The Disneyfication of Social Work

26 02 2013

I think we all know that I’m a pretty big fan of Disney. I love cartoons, musicals, and animals. Animated woodland creatures bursting into song? Yes, count me in.

To clarify: I’m not saying that I’m cool with sweatshop labor, or their bizarrely controlling ways with their “cast members.” (Cast members=teenagers selling churros.) I know people have really strong feelings either way. Personally, I try to live my life hurting as few creatures as possible, but if I boycotted every company whose ethics didn’t 100% jibe with mine, I’d be sitting naked in the backyard eating nothing but grass.

Glad we got that out of the way.

Disney catches a lot of crap from our sort these days, for other reasons. Princesses are shitty role models who sit around waiting to be rescued and have no goals outside of marriage. This is true. I don’t call little girls in my life “princess.” Instead, I encourage them to enroll in science camp. But I have to assume that these people stopped watching a while back, because Rapunzel and Tiana? They wait for no man. They start small businesses, rescue themselves, throw themselves into their hobbies, and the men come crawling to them.

I’m always all up in social workers’ collective grills for not being able to relax and enjoy anything We love to pathologize things. We love to pick out what’s wrong, in an effort to show off how smart and insightful we are help. Why not take it one step further? Some of these characters need help.

The Little Mermaid

Ariel wants a human life on the land, and to find true love. Why does this mean she has to jealously guard a cave full of garbage? She’s a hoarder who would benefit from CBT. Forget her issues with men, she’s going to be crushed in an avalanche of dinglehoppers.


Yes, they’re glamorizing child abuse. But the real issue here is the vermin. There’s also no way that girl didn’t have bedbugs. Yes, Gus Gus looks adorable in his little hat but it’s unsanitary.


I’m simply going to say “cultural competency” and leave it at that. We can do that now.

Sleeping Beauty

Can we say sexual assault? I don’t believe Aurora consented to that kiss. Prince Philip, don’t focus on “no means no,” wait for a “yes!”

Peter Pan

Lock your children’s window, and don’t hire a dog to be their nanny. Come on. You can afford all these formal nights out, can’t hire a human who can say, “hey, your children just flew away with an androgynous kid in a feathered cap, call for help?”


I’m just saying, a great opportunity to discuss the fluid nature of human sexuality was completely blown. Li Shang, if you ever want to discuss it, we’re here.

The Lion King

While I appreciate the positive representation of gay parents (I’m sorry, what did you think Timon and Pumbaa were?) it would have been nice if we could have addressed the offensive patriarchal nature of lion society. Lionesses do all the work, but the credit goes to those dudes with manes.

Lilo & Stitch

There’s the…I mean when…the time that…never mind, this one is perfect.

Social Workers on Film

4 09 2012

Everyone’s favorite foster care blogger, Fosterhood, talked way back in the day (what, I have a long memory) about how inappropriate the movie “Heidi” turned out to be for children in foster care. I’m sure it’s happened to all of us. You have fond memories of a something from your childhood, show it to the children in your life, then realize how bizarre it was for you to have ever  enjoyed this.

Like when my mother read “The Velveteen Rabbit” to my brother and me, and had two sobbing children on her hands. (We were only three and five, but that book is sad.) Or when my aunt thought the 1970s version of The Poseiden Adventure would make for a great family night, for the kids too young to go see Terminator 2. Her eight year old daughter cried for hours, and swore off nautical adventures for a lifetime. And I haven’t showed it to a kid yet, but I watched Labyrinth a whole lot as a child. That movie’s alternate title is “”David Bowie’s Balls. Also Puppets!”

It’s even more complicated when you have children who are in foster care, or in some other sort of shitty familial situation. You don’t always know how they’ll react. When one of my girls was in a psychiatric hospital, the book Precious started going around, and eventually they did a movie night. Yes, some girls related, but it was also traumatizing and offensive to others. Sorry, but no one wants to hear, “Precious? That movie totally reminded me of you!”

Movies are tricky. Stories geared towards children have a profound fascination with horrible lives for children. Harsh orphanages, evil stepparents, and more dead mothers than you can shake a stick at. Plus tons of young women who see a man as their savior. I mean, come on Cinderella. You could have made bank if you worked with the mice to start your own fashion line, instead of chasing after a prince you hardly know.

On the subject of Disney, my goodness do they deserve credit for getting better. Mulan, Tiana…I can think of way worse role models.

I’m trying to determine which are good, which are maybe all right, and which should be avoided at all costs.

Big Daddy

I’m putting this in the avoid like the plague column, and not because it’s Adam Sandler. Though I do think we kind of said all we need to say right around Happy Gilmore. I saw this movie in theaters with my aunt and two cousins, both of whom are adopted. Everyone was just a little uncomfortable. The kid getting dropped off at the door, about to be snatched away until a biological parent (genes trump all!) shows up out of nowhere. It was a weird message.


I’m listing this one as “OK.” In the negative column, kids should not be expecting a bald millionare to swoop in and rescue them. There’s also a lot of talk about unwanted orphans and them being used for cheap labor. On the other hand, it’s a period piece. Things were shitty in the 1930s, and now they’re shitty in a totally different way! Annie doesn’t magically find a way to be happy by discovering a living relative (like in that unforgiveable Shirley Temple version of A Little Princess) but she makes it work. And you can totally convince your kids to clean your house until it shines like the top of the Chrysler Building, because they’re “playing” Annie! Trust me on that last one. I was so foolish.


