The troubling rise of cinematic therapyspeak

From gaslighting to trauma, more and more therapy buzzwords are finding their way on screen – but who does it actually help?


Billie Walker

The more online among you may remember a TikTok that recently circulated on social media, in which therapist Dr Arianna Brandolini demonstrated “how to break up with a friend” in a way that was so full of rehearsed emotionless sentences that it could easily be received as satire. It was as if Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin script had been written by a Human Resources representative, with the robotics of her language detracting from what would actually be a devastating conversation.

Alongside videos like this that call for us to “re-evaluate” our emotional lives as if they are tax years, TikTok is becoming well known for other snippets of diluted therapy, such as therapists and others from creators explaining how various personality traits are actually symptoms of neurodivergence. While some videos have helped many on a path to late diagnosis, there are limits to what short clips can offer in the way of medical advice.

Despite its limits, the internet’s habit for self-diagnosis and symptomizing has seeped out from our phones and now the therapy speak we are inundated with online is becoming commonplace in film. Renfield, an action-comedy spin on the Dracula tale in which Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) realises he is in a codependent relationship with his boss Dracula (Nic Cage) thanks to a support group, is the most recent to have hopped on the wellness trend. When the counsellor Mark (Brandon Scott Jones) asks “What if you were to stop focusing on his needs, what would happen?”, Renfield responds: “He won’t grow to full power!” This becomes his mantra to free himself from the bonds of servitude to the vampiric count.

Renfield’s understanding of codependency and emotional growth starts off as a playful satire on the societal obsession with self-help, but ends up in a mess of absolutes. Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) reassures Renfield that he doesn’t have to be the monster he is labelled as, but they refuse to offer Dracula the same redemption. It feels as self-serving as the online encouragement to cut off friendships. One person is self-righteous in their personal development while the other is brandished as incapable of change.

The diagnostic tone has also infiltrated horror and drama films. Last year Smile and The Son both attempted portrayals of depression and childhood trauma, which amounted to nothing more than their diagnoses. In Smile when Rose (Sosie Bacon) witnesses a traumatic incident she is haunted with visions and discovers that anyone who experiences with violence is fated to meet a horrible death. Despite Rose trying to reckon with her childhood trauma in order to rid herself of this curse, she is killed anyway.

In The Son, Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Kate (Laura Dern) try to help their son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) overcome clinical depression. Peter’s many attempts to uplift the depressed boy – such as buying him a suit or encouraging him to “climb back up” to gain his “strength and confidence” – feel more like the shallow platitudes of commercialised wellness.

Both films claim to be explorations of psychological issues, but their simplistic pathological portrayals of depression makes the sufferers violent deaths an inevitability. Often these films use this terminology to try to connect to contemporary audiences that are well versed in psychological lingo thanks to being inundated with it online. The result is surface level readings that are just as tediously reductive as the mental health “epiphanies” that fill our social media feeds.

Given that accessible therapy and diagnoses are hard to come by, it’s understandable that we have turned to the internet for expertise. We are not pathologizing our lives, but simply using the resources available to us in an attempt to understand our own psychology. Psychotherapist Livia Shepherd explained that TikTok and Instagram’s consistently open addressing of mental health has some positive effects “in terms of people feeling less stigmatised and more willing to access help”. Livia is glad people find community through shared experience, but she notes it can be “detrimental to pigeonhole ourselves” and not explore beyond that. The therapeutic terminology that clients pick up from media often oversimplifies and medicalises the nuanced experience of individuals. In cases like these Livia finds herself working against these terms in the session, encouraging clients to view themselves in a “more holistic way than a collection of symptoms”.

Films that attempt representations of mental health should aim to avoid the pitfalls of the internet’s simplifications. The ones that succeed in their explorations of the mind refrain from psychological terminology. Taking a humanist approach, creating all encompassing words that reflect anxieties, traumas and neurodivergence.  Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAO) never labels itself an ADHD film but it is. During Daniel Kwan’s research on ADHD while developing the character Joy (Stephanie Hsu), he found himself relating to the symptoms. It is a testament to the Daniels that EEAO is a beautifully chaotic understanding of grappling with neurodivergence in a neurotypical world, and crucially this reality is not resolved, as the film understands it cannot solve what takes a lifetime of understanding.

While the majority of films that adopt this therapized trend do not critique the problems of this kind of language, there are some that have succeeded in mocking it. The girls’ argument in Bodies Bodies Bodies – in which each of them trying to undermine the other by pinpointing their privilege while one upping their marginalisation – could be lifted from a Twitter thread. Some of the comments the girls throw around are profound statements on race and class, even if they are lost in cacophony. Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, writer Sarah Delappe understands that the lingo it mocks is a reflection of diluted self-help and identity politics born of the internet rather than therapy itself. And yet film still lacks representation of an individual in therapy that isn’t severely mocked for their attempt at bettering themselves.

Cinema is responding to a growing trend of psycho-therapy terminology becoming commonplace online, but few directors appear to be treating the subject as anything more than a hot topic. This is made clear by the amount of complexity given to the mental health issue being portrayed. We love films for their ability to make individual circumstances feel universal, but reducing people to mere symptoms makes for poor viewing experiences and further stigmatisation. Given that feature films have length and budgets to work with, they should endeavour to go beyond the simplified snippets of mental health and betterment that social media videos offer us.

Published 12 May 2023

Tags: Renfield Smile The Son

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