The Male Therapist, Hollywood-Style

Two iconic images, from two memorable films: In the first, Now, Voyager, a sage, kind-eyed Claude Rains walks with a forlorn Bette Davis on the pastoral grounds of the institution to which she’s been sent.

He’s both paternal and incisive, and–perhaps more importantly–obviously knows what’s good for her.

In the second film, The Three Faces of Eve, a somewhat more imposing yet equally knowledgable Lee J. Cobb helps Joanne Woodward parse out the three distinct personalities tormenting her.

Like Claude Rains before him, he’s a model of the patriarchal culture, a therapist of unquestionable motives and unimpeachable authority. One of the good guys.

Which begs the question: how did we get from there to Hannibal Lecter?

Because it seems that, with rare exceptions, that’s where we are, at least according to the depictions of male therapists currently displayed on film and TV. From evil and homicidal at worst, to bumbling and self-deluded at best.

Not to mention frequently unethical, manipulative, and sexually predatory. In today’s popular media, the male therapist has become a kind of symbolic catch-all character, representing the failure of patriarchal authority and the emptiness of academic or intellectual understanding, while reaffirming a tacit suspicion of the concept of male empathy.

While we’ll discuss other examples illustrating these themes, from various TV series and films, the salient one for me is that of the psychiatrist in the play and film Equus.

Portrayed in the latter by Richard Burton at his most stentorious, he is learned, sober, a pillar of the medical community.

At first disturbed by and worried for his patient, a young man who has blinded six horses in a frenzy of psycho-sexual torment, Burton comes to be awed by and envious of the unmediated passion the boy possesses.

At story’s end, the psychiatrist puts his patient on medication that will leave him tranquil but denuded of that unique passion, which prompts Burton’s character to look into the camera and admit his personal ennui, professional impotence, and cultural hypocrisy. (See, the crazy guy is psychologically ‘healthier’ than the mental health professional!)

Which seems to me to be a pervasive theme underlying the depiction of male therapists in the popular media. After all, the failed paternalism represented by the psychiatrist in Equus is not that far removed from the snobbery of Frazier Crane, the social ineptness of Bob Hartley, the depressed, posthumous inadequacy of Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense.

The image of the male therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist has undergone some troubling permutations in the past forty or so years, in both film and television.

And while it’s always a good idea to bring a well-earned skepticism to Hollywood’s depiction of any profession, it can be very instructive to observe as a mirror to the culture’s perceived notions.

Though this is hardly an original thought, I believe the depiction of male therapists on screen follows the trajectory of our changed views and expectations of males in general, in both their personal psychologies and their representative standing in the culture.

Without exploring this psychosocial shifting, we’ll never understand how Claude Rains turned into Kelsey Grammer, Lee J. Cobb into Anthony Hopkins.

The two most obvious elements of this transformation are feminist critiques of traditional Freudian analysis, and the pervasive cultural irony threading through our view of authoritarian privilege in post-WW II America.

Paradoxically, while I believe feminist scholars were right to criticize clinical treatment as male-dominated and culturally patriarchal, the patient pool from which Freud’s theories evolved was entirely female. Thus, in the ensuing decades, the research—and the conclusions regarding ‘healthy functioning’–are female-normed: the healthy patient is verbal, disclosive, comfortable with eye-to-eye contact.

Men who have difficulty mastering–or are even unfamiliar with–these modes of interaction definitely ‘had work to do.’

This re-evaluation of standard male traits coincided, over the post-war decades, with a withering of patriarchal values in general. The masculine center was not holding. Examples are abundant, from popular fiction (Catch-22, The Ugly American), to harried sitcom husbands and dads (from I Love Lucy to Bewitched to the present), to cartoons of the pompous, without-a-clue big-shots in the New Yorker.

Like most male professionals during this period, male shrinks became…well…funny. Hence, Dr. Bob Hartley in the popular Bob Newhart Show. Larry Hagman’s military psychiatrist/friend in I Dream of Jeanie. And, currently, the uptight, overly-intellectual Niles and Frazier Crane.

