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.

It’s Harry Freakin’ Potter!

14 07 2011

Tomorrow, Friday, July 15th is a rare, glorious day–I’ll be taking a vacation day. Why you ask? Long weekend, a little beach trip, perhaps?

I’ve mentioned that I’m a geek, right? I’m sure of it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 comes out at midnight. As a result, I will be too emotionally and physically exhausted to come to work after that three hour movie, that I will definitely cry at. I don’t make a habit of this. I came to work the morning after Part 1 came out. I was crashing a bit by the afternoon, but I made it through the day.

But this is different. This is final. The last one ever. And the books and movies that have been a part of my life since I was 14 will be done with.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. (Until tomorrow.)

Why am I rambling on about this? Ever since becoming a social worker (and maybe a little before then) I have been unable to separate work from entertainment. When I see movies like Precious or White Oleander, I think about what I would do if I were the social worker in the story. When I read classics like Little Women or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I consider how different life would have been if they had a caring professional to provide them with counseling services and social programs. When I watch Glee, I imagine being a singing school social worker. (I think I can make that one happen.)

Harry Potter is no exception.

First order of business as social worker at Hogwarts–sex ed. I’m sorry, but that Room of Requirement seems a little too willing to help. I don’t know if it’s the potion rather than the pill, or something unholy with wands, but those kids need to know. James and Lilly were rather young parents, after all. And witches and wizards are not immune to herpes. (Pansy Parkinson, I’m looking in your direction.)

Next, anti-bullying programs. Is anyone even paying attention when those Slytherins are abusing everyone else? And turning kids into bouncy ferrets, while amusing, is not going to solve the problem, Mad-Eye. If that is your real name.

We also need to work on self esteem. Not for everyone, just for the Hufflepuffs. I mean really, what do they do? Gryffindors get to be brave and valiant, Ravenclaws are a bunch of smarties, Slytherins are working the evil vibe. Hufflepuffs are…nice? Good friends? We might as well be telling them, “oh, but you’ve got a pretty face.” A little strengths based group work would go a long way.

Speaking of groups, how about a Hogwarts GSA? There’s no way Dumbledore was the only one. (Luna Lovegood, my gaze has fallen to you.)

On to our favorite wizards and witches.

Hermione Jean Granger. Smart girl, but unpopular, and looking for validation from boys. We’ve all seen it a million times. Plus she’s the victim of constant prejudice. No wonder she’s always trying to dazzle everyone with her knowledge. We’ll need to brainstorm some ways to get her to see that she doesn’t have to be the best at everything. (I mean, at least she’s not a Hufflepuff!)

Ron Weasley. Kid really gets lost in the shuffle, doesn’t he? And the only one who seems to notice is Voldemort! I think some family counseling is in order. While we’re at it, can we get the Weasleys to the Department of Magical Public Assistance? Food stamps might not cover Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, but it should help.

Of course, we’ve got the man of the hour. Harry Potter. He was abused, neglected, and everyone he loves dies. He might be wanting an individual session or two. That will have to include a home visit. I’m sorry, I get that his mother’s family offered magical protection, but was this really the best the magical child welfare workers could do? At least get him involved in a mentoring program. Something that would help him to embrace his wizard culture, rather than having it be denied.

Enjoy the movie, everyone. I’ll be waiting for my owl.

Social Workers Like Us

26 05 2011

It’s three a.m., and I am blogging. This is not how I planned out my evening.

Dr. Mom attended The New York Women’s Foundation “Celebrating Women Breakfast” this past weekend. She gave me a book that she got there: “Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself.” It was written by Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, who founded Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS.)

It would seem that this book affected me emotionally. By that I mean it ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, and showed it to me while I was still alive. Did I mention it left me wanting more?

So I decided to watch a movie, Very Young Girls (available on Netflix Instant Watch), which is a documentary about the girls GEMS works with, and the work that they do. Guess what? Sleep continues to evade me.

