We're All Mad Here: Case Studies in Pop Culture Therapy

Anna Pearce
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“Crazy” people aren’t the only ones who are a bundle of stereotypes in popular media. We also see examples of therapists (including psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors) being presented in a very negative light. In the following examples, I highlight pop culture therapists who are incompetent in a variety of ways.

Some of these movies and television shows are, of course, comedies. Not only are therapists being mocked, but so are a variety of other people. What’s interesting here is how similar a lot of the mocking of therapy is across various genres.

Throughout this list I’ve used the catch-all term “therapist” for consistency’s sake. I’ve also used “incompetent therapist,” although “incompetent” is often in the eye of the viewer.

Movie: Cruel Intentions

Summary: Teen-movie version of Dangerous Liaisons. Sebastian makes a bet with his step-sister, Kathryn, that he can “corrupt” the headmaster’s virgin daughter, Annette, into having sex with him. Over the course of the movie Sebastian falls in love with Annette, and Kathryn’s manipulations have life-altering consequences.

Incomptetent therapist: The movie opens with Sebastian in his therapist’s office, talking about how he’s just such a fool and feeling terrible about himself. His therapist, Dr. Regina Greenbaum, tells him how this is the fault of bad parenting, and hands him an autographed copy of her book on raising a “perfect” child. She then writes in her notes that she has to add the cost of the book to his bill. After telling Greenbaum that he’s “cured” of his obsession with sex, Sebastian leaves. Dr. Greenbaum calls him a schmuck, then takes a call from her daughter. Her daughter tearfully confesses that Sebastian seduced her and put photos of her up on the Internet making fun of Greenbaum’s book. (“How to raise a perfect slut”)

Take away message: Therapists are entirely in it for the money and easy to lie to and manipulate. They’re also presenting a false front of caring and concern.

T.V. Show: Empty Nest

Summary: This Golden Girls spin-off focuses on the Weston family. After the death of their mother, Carol and Barbara Weston move back in with their father, Dr Harry Weston. Hijinks ensue.

Incompetent therapist: The A-plot of the season four episode “Final Analysis” is about older daughter Carol’s therapist dying mere moments after telling her that he had something important about her treatment to discuss. Carol is desperate to find out what this “breakthrough” was, and enlists the help of her sister, Barbara, in breaking into Dr. Grossman’s office and rifling through his files. Together they discover that Dr. Grossman’s notes almost entirely consisted of lists of what he was going to buy with his income, and his important information was that he was planning on raising his rates so he could buy a yacht.

Take away message: Therapists are entirely in it for the money, and are putting up a false front of caring and concern. Therapy is a foolish waste of both time and money.

Movie: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie with Kristy Swanson)

Summary: “Since the dawn of man, the vampires have walked among us, killing, feeding. The only one with the strength or skill to stop them is the Slayer, she who bears the birthmark of the coven. Trained by the Watcher, one Slayer dies and the next is chosen.”

Incompetent therapist: The unnamed coach of the basketball team uses a bunch of pop-psychology instead of strategy. “Let’s not be so defensive out there, okay? Now what do we say on the court, repeat after me: I am a person, I have the right to the ball.”

Take away message: Therapists try to force pop-psychology on everyone, even when it’s inappropriate. The therapist is also completely unobservant, not noticing when members of his team become vampires.

T.V. Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show with Sarah Michelle Gellar)

Summary: “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”

Incompetent therapist: Maggie Walsh shows up in Season four of Buffy. She’s got the public face of the supportive psych teacher who’s encouraging Buffy in her academic pursuits. After a few brief meetings in class, she’s developed a supposedly detailed profile of Buffy, which uses some blatant stereotypes of pop psychology (for example, telling Giles that Buffy lacks a “strong male role model in her life”). As the head of the Initiative, she’s using drugs to control a group of soldiers while trying to create a super-being in her spare time. As one does. Unlike the other examples, Walsh at least has a a character arc.

There are also other therapist-related episodes of Buffy. Mr. Platt is a counselor at Sunnydale High that Buffy initially finds very helpful to talk to. Needless to say, he is mauled to death by a monster. In another episode, Buffy is splashed with venom from a demon and hallucinates that she’s in a psych ward. The doctor convinces Buffy she needs to destroy all her ties to Sunnydale in order to be healthy. A third episode, in season seven, has Buffy talking about her difficulties with a former classmate who is now a vampire. He then tries to eat her.

