Media Images of Social Work Helping

                                                                (Revised 6/17/12)

                                                    Media Images of Social Work Helping


                                                            Allison D. Murdach LCSW


          Key Words: Helping Relationship, Social Work Treatment, Client-Practitioner Interaction, Clinical Intervention, Therapy.


     The helping relationship has often been portrayed in various media, such as television and film. Because of their pervasive influence, such media offer an especially instructive area in which to examine the presentation of the social work helping relationship in popular culture.  Studying such presentations can provide valuable insights into the processes by which both negative and positive public images of social work helping are created.  This article presents an analysis of the ways in which these images have been developed in American popular film during the past few decades.  Selected examples of film and television are discussed and suggestions are offered about how these popular images can be better understood and their importance to the social work profession.

                                                                    End of Abstract

     Social workers have begun to recognize the importance of popular culture in influencing public attitudes about the social work profession and its practitioners.  For example, recent articles have appeared in the literature discussing the importance of television and films in promoting various images of social workers and social work practice (Burr and Jarvis, 2007; Freeman and Valentine, 2004).  As yet, however, few authors have commented upon film or television portrayals of the nature of social work helping relationships, one of the foundations of social work practice. Indeed, examining such media depictions of relationships between social work helpers and their clients can provide valuable information about how helpers are perceived and evaluated by the general public. This article offers some comments about recent efforts to present the helping efforts of social workers on television and in films.  Some of these portrayals have been welcomed by social workers, while others have been criticized as uncomplimentary and unfair.  The article invites responses from social workers about the accuracy of the media episodes described here and their possible current impact on the profession.  It also emphasizes the importance of being continuously aware of the on-going impact of such media presentations on the field and the general public in the future.

                                                 Portrayals of the Helping Relationship

      I will define the helping relationship as on-going contact between a helper and a client or clients in which both helper and client attempt to alleviate client-identified problems, and in which both helper and client develop strategies to maintain and sustain gains achieved by the client as the relationship progresses.  Examinations of such relationships in popular culture emerged in this country beginning in the 1940’s with the wide-spread popularity of such films as Spellbound (1945) and The Snake Pit (1948).  Although helping relationships occur in many fields, a growing popular interest in psychiatry, counseling, and the power of skilled psychological expertise to solve personal problems generated a number of films, television programs and literary works presenting the intricacies of psychologically-oriented helping relationships with increasing detail and sophistication (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).  Such media images have been highly influential in the shaping the public perception of these helping activities.  Films and television, in particular, provide an interesting example of how these public perceptions are developed, fostered, and modified because of their historic hold upon public opinion and their intimate reflection of the public mood (Freeman and Valentine, 2004).   

     In what follows we will examine some of the ways in which helpers, clients, and the social work helping relationship have been portrayed in film and television during the last twenty five years.  Though this material should be of general interest to all helping professionals, it is of particular interest to social workers because it illustrates the social processes involved when popular images of professional action shift and change in positive and negative directions as well as some of the socially interactive ways in which these images are modified over time.

                                     Helping Images in Film and Television

     While various kinds of helping have been portrayed in numerous ways throughout the history of film and television, portrayals of the helping relationship itself have only emerged relatively recently.  Early in the last century, a growing popular interest in psychiatry, counseling, the social determinants of personal problems, and the power of skilled expertise to solve individual difficulties, led to a public fascination with the various aspects of professional helping and “treatment”.  Although initially the public was both attracted and repelled by such phenomena (witness the prevalence of  both “evil” and “good” doctors in many of the early films about the treatment of mental illness), over time a more realistic image of the helping relationship eventually emerged.  Along with this development has come an increasing number of films and television programs presenting the helping relationship in increasing detail and complexity (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).

                                                   Images of Social Work Helping

     Historically, images of social work helping have never been numerous in the popular media, which has focused  more often on the helping efforts of medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts.  Nevertheless media presentations of social work helping have occurred since the early days of the profession, beginning in films in the 1930’s.  However, since our interest here is discovering current trends, older media presentations are not considered.  It should be noted, nevertheless, that these older examples of media attention to social work and social workers have been previously fully explored in the literature (Freeman and Valentine, 2004, Murdach, 2006).   

     During the period covered in this article, approximately 1980 to the present, images of social work helping did emerged in popular culture as a variety of writers and producers sought to explore both the dramatic and comedic aspects of such helping relationships. The framework we will use here to examine these media images is adapted from the works of William F. May and Glen and Krin Gabbard, who have analyzed popular media images of professional helping relationships, especially in the fields of medicine and psychiatry (May, 1983; Gabbard and Gabbard,1999).  The term “image” will be defined as a recurring metaphor that helps to categorize and define client- provider interaction in the helping relationship (Morgan, 1997).  We will focus on the manifestations of four major images of the helping relationship that have often appeared in American popular media : helping as heroism, helping as romance, helping as comic relief, and helping as a working relationship.  We will then explore how these images apply in current media presentations of social work helping. 

