Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dr. Fool

This past Good Friday, CTV aired an episode of Dr. Phil called "Growing Up Too Fast?" It concerned a teenage girl, Demi, and her habit of dressing provocatively. Demi's behaviour earned the concern of her mother, the censure of her father and the epithet "slut" at her high school.

The family identified Demi as the problem. If only she would dress more modestly, everything would be fine. The father was notably hostile to his daughter, going so far as to say that she disgusted him. The mother paid lip service to the idea that Demi's behaviour was a problem, but paid for the clothes that brought her daughter this attention. Demi's relationship with her sister was also marked by hostility. Although the videos showed that the two girls habitually interacted through screaming and name-calling, the sister went along with the prevailing attitude and declared, most improbably, that the trouble between them was all due to her sister's style of dress.

In short, the family was a tinderbox, sparking hostility, desperate for help. But they weren't going to get it from Dr. Phil, who rolled up his sleeves and got to work bullying the girl. That teenage girls often dress provocatively as they try out their shiny new sexuality, that girls can easily get labelled "slut" in high school for doing anything and nothing--these facts got not a moment's consideration. Dr. Phil asked Demi an array of leading questions: How do you feel about being called a slut? Do you want to have sex? Well, don't you know that when you advertise it, boys expect it? These questions were all meant to get this 14-year-old girl to admit that her behaviour was wrong. Big surprise--it didn't work.

Meanwhile, a screen behind them played an endless loop of Demi modelling her skin-tight dresses and low-rider jeans. In light of Dr. Phil's disapproval of Demi's clothing, this is odd and certainly contradictory, but I suppose that when you have your own TV show, being a hypocritical sleazebag pays the bills.

While Dr. Phil was intent on getting Demi to see how wrong she was, he showed himself to be utterly uncaring and disinterested in her as a person. He asked Demi only one genuine question, and that only because she led him in that direction: what sort of career did she want to have? Then he stopped listening to her in the middle of her answer. Any attentive viewer could see how he sniffed in contempt and looked away, how poor Demi dwindled off in the middle of a sentence. The performance was a blatant display of his seeing her not as a person but as an object--perhaps even more blatant than the sexy fashion show looping behind them all.

What kind of therapist is this? The show's producers could have gotten a performance no worse, and perhaps even better, if they'd dragged some random person off the street. The very minimum prerequisite a therapist needs to help anyone is caring. Dr. Phil flunked on that point. But his failure is bigger than that. Any competent therapist, observing the family dynamics, would have immediately picked up on the fact that there was more going on than Demi's clothes. He would have asked himself, what is the underlying problem that the family is using Demi and her "inappropriate" clothing to distract them from? For Demi was working very hard to draw all the attention to herself, and her family was eagerly accepting the distraction.

What could the real issue be? Due to Dr. Phil's lack of interest and insight, we can only speculate. Perhaps the parents' marriage is not so hot. Certainly the father has anger issues; no loving, emotionally healthy man publicly declares that his daughter--his normal, intelligent daughter--disgusts him.

And Demi clearly was intelligent. Dr. Phil himself admitted it, albeit grudgingly, on the basis that she used to get good grades. But Demi gave better indication of her intelligence than that. After an extended period of questioning on her habit of dress, Demi finally admitted that she did it "to get attention." When one of her parents declared, "She has low self-esteem. I don't know where she gets it," Demi retorted, "I get it from you guys." Not one but two perceptive, self-aware statements. Demi may not wholly have a handle on her problem--she's probably not consciously aware of her service as family lightning-rod--but she's got some idea of what's going on, and she tried to give Dr. Phil some hints.

But Dr. Phil persistently dropped the ball, by not listening and not really caring but instead choosing to be a bullying and prudish yet faintly lecherous creep (that video looping in the background). Because he never looked below the surface but chose instead the easy route of accepting the parents' definition of the problem, he was unable to be of any real help.

You may be wondering, how do I know all this? I'm no therapist, but that family dynamic is all too familiar to me. But for some minor differences, Demi's family could have been my family, and Demi could have been me at about that age. Even the incompetent shlub posing as therapist is familiar; my parents also subjected me to one of those. Eventually we had real family therapy, but it took years and a great deal of suffering. It pains me to think how much longer Demi might have to wait before she gets the sympathetic listener she deserves.

I would like to urge parents to get their children and themselves real therapy, and not settle for quacks like Dr. Phil. But in the end, it all comes down to parental priorities: do they want to get real help for their problems or do they want to make spectacles of themselves on TV? Clear enough which choice Demi's parents made.


Anonymous said...

The few times I've watched Dr. Phil I have had much the same reaction. I find he spends a lot of time catering to his audience rather than honestly looking for a solution to the problem. Just out of curiosity, do you recall how the audience was reacting?

Your last paragraph sums it up nicely. You can only expect so much from a "therapist" who gets his paycheck from a TV network. I'd be inclined to believe he's job depends more on ratings than on how may people he helps.

Vivian said...

Hi Y (it's you, isn't it? :) )

I did not notice at all how the audience was reacting, possibly because I was so thunderstruck by the display of prurience and nastiness by the males on the stage. Dr. Phil's audience tends to be pretty worshipful though, it seems to me.

I think you're right about what his job depends on, and I have no doubt he's keenly aware of it. You'll notice there is never any followup (that I have seen). Whether he's supposed to be helping people lose weight or recover from childhood trauma, there's never followup later to see how the experience has impacted their life (as you might expect if Dr. Phil sincerely wanted to improve people's lives). No, they drop off the face of the earth and are never seen again, and the new gang of troubled souls shuffles in in their place.


Anonymous said...

Nope, I'm not Y, but Y must be quite intelligent if my comments can be mistaken for hers/his :)
I meandered onto your blog from the FSFS site. I recently discovered their site and would like to make contact but it does not look like they have regular weekly get- togethers.

Vivian said...

Ha, you got me! Yes, she's quite intelligent. Welcome, it's always nice to get new readers.

Actually, the FSFS does have approximately weekly get-togethers. There's a forum where people post whether they plan to show up or not. This is to avoid a situation where only one person shows up, which I gather has happened in the past. For more info, click on the FSFS Community Message Board link on the FSFS site, and then on The Gathering.

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