By Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern
One of the privileges of learning a second language, especially one as universal as English, is the chance to enjoy TV shows and movies in their native tongue. When they are translated there are always elements that you lose: the jokes are not the same, the irony doesn’t display the same dynamic, and some dialogue doesn’t have the same impact. When I was back in my native country, Colombia, I saw Modern Family “in Spanish.” Voice actors interpreted the original English dialogue, and even though their acting skills are awesome, the spirit of the sarcastic and ironic humor so characteristic of Modern Family wasn’t there. Therefore, I felt frequently uncomfortable and sometimes even offended by the show’s content.
And then I came to the United States and started to learn English. Once I saw Modern Family in English, it was like seeing a totally different show. I found it brilliant, hilarious, and very refreshing. Modern Family generates very contemporary reflections of and discussions in our society. It is a conversation that I consider extremely necessary. From the quirks of the gay parenting journey to the adventure of living in a multicultural family, this show helps us, as unique individuals, to connect with diversity. This diversity, by its very nature, presents some elements distant from us and others very close to our own realities.
Of course, Sofia Vergara’s role is especially important to me, given that she and her son in the show (Manny Delgado) are Colombians, as am I. They have shared some of our Christmas traditions and our values, and Sofia has put a spotlight on our cultural flavor with so much grace and humor. Now that we are on the map, more people know we exist beyond narcotrafficking and violence. This new exposure feels very nice; as a Colombian, it feels inclusive, and, as a Colombian living in the United States, it feels welcoming and accepting.
This is the power of media: the representation of cultural niches or minorities in TV shows and movies generates a sort of globalization that puts diversity in the middle of a society’s daily routines. Through its content, and its inclusion in our realities, it brings diversity to the discussion we need to have to embrace minorities and accept them. This on-screen visualization that is different from the normative cultural expressions could potentially encourage acceptance, and, maybe more importantly, self-acceptance for those who feel newly included.
As a clinician, the different cultural elements around and inside a client are determinant of a real understanding of the person: their struggles, their needs, their strengths, their preferences, fears and joys. I’ll be ambitious and even say their entire realities. Some who are part of a minority constantly crave inclusion, a feeling that may be magnified when you are not only ignored, but also rejected. When working with clients that belong to a minority, the acknowledgment of these cultural characteristics can be very vital in the rapport establishment process, as well as in the construction of an accurate picture of their life or situation.
Modern Family exemplifies how to establish this dialogue. Instead of making assumptions, I will show willingness to hear what you have to say, and I will acknowledge it and include it in our therapeutic work.
A couple of weeks ago Modern Family featured one of TV’s first transgender children, a character portrayed by transgender child actor Jackson Millarker. This wasn’t only groundbreaking, but terribly necessary, too. The message was that transgender girls and boys are part our realities, part of our families, and more importantly, they are welcome in the media representations of the family dynamics.
But there is something else. This episode was not only about a transgender character, it was also about making the statement that transgender actors have a place in our pop culture and that transgender talent matters. For a minority that is so frequently rejected, and for whom employment options are so dramatically limited, this visualization represents hope and the chance for inclusion and equality.
Other TV shows and films have included transgender adults; however, transgender children remain in the dark. When I have worked with transgender clients, this lack of referents and sources of identification is one of the main challenges, not only for the client but also for me, as a therapist. As I mentioned above, self-acceptance is a very present struggle for many minorities, and for transgender children it’s a constant fight: “is there something wrong with me? Am I normal? Did I deserve to be loved? Am I allowed to go to school, college? Will somebody hire me some day?”
These are constant questions and doubts that frequently result in symptoms of anxiety and depression, self-harm actions, feelings of isolation and even suicide. The fact that our society is now willing to work on the visibility of the transgender community and express it through medias give us new therapeutic elements that we should be eager to provide to our clients. As clinicians, it’s our duty to take initiative and invite our clients to include cultural elements in the therapeutic work, though it will be their decision how deeply they want to explore.
If you are struggling with any of the feelings mentioned above, whether you are transgender on not, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx. She is currently under the clinical supervision of Mary Contreras, LPC-S.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian recently got to realize one of his dreams, joining classic rockers Cheap Trick onstage for a run through their anthem, “Surrender.” It might not seem obvious at first, but this story makes a perfect case study of a way that a person can apply neglected strengths towards reaching a goal.
Before we take a look at the specifics of this really fun and cool story, let me say that I hope you will read this in the spirit is intended: as stated above, an educational tool. In reality, Scott Ian has been in the music industry for 30+ years and his father-in-law is classic rocker Meatloaf. I have no doubt that these factors led to him being acquainted with Cheap Trick and getting the nod to guest star on “Surrender.” However, let’s set that aside and take a look at the story as a lesson in strength-based problem solving.
