Psychiatry: the ultimate arch nemesis?

by Cody Dolan on July 30, 2010 · 11 comments

in personality disorders,psychiatry,stigma

As it says in my bio, I like to read; it’s one of the few hobbies having a 2-year-old allows me to keep up with. Aside from traditional works of fiction and non-fiction (and the nigh constant Sandra Boynton books), I read a lot of comics (a genre that deserves its own de-stigmatizing blog if there ever was one) and, since this is a hobby I quite enjoy and therefore take seriously, I keep up with several comics related websites.

Thanks to this obsession healthy interest, I came across a post, Batman vs. Psychiatry, which discusses various Batman foes who also happen to be psychiatrists (and psychologists, but I’ll use the former as a catch-all for this post). It’s an interesting topic that I wish I had thought of first. Instead, the author is responding to a question posed by an 8-year-old girl. (If this is the kind of thinking they’re teaching in grade schools, I am no longer worried about future generations.)

Batman as society

If you’re wondering why this topic is worthy of a blog post, it’s probably because you:

  1. don’t read comics,
  2. think they’re for kids and
  3. don’t care who Batman fights on a monthly basis.

To this I would reply:

  1. you’re missing some great stories
  2. they’re actually aimed at adults these days and
  3. how could you not care?

Batman is the most popular superhero in the United States in a time when superheroes are in the mainstream.  The Dark Knight made over $1 billion worldwide, and you and I both know you saw it and enjoyed it. No one would much care if this was Aquaman’s rogues gallery, but this is Batman we’re talking about. Batman looks at all those Chuck Norris facts and thinks, “That sounds like a lazy Sunday afternoon.”

The super villains we read about in comics and see in movies are often portrayed as “crazy,” right? Lex Luthor is a narcissist and a xenophobe. The Green Goblin had a psychotic break and (in the movie) developed a second personality after being exposed to super-steroids (or something like that). The same goes for Harvey Dent/Two Face after his fiancee was killed and half his face burned off. The Abomination (the monster the Hulk fought in his most recent (and underrated) movie) is the id unleashed. The Joker…I honestly have no idea what he has.

It had never occurred to me that so many comic book villains came from the world of mental health. Of course, fiction likes to pick on scientists in general; we wouldn’t have the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Spider-man or Captain America if it weren’t for a scientist making a mistake. Until I read Batman vs. Psychiatry, I hadn’t given the psychiatrist angle much thought.

Batman’s shrinks?

Scarecrow

Scarecrow: His look in the comics changes constantly, but you’ll recognize him from this picture (unless you’re one of the 26 people who hasn’t seen Batman Begins or The Dark Knight). Dr. Jonathan Crane was so obsessed with the psychology of fear that he created a chemical gas that makes his victims experience their worst nightmares. He uses it to get whatever he wants, and then usually gets punched out by Batman because, after all, he’s just a skinny, nerdy dude in a homemade scarecrow costume.

Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn: Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a criminal psychiatrist working at Arkham Asylum when she was tasked with treating the Joker. She fell in love with him and became his psychotic sidekick. (Clearly, the employee screening process at Arkham is less than rigorous.) Unlike Scarecrow, she doesn’t really use her psychiatric training to commit crimes. Instead, she prefers to use old-fashioned violence.

Hugo Strange

Hugo Strange: While he’s not a character a lot of people know about, Dr. Hugo Strange is an important figure in Batman’s story. Strange predates the Joker and Catwoman, and was one of the first bad guys to deduce that Batman and Bruce Wayne were one and the same. Obviously, the only thing the good doctor could do with that info was to try and kill Batman so Strange could take his place. That makes sense, right? I believe Strange is dead in the comic world, so this plan worked about as well as you’d expect.

Arkham hallway

Arkham Asylum itself is more than a little problematic. It can’t seem to keep the criminally insane behind bars and sees more breakouts than a dermatologist. Second, the Arkham family was probably not the best clan to start a psychiatric hospital. Founder Amadeus Arkham murdered a man and was subsequently committed to his own hospital. Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, the most recent administrator, recently adopted a supervillain persona himself (and was of course then punched out by Batman).

On top of the dubious family tree, the institution itself is always drawn to look like a straight-up prison. Metal bars on the windows, steel cages around the nurses station and every other prison stereotype you can think of has been drawn into Arkham Asylum. Take a look at a couple of screenshots of the recent video game Batman: Arkham Asylum to see what I mean. A place like this couldn’t rehabilitate a jaywalker.

Batman: Arkham Asylum won several Game of the Year awards and has been hailed as the best superhero video game ever. A toy company is releasing action figures based on the game, and a sequel is already in the works. Hundreds of thousands of game players now think this is what a mental hospital looks like. 

The points made in the article linked to earlier are good ones (Batman’s whole deal is to intimidate bad guys using psychology, his world is a good place to tell stories with a psychological bent, etc.) so I encourage you to give it a quick read. I could go on and point out more evil psychiatrists, but that’d be even more self-indulgent.

But what does this mean?

I bring all this up because I can’t help but think there’s something deeper at play here. There’s a reason why there are so few good examples of psychiatrists in popular escapist fiction, and so many bad examples to point to.

I think we’re scared of psychiatrists in a way that’s different from the way we’re scared of dentists.

 

We know the physical pain caused by someone rooting around in our mouths will eventually fade. We’ll leave feeling bad about not flossing or relieved because we don’t have to sit through another exam for six months or so but, unless we have seven cavities or something, there aren’t a lot of lasting effects.

We can’t say the same if we give someone else access to our minds. We’re vulnerable when we see a psychiatrist in a much different, much scarier way than at any other time.

At the dentist, we open our mouths.  At the psychiatrist, we open ourselves.