We’re going to be coming back to Buffy later in this series.

Take away message: Maggie Walsh does the pop-psychology stuff that is similar in depth to the coach in the Buffy movie. She also turns out to be evil. Other counselors are dead, evil, or hallucinations. Don’t trust counselors, folks! They’re like fathers, in a way.

Movie: 10 Things I Hate About You

Summary: Teen-movie version of Taming of the Shrew. Patrick Verona is bribed into wooing Kat Stratford, as her father has decreed that younger sister Bianca can only date if Kat does. Hijinks ensue, love blossoms, there’s singing, dancing, and poetry.

Incompetent therapist: Ms. Perky, the Guidance Counselor. She’s writing a romance novel when she’s supposed to helping students, interrupts characters who are trying to tell her about their experiences, describes students as “ass-wipe shit-for-brains” and tells Kat that “heinous bitch is the term most commonly used” to describe her. (Again, this is a comedy and everyone is getting a send-up in it.)

Take away message: Therapists don’t really care about you.

T.V. Show: Frasier

Summary: Frasier and Niles Crane are brothers and psychiatrists. Both brothers are snobs (Wikipedia describes them as possessing “fine tastes, intellectual interests, and high opinions of themselves”), and a big part of the humor of the show is the clashing personalities of high-strung Niles, uptight Frasier, and their down-to-earth father.

Incompetent therapist: We’re again dealing with characters who are well-developed and have multi-season arcs. However, Frasier is shown as being incredibly pompous and often incapable of handling his own life while dealing out advice to others, as is Niles. Again, from Wikipedia: “This frequently leads [Frasier] to obsessively overanalyze and fret about minor details regarding his life and relationships, which frequently creates problems in his life. When obsessing so, he is frequently prone to ignore the advice given to him by his family and friends and pursue his own course of action, which more often than not leads to disaster.” This is, of course, the entire plot of the show.

Take away message: Therapists have really rich tastes brought about by having access to large sums of money. They’re also pretty much as “neurotic” as their patients.

Movie: Easy A

Summary: Olive Pendergast lies about having sex, and is thus shunned and ostracized by her classmates. She embraces her “bad reputation” and then tries to “rehabilitate” her reputation. There’s supposed to be a take-away lesson about how obsessed people are with teen girls and sexuality.

Incompetent therapist:Mrs. Griffith, the school’s counselor, is having an affair with a student. When the student is found out, he blames Olive. Mrs. Griffith refuses to tell the truth because she fears losing her job and ending her marriage.

Take away message: Therapists are manipulative liars. Don’t trust them to do the right thing unless forced.

These are by no means the only examples of therapist stereotypes in pop culture. There’s the therapist that hard-boiled detectives are forced to go to that either have immediate insight into the character’s problems (such as in Lost Girl when police detective Dyson is ordered into therapy for his rage issues and the therapist immediately puts him in his place) or are shown to be incompetents who only stand in the way (such as Jack Spratt’s therapist in The Fourth Bear, who is literally a threshold guardian that Jack must overcome to advance the story). Another typical example is the therapist who the audience knows is wrong, such as Dr. Silberman in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, or the example from the Buffy episode Normal Again (although apparently Word of Joss is that’s subject to interpretation). You’ve also got the psychiatrist who turns out to be as “crazy” as the patients (either before or after events in the show or movie), like Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks (who doesn’t care about his patients and is obsessed with Hawaii) or any and all counselors who show up in Batman: The Animated Series (the best example being Harley Quinn who started out as Dr. Harleen Quinzel).

What’s interesting is that there are so many examples of incompetent, useless, or dangerous therapists across a variety of media that vary from children’s cartoons to teen movies to serious dramas to sitcoms to books. Again, some of these are comedies, but they all go with the same sorts of stereotypes with the same point: Therapy is a waste of money. Therapists are not to be trusted. Many of them are only in it for themselves. Listening to them is a bad idea. Don’t go to therapy, it won’t help you anyway.

