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The New Social Worker is the quarterly magazine for social work students and recent graduates, focusing on social work careers for those new to the profession. This blog is a companion to the free online magazine at http://www.socialworker.com.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Social Work Goes to the Movies: Movies Aren't Just for Off-Hours

by Addison Cooper, LCSW

(Editor's Note: Addison Cooper is the new movie columnist for THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER.)

Quick! Name three celebrities who have adopted a child in the last decade.

Easy, right? I thought of Angelina, Madonna, and Nia Vardalos. I’m not sure why Angelina came to mind and not Brad, but, well, now I’ve thought of four. Why do we know this? 

Adoption stories are in our media; their growing presence suggests a growing audience for stories about adoption. Filmmakers see it. In the last few years, adoption has been featured in Despicable Me, Kung Fu Panda 2, Meet the Robinsons, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Juno, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Martian Child, among others. 

In a somewhat cyclical relationship, film is formed by public consciousness and, in turn, forms public consciousness. Filmmakers give audiences what they want (a story) rather than what might be more helpful (thoughtful, thorough information on adoption). People like feel-good stuff. On my “Adoption at the Movies” Facebook page, my two most popular posts were shared over a hundred times each – both of them were pictures with cute captions – easily-digestible, quickly-absorbable pills of heartwarming happiness.  People like that stuff.

Filmmakers are artists and business people; they’re not social workers or unbiased chroniclers of history, and so films sometimes paint unrealistically polarized pictures, drawing from fears and hopes rather than reality. 

Look at adoptions. Adoption is often shown as an uncomplicated process: In Despicable Me, villainous Gru adopts three girls after passing a very superficial screening interview.  In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po wanders into a noodle shop  and is quickly adopted by Mr. Ping. Cornelius Robinson waited in an orphanage; when the right family came along, they were able to just take him. In The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the kid just shoots up from the family’s garden.  Just like that. Simple, quick, painless paths to parenthood. That’s what prospective adoptive parents often want, and sometimes expect. Simple. Quick. Painless.  
Some movies highlight fears that the process will be brutal. In Martian Child, the social workers monitoring Dennis’ adjustment to David’s home are intrusive, distant, and judgmental. The Greens undergo an interview with disinterested, scornful social workers.  It’s uncomfortable and frightening, but that’s what prospective adoptive parents often fear. Demanding, insensitive social workers.  

And that’s just covering the process of adoption. Movies also touch on adoptee identity, birth family reunification, grief, loss, and infertility with varying degrees of accuracy. Movies aren’t the same thing as training. But they’re not all bad. Here’s why:

  • Film provides an insight into public thought. Sure, adoptions aren’t actually as easy as movies make them look – but people wish (and maybe think) that they are. Social workers aren’t generally as callous and officious as movies portray us – but people fear (and maybe think) that we are. Movies provide some hints as to what your future clients might be thinking.
  • Movies have a much broader appeal than training videos. People watch, absorb, connect with, and remember movies. Even when movies are inaccurate in their portrayals of important issues, they can aid conversation. Social workers can use familiar stories to illustrate processes (Juno found adoptive parents through an advertisement, met with them, processed her decision with friends and family, but ultimately made her own choice), or  to introduce conversations on important topics (Kung Fu Panda 2 portrays the painful effects of keeping an adoptee’s history a secret from them). Films can also help families process their own grief. Families often find it difficult to confront their grief about infertility, but films like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Odd Life of Timothy Green show characters struggle with the emotional impact of infertility. Some prospective adopters who have gone through infertility treatments might be able to talk about the feelings that a character might have had before they’re able to talk directly about their own experience.
  • Movies can help parents develop empathy for their kids. Parents without adoption experience might connect with Po as he wonders why his history was hidden from him, and might decide to be open with history to ensure that their child doesn’t have that struggle.
  • Some movies get the important issues right. Timothy Green refuses to keep secrets. Mr. Ping eventually tells Po the history of his adoption. The infertile couple in What to Expect process their grief and move into what seems likely to be a healthy adoption. With a social worker’s insight, Netflix becomes a powerful resource.

What films have you seen that can help you better understand, engage, and serve your clients?

Addison Cooper, LCSW, is the movie columnist for THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine. See his first column, "Does This Movie Make My Attitude Look Big?"  He also operates the adoption movie review website, “Adoption at the Movies” at www.adoptionlcsw.com. He worked as a foster care/adoption social worker in Southern California for seven years, and is now a therapist in private practice in Springfield, Missouri. Find him on Twitter @AddisonCooper.

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