What You See Is What you Get?: The Portrayal of the Social Worker in Film Talking Points for Supervision

I find it interesting that we are in in the 21st century and we still cannot find a valid TV or film character that represents a social worker or the social work experience.  Why is that?

 If there is a social worker role played on TV, why is it always relegated to the background or is only characterized by child protection workers removing children?


In fact in the following movies that I have found that portray a social worker, the latter are just that, Child Protective Workers who judge the mother, have no boundaries with the children or are so dismissive of the allegations at hand that it is astounding.  Of further concern  is that these social work characters are not even representative of the culturally diverse population that social workers are comprised of.  I don’t know if it was the sign of the times when these films were released, but they do not represent the overall make up of the culturally diverse social work professionals that we are today.  In the following films we see actors portraying social workers representing child protective services workers in such films as:  the actor John Travolta  in Chains of Gold; the singer/actress Mariah Carey in Precious and the actress Elisa Loti in Claudine. To show these films to students today would be a disservice to the social work profession as a whole as well as what we present in the world today.

Let’s take a closer look within these films, shall we?


In this particular scene in the film Chains of Gold between the social worker and the client we see an isolated scene of intimacy.  The social worker just told the child about losing his own son and caring for this particular child/client deeply. There is concern about boundary issues, smoking in front of the child and the attachment that the client has to this social worker, which could lead back to the inappropriate boundaries.  The social worker is dressed inappropriately and it appears that they are in a deserted junk-yard having a heart-to-heart dialogue.

My question to my students is what can we learn from these interactions , particularly the “use of self” with a client. I don’t disagree that this social worker is invested in this young man, but is he too invested?   How do we compose ourselves?  What do we share? How do we connect? These are all questions about the use of self to help others as well as how to keep physical or emotional boundaries intact.

In the movie Precious which is a heartbreaking account of abuse and redemption we are introduced to a social worker who seems to be emotionally numb or perhaps burned out. She sits away from the client, not looking at her or even trying to be a part of what is happening. The social worker is average looking, not flashy, no jewelry or make-up which does not always represent the social work professional as a whole. I think it was the director’s choice to depict the role of the social worker as one that is very plain and flat much like the institutions that they work within. We can see in her facial expression a limited range of affect that matches the flat monotone of her social work office setting. She seems un-phased by the case sitting before her and doles out nasty quips such as, “You’re gonna have to talk to somebody if you want your check, sweetie.”  In the last shot, with her hand obscuring her face she seems to be defeated in this scene or perhaps overwhelmed by the case as a whole.

During these scenes I ask the student to look at what transference/counter-transference means as a social worker and how it can affect us not only in our daily interactions with clients, but intrinsically to our core as people helping other people. What is the transference that may be happening in the above scenes? Why does she look so vacant and devoid of feeling?  What would you do?  How would understanding trauma-informed care change this interaction?  As social workers we need to take inventory of ourselves and learn the importance of self-care when working with vulnerable populations.

Perhaps the last scene from the movie Claudine depicts the most deplorable stereotype there is about a social worker, which is that we go into people’s houses and keep a running inventory of what our clients do or do not have in order to report to welfare.  The socioeconomic class and racial division in these scenes are perhaps the most drastic of all. Here we see a white, well dressed social worker following around a black woman wearing a house dress, whose hair is bedraggled, and who has 6 fatherless children in a large, but cluttered apartment. The colors of the scene represent the time period of the movie which is set in the early 1970’s.  The social worker is wearing a drab brown dress which is understated next to the main character’s bright orange, floral smock. In the bottom left scene we actually hear the social worker say to the client, “You know I am your friend, but you have to report to me if you are working.”  The social worker makes her presence known as she moves throughout the client’s home fiercely looking for any items that “do not belong.”  This is an intrusive scene and there is no doubt it puts the client on edge and suspicious of the social worker’s true motives.

In the scenes above I do not get a sense of trust between the characters, it feels more like a witch hunt. I think being open and honest with the client as well as how a social worker inserts themselves in someone else’s life is also very important to considering how to build a relationship of trust. What does use of self mean? How does a social worker build rapport?  What is an appropriate boundary? How do we recognize race, diversity and class as a helping professional? How is trust built?

Overall, each of these scenes from these various movies provide an opportunity to discuss key competencies that a social worker should embody.  There are themes of use of self, boundaries, transference, use of self, empathy, trust and diversity that are all important int he work that we do.  It is unfortunate that the world is still relegated to viewing social workers as “untrustworthy, home wreckers that remove children” when in fact social workers are modern day super heroes disguised as average people.



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