These are obviously meant to be examples of negative portrayals. Those of you who have seen more examples of positive portrayals, what sorts of tropes are there in those? How do they measure up against the more negative portrayals I’m talking about here? What sorts of media do they show up in? What messages are they sending?

Administrative Note: I’ve been having endless problems with both my computer and my Internet connection over the past week (yay moving). I know there are interesting comments on my Inception post, but I haven’t been able to answer them yet. I’m hoping to get this problem sorted by the end of the weekend.

Further Reading:

Previously: We’re All Mad Here: Going to the Loony Bin: A Brief History of the Asylum, We’re All Mad Here: Mental Illness and Celebrities

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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Thanks for this great

Thanks for this great article. As a therapist-to-be I'm really happy this was addressed.

I just watched Good Will Hunting which has three great examples of how negatively therapists are portrayed. The one positive portrayel is of Robin Williams where he is characterized as being "less than" a mathematician, and still very much not over his wife dying. He consistently has to defend his choice to "settle" and be a psychologist rather than becoming a great mathematician like his former colleagues.

Actually, although that may

Good Will Hunting

My desire to become a

My desire to become a therapist has always, admittedly, been shaped by pop culture. I list Lucy (from Peanuts) and Dr. Katz as my inspirations. Shout out to The Crane Brothers. There is something attractive and comforting in the idea that none of us is perfect (including and especially the person who deals with other people's problems for a living), but we can help eachother to grow. The examples listed above are this idea magnified, at their best, and magnifications of the very real history of the mental health field in which professionals who are intentionally malficent and exploit others for direct or indirect gain (see any given issue of Psychology Today) at their worst. I can see why therapy is simultaneously sexy and silly and suspicious to outsiders (and some misguided insiders). To this day I take note of every representation of therapists in media and sometimes I cringe, but most of the time I am entertained because, as a working therapist, I know that the truth is very difficult to approximate. Most representations are so far from the truth as to be absurd.

Really great post! I

Really great post! I completely agree and can think of many more examples, the new show on MTV Awkward immediately comes to mind, where therapists are portrayed ridiculously.

Positive Portrayal of Therapists in Pop Culture

This is an interesting article. For some time now, I've been fascinated by how pop culture influences individuals' perceptions of psychotherapy and therapists. Probably one of the most nuanced portrayal of a therapist I've seen was on In Treatment, which aired on HBO from 2008-2010. Dr. Paul Weston (main therapist character in his late 50s) seems to be reaching burnout ("losing patience with his patients"), but he's portrayed as a competent therapist who is still deeply cares about his clients and seeks supervision when he realizes that he's struggling. In Treatment manages to explore the "therapist who has just as many problems as his clients" trope, but does so in a realistic manner.

Also, in Lars and the Real Girl, Lars (who is convinced a sex doll is alive and his girlfriend) is being treated by a competent psychologist named Dr. Dagmar. She provides Lars with emotional support as he addresses his anxieties regarding social situations. Dr. Dagmar acts as a resource for Lars' brother and sister-in-law, who wonder how to treat Lars during this time.

Positive portrayals

I'm way late to this party, but two positive portrayals of therapists spring to mind: Dr Sweets in Bones, who is often a figure of fun and belittled by other characters for being young and a 'soft scientist' but is usually proved right by the course of events. And Dr Melfi in The Sopranos: she gets a significant character arc, being a major character in the series, and is portrayed as far more perceptive about Tony's motivations and feelings than he is himself. He often refers to her as a 'call girl', echoing the 'money-grabbing' trope you mentioned, but the message of the show doesn't reinforce this viewpoint.

AWESOME post, by the way - I'm loving this series!

kind of late, but i have

kind of late, but i have noticed therapists in japanese fictional media are typically portrayed in a much more positive light than those in american media; they are actually depicted as being there to help their patients. there is a neutral portrayal of therapy in the anime Ghost Hound, and a positive portrayal of a therapist in Monster (he is one of the good guys, and actually helps people address their addictions to alcohol; he is passionate about his work and invested in his clients). i can't remember any other examples off the top of my head. i don't know what, if anything, this says about japanese culture. but i find it an interesting comparison.

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