But I still highly recommend both, especially to my fellow social workers. Unless you work for an organization like GEMS, where the mission is specifically geared towards working with this population, you might forget what a serious problem it is. And the fact that it likely affects people we work with.

It’s so easy to make light of this situation. I’ve been guilty of it myself.

What’s that, you say? No one would mock exploited children. What the hell is wrong with you, SocialJerk? The thing is, we do it all the time.

People like victims. Nice, neat, wrapped up in a bow, no blame could conceivably be placed on their shoulders victims. If a suburban girl is kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to do drugs, and sold against her will, then clearly, she is a victim. If a woman living under an opppressive, totalitarian government is promised a better life in America, and then sold into slavery, we can agree that she’s been victimized. We can all feel like good guys by writing letters to the editor, saying that the thugs that did this (they were black, right?) should be creatively killed in public (I’m the only one with the guts to say it!) and we should take up a collection to help this girl (hey, it’s the thought that counts.)

Actual scenarios are usually much messier. Was she taken and held against her will? Yes. Physically? Not always. Does she do drugs? Does she swear a lot? Does she seem like she doesn’t even want help? Does she keep running back to her pimp?

It’s harder to feel sympathy for girls who, though they’re only 13, don’t look 13. They certainly don’t act like it, y’knowwhatimsayin’? They’re prostitutes. OK, their lives were tough, but things were tough for a lot of people, and they don’t sell themselves on a street corner. Plus pimps wear those hilarious clothes! And I like rap music!

I worked with one girl, back when I was an intern, who broke my heart on a regular basis. Her mother was a drug addict and had a pimp. That man owned her mother. So when my girl was born, the pimp wound up on the birth certificate, though no one seemed to think he was really the father.

The mother drifted in and out of this girl’s life, until she was eventually murdered. My girl spent the majority of her life being raised by her grandmother.

But her mother’s pimp? His name on the birth certificate gave him legal rights. So he took this girl to visit him from the age of five, which is when he started selling her for sex. It was a long time before her grandmother could prove to the courts that seeing this piece of shit (I’m going to let that one ride) was not in this child’s best interests.

This girl wanted nothing more than to please others. She would bring ice cream for the other girls in group. She accompanied one girl to a doctor’s appointment when the father wasn’t willing to go. Once she came in with a good report card, smiling from ear to ear. Her grandmother certainly loved her, but she had a very difficult time showing it. When she brought that report card home, grandma had patted this 15 year old on the arm, and told her she was proud.

When this girl was 12, she began to realize that she had developed into a rather beautiful young girl, with a body that made her look about 16. Guys who had known her mother showed an interest in her. She had never experienced healthy love from a man, never had any kind of father figure. So when guys wanted to spend time with her, which turned into them wanting sex, she went along with it.

When one man, who had always looked out for her, told her that he would bring her to a party, she was thrilled. Then he asked if she would dance, make some money for them both, so she did it. She wanted the money, but she really wanted to please this guy. There were more parties, more dancing, and the line of what she wouldn’t do kept getting blurred, until she ended up having sex for money.

What would you have done, if you were her? How would you have avoided it?

She wasn’t the only one. Two of the eight girls in that group had been sexually exploited at some point. Angelica, who I wrote about a while back, saw prostitution as her only viable source of income, and planned to enter the life when she got out of the hospital. Other girls in group considered it. They all talked about “zoning out,” playing a song in their heads–dissociating, to those of us in the know.

It’s a bleak picture. But Girls Like Us and Very Young Girls gives us exactly what we need as social workers, or at least, what I need. Ebony, who is hilarious and talented, but can’t seem to stay out of the life. She knows what she wants, and what she needs to do to get it, but she’s just not ready. Girls like Carolina and Kim, who are on the road to improving their lives.

And then there is Dominique, who is adorable and wears her heart on her sleeve. You hear her story, which is more than any child should have to deal with, and get to see what she’s up to now–marrying a guy she describes as “beautiful inside and out,” realizing she deserves to be loved, working at GEMS and raising her daughter, conscious that she wants a different life for her child.