I have been a huge Anthrax fan ever since I encountered the first album that brought them huge exposure, 1987’s Among The Living. At that time, thrash metal was breaking wide open and was seen as many as an antidote to the leather-clad hair rockers who were dominating the charts and MTV. Anthrax combined elements of classic metal from the likes of Iron Maiden with a love of hardcore, comic books and skating. It was a new sound, and they were proudly metal. I’m pretty confident that there was no way Cheap Trick would have invited Scott Ian onstage and I am highly skeptical he would have accepted, youthful love of Cheap Trick be damned. But fast forward to today, when it was a “dream.” What happened in-between?
The first thing is that, obviously, everyone is quite a bit older. Anthrax had some turbulent times in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Lineup changes, inconsistent albums, the backlash against 80s metal. They were thrust into the news for the first time in years in 2001, as the anthrax terrorist mailings reminded everyone that anthrax wasn’t just a metal band—it was also a deadly disease. Not the kind of publicity they were seeking.
The years in between weren’t all bad, though. Ian found success as a talking head on VH1, dropping knowledge and one-liners on their endless series of nostalgia fests, such as I Love The 90s. Who knew that the screaming, goateed, bald guy was also an expert on Beverly Hills 90210 and one-hit wonders?
By the time 2010 rolled around, Anthrax’s classic lineup was 80% back and Metallica was feeling sentimental. They organized The Big Four tour in Europe, bringing the four biggest thrash metal acts together: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. Our heroes, having stumbled quite a bit, were relegated to the bottom of the bill, but were still on the bill. And what a tour! The Big Four filled stadiums and put Anthrax back on the metal heap. But the scene had changed. Metallica had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. As unlikely as it may have seemed in the heady days of the 80s, these four bands were now classic rock. In their 80s heyday, the other band members teased singer Joey Belladonna about his love for Journey. Now they found themselves as old guys belting out classics that, seemed tame compared to the blast beats and ferocious “harsh” vocals of modern extreme metal. Maybe Journey’s decades long career belting out their classics night after night wasn’t so bad after all.
So did they run from this new reality? No, they didn’t which is where the idea of utilizing previously overlooked strengths comes in. In their 80s heyday, Belladonna’s considerable vocal chops and Ian’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture had been something of a joke. Now those strengths came to the forefront, and the band released the covers EP Anthems in 2013. It included covers of 70s rock tracks like Rush’s “Fly By Night,” Boston’s “Smokin’” and, you guessed it, Journey’s “Keep On Runnin’.”
So the band had now embraced their classic rock status, utilizing Belladonna’s classic vocal stylings. His sound, which had seemed stale and dated in the “grunge” era was suddenly a strength, and he hadn’t lost his range, something else rare for singers who use the high end. And Ian’s love of classic rock was a strength, too, as their aging fanbase didn’t care as much what was metal or what wasn’t. They wanted to hear songs that reminded them of their youth, which Anthrax could deliver. Along the way, they’ve spit out two albums of original material 2011’s Worship Music and this year’s outstanding For All Kings. The new songs have even crept into the live setlists, though it’s the classic tunes that anchor the show.
So Anthrax answered the question “how do we stay relevant and make a living 30 years later?” by turning things that they didn’t care about or were even considered weaknesses into strengths. Consider a challenge that you face in your own life. Let’s say, as an example, a (fictional) client comes to me and he wants to overcome social anxiety. He’s tried giving himself a pep talk before he goes out to a party. He’s tried socializing with a small group of friends. All of these things are not working, and he feels an overwhelming urge to flee as soon as he arrives at a social event. His heart is pounding and nothing can stop the feelings.
There are a lot of ways to treat anxiety, but let’s consider the idea that problems are caused by overlooked or neglected strengths, which is obviously the same framework we used to look at Anthrax’s embrace of their new status as classic rock. One approach would be to look at the current symptoms and situation. This might include something that has been used at the VA hospital, according to a psychologist who was one of my professor’s in grad school. She said that the department purchased an espresso machine and had the clients down several shots of highly caffeinated rocket fuel (a.k.a. espresso). Not surprisingly, their hearts were beating quickly in no time at all and she would work with the veterans to relax using breathing exercises and other self-calming techniques, which they could use to alleviate the symptoms.
