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A Clinical Psychologist Digs into DARK PHOENIX, Jean Grey, and Fandom
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Dark Phoenix marks the end of an era—the sweeping finale for one of the longest-running and most successful superhero franchises in film history. It also marks the second time that filmmakers have attempted to adapt the comics’ “Dark Phoenix” storyline, an adventure that combines the infinite and the intimate as Jean Grey fights for control of her mind after absorbing an unimaginably powerful cosmic force.

Dealing with these kinds of journeys—the treatment of a character’s interior life, and the end of their story altogether—has become an increasingly difficult challenge to navigate for fans who immerse themselves thoroughly and passionately in the fictional worlds of their favorite franchises. But professionals like licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi insist that these experiences and our subsequent attachments amount to much more than escapism or wish fulfillment; rather, they provide the building blocks, and opportunities to practice dealing with real-life trauma and loss. Moreover, they encourage our understanding and empathy of life experiences that may not be like our own, and more importantly, our acceptance of choices made that we may fundamentally disagree with.

Letamendi, who also runs the Arkham Sessions podcast focusing on the psychological underpinnings of Batman: The Animated Series, recently spoke with Nerdist about the treatment of Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix, the ending of the X-Men series’ almost 20-year run, the complex relationships that fans have with the properties they care strongly and vividly about, and the emotional pitfalls and opportunities of investing in fictional characters and narratives as a way to prepare oneself for the bigger challenges of reality.

What were your initial takeaways from Dark Phoenix, which has both the actual narrative, the journey of Jean Grey, and then the meta-narrative, which is the wrap up of this saga?

Two very strong impressions. One is that the female characters truly carry this film in really powerful and nuanced ways and were really just shining throughout. And the second thing was how much exploration went into Sophie Turner’s character. This is one of the first times we’re really seeing this internal psychological struggle that is dangerous, vulnerable, that is complex enough to really pull us in. How do we manage these kinds of intense and really frightening types of experiences? In spite of the science fiction part of this, a lot of the themes are very relatable and very human, and fascinating for us to delve into.

There’s an obvious cultural relevance to Jean’s story where she’s a female character who people believe that should be “protected from herself.” Did you see immediate parallels to treatment or diagnoses in the real world?

Historically women who express emotional distress have often been seen as hysterical or as dysfunctional, so to see this character almost subvert those previous narratives, first to take hold of some of the angst, some of the feelings that might be more negative and to learn from that and to begin to understand how she can harness her own resilience to overcome those negative feelings, that was very powerful. But I thought that was particularly helpful for audiences to see her own self-awareness and self-examination, because no matter what we might be experiencing, we react in very similar ways. To first to try to hide it, to be confused, to self-doubt and then ultimately to begin to try to integrate those new feelings and experiences to our personhood that we have come to build.

The movie is compassionate to her, but also shows how dangerous she actually is.

Certainly we have an affinity or fascination with characters who do present as more malicious or malevolent. Especially if they are characters who we historically have already related to. We see Anakin Skywalker developed into a character who we actually are quite fascinated with. Kylo Ren is another character who we have these mixed feelings of adoration and yet we know they’re supposed to be the bad character. So here we have related to her because of her initial struggles, and because she has yet to really find what we’d consider self-actualization, the culmination of her narrative.

And then the turning point in the film is the death [she causes] where we realize this goes beyond a troubled mind. And what might be helpful for us is there is an element I think of being human still where we can acknowledge that all of us are not perfect. We can make mistakes, we have certainly been harmful. That’s the human experience. Can we still forgive this person? Has she now crossed a line to where she’s no longer within our reach as far as our empathy and understanding? And I think that exercise in knowing your limits of empathy and nonjudgment is particularly really good for our emotional intelligence and our own growth.

To what would you attribute the interest, obsession and direct personal relationship—or even feelings of ownership—that people develop with fictional characters that be even stronger than ones they have in their own lives?