She’s only 20, but she seems to be one of those rare success stories that keeps us all going.

You start to feel bad for people who don’t get to see how lovable these girls are. Gossiping about mutual acquaintances, hamming it up and dancing for the camera, talking about their little sisters, doing each other’s hair. To look at them and see broken, used children, teen prostitutes, too far gone to be helped…it really is the loss of everyone who doesn’t give these girls a chance.

Hooray for Social Work! (or Hollywood.)

28 02 2011

I am an Oscar junkie. I can’t help it. Even when I know the hosts are going to be terrible (being pretty and having acting talent doesn’t excuse everything, Mr. Franco) I’m still excited for weeks. The fashion doesn’t hold my interest, but being a movie snob does. Nothing gives me greater joy than being able to get righteously angry for whoever got snubbed.

I should probably social work myself over that one. Later.

I make it a point to see as many nominated movies as I can. This year I made a spreadsheet to make this more achievable. (Note: if you do this, don’t show it to anyone. I assure you, people don’t understand.)

We all know that being a social worker colors your view of the world. It changes how you see things. The Oscars are no different.

We started with the red carpet. Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban just had a baby through a surrogate, and Sandra Bullock was talking about her son. So much going on. I wonder who facilitates these things. If you work in private adoption and Sandy strolls into your office, is it cool to ask her what she really thought doing “Speed 2” was going to accomplish? I think it’s relevant.

Some of those young actresses are looking awfully thin. Self esteem seminar, perhaps? Who are they maintaining this look for?

Kirk Douglas–does he have a case manager? He’s entitled to services, I hope he’s getting them.

James Franco…all right, kid. I love you dearly, but what are you on? I don’t know if an intervention is necessary at this point, but if this starts to affect your career and relationships, you give me a call. (Or you know, even if it doesn’t start to affect anything, you could still give me a call. I mean, whatever.)

Onto the movies!

Black Swan, a social worker’s dream nightmare something. There’s almost too much to discuss. Enmeshed family systems, diffuse boundaries, eating disorders, self-harm, sexual confusion…imagine a family session with Nina and her mom. If you haven’t run screaming, congratulations. You’ve got what it takes.

The Social Network. Just because you’re making tons of money and invented crack Facebook doesn’t mean you’re exempt from social norms. I hope Mark Zuckerberg has taken a good look at himself. Who are your real friends, sir? Where’s the support system?

The King’s Speech. What a delight. Social workers need a triumphant story every now and then. (As do speech therapists.) I think this film makes a really good case for the need for early intervention, though.

Inception. Oh come on. Are you kidding? All I can say is, I wouldn’t mind getting in Christopher Nolan’s head for a little while. But how would I know if I was really even there?

127 Hours. I loved this movie. It was probably my favorite of the year. But all I could think of was, 1) If I was part of the family who found Aron Ralston wandering the desert with an arm hacked off, I probably would have fled before helping, and 2) What if you were the person that guy came to for counseling? What is the precedent, really? “Ah yes, the old trapped for days in a canyon, drinking your own urine before sawing your hand off. I remember studying this in Ringling Bros. social work school.”

True Grit. First of all, Hailee Steinfeld should have won. (No offense to Melissa Leo. A working class tough gal from Boston with a heavy accent? Never been done.) Second of all, can we put a little more pressure on our 14 year olds? But Mattie avenged her father, survived a snake bite, and never let a man hold her down. (Also got spanked by Matt Damon, but that’s an entirely different discussion.) When I say “parentified,” you say “resiliency!”

Toy Story 3. Oh, life cycle changes. This one doesn’t make me think of social work, so much as it makes me cry. (Although I would kill to have Andy’s toys for use in a counseling session.)

Join SocialJerk next year, for the movie reviews you won’t get anywhere else! (And if someone could get Richard Roeper to return my calls, it would be much appreciated.)