Writing and Psychology: Female Therapists on the Couch

Has anyone else noticed a disturbing trend in the portrayal of female psychotherapists?


Female psychologists in movies and books usually fall into 3 categories:

1) Mother figure (ie: Dr. Wilber, Sybil)

2) Seduced/Seductress (ie: Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Batman universe)

3) Cold, callous and cruel (ie: Dr. Lillian Thurman, Donnie Darko)

You can probably guess which trope is the most popular (hint, it’s the one that might end in boobies).


There are several reasons for the endurance of these tropes. Women are still seen by most cultures to be primarily nurturers. Research shows that a psychological tendency to show nurturing behaviour is built into most females. It should come as a surprise to no one ever that evolutionary psychologists believe this is because of women’s ability to bear children. Women are also heavily socialized to be nurturing. I think that number 3 may also be a direct result of number 1: writers going against expectations of women as nurturers by casting their females as the exact opposite. The problem is that (spoiler alert) NOT EVERY WOMAN IS NURTURING.  And the women who aren’t nurturing aren’t psychopaths (usually).

The best statistics I could find in regards to client-therapist sexual relationships are from the 1990’s, and they indicate that only about 3% of female therapists actually had a relationship with their client. The APA condemns these relationships and engaging in such a relationship can cost you your ability to practise. So why is it such a common trope when it barely happens? Likely, drama. It creates high drama in a story, and can create the necessary conflict to propel the story forward. Also, sex sells. If one wants to take a darker turn (and I do, so we will), it could be looked at as tearing down a female in a position of authority. Overall, this trope furthers the stereotype that women are controlled by their emotions and will put their relationships with others before their own well-being.

Newsflash: human beings are controlled by their emotions. Not just women. In fact, compared to 3% of women, 12% of male therapists have engaged in a sexual relationship with a client.

So why is this a problem for you and your writing? The same reason reliance on tropes and a lack of research is a problem for any writing. Writing a character as a trope and not as a character will make your work flat, and quite honestly, dull.  Write your female therapists as people first. They are allowed to fall in love, to do unethical things, to be nurturing. Expand the trope. Play with the trope. Make it yours.


Researching it so you don’t have to,

Kelsey J.


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