     Reviewed below are ten media examples portraying social work helping relationships, selected because they appear to be the most representative of the images we will discuss.  Included are four theatrical films, a TV film, a documentary, two television biographies, and two television series, all produced since the 1980’s.  In most of our examples, the provider is identified as a social worker.  However, as pointed out in two examples discussed below, the provider is not explicitly so identified.  Nevertheless, in these productions, the provider(s) perform activities often associated with social work, such as community organization, resource provision, individual assistance, and the development of group and peer support. Hence the provider depicted in these productions could, according to Freeman and Valentine (2004), be perceived by the general public as being a social worker.

     Helping as Heroism—The media has often presented the image of helping by social workers and   other professionals in heroic terms.  The next four items fall into this category.

    1) Marie (1986).  Based on a true story, this film describes how abused housewife Marie Ragghianti (Sissy Spacek), incensed by the amount of corruption in state government, though not identified in the film as a social worker, she reinvents herself in the film as a community organizer and social reformer and successfully takes on the Tennessee state criminal justice system by becoming the first female head of the state parole board.  Despite adversities, such as death threats and the defection of friends, she perseveres and finally emerges victorious in her quest for reform of the state correctional system.

     2) Iron Jawed Angels (2004).  First aired by HBO in 2004, this TV movie describes the early career of social worker Alice Paul (Hilary Swank). A fierce advocate for women’s suffrage, Paul used her helping and organizational skills to develop her own national advocacy group, the National Women’s Party, in the early twentieth century to gain votes for women in the United States.  Arrested, jailed, and tortured, Paul and her fellow advocates finally realized their goal with the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally giving women the right to vote in all elections.

     3) As We Forgive (2006).  Winner of the 2008 Student Academy Award for best documentary, this film highlights the efforts of two Rwanda genocide survivors, one a former instigator and the other a victim of ethnic violence, as they and other community workers in Rwanda work with local religious leaders, court officials, and native counselors (many trained by social workers), to achieve reconciliation following the horrific tribal genocide there in 1994 (Kreitzer and Jou, 2010).

4)The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (2009). This TV film is based on a 2005 biography of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, and documents her heroic work in smuggling 2,500 children out of the Nazi occupied Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.  Working with local resistance groups, Sendler (played by Anna Paquin) was able to place the children using false identities in various church institutions and with Polish families.  Her intention to reunite the children with their families after the war proved illusive since many family members perished in the Holocaust.  After the war Sendler received many awards for her work and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.  She died in Poland in 2008 at the age of 98 and has been dubbed “the female Schindler”, in reference to the rescue of Jews by Oskar Schindler which also occurred during World War II and was commemorated in the film Schindler’s List (1993).

     Helping as Romance—This image is represented by media presentations in which social work helping is depicted primarily as a romantic encounter, a motif found in many films dealing with helping relationships (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).  Freeman and Valentine (2004) have extensively explored the influence of this image upon both older and more recent social work related films.  No examples of this image in a social work context could be found on television since the 1980’s, perhaps because as a story line it does not lend itself as readily to the dramatic requirements of television programming.

     Here our one example of this image is the film Hard Choices (1984), which was not mentioned in Freeman and Valentine’s extensive review of social work related films (2004).  In this drama a prison social worker, Laura Stephens (Margaret Klenck), becomes convinced that her client, a young inmate, is innocent and attempts to help him win his freedom.  When this is officially denied, her initial helping efforts quickly devolve into a torrid love affair with the inmate and she then becomes personally involved in facilitating her lover’s escape from prison and subsequent flight to avoid further punishment by the authorities.  The film illustrates numerous ethical boundary violations by the social worker, as well as her arrest for being an accomplice in the prisoner’s escape.  True to movie conventions governing these types of films, she is presented as a troubled and confused individual (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).  

     Helping as Comic Relief—As a counterpoint to the heroic image of helping mentioned above, film and television have also presented helping professionals such as lawyers , doctors, and social workers as figures of comedy and/or incompetence (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999; DeLauro, 2005).  Our next two examples illustrate this image:

      1) The Norm Show was a television comedy series that ran from 1999 to 2001 on the ABC network.  It featured comic actor Norm McDonald playing a hapless former hockey player, Norm Henderson, who is banned from all games due to his legal problems and is court ordered to perform community service as a social worker in a community social service agency.  He is presented as being untrained and unmotivated, abusing his clients’ privacy, disobeying and defying his employers, sleeping with his employer’s daughter, etc. NASW and many of its members found this portrayal of social work helping extremely offensive and were relieved when the show eventually failed to keep its audience and was cancelled halfway into its third season (DeLauro, 2005).

     2) Lilo and Stitch (2002), a popular Disney animated comedy film, featured a county social worker (voiced by Ving Rhames) who supervised the care of Lilo, a young female orphan cared for by her sister in Hawaii.  Named Cobra Bubbles, the worker was portrayed in a gently humorous manner as firm but caring in his desire for a better life for Lilo.  In the end his rough demeanor is revealed to hide a soft heart as he assists his client and her blue-furred extraterrestrial friend, Stitch, to achieve a happy ending to their difficulties.   