This coincided with a trend, during these same years, of popular films that threw cold water on the whole idea of psychological inquiry as a positive tool for the alleviating of suffering. Films as diverse as The Manchurian Candidate, Spellbound, The Snake Pit, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and others suggested the nefarious ways psychological understanding could be exploited or used for evil, often conflating its concepts with those of brain-washing and drug-induced manipulation.

Even such recent films as A Beautiful Mind depicted the horrendous misapplication of electro-convulsive treatment–at the hands, of course, of a coolly assured male psychiatrist. A real Poster Boy for the clueless patriarchy.

In terms of the depiction of male therapists, this wary view of the profession itself only amplified the themes discussed earlier. Plus, there was another cultural shift in attitude toward gender to assimilate. In recent post-feminist times, with the mantle of patriarchal authority removed from their shoulders, yet with no alternative image to replace it, we find conflicting views as to what men should actually be like.

The ‘sensitive’ man is suddenly under assault. As a result, there’s the sense that being a male therapist has become somewhat unseemly–or, at the very least, suspicious. As though, for a real man, it was no longer a respectable profession.

Now, it seems, there appear to be two opposing depictions on screen: in the first, we find the male therapist as severely troubled, often predatory, or even homicidal: Bruce Willis in Color of Night. Alan Alda in Whispers In the Dark. Richard Gere in Final Analysis.

On TV, Nicol Williamson and George Hamilton each played murdering psychiatrists on episodes of Columbo. And, frankly, most male therapists portrayed on Law and Order or NYPD Blue are of questionable character. Even when they’re not suspects, they’re usually uncaring and/or unethical.

What makes this more irksome is the contrast with the current depiction of female therapists: Barbra Streisand’s Dr. Lowenstein in Prince of Tides. Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos. The recurring character of Dr. Elizabeth Olivett on Law and Order.

Not that there aren’t positive portrayals of male therapists on film and TV. (Two that come to mind are Gregory Peck’s Captain Newman, M.D., from the film of the same name; and camp psychiatrist Sidney Freedman on the TV series M*A*S*H, played with rueful warmth by Allan Arbus.) What’s striking now, however, is the pervasive split in terms of how the personalities of male therapists are usually presented. Again, with rare exception, male therapists are currently caught in an unmediated black-or-white dichotomy: the good guys are warm and fuzzy (Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People, Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting), the bad ones are psychotic (the above-mentioned Hannibal Lecter).

(In some attempt at balance, I should mention the recent, short-lived WB series Birds of Prey, in which Mia Sara portrayed an evil female psychiatrist named Dr. Harley Quinn. Grandiose, homicidal, the works. Then again, what else would you expect of the Joker’s girlfriend?)

So, is the situation hopeless? Define your terms. B.D. Wong portrays a police psychiatrist on Law and Order: SVU as a positive, effective–though irritatingly bloodless–character. More multi-faceted, and therefore believable, is the testy, driven consultant Dr. Emil Skoda (apparently the replacement for Elizabeth Olivet’s character) on the flag- ship series Law and Order.

Then there’s Dr. Melfi’s own analyst on The Sopranos, played as a caring though sadly limpid colleague by Peter Bogdonavich. At least he’s not shown having a sexual relationship with her.

Regrettably, it seems the manner in which male therapists are portrayed on screen reflects our culture’s ambivalence toward both the profession in general and notions about its male practitioners in particular. Like the range of attitudes from guarded suspicion to outright hostility with which priests are currently viewed, male therapists suffer from the expectations of a disillusioned public, whose disappointment is masked by pop culture depictions of either warmly-accepting ‘soft males’ or coldly calculating manipulators.

A thwarted paternal image, perhaps, buffed to a stereotypical finish by the narrative demands of film and TV. So that now, to the hallowed images of tough private eye, brilliant physician, and ruthless attorney, we’ve added the warm/cold, empathic/psychotic character potentialities of the male therapist.

Take your pick: The father we never had, or the husband we fear. The caring doctor, or the insinuating mastermind. The lover of life, the taker of life.

Hmmm. Sounds like we could all use a walk with Claude Rains right about now.


Article originally appeared in the American Psychological Association (Division 51) Newsletter,
Fall-Winter 2003.

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