Through The Lens: Psychology In Media, Part 1

Jasmine Sundri, Licensed Mental Health Counselor April 16, 2021

It has been quite a stressful year. While most of us have mostly been stuck inside, film and television have provided a source of relief for many. Here is a psychological review of our favorite TV shows and movies that got us through the last year.

It has been quite a stressful year. We are dealing with an ongoing pandemic, racial tension, and violence, death, fear, loss, stress, inequality, financial stress and pressure, grief, uncertainty, collective trauma (the list goes on). While most of us have mostly been stuck inside, film and television have provided a huge source of relief for many, myself included. 

The predictability of numbered episodes, consistency of characters and worlds, the escapist fantasy, and even nostalgia media engenders have been particularly helpful in these difficult times. Historically, the same rings true, as Hollywood experienced a Golden Age during difficult years of war and recession, providing an escape for many.

As a therapist, I enjoy bringing TV and film into my work with clients, as I have found media has been immensely helpful in my journey of self-understanding, hope, and healing. I hope this post offers suggestions for viewing and some solace, escape, and an opportunity to help people better recognize and understand parts of themselves through these characters, writing, and stories. Without further ado, onto the shows!

Intergenerational Trauma Within the Black Community

Watchmen (HBO)

This show features the amazing Regina King taking on white supremacy within the police department. Set 34 years after the original graphic novel takes place, in Tulsa, OK during the massacre at Black Wall Street. This series does a great job addressing racism, police brutality, and white supremacy in the U.S. It offers one of the greatest visual representations of intergenerational trauma, alongside Lovecraft Country, I have ever seen. 

Lovecraft Country (HBO)

This sci-fi/horror show produced and co-created by Jordan Peele tackles the horrors of racism and white supremacy in the Jim Crow South as Atticus searches for his father with his friends and family. This show provides a great representation of intergenerational trauma as we witness the complex relationship between Atticus and his father develop. The scenes from this show and how it captures the fear and race-based traumatic stress continue to haunt me. The Black Gaze in TV and film, especially in the genre of horror, is so important and very much needed. 

More resources on intergenerational trauma: 

Complex Trauma

His Dark Materials (HBO)

Based on the book series by Philip Pullman, this sci-fi and fantasy tv series follows the journey of the young Lyra Belacqua and her demon, Pan, as they venture outside the safety of the University where she lives. This series powerfully portrays the themes of betrayal, grief, and the loss of trust in institutions and relationships that should have been ones of safety. The show is beautifully crafted, and as terrifying as it gets at times, it is also incredibly heartwarming. 

The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)

This show touches on themes of loss, attachment, loneliness, and addiction. We see Beth Harmon's character struggle through her mom's suicide, the foster care system, a new home with an absent father and addicted mother, and ultimately battling her own addiction as she seeks to become a chess master in the male-dominated sport. The show focuses on her own struggles to connect and attach to those around her, the enduring effects of childhood trauma, and how attachment can fortify resilience.

More resources on complex trauma:

Complex Trauma 

What is Complex Trauma? A Resource Guide for Youth and Those Who Care About Them

Recognizing Complex Trauma

Addiction

*Bojack Horseman (Netflix)

This is one of my favorite shows. Bojack Horseman is an animated dark comedy that lays out depression and addiction in one of the most creative and endearing ways I have ever seen. The seven seasons of this show beautifully and creatively craft Bojack's story, a young horse (yes, most characters are animals), slow decline from stardom while struggling with his identity, career, self, and relationships. From addiction to difficulties connecting with others, to depression, to narcissism, to problems with his past, this show goes from superficial fun to a real and honest portrayal of the highs and lows of addiction. This show is one of a kind that changes and challenges the way we see adult animation. 

