Social work on film

Researchers, blog writers and media have all tackled the image of social workers in film filmand on television. Depictions of social workers and what they do on screen can be cringe material. Sometimes there’s a little grain of truth in the character but often there’s not. With a few exceptions, fictional social workers frequently do what we would never, ever do in real life. For me, 4 distinct social work types stand out.

  1. The Do Gooder – the social worker with a good dose of righteous anger who fights for right and might no matter what. She (usually she) has flaws and struggles with personal problems but is decidedly human. Mostly she is an independent humanist who on a disturbingly regular basis crosses boundaries in client/ professional relationships in very messy ways. Somehow this all works out in the end – she doesn’t get fired, isn’t taken to task by her professional association nor does she actually do any harm. It all works out in the end just like Maxine in Judging Amy.
  2. The Evil Social Worker – this social worker is incompetent, rigid, and an obstacle to whoever they happen to be assessing, usually on the topic of children. Sometimes the image battle is between the evil social worker and the bleeding heart. Then of course we have those named as social workers who are not social workers at all like Raye Colby in Go Back to Where You Came From, a documentary on the transformation of Australian racists.
  3. The Straight Man – here the social worker plays the Abbott to someone’s Costello (the comedians not the politicians). A prime example is the social worker who visited Vicki Pollard in Little Britain.
  4. The Amazon who single handedly cracks a social issue. Linda Carter (Wonder Woman) played a social worker who, in 1981, took on a baby trafficking ring and won in Born to be Solc. Some like social worker, Margaret Humphreys, in Oranges and Sunshine and Irena Sendler  who is called a nurse and social worker (I suspect she was a nurse) are real people who showed leadership in action. The real Margaret Humphreys and Irena Sendler speak here.

Another version of social work was depicted in Precious. The social workers doing this complex work did seem very tired, over-worked and drowning in paperwork, the reality for many social workers. Of course, it’s not just social workers who sometimes act differently in film than they do in real life – psychiatrists, psychologists and lawyers have exciting on-screen lives too. Well, it is just the movies and hopefully the public knows the difference but I would like to see more of the real stuff – perhaps we need more social worker-film makers.


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