and then promptly lets them go. Is that what we’re all supposed to idolize?
I hated this movie from the moment Todd explained his new kid fresh, and I began to loathe it the second Mr. Keating hopped on the screen with his holier-than-thou attitude and this sense of, I, one man, will change your life. I hated the Indian cave setting and felt uneasy when Charlie appropriated a Native name. I hated that he saw a girl once and pursued her like a creep (and then actually got the girl through the “power of carpe diem”) and I hated that Mr. Keating saw Neil’s sadness and did nothing.
I, half-watching the movie with a phone in my hand — could see that Neil was not okay, and yes, the twisted masculinity is a product of its time, but it still brings me to question that these children idolize this movie, and it scares me that there is little room for healthy criticism.
This is not your dark academia film, kids. Mr. Keating will not save you, and if you are not these privileged white boys. We can do better. Academia and literature can do better.
is a high school student in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.