*Euphoria (HBO)

It is hard to place this show into one category since it seems to focus on so many things at once: addiction, attachment, loss, grief, sex positivity, sexual health, sexual trauma, and sexuality/queerness. The show centers around Rue (a young teen battling addiction after an overdose) and her relationship with Jules (a young trans teen with her own history of self-harm and sexual trauma). The show is one of the few on the list that features a trans actor. I love this show because it reveals the various forms addiction can take - substances, emotions, relationships, physical, behavioral, sexual, etc. 

More resources on addiction:

What Is Addiction?

What Is a Substance Use Disorder?

SAMHSA's National Helpline

Neurodivergence

Everything's Gonna Be Ok (Hulu)

This show is about three siblings, where the oldest, Nick, takes custody of his two half-sisters after their father's death, and one of Nick's half-sisters, Matilda, is on the autism spectrum. The show heartwarmingly and creatively and with its quirkiness and humor captures this family's love and lives. 

Atypical (Netflix) 

This show is probably one of the most well-known for portraying the life of those with autism. The show follows Sam, a young teen with autism as he declares he is ready to be more independent and begin dating as well as his family and each individual family member's life. I like this show because it also shows Sam in therapy working on learning and building specific skills that are useful and relatable to those with autism. 

More resources on neurodivergence:

Neurodiversity: What you need to know

What is: Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical

What is Neurodiversity? Definition and Resources for Teachers, Counselors and Schools

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What is Autism?

Sexual Trauma

*I May Destroy You (HBO)

In my opinion, one of the most important and powerful TV shows this past year is I May Destroy You. Created by the GENIUS Michaela Coel, we follow the story of Arabella after she has been drugged, violated, and raped. Through a strong female lead and the power of the Black Gaze, we see Arabella struggle with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and all the attendant difficulties associated with trauma and trauma recovery. This show depicts power, especially race, gender, and sexual orientation in interactions from the subtle to the most overt. Overall, Arabella's story is one of nuance, complexity, and empowerment. THIS SHOW DESERVES A GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD

Tuca and Bertie (Netflix)

From the animator of Bojack Horseman, Lisa Hanawalt, we see the story and friendship of these two very different birds, Bertie (voiced by  Alli Wong), a super neurotic and anxious songbird, and Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish), a wild and carefree rebellious Tucan navigating their friendship, work, and relationships. What starts as a very superficial comedy unravels into a powerful story of what lurks beneath Bertie's neuroticism and Tuca's nonchalance. This is the story of two friends navigating sexual trauma, anxiety, depression, insecurity through empowerment and friendship unfolds.  

More resources on sexual trauma:

Sexual Assault / Abuse

After an Assault

The Psychological Consequences of Sexual Trauma

Recovering from Rape and Sexual Trauma

Grief and loss 

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) 

Based on Shirley Jackson's book, this horror series is about a family's struggle coping with their mother's death. Using lots of flashbacks into the past, the story follows a family as they are reunited through grief, tragedy, and despair. The story delves into how loss, pain, and the house they all lived in affected each of them. The show powerfully depicts the ways in which loss and trauma trap us in certain times and continue to affect our present realities. The show was talked about a lot in psychology circles mainly through how the characters depict Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief (Darwish, 2018). 

For more resources on grief and loss, please see: 

What is Grief?

The Five Stages of Grief

What Is Normal Grieving, and What Are the Stages of Grief?

Coping with Grief and Loss

Grief

PTSD

The Legend of Korra (Netflix) 

From the creators of Avatar the Last Airbender, comes the second generation of Avatar, Korra. This animated series for children tells the story of a world divided into tribes based on the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar, who is reborn every generation, is the only person who can bend all four of these elements. This series follows Korra, a hot-headed adolescent who is the new Avatar. As she learns to master all the elements and face villains who threaten the balance of this world, her identity and belief in herself as the chosen one is challenged. We see Korra struggle to believe in her abilities, trust herself, become avoidant, have nightmares of some of these villains and slowly battle PTSD. This show is a powerful and nuanced depiction of trauma and recovery.  

More resources on PTSD:

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

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