Images of psychotherapists in popular media span a vast range of archetypes, some are cold and clinical, others are compassionate or wise, or even evil, depending on the needs of the larger story. These characters can be hapless buffoons or destructive mad scientists, but in truth their main purpose in a story is almost always to support the character development of others.
It is difficult to pinpoint a consistent stereotypical psychotherapist in popular media, but we can identify a few common themes. These themes show up as polarizations within the characters. The most common division I see is the polarity of the cold, clinical psychoanalyst and the warm, friendly and supportive therapist. We can see an example of the clinical type in the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Silberman, in The Terminator movies. In The Terminator series, the protagonist in this story, Sarah Connor, is the mother of a future military leader who is destined to play a key part in a battle between humanity and an army of robots equipped with artificial intelligence that have turned on their creators and attempt to exterminate humanity. Sarah is made aware of her special role by a soldier in her son’s army who has travelled back in time to protect her from a robotic Terminator (also from the future) sent back to kill her. As a result, Sarah has embarked on a personal mission to prepare her son, John, for his destiny, while also doing anything she can to avert the coming battle. Her attempt to destroy the company that will ultimately develop the deadly robotic technology lands her in a maximum security mental asylum. Dr. Silberman is cynical and dismissive of her story, although he thinks it is creative enough to warrant a book, which would advance his career. A letter appearing in The Psychiatrist discusses the negative view of psychiatry offered in the movie Terminator 2 – Judgement Day, also pointing out how the Terminator robot itself embodies the qualities of coldness and lack of understanding of emotional processes (Sheldon, L. 1992). I feel that Dr. Silberman is also made to represent the force of doubt. His doubt in Sarah’s story echoes the people in our lives who doubt our dreams…the voices of reason that keep us trapped in the mundane expectations of the world. Like Dr. Silberman however, these voices of doubt speak not out of concern for us, but rather out of self-interest. People around us benefit when we ignore our sense of destiny (or at least they think they do), and will generally do everything in their power to hold us down if our ambitions take us to a place that is unfamiliar and frightening to them.
Contrast this cold, clinical stereotype with the character of Dr. Maguire in the movie Good Will Hunting. In this story Will, a Boston laborer who is also an unrecognized genius, works as a janitor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and anonymously solves a difficult mathematics problem posted on a public chalkboard. Eventually he is discovered by a professor at the Institute, but Will is also in trouble with the law and does not appear to be moving his life in a positive direction. The professor arranges for his release from jail and sends him to a psychotherapist named Dr. Maguire, who is eventually able to open up the highly sarcastic and defensive Will by revealing some of the demons of the Doctor’s own past. Prior to meeting Dr. Maguire, Will has managed to offend and frustrate several therapists, sabotage several job interviews arranged by the professor, as well as a promising romantic relationship. Dr. Maguire helps Will discover what is important to him, and find to the courage to pursue the relationship he was pushing away. Where Dr. Silberman is continually thwarting Sarah Connor’s efforts at self-actualization (once promising to have her transferred to a minimum security facility if she behaves, then reneging on the promise), Dr. Maguire is continually leading Will into more empowerment until eventually Will is able to leave both his blue collar friends and the professor behind in order to make his own way in life.
Good Will Hunting: Dr Maguire and Will
Another contrast could be found in the competence of the two doctors. Where Dr. Silberman is bureaucratic, small-minded, focused on personal career ambition and unable to grasp his patient’s reality, Dr. Maguire is wise, compassionate, rich with life experience and willing to walk the same journey as his patients. It is interesting to note that the cold, clinical approach to psychiatry was the hallmark of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, whereas the warm and emotionally supportive method was developed much more recently by Carl Rogers who founded the much more popular school of humanistic psychology.
Having learned in class to determine the intended audience of a work, I can see how Dr. Silberman speaks to an audience distrustful of psychotherapists and the clinical, Freudian approach in general, whereas Dr. Maguire is speaking to the part of the audience still open to receiving help, an audience that still has hope for the humanity of the psychiatric profession.
Another polarity seen in popular images of psychologists touches on the issue of morality. In the television series The Sopranos, mafia boss Tony Soprano begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Dr. Melfi is in many ways a more realistic portrayal of a typical psychotherapist than any I have discussed so far. She is continually concerned about the ethical lines she might cross in her relationship with Soprano, often turning to a colleague for advice and perspective, and agonizing over the small breaches of ethical protocol she inevitably finds herself committing. In contrast to this, we find Dr. Vogel in the Showtime series Dexter. Dexter (the title character) is a psychopath who works as a forensic expert for the Miami police department. He relieves his compulsion to kill by following “The Code” handed down to him by his father, who was a police officer. The Code requires Dexter to only kill other serial killers who have escaped justice and will clearly kill again, thus making his condition serve the public good. In the final season we meet a psychiatrist named Dr. Evelyn Vogel. We then learn that Dr. Vogel was approached by Dexter’s father when Dexter’s psychopathy began to manifest as a child, and that it was Dr. Vogel who created “The Code”.
Dexter: Dr Vogel and Dexter
Dr. Vogel is decisive, confident and willing to gamble with not only the mental health, but the very lives of others, in order to manifest her vision. We see in Dr. Vogel not a therapist, but rather a sort of psychiatric mad scientist. It speaks to a very cynical view of the Psychiatric profession.
