“Over time,” Scarlet writes, “with the help of seeing the parallels between Buffy’s fictional experience and her own reality—[the woman] was able to see that our thoughts aren’t always accurate, and by changing her thoughts and her behaviors, her mental-health state began to improve.”
Read: On the importance of having superheroes
Coincidentally, Scarlet’s recent talk at the American Psychological Association conference about her approach resonated with me because of X-Men. When that movie came out, I, too, was an immigrant kid from the former U.S.S.R. who felt like my foreignness had marked me for life. I remember being soothed and enthralled by the idea of teenage freaks all living happily together in a special school for mutants.
Since then, however, my tastes have trended away from action and sci-fi, and I haven’t seen many movies with such pure, powerful protagonists. In fact, I wondered whether the rise of antihero TV shows might be messing up this superhero strategy. My favorite shows recently have been Succession and Fleabag, two series that are known for being fun to watch precisely because the main characters make terrible decisions. When it comes to these shows, I’m as committed as a geek could be: I read the recaps even if I’ve seen the episode, and I steer any and all conversations with friends toward the latest plot points. I’m one step away from buying an Argestes fleece. But I don’t really use the characters as inspiration. Actually walking in the footsteps of any of the characters on these shows—or, indeed, most “prestige” shows these days—would end in disaster.
Cardona says that’s too limiting a way to think about this style of therapy. It’s not “whatever that character did, go do it,” he says. Instead, the reasons a show resonates with you might provide clues to buried emotions that you struggle to verbalize. Scarlet suggests that some of the less admirable figures from comic books—think the Punisher or the Joker—might even represent parts of us that have a desire for justice or retribution. You don’t have to act like the Joker to feel like a down-on-your-luck outcast.
These explanations first struck me as too blindly faithful in the power of fictional narratives. Fandom, after all, can have its dark sides, with fans deifying their heroes, harassing detractors, and throwing fits when a character is cast as a person of a different race. What’s more, I was starting to get the impression that anything you’re into could be used to help you achieve anything you want. It almost seemed like superhero therapy could be everything and nothing. At points in my interviews with the geek therapists, I wanted to scream, “This isn’t ’Nam; there are rules!”—then I realized I was, in fact, quoting one of my favorite movies.
The thing is, therapy does put a lot of stock in narratives. Therapy is mostly stories. It’s rehashing that one time from your childhood, and then that one conversation with your boss, and then trying to make sense of it all through narratives. In that way, superhero therapy, while not perfect for everyone, is a valid way of coming up with better stories for your life.
And sometimes you need every possible implement on earth—no matter how vague or fictional or silly—to do that. Do I want to be just like Succession’s Shiv Roy, a sociopathic adulteress who engages in witness tampering? Not really. But when I’m facing a situation that’s so twisted and daunting that it’s going to take all of my competence and persistence and jumpsuits to get through it, I do want to be a little like her. In those moments, she’s my hero.