No no no no no no no. One of the mothers I work with was planning to become a foster parent. Her eight year old biological daughter saw this movie, and became convinced that any foster child that came to them would be a murderous dwarf.

Despicable Me

This one does feature the orphan warehouse trope that I don’t care for, and kids being brought back from whence they came, so it’s questionable. But overall, I think it’s ok. We wind up with a non-traditional, imperfect, happy family. And SocialJerk kids love those minions.

Problem Child

I watched this a LOT. I borderline aspired to be like it. Whatever, it was the 90s. But the message that your parents will “return you” if you’re bad is not one anyone needs. There should be a secure attachment test in order to see it.

Lilo & Stitch

This might be my strongest yes. Not just because this movie is freakin awesome and hilarious. Not even because it features a social worker named “Cobra Bubbles.” (Though it does. It really, awesomely does.) The story is about a (non-white) little girl in kinship care. Of course there’s still the reopening of the scary social worker coming to check on them and maybe take the kid away, but at least for once she isn’t in an old school orphanage that more closely resembles a modern animal shelter. And the fact that the social worker is genuinely trying to help, while being a total badass comes across nicely. It also ends with the line, “This is my family. I found them all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

I mean, come ON!

Country Bears

Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen this movie. You know, because it’s based on a Disney ride and isn’t the first Pirates of the Caribbean. I just remember the commercial, in which a bear asked his human family, “Mom? Am I adopted?” To which she replied, “What? Of course not!” I think I remember it so well because of the tear my aunt went on about the idea of denying that your kids are adopted like it’s something bad. So no.

Hunger Games

This movie is not about kids in foster care, for once, but it is about a couple of kids with a profoundly shitty situation. I can think of a whole bunch of parentified children who can relate to an absent dad and mentally ill mom, fight to the death notwithstanding. It’s relatable, but also clearly fantasy, so it’s not too much. And girls can totally kick ass and shoot arrows.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I love Lemony Snicket. So does just about every kid I know. It’s exactly what it sounds like. These kids’ lives are unpleasant. But the real theme of the move (and the books) I think, can be summed up in the following quote: “And that might seem to be a series of unfortunate events, may, in fact, be the first steps of a journey.” Yes. Things are rough, but we’re moving forward.

Of course, whenever in doubt, just stick with everyone’s favorite magic orphan.

“Social workers suck.” That about sums it up.

4 11 2010

The term “social worker” doesn’t arouse warm and fuzzy feelings in most people. The search terms that direct people to this blog are a pretty good indication: “bad social workers,” “social workers suck,” “social workers don’t know anything,” and “what to do about a bad social worker?” are some of my favorites. (Aside from “black guy from Yo Gabba Gabba” and “elderly tracksuits,” but those are really off topic.)

I blame the damn media. (This is where my similarities to Sarah Palin begin and end.)

We get it in news reports. The death of a child at the hands of an abusive caretaker is horrifying, infuriating, and also rare. It rightly causes outrage, and finger-pointing.

Without delving too much into what is no doubt a very complex issue, there is a lot of failure that goes into a child being so horribly abused. Parents, schools, the bureaucratic child welfare system as a whole, and child welfare workers–that includes caseworkers, social workers, and supervisors.

Listening to commentators on the subject (I think we all know that there’s no better way to drive yourself to tear your hair out than to listen to opinions on talk radio) the only people who need to be held accountable are those lazy, disinterested social workers. You know, the ones who take children from good parents, and leave kids to rot in abusive foster homes? Somehow they always get it wrong.

Where does this stereotype come from?

I remember watching ER in college. My roommate was a nursing major, and she couldn’t get enough of it. It almost started growing on me, until the first social worker appeared.

She coldly insisted that a child with a couple of bruises be removed from his loving parents’ home, while the dashing Dr. Carter begged for her to see reason. She explained, still with no emotion, that she “had no choice.”

You see, social workers get caught up in red tape. Interns in public emergency rooms? They just follow their hearts.

Then there are the movies.

I Am Sam? Poor Sean Penn Sam just wanted to win an Oscar raise his daughter with no reliable assistance even though he was ill equipped. Then that evil social worker shows up. And let’s face it, all social workers know that child removals simply don’t count unless they are done at said child’s birthday party. It just wouldn’t be as fun, otherwise. Thank goodness for lawyers! They show us the way back to our humanity.

Cartoons aren’t even exempt. Lilo & Stitch? OK, so Cobra Bubbles is a badass name for a social worker, but he is also rigid and judgmental. Apparently he comes around at the end, but he’s not really a shining example.

There are a lot fewer positive examples of social workers in the media. There are almost none that do anything other than remove children from their homes. My personal favorite was Detective Lacey Tyne Daly on Judging Amy. A flawed character on a flawed series, but she portrayed a social worker who loved children and consistently went above and beyond for them. It was always comforting for me to be able to see that, to remind myself of why I was working to become a social worker.

There aren’t many places I get that now. I was intrigued to see Maryann on season two of True Blood described as a social worker, and honestly, she’s my current favorite. Sure, she’s manipulative, dishonest, supernatural, and she caused a nice small town to erupt into spontaneous orgies.

But who hasn’t?