In class I was taught to identify the purpose of a media presentation, and I think the purpose of Dr. Vogel’s character is to highlight the moral dilemma that Dexter embodies by showing his creator, a cold, but still sympathetic character who pays the ultimate price for her gamble in the end as she is murdered by one of her patients. Dr. Vogel jolts us out of an assumption that psychologists and psychiatrists follow a strict code of ethics, and in this case it is revealed that Dr. Vogel has thrown away her own code of conduct in order to give one to Dexter. There is compelling justification given for this course of action however: Dexter is a psychopath, and there was little hope of actually curing him, so given the choice of either committing him to a life of institutionalization or allowing him to kill until he was stopped by the police, Dr. Vogel chose a third option; to channel his condition in a way that served the public good by programming him to kill only other killers. This decision by itself will divide an audience, as some will favor the effectiveness and efficacy of vigilante justice where others will be appalled. To increase the tension even more, we have a long history with Dexter by this point in the series, and know him to be basically kind, likeable and well-intentioned. This clouds our vision and makes us forget that he has also mistakenly killed the wrong man once, and innocents have died in order to protect his secret. We also overlook that he has repeatedly sabotaged police investigations in order to prevent killers from being apprehended so that he could take their lives himself.
That such ethically problematic practices exist in the profession is certainly true, as in the case of psychiatrists assisting in the design of torture interrogation techniques in the Abu Ghraib prison camps holding suspected Iraqi terrorists (Clark 2006), but the greater truth is that psychotherapists receive extensive training in ethics and codes of conduct before they are licensed.
A variation of this analysis is presented by Ronald Pies in his article Psychiatry in the Media: The Vampire, The Fisher King, and the Zaddik where he cites three distinct archetypes embodied by psychotherapists in movies and television. The first archetype, the “Vampire”, corresponds to the evil mad scientist, pointing out that, for instance, the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lector in the movie Silence of the Lambs was in fact, a psychiatrist, and that his ancestry is later traced back to “…Giuliano Bevisangue, a fearsome twelfth-century figure” pointing out that “The name Bevisangue may be understood as a condensation of the verb bevere (to drink) and sangue (blood)” (Pies, R. 2001).
The second archetype, the “Fisher King”, corresponds somewhat to the warm, supportive Doctor, but is also bound to the “wounded healer” archetype. Dr. Maguire in Good Will Hunting clearly fits this role, drawing on his own unresolved pain from the death of his wife in order to pull Will out of his cynicism and defensiveness, so that he will find the strength to take control of his life. Will eventually sees that neither the professor who wants to use him to further his academic career, nor his blue collar work/drinking buddies can show him what his future holds, and finally leaves town to pursue a relationship with a woman, and give himself a fresh start.
The third archetype, the “Zaddik”, is a reference to the Jewish mystical tradition. Pies says that “the Zaddik or ‘holy man’ mediates between heaven and earth, between God and man” and that he “helps his people break through the ‘blockage’ that ordinarily separates man from God.” In order to accomplish this however, the Zaddik must know and be touched by evil. This is an interesting image because it implies to me that the Zaddik/Psychotherapist must risk becoming a Vampire, but chose instead to become a Fisher King.
With these various and divergent stereotypes, it may seem that there is no common thread connecting the character of the typical psychologist, however if we step back and notice the role they all play in their respective storylines, a pattern begins to emerge. None of the therapists mentioned were main characters, yet they all played crucial parts in developing and revealing the depth of main characters. In private therapy sessions we are able to see into the thoughts and feelings of lead characters, hear about childhood experiences shaping their worldview, and witness their greatest weaknesses. A therapy session provides a tremendously useful setting for character development, and a therapist makes a wonderful foil for a character to emerge and gain definition. In Terminator 2 we see Sarah turn the tables on Dr. Silberman, using him as a hostage in her escape from the prison, wielding the hypodermic needle once used to inject her with antipsychotic meds, now filled with floor cleaner and resting on the good doctor’s neck. Now it is Sarah who will not release the Doctor.
Terminator 2: Dr Silberman and Sarah
In truth, I believe this function mirrors the real-world purpose of psychotherapy in many ways, as we often go into real-world therapy (whether we admit it to ourselves or not) in order to develop our own strength of character and overcome personal weaknesses. We enter therapy because we need better boundaries, or because we find ourselves swallowed up by the storms of life, or because we feel an emptiness or confusion about what we should be doing. In short, we enter therapy because we don’t know who we are, and in the stories of television and cinema we watch a character enter therapy so that we may learn who they are, in a focused and controlled way. I believe this is the proper role of psychotherapy in general – to “get out of the way” and allow a patient’s identity to emerge and achieve greater definition. If, as Aristotle intimated, “art imitates life” then I can see this principle playing out wonderfully in the use of psychotherapists in popular culture.
Clark, Peter A. “Medical ethics at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib: the problem of dual loyalty.” JL Med. & Ethics 34 (2006): 570.
Dexter. Creator James Manos Jr. Showtime. 2006 – 2013. Television.
Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Robin Williams, Matt Damon. Miramax. 1997. Film
Pies, R. (2001). Psychiatry in the media: The vampire, the fisher king, and the zaddik. Journal of Mundane behavior, 2(1), 59-66.
Sheldon, L. (1992). Terminator 2—Judgement Day. The Psychiatrist, 16(5), 311-312.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Earl Boen, Linda Hamilton. 1991. Film