We’ve seen this manifest with Game of Thrones and Endgame, and we’ll probably see an element here with Dark Phoenix after it’s released. But the duration of the relationship we have with fictional characters matters. If I felt that I have known a character for a long period of time, that really impacts the strength of that relationship. You are more likely to feel what I call non-delusional parasocial closeness with a fictional character, meaning I can tell you that I know Magneto is not a real person. I know the actor Michael Fassbender is a real person. And yet I have a close connection to this character, one that in my mind is unique, is tangible, is longstanding, and if something were to happen to that character, I would feel real loss. Other researchers have demonstrated that we lose fictional characters, the grief, the sadness, the anger even really compare to real loss. The emotional responses that we have for the loss of fictional characters does compare to those real relationships.

You mentioned also that especially with some fandoms, there’s the development of a sense of ownership over the character. My closeness with the character is so intense and so personal that if a writer were to go in a direction that I felt is not egosyntonic with that character, I would become enraged or upset, and my feeling would be I know that character more than that writer. It’s an emotional experience that comes from a disrupted relationship, much in the same way if a close friend or somebody behaves in a way that is not in sync with their typical emotional and behavioral presentation. And that sense of a disrupted relationship can get pretty ugly online if you have enough people experiencing those negative emotions.

Are there ways that the ups and downs of these fictional relationships can be good for us in real life?

Fictional endings are really healthy for us, because we need to practice how to manage and regulate ourselves when we experience those kinds of losses. Game of Thrones is one of those examples, and some of us are so disregulated because we wanted things to end a certain way. But we will have relationships, jobs, other experiences that do not work out in the way we want them to. And we build resilience by having experiences that allow us to practice that in what could be a more contained way, and fiction gives us that allowance.

Have you discovered any common building blocks that draw us to these characters or to these properties?

I do feel the portrayal of resilience is something that people are drawn to that’s not just seeing strong heroes or strong individuals who can overcome adversity. Resilience requires hardship and struggle, and I think that we appreciate being in the deep with characters who are experiencing that darkness and overcome it. We are experiencing in our larger sociopolitical world a lack of control, unpredictable violence, global trauma, a shared network of communication, constant exposure to traumatic things and images, and yet the sense of complete lack of control and lack of individuality. So what’s helpful is to see the uniqueness of characters like Rey from Star Wars and certainly Dark Phoenix, and certainly in Endgame, Tony Stark and some other characters that really shine – that buildup of resilience and the story of how they acquired that resilience. And I think we’re really looking for that to better understand how we are to be emotionally strong, to have the durability to get through what we’re experiencing.

Sophie Turner just finished playing Sansa Stark, a character who endured unimaginable pain, but whose response to that pain within the show was interpreted in wildly different ways. Is there a healthier way to look at individual responses to pain or adversity that doesn’t raise red flags for people who sometimes imprint their expectations onto fictional characters and stories?

I work with folks who have experienced trauma and a lot of the work is focused on not integrating the trauma to be a part of your identity, but we will never ask someone to forget or ignore their traumatic experience. That’s actually very unhealthy. I don’t know that I have an answer about the needs and wants we have about female characters being portrayed as invulnerable, or transcending the traumatic experience in a way that’s one dimensional or unrealistic. But I tend to feel that as long as we have diverse representation of female experiences, we’ll be okay, in the sense that women will have various exposure to trauma and various responses to traumatic experiences, such that we do not one narrative of traumatic recovery – and I don’t want us to. I want us to have multiple versions of representation of women and how their stories end. For Game of Thrones, I would say we saw some female characters reach a pinnacle of empowerment or achieving their own wants and needs, and I think that’s important. But we’re holding onto these expected narratives, especially around gender identity, and we’re imposing those narratives on these stories with these expectations. And I think that really limits us as far as what the creative folks might have to offer.

It seems like a big challenge in science fiction and fantasy to tell stories that sufficiently challenge male and female characters equally without indulging in reductive tropes.

I don’t think anyone wants to characterize these fictional individuals by their very last moment we see them – I believe their story goes on. I’ve been following these characters and then the show ends, does my mind really think that their character, or their narrative ends at that point? No, I think their story goes on. And so what might happen in that trajectory, that’s really lovely. That’s I think so amazing, that we can actually build their story through our imagination and it goes on and on and on. That’s one of the more powerful parts of these kinds of endings.

Images: 20th Century Fox