Popular Culture Meets Psychology

Understanding ourselves through pop culture.

Stewey Griffin: DSM's Enfante Terible

Stewey Griffin, sociopath in diapers or diagnostic enigma?

Who will every forget Patty McCormack, aka Rhoda Penmark, the blond-haired, blue-eyed 7 year old cold-hearted killer in the 1956 psychological thriller, The Bad Seed? We wanted to believe that she was innocent...we really did! She seemed to have had a caring mother, and while there was no indication of abuse or trauma, nor that her father was disturbed, she was more than likely easily diagnoseable as being 'attachment disordered'. What else could explain the brutal and uncaring manner with which she dispatched her nemeses?

And what about Beavis and Butthead, MTV's pathetically stupid and socially inept teen twits, who cared only about television, their genitals and 'chicks', as they referred to girls. These two losers wrought sheer havoc, both physically and psychologically everywhere they turned. As for a DSM diagnosis...hmmm, let me count the ways! Mild Mental Retardation? Oppositional Defiant Disorder (and boy, were they ODD)? Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder? Delusional Disorder, Erotomanic Type! Pick one, pick them all.

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But then came Stewey Griffin, youngest of the Griffin clan that hails from Quahog.  Now here's a case study for up and coming mental health practitioners.

Stewy Griffin, strange visitor from another dimension, who came to Quahog with powers and abilities (including matricidal fantasies, alcholism, meglomaniacal fantasies of world domination and a proclivity for shaving his as-yet undeveloped genitals) far beyond those of any infant you will ever meet...or want to.  Yes, Stewey Griffin, who can drain large breasts in a single gulp, change the course of Fox's ratings...bend morality with his bare bottom.  And who, disguised as a pre-verbal innocent, fights a never ending battle for narcissism, oral sadism and the Enfante Terible way. How might we best diagnose little Stewey? Regulatory Disorder? Pervasive Developmental Disorder, NOS? Delusional Disorder, Paranoid Type? None seem to fit!

The American Psychiatric Association's (APA) DSM IV-TR has made it a bit easier to diagnose children by broadening and deepening the categories of pathology first evidenced in infancy, childhood and adolescence; however, it fails to adequately address the dimensional nature of developmental disorders. While the more recent DC:0-3, sponsored by 'Zero to Three'  has created a diagnostic nomencalture that  extends our understanding of pathology downward into the infancy and the toddler years, we are still left wondering how best to understand the manner in which complex genetic and contextual forces coalesce into pathology during the tender years.  

While Stewey Griffin, brainchild of creative genius Seth McFarlane, is clearly a fictitious, and most improbable character whose primary function is to entertain, he leaves us in a quandry that may transcend both the DSM's and DC:0-3's capacities to enlighten us on the origin of pscyhopathology. Granted, Stewey's locquaciousness, perceptible only to the family dog Brian, savant-like problem solving skills and appreciation of the subtle nuances of adult interactions are impressive, he is in the final analysis, a deeply disturbed and polymorphously perverse infant with a terminal oedipal complex that defy classification.

Characters such as Rhoda Penmark, Beavis and Butthead and Stewey Griffin are teachers for all who are interested in the fascinating world of developmental psychpathology. Best we should take them seriously! Can such pathology, albeit fictional, really exist at such a young age, and will genetic science ever evolve to the point that prenatal testing can reliably predict such potentially malignant psychopathology? And will the mere naming of it shed sufficient light on how to attend to it? And, what's in a name anyway?

 

 

 

Lawrence Rubin, psychologist and counseling professor, is co-author with psychiatrist Mike Brody of Messages: Self Help Through Popular Culture.

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