In Search of a Good Psychologist in a Good Movie: Persisting Stereotypes

Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.

(to appear in the June 2008 issue of The Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly)

 

Like Diogenes’ search for an honest man, finding a positive and accurate portrayal of a psychologist in a well-rated film is a major quest. Fischoff and Reiter (1999) found only 6% of film psychotherapists were identified as psychologists. This number of films dwindles even further when requiring both accuracy and entertainment, with several persisting stereotypes apparent. 

 

Gabbard and Gabbard (1999) categorized psychotherapists (all disciplines) in pre-1950s films into three stereotypes: the Alienist, a 19th century term, e.g., The Front Page; His Girl Friday; the Quack, e.g., Carefree, with dancing psychiatrist Fred Astaire; and, the Oracle, an intelligent, mystical psychotherapist, e.g., Blind Alley.  Schneider (1987) found three common stereotypes, which he termed: Dr. Dippy, e.g., Peter Sellers in What’s New, Pussycat?; Dr. Evil, e.g., Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill; and, Dr. Wonderful, e.g., Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People. [The “Dr. Dippy” term comes from the first film portrayal of a psychiatrist, Dr. Dippy’s Sanitarium (1906).] Wedding and Niemiec (2003) expanded these categories into eight primary themes: Arrogant and Ineffectual; Cold-Hearted and Authoritarian; Dangerous and Omniscient; Learned and Authoritative; Motivating and Well-Intentioned; Passive and Apathetic; Seductive and Unethical; and, Shrewd and Manipulative. [In Wedding, Boyd, and Niemiec’s 2005 edition of Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology, they further discuss film portrayal of mental health treatment and offer a small collection of “balanced” and “unbalanced” portrayals.]  Schultz (2005) specifically considered the portrayal of psychologists in the movies and added two more categories to Schneider’s three: Dr. Rigid, e.g., “store” psychologist in Miracle on 34th Street; and, Dr. Line-Crosser,  e.g., Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting

 

When it comes to female psychotherapists, another stereotype is more prominent: she falls in love with her male patient and typically lacks a healthy relationship with a male in her private life, e.g., Mr. Jones; Sex and the Single Girl. Gabbard and Gabbard (1999) reviewed films with a female psychotherapist and found 29 with this theme.  Bischoff and Reiter (1999) found female psychotherapists to be statistically significantly more likely to be sexualized in movies, as compared to their male counterparts, particularly if the character had a major role; male psychotherapists, on the other hand, were more likely to be portrayed as incompetent (61%) than were females (30%). 

 

Schultz (2005) examined 23 movies depicting psychologists and found more males than females in the psychotherapist role and the reverse for portrayal of media psychologists.  She found equal representations of research and forensic psychologists.  Unfortunately, when the entertainment value of these 23 films is assessed (via the Internet Movie Database viewer ratings), the average is 5.9/10, with 10 being the highest rating, ranging from 3.9 (Body Chemistry III) to 8.2 (Sixth Sense). 

 

Psychology specialties other than adult clinical also are portrayed in film, although less commonly.  Forensic psychology is represented positively by Alex Cross in Kiss the Girls, but negatively in The Terminator. There are some representations of child psychologists (e.g., Bruce Willis in Sixth Sense, Judge Reinhold in The Santa Clause), and a few school psychologists (Parents, Parenthood, Leave It to Beaver).  There is only one film neuropsychologist, Frances McDormand in Primal Fear, who, unfortunately, arrives at a misdiagnosis.  In contrast to the negative portrayal of behavior modification in A Clockwork Orange, the DVD of the animated film Ratatouille contains a wonderful short film, Your Friend the Rat, which has a covert nod to B. F. Skinner (his image on a postage stamp in the background), as well as highlighting the role of rats in research. 

 

I would have liked to include a discussion of the various portrayals of diversity among psychologists in the movies. The reality is, however, that there are almost no portrayals of non-Caucasian psychologists, with the exception of African-American psychologists Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Danny Glover in Dead Man Out. Benny and Joon, Death Becomes Her, Mad Love, and She’s So Lovely include African-American psychiatrists.  All of these portrayals are in a positive light.

 

There are many bad portrayals of psychologists and psychotherapists in bad movies (too many to list here).  Even among well-rated films, virtually all psychologist portrayals include some inaccurate or unethical actions. Mumford portrayed an effective and competent psychologist; but then again, he turned out to have no training in psychology! Perhaps television holds more hope. It has given us Dr. Bob Hartley (Newhart), Dr. Jennifer Melfi (The Sopranos), and more recently Drs. Weston and Toll (In Treatment). Are these portrayals any more accurate? Can they be true to the scope and standards of practice and still be entertaining? Might we continue to hope to see the same on the big screen? Groups such as the Media Watch Committee of APA’s Division 46 and NAMI’s Stigmabusters are working toward that goal. Unfortunately, increased representation in the movies of diversity among psychologists is likely to be even farther off. In the meantime, we can enjoy these entertaining films with mostly positive, mostly accurate, portrayals of psychologists in major roles: Conflict (1945), The Dark Mirror (1946), Dead Man Out (1989), Good Will Hunting (1997), Identity (2003), Kiss the Girls (1997), Manic (2001), Prime (2005), Sixth Sense (1999), and Solyaris (1972).

 

References:

 

Bischoff, R.J., & Reiter, A.D. (1999). The role of gender in the presentation of mental health clinicians in the movies: Implications for clinical practice. Psychotherapy, 36, 180-189.

Gabbard, G.O., & Gabbard, K. (1999). Psychiatry and the cinema (2nd ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.

Schneider, I. (1987). The theory and practice of movie psychiatry. American Journal of Psychiatry, 134, 613-620.

Schultz, H.T. (2005). Hollywood’s portrayal of psychologists and psychiatrists: Gender and professional training differences. In E. Cole & J. H. Daniel (Eds.), Featuring females: Feminist analyses of media (pp. 101-112). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Wedding, D., & Niemiec, R. M. (2003). The clinical use of films in psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology/In Session, 59, 207-215.

Wedding D., Boyd, M.A., & Niemiec, R.M. (2005). Movies and mental illness: Using films to understand psychopathology (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.