But I might ask a client something like “tell me about what your life was like when you were in college?” This provides not only details about the person’s story, but also gives a chance to look for strengths. The client might talk about school, a college job, living in the dorm. But then he says “I went fishing a lot when I was growing up. I used to really love going fishing with the guys from the dorm. I got really good at it, too. I knew how to tie flies, and even won several tournaments at the lake by school.”
“And you aren’t doing this anymore?”
“No,” he says. “I moved away from the University and got busy with work, so I never got back to it.”
So here we have a skill, tying flies, that has been neglected, but also has no overt tie to anxiety. “So when you were fishing with the guys from the dorm, did you get the racing heartbeat and sweating?”
“Never,” he responds. “I was really comfortable with those guys, since I was around them all the time.”
“But aren’t you around your co-workers all the time?” I ask.
It may be that when we explore further that the client’s friends from the dorm really were people he was more comfortable with. Or it may be that he felt confident in his abilities about fishing, and this allowed him to focus on that rather than on the socializing aspects. In this case, an appropriate homework assignment might be for the client to think about taking up his fishing hobby again. It could be that by going to a lake he will have some casual encounters with fellow fishermen (and women). When we discuss these casual encounters he may find that he is more confident in the casual environment and that he does not experience the anxiety symptoms or that they are lessened. Then I, as a therapist, can reinforce the positives of these experiences and use these skills as a step in the process of overcoming the larger issue of social anxiety.
The lesson here is that virtually anything that you are good at can be applied to solving a current problem or facing a challenge. Something to consider the next time you feel like you’ve hit a wall or are without options.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Hi everyone, Mike here. I am so pleased to welcome Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern, as a contributor to the blog. She has a fascinating background, which you can read more about here and I look forward to her contributions! We will, at times, be engaging in roundtable discussions, but she will also be writing individual blog posts.
Mike McMahan: Welcome to the blog, Gisell! I’m happy to have a perspective besides my own. I’m glad you suggested talking about Elena of Avalor, as I hadn’t even heard of the show and I think it’s a perfect topic for you to start with; the reasons why are obvious to anyone reading your bio. For anyone who hasn’t seen the pilot episode, it streams on YouTube. Let's start at the beginning. I have a young daughter so I see some of these series and I am fairly familiar with the closely-related Sophia the First (for better or worse!). I am curious to know how you discovered this series?
Gisell Álvarez: Thanks for the opportunity! Talking about pop culture is so much fun. I follow a blog on Facebook called HelloGiggles. It covers a variety of topics, from gender issues to Hollywood trends. One of the bloggers published a very exciting and enthusiastic article about Disney having finally a Latina princess. I was interested, as I have so many emotional and significant memories linked to Disney. The first time I went to the movies with my dad was to see a Disney movie (Aladdin, with a non-European princess). The graphics, the music, everything was magic to me, and the fact that my dad was with me that day watching my eyes sparkling with fantasy, made it even more special.
So, of course, I was excited when I read we were going to have a princess that would look like us (Latina women), eager to live life as we do, full of emotion and passion, with our constant desire to dance, our strong character and, most importantly, the relevant role we have in our own society. Our society is one where, even though machismo is widely accepted, we are the cornerstone of our communities. I was beyond excited. So, I looked for the series and watched it and, then came away disappointed. Elena is more like a Spanish princess with dark skin, which doesn’t really reflect the Latino people. Spanish people, as other people from the Mediterranean coast, have darker skin color. In theory, Elena lives in a pre-colonial universe; however, there are no signs of indigenous people. On the Disney web page, Elena's biography says she is Spanish and Scandinavian descendant, so... how is Elena a Latina girl?
Mike: I noticed that at times their seemed to be an Arabic or Middle Eastern flair. It seemed to me that they wanted to go with at least a superficial Latina/Spanish feel (Elena's grandmother and grandfather are called Abuelita and Abuelito, for instance). But then, the writers/creators pulled back a bit and decided to try and muddy the waters a bit, for reasons that are unclear. They seemed to resort purely to stereotypes, such as the mustachioed Lt. Gabriel Nunez and the use of "mija" as a term of endearment. At other times, there seemed to be an Arabic flair that, to me, had a sore thumb quality. I don't recall this random culture mixing in Disney's other efforts to capture a particular culture, such as The Princess and The Frog, which felt, to me, more honest.
Did you also pick up on what appeared to be ham-fisted Aztec imagery? I thought that the flying leopard, was perhaps an attempt to evoke Aztec culture.
Gisell: I also noticed these kind of Middle Eastern aesthetics. I heard some rhythms that sounded like old Mexican corridos. And that mixture of a leopard with a quetzal bird? I also saw a wolf, and I believe we don't have wolves in our territories... The "Latino" touches are more than anything, reminiscent of Mexican clichés. They are what outsiders identify about the Mexican culture and things that Mexicans do not share with the rest of the countries in Latin America.