And that’s terrifying.

It doesn’t matter that we learn skills to help us function better. It doesn’t matter that psychiatrists help us understand ourselves and why we behave or think the way we do.  It doesn’t matter that we know how much psychiatrists can help us. In the end, we’re simply projecting our self-doubt, our fear that we’re not good people on the inside, onto the very people who can help us.

So Batman stands in for his readers, punching out doubt and fear in the guises of a scarecrow or a dude with a creepy smile and a sweet beard. Unfortunately, these “victories” over psychiatrists aren’t always satisfying because, while the external foe is vanquished, the internal villain persists.

Because there’s only person who can really beat Batman, and that’s Batman himself.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis August 2, 2010 at 8:49 pm

So Theresa, you pointed to Katie Holmes as a “positive” example in your response. You might want to rethink that as she is not the best example. She went from being a very popular actress poised to becoming the next big Hollywood star by starring in films like Batman Begins and Pieces of April (great movie) to plummeting like an asteroid on its way towards Earth once she married Tom Cruise and joining the cult called Scientology. But let’s not digress from Dolan’s very interesting take on the Batman and his relentless fight against fear. I do agree with him on his points, he shows great insight on this subject and I applaud him for bringing out this subject that’s always been there just not shown in the light. And yes, people as a whole don’t want to admit every single fault because then it shows just how imperfect we really are and that is something no one wants to truly admit especially to themselves. We all want to think we’re close to perfect as possible but once you get a shrink involved, well, the truth comes out. But what Batman does for us is he shows us that any one man can stand up for himself and face his fears and gives us ordinary people strength that we too can do the same thing. So to you Batman (and Dolan), I raise a glass in y’alls honor.

Teresa August 1, 2010 at 9:02 am

Joseph—
While I agree with your point that the Batman franchise is a dark one, I don’t agree that there isn’t some conscious or subconscious stigma perpetuating about psychiatry. You mentioned cops, DAs , scientists, as well as psychiatrists as also being corrupt. This is true, however each of those professions are also shown in a positive light; we get to see examples of good cops, DAs, and scientists who fight against evil. Psychiatry…not so much. Just going off the movies, you’ve got the characters played by Morgan Freeman (scientist), Gary Oldman (cop), and Katie Holmes (lawyer) as positive examples of what I’m talking about. There’s no good side of the coin to balance out the Scarecrow, however. I know that the Batman series panders to our fears that those in power would misuse it, but it also gives us examples of people who triumph over the corrupt. Where is the virtuous example of psychiatry?

Joseph July 31, 2010 at 7:30 pm

While the world of Batman certainly has its share of evil Psychiatrists, the whole feeling of the Batman series is very dark, filled with corruption, wrongdoing, self-centeredness, all provideing a grim prognosis for Gatham City’s future. We have to remember that their are evil cops, scientists, former DA’s,in the Batman series, but I doubt that a statement is being made that these professions are evil. Perhaps the Batman series isn’t trying to paint psychologists in a bad light, but maybe show us the evil that can occur everywhere when good men do nothing.

Chucka July 31, 2010 at 11:04 am

Takes me back to the good old days, where life was less ridged and imagination was my responablity.

Tania H July 31, 2010 at 12:34 am

I think examination of the pop culture views of many of our most “respected” professions is critical to understanding why more of the population doesn’t make use of those professionals. In law school we had a “Cinematic Images and the Law” class that made a lot of those same kinds of points relating to portrayals of lawyers in movies. Unless you live in LA or NY, you probably don’t have a lot of real-life exposure to psychiatric professionals, and it’s important to understand the reasons people may be hesitant to seek help. A subconscious pop-culture-influenced view that psychiatrists are the enemy needs to be understood if the field is to combat it.

Jeff W July 30, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Also, as an unrelated aside, the phrase “Your comment is awaiting moderation” makes me think that my comment has either gobbled too much food or become anorexic.

Jeff W July 30, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Great post.

I had never made this connection either. And even if the writers of the Batman comic never *intentionally* made this connection, on a subconscious level, I’m sure, it’s there. (Hmmmm maybe the Batman-writers need to see a psychiatrist…)

Honestly, this opened my eyes about how we see psychiatrists in pop culture.

Terrific read.

Teresa July 30, 2010 at 10:12 pm

I think it is very dangerous that we vilify psychiatrists and psychologist in television, movies, and video games. As the author so correctly put it, when we are with a psychiatrists we are opening up ourselves. Being this exposed can be frightening. Nothing is scarier than the thought that we would be taken advantage of during such a vulnerable time. It is easy to see why evil or corrupt psychiatrists would terrify someone and are therefore used as villains in mass media.

It’s a fine line we are walking, though. No one is saying that authors can’t use “evil psychiatrists,” but we certainly need to make sure they are not creating or perpetuating a stigma that could keep someone from seeking the psychiatric help they need.

Clint July 30, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Having seen a shrink for several years, I can attest it took some time to overcome that fear and seek help. It’s done wonders for me and my family, and I’m not even a superhero! Here’s to Joseph Gordon levitt in the dark knight sequel!

Michele July 30, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I really like your take on things. And I think you’re exactly right that our fear of psychiatrists (and all mental health professionals) stems from the deeper fear that, to put it inelegantly, we suck. Nobody wants to suck, and we certainly don’t want anyone else to know we suck. In my personal experience, and at the risk of over-sharing, it takes a great deal of work and introspection and, yes, visits to mental health professionals to recognize that we don’t suck–we’re just human.

Excellent work, sir.

Also? Batman and Chuck Norris in the same post? Respect.

Maggie July 30, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I, in fact, do not care who Batman fights on a monthly basis but think this post shows great insight.

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