      Helping as a Working Relationship—Three remaining selections present the image of social work helping as an effective professional working relationship. In the past, such media portrayals in film and television often presented the provider as a detached, morally respectable, and compassionate expert who guided the client to a satisfactory solution to her problem (the client was then usually female).  Helpers are now more likely to be depicted in such stories as having personal flaws (i.e., problems with interpersonal relationships, dark past secrets, substance abuse, or marital problems). This change may be due to a tendency in the media to humanize helping professionals today and no longer depict them as having God-like powers (May, 1983).

     1) Judging Amy , a television series which ran from 1999 to 2005 on CBS.  In contrast to The Norm Show, mentioned above, this series was made in consultation with NASW and genuinely tried to show the quality of everyday social work by portraying Amy’s social worker mother (Tyne Daly) as a wise and caring advisor to her clients and her family.  Maxine Gray, who now lives with Amy, has retired but has now returned to her former job as a social worker for the Department of Children and Families in Hartford, Connecticut.  At work she is devoted to providing the best service possible to the children in her care.  Her relationship with Amy (Amy Brenneman), a judge on the Hartford family court, is depicted as sometimes difficult but basically loving and supportive.

     2) Down Came a Blackbird (1995).  This TV film tells the story of a journalist, Helen McNulty (Laura Dern), who has experienced kidnap and torture.  In pursuit of a story about therapy for such trauma she moves into a residential treatment program designed to treat torture survivor PTSD through groups and peer support.  The program is run by clinic director Anna Lenke (Vanessa Redgrave), who is also a torture survivor.  Though not identified in the film as a social worker, she is presented as taking a social work approach by individualizing each of her client’s treatment experiences while promoting the use of group and peer support as a method of treatment.  She eventually engages McNulty herself in treatment with her in which the journalist is encouraged to confront and come to terms with her own anguish about her experiences.

     3) Precious (2009), a film much praised on its release, tells the story of obese black teenager Clarice Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) who lives in Harlem with her dysfunctional mother and suffers from long-term mental physical, mental, and sexual abuse by her family.  As a result of incest by her father she has had a child, born with Down Syndrome, and is expecting another.  She is helped to gain new living arrangements and direction for her life by her alternative school teacher and by her social worker, Miss Weiss (Mariah Carey), who is portrayed as tough but genuinely concerned about Precious and her aspirations for a better life for herself and her baby away from her abusive family.


     Popular Culture often manifests vivid but not always accurate images of various professional domains, such as the helping process.  As primary vehicles of popular culture, films and television continue to be a pervasive influence throughout the world.  Because of their importance, therefore, it is essential that practitioners be aware of the content of the messages that are broadcast through such media and the ways in which its messages shape public perceptions of the social work profession and its practitioners.

    This article discusses the images of social work helping relationships depicted in films and television programming since the 1980’s and presents selected examples of such presentations.  Despite the general impression that social workers are often presented negatively in popular culture (DeLauro, 2005) most of the media examples described here appear quite favorable to social work, despite some occasional lapses mentioned above in which social work providers were presented in derogatory and less than favorable ways.

     The information presented here invites further examination of this topic and may be useful to social work practitioners as they confront images of the social work helping process shown in the media and are called upon to provide relevant information about, or correction of, such images to clients, funding sources, colleagues, and the general public.  It also serves to underscore the importance of this topic for a thorough understanding of the power of popular media in guiding the general public as they try to make decisions about whether to advance or impede the goals of the social work profession.


Burr, Vivien and Jarvis, Christine (2007) Imaging the Family: Representations of Alternative Lifestyles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Qualitative Social Work 6, 263-280.

DeLauro, Robert (2005) ‘The Good, Bad, and the Ugly: Social Work’s Image on Screen’Social Work Today 5, 18-21.

Freeman, Miriam L. and Valentine, Deborah P. (2004).  Through the Eyes of Hollywood: Images of Social Workers in Film, Social Work 49,  151-161.       

Gabbard, Glenn O. and Gabbard, Kirin (1999).  Psychiatry and the Cinema (2nd ed.).  Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Kreitzer, Linda M. and Jou, Mary Kay (2010). Social work with Victims of Genocide:The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Rwanda,  International Social Work 53,73-86.

May, William F. (1983) The Physician’s Covenant, Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Morgan, Gareth (1997) Images of Organization (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Murdach, A. D. (2006).  Social Work in the Movies: Another Look, Social Work 51, 269-272.

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    • allisonmurdach  On July 8, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      My blog does not yet have a content page. Sorry about that. I am not very blog-savvy. My address is still: At this point you need to just run through the entries (not many yet, I’m afraid). I have more to add and hope to do so this month. Allison Murdach

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