I agree with you that the Jasmine and Mulan characters looked more like a portrayal of their correspondent cultures. A leopard with wings could be cool, I think it has potential; however, the Aztec, Maya, Inca, or Muisca indigenous cultures and imagery are so much richer than a leopard with wings or a gray wolf. If you think about Pocahontas or Mulan, both of them have historical figures as inspiration. I don't know why they didn't look in our history and get inspiration from one of our impressive and brave women. If you want to keep it Mexican (because half of the world thinks that all of us are Mexicans) you could use Malinche, or even Frida Kahlo as inspirations. I know that their stories are very dark, but the original fairy tales that inspired Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty aren’t exactly light, either.
Now, think about Moana, the upcoming film which features a Pacific Islander princess. She looks a lot like a Pacific islander girl, and brings beautiful elements from their indigenous cultures. So, they can do it! I think they didn't do their homework researching as they should have with the Latina princess, and that they need to start all over again, as difficult as that will be.
Mike: Yeah, it seems like some homework may have been in order. Even a quick jump onto Wikipedia might have fixed some of the issues that you’ve identified. A person would think, as well, that even though this isn't a film and therefore had a smaller budget, that Disney could have hired someone as a consultant, such as a college professor in Latino studies, for example.
It’s worth noting that my daughter really liked this program, though given that she's in preschool she may not have been sensitive to the larger cultural issues (haha). I'm wondering how important cultural issues are for older children (from inside or outside the United States) or whether these concerns are more for parents? Also, did you see any positives in this program? For me, I thought it continued the more recent trend in Disney films of trying to present stronger female role models. In this case, Elena seems to be the definitive ruler, rather than waiting for a dashing, Prince Charming-type. It doesn't appear, at least from this premiere episode, that she will making the same mistake that Anna made in Frozen.
Gisell: Elena is an empowering character, no matter the ethnicity of the spectator. For Latinas, she is a young, Western girl willing and capable of conquer the world, and our girls need to see that it is possible for each one of them to try and succeed in and conquer their own worlds and face their own challenges.
In establishing rapport and constructing a common language, when doing counseling with children, Elena could be an awesome bridge. The program helps therapist get closer to their realities and it gives us the opportunity to share a similar reality, where we are not only the strange adult, but also somebody willing to connect. Elena has so many attributes that many children could identify with, and therefore feel more confident and more willing to see the strength within them. Elena likes to be strong, and pursues strength even in the most challenging moments. That's a colorful invitation that resonates with our kids, especially those who struggle with self-esteem and self-expression.
I think the kids that watch this really don't give much relevance to the fact that Elena is not light-skinned and blond; they like the character, they like the story and how she looks is secondary. I'm assuming, of course, that if we put Elena on TV for your daughter and my six-year-year old Colombian cousin, they would enjoy the story without much (or any) thought about Elena's race and/or ethnicity. However, for Latina girls, it's awesome to have the chance to show them that a popular character has a name with phonetics similar to ours and that is described as a Latina princess, even when some adults don't know what the hell that is. I also realized that I was assuming that Mulan, The Princess And The Frog and Aladdin were more accurate portrayals of their respective cultures. But I began to think: what am I basing that on? My own outsider perception? I have never discussed this matter with a Chinese girl. Maybe they have some things to say about the portrayal, as I did.
I have a question for you. Do you feel that other animated productions have accurately portrayed you as a Caucasian? How well do you think the European princesses have represented the ethnicity that could describe your daughter?
Mike: That’s a good question, and one I’ve never really considered. I do flinch a bit at some of the messages (implied or otherwise) that are part of the fabric of these stories, but that’s more about gender. I also realize that these films are, in some cases, over 50 years old and may have reflected feelings about women that were prevalent at the time and it’s a bit unfair to hold them to modern standards. There are so many Caucasian princesses (and characters in general) that I have never considered how white people are reflected. This huge number makes it easy to identify with this character or not with that character based on things besides gender or race/ethnicity, but rather characteristics that I find appealing or unappealing. When I discuss these films and shows with my own daughter or with clients, I try to emphasize positive attributes such as courage, problem solving skills and willingness to take part in team work. It’s easy for me to ignore race and ethnicity because I’ve never had to say “finally, a white princess!” since that’s literally almost all of them.
Well, thanks again, Gisell, for coming on board. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion and look forward to your input on a variety of topics!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx. She is currently under the clinical supervision of Mary Contreras, LPC-S.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture