Ethics Quiz: Dr. Phil, Shelley Duvall, And Exploitation


A 30-second promotional clip for today’s episode of “Dr. Phil” is disturbing, beyond question. It shows Shelley Duvall, from “The Shining,” “Popeye,” “Nashville” and other well-known films talking to the fake doctor about her mental illness.The syndicated advice show’s promo shows Duvall, almost unrecognizable, talking about how her “Popeye” co-star, the late Robin Williams, is alive and “shape-shifting.” She says she is being threatened by Robin Hood’s Sheriff of Nottingham, and that a “whirring disc” is inside her.

The ad ends with Duvall, 67, telling Phil McGraw, “I’m very sick. I need help.”

She certainly sounded like it, and looked like it too.

Now Dr. Phil is being criticized for exploiting a vulnerable mentally ill woman for her audience drawing powers. The daughter of Stanley Kubrick, who directed Duvall in her most famous role as Jack Nicholson’s terrorized wife in “The Shining,” is leading the charge. Vivian Kubrick called for a boycott of the popular daytime program, tweeting, “You are putting Shelley Duvall ‘on show’ while she is suffering from a pitiable state of ill health. Unquestionably, this is purely a form of lurid and exploitative entertainment — it’s appallingly cruel.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is it unethical for “Dr. Phil” to feature Shelley Duvall this way?

Before I weigh in, and before you give a snap answer, a few questions to consider:

1. Who is exploiting whom?

2. If Duvall wants to do the show, is Kubrick saying she should be allowed to, because people will watch it for the wrong reasons?

3. Duvall says she needs help. What if this exposure helps her get it?

4. How mentally ill is too ill to be allowed to decide what you want to do?

5. How is Duvall’s plight being used to attract eyeballs to McGraw’s show any worse than than what Dr. Phil does on every show: subject troubled people’s psychological problems to public scrutiny, knowing that most of the attention is voyeuristic?

6. How is the episode materially different from many other celebrity reality shows that feature has-been, down on their luck or ill celebrities going through their sad, strange lives? We saw a drunk, drugged, obese and dim-witted Anna Nichole Smith stumble through day after day (until she took a dubious weight-loss drug, lost 80 pounds, and died of a drug overdose). We saw a lonely Scott Baio visiting all of the women he had abused to ask their forgiveness, with most of them heaping abuse on him. We saw Danny Bonaduce shoot up on steroids, and co-addicts Ryan O’Neal and daughter Tatum try to co-exist when they obviously hate each other. We saw Corey Feldman, about 30 years past his film career, try to reconnect with his fellow Corey, drug addicted Corey Haim, before the latter could destroy himself. (He eventually overdosed, and was dead at 38.) The Surreal Life allowed multiple dysfuctional celebrities to humiliate themselves for cash: Jose Canseco, Tammy Faye Messner, Tawny Kitaen, and the late Gary Coleman, among others.

7. A lot of my thoughts on the ethics of these shows and their stars were covered here, in the 2012 post about the reality show starring Abigail and Brittany Hensel, unusual conjoined twins with one body and two heads. I wrote at the end,

Abigail and Brittany have a right to decide what to do with their lives, and how to cope with their unique limitations. If they choose to profit from our indulging the perverse human fascination with all that is strange, that is their choice, just as it is our choice to indulge. The argument that society is coarsened by this mutual arrangement, the argument that led to the banning of the freak shows, has been disproved by the fact that society hasn’t improved at all in this respect since the human oddity exhibits were banned. All we accomplished was to take legitimate life options away from citizens who face difficult challenges like the Hensels, and to tell other Americans what they were allowed to pay money to see.

Does this apply to Shelley Duvall?



25 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Dr. Phil, Shelley Duvall, And Exploitation

  1. I know nothing of this episode, nor was I aware of Duvall’s pitiable current state.

    It does seem to me there’s a difference between her situation and the others you mention, and that is that her grasp of reality is qualitatively out of bounds in a way that none of others are.

    Scott Baio may be deluded, but he knows Robin Williams is dead, and knows what “dead” means. Ryan and Tatum may be tabloid fodder self-involved fools, but neither is likely to confuse the other, or anyone else, with the fictional sheriff of Nottingham.

    Dr Phil and whatsisname (the Ohio politician who gets people to scream stupidly at each other, sorry name escapes me) may be guilty of bad taste, but the fools who get on their shows are fully and legally responsible for their actions. Ms Duvall couldn’t be responsible for telling what planet she’s on.

    In such cases, it seems to me we should demand a higher standard of responsibility on the part of broadcasters.

  2. Is it unethical for “Dr. Phil” to feature Shelley Duvall this way?

    I don’t find anything about Dr. Phil’s show to be ethical, so I’m going with it’s unethical – as usual.

    I boycotted watching Dr. Phil’s show airing the dirty laundry and mental problems of its guests as entertainment after the first time I saw it; it reminds me of the Jerry Springer Show. It’s parading ignorant people on national television for profit and it’s entertainment value shows just how low our society has stooped. This kind of shit doesn’t belong on TV, it belongs in private psychological counseling sessions.

    Rant complete.

    • Absolutely, Z. Unfortunately, competence is something that is now required to be adjudicated rather than be determined by observation and/or common sense. Ms. Duvall may, in fact, be incompetent; in fact, my first response to her rant is that this poor woman is incapable of making informed decisions regarding her life, and I, personally, would respond to her in that manner (i.e., not offer her a ton of money to appear on a show with me so I can be seen to magically ‘cure’ her). So, Dr. Phil is being exploitive and manipulative because he can. This is both unprofessional and unethical and should result in him being brought up on charges. Unfortunately, the laws are written in such a manner that the decision is Ms. Duvall’s, not his.

  3. I’ll be your Huckleberry…

    until Shelly Duval is declared “not able to see to her own affairs,” she can do what she wants. It is not up to society, Dr. Phil, or Vivian Kubrick to say otherwise while that is so.

    If you have a problem with allowing mentally ill folks have the same rights and privileges as the rest of us, change the laws, provide for treatment, and so on. Until that time, butt out.

    Oh, and for those thinking “there oughtta be a law…”: who gets to decide what a mental illness is? Would you trust the Obama Administration to decide (careful: millions of Veterans would tell you of your folly!) How about health care professionals? And who vets them? I have seen doctors asserting that gun ownership is a mental disease. How many in politics have asserted jail as a remedy for so called “climate deniers?” How far is that to calling it a mental illness?

    We leave this to the courts for a reason: it is done in the light of day, and litigants must have some standing (a relative, power of attorney, etc.) to get someone committed “for their own good.” Even with all that, abuses occur.

    This situation sucks. As I tell my kids, life is not fair… and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

  4. I think a majority of Dr. Phil’s shows are abhorrent. The commercial I’ve seen recently is a grown daughter who is confronting her parents who molested her (and filmed it), when she was a child. There is nothing redeeming about his show and he’d put anything on television to make a buck. But mostly it’s an ick factor–the people who go on his show know what they are doing.

    As for this particular show, I think it is unethical. She obviously has a severe mental illness (hallucinations are key, here). You can’t always force a mentally ill person to take medication and to participate in treatment (you see them on the streets in every major city). They can be victims and perpetrators of violence and they live lives that most people can’t imagine. The ethical thing to do would be to help people who have mental illness; donate, volunteer, educate the public. The unethical thing to do would be to put them on television so that you, yourself, can benefit financially.

  5. I must agree with those saying this is unethical. Not illegal–and it shouldn’t be–but definitely unethical.

    And no, the fact that she’s a celebrity doesn’t make it worse. The whole show is unethical. There is no evidence that putting people in therapy in front of a huge audience is in any way helpful, and plenty that shows it’s actively harmful. For every person Dr. Phil claims to have helped with his show, there are probably ten more who are worse off because of it.

    • Dr. Phil’s show is indeed unethical. And we can blame Oprah for it as well as anyone. Every time they call him “Dr.” I wince.

      Did you know that another TV show is substantially based on McGraw’s pre-Dr. Phil career? And that he’s an advisor?

      • “Every time they call him “Dr.” I wince.”

        I just got a mental image of Dr. Frasier Crane, after being forced to share his airtime with a tell-it-like-it-is black woman who didn’t attend medical school but called herself “Dr. Mary” anyway, ran into her several episodes later and quipped, “I see you’re still referring to yourself as Doctor”…

  6. If it’s true that the new series “Bull” is about Dr. Phil in his jury rigging days I’m not surprised that he’s still an unethical glory seeker. Something about that show makes me feel crawly.

  7. I agree with Slick Willy except for one thing; the question was: “Is it Ethical”, not ‘is it legal’.

    Legal, undoubtedly. Ethical, not a chance. I agree with those who say that nothing about the show is ethical. I’ve never watched it because any time I see any reference to it I have visions of a robot waving it’s arms and shouting: “Danger, Danger Will Robinson”!

  8. From the clip, it appears that Ms. Duval suffers from a psychological problem that involves periods of delusional thought. It’s unclear if she is delusional 100% of the time, and whether the delusional thoughts make her incompetent to function on her own at home and in society. Note that this is a slippery slope: legal competence and social competence for the mentally ill can sometimes be two wildly different things.

    Is Ms. Duval sufficiently competent to make reasonable decisions; that is, does she has period(s) of lucidity that allow her to understand her surroundings, and act in a competent manner? We don’t know the answer based on a short clip. Assuming she is “legally” competent, we may disagree with her decisions but her personal reasons are not our business.

    Knowing Dr. Phil as we all do, I think we can agree that he doesn’t bring people on his show to truly help them to resolve their problems; they are there to get ratings and dollars in his pocket. His show is based on having people with significant social and/or mental problems spew their issues nationally while he dishes out his “country” wisdom. This goes beyond ick, this show is a vomitorium.

    Therefore, is his show ethical? If the people agreeing to be on the show understand what they are signing up to do; that they are competent to understand the results of their actions. Even if they are icky. The people are making their own ethical decision.

    However, this doesn’t let Dr. Phil off the hook. Ethical swings both ways. Does his show vet all the people who agree to be on the show to ensure that they appear to be competent to make that decision? That they understand the ramifications of what may occur when they out their mental illness, or whatever? Or does Dr. Phil’s attorney hand them a sheaf of legal documents that they don’t read, or can’t understand to get a signature? Absolutely an ethical train wreck of a show.

  9. I saw some of the show. It was playing today in the waiting area where I was getting an oil change.

    It had everyone’s attention, including the person behind the counter taking care of me. And the customers sitting behind me were laughing at all the crazy things Duval said, as I presume millions of other people were doing. And there was Dr. Phil, analyzing Duval’s comments on a giant projection screen, keeping up the thin, thin veneer of concern and seriousness, when it was plain as day that this was a freak show. And nothing more. So yeah, unethical, simply because there was no ethical reason to present this. Crazy people say crazy things. We know.

    All that said, Ms. Duval’s ramblings weren’t any less sane that what comes out of the mouth of Dan Aykroyd and Jesse Ventura these days, and as far as I know they are considered lucid.

  10. As the daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic and a true fan of Ms. Duvall’s work, I watched the episode in the hope of seeing an old-fashioned Hollywood ending…Shelley leaving a facility after 30, 60, or however many days with her eyes clear and her lovely spirit restored. Sadly, it was not to be. I was appalled to read Isaac’s story about people laughing at her. The only way that the exploitation of Shelley’s desperate condition can be justified is if it somehow results in her receiving and accepting therapy and psychotropic medication. My mother suffered for 55 years, was in and out of mental hospitals, with stays as long as nine months, separated from her four children whom she loved in her own unique and broken way. At 72, she had another breakdown after my father died and was taken from her home at 2:00 a.m. because she had made delusional phone calls to radio stations. I was able to obtain legal guardianship and was finally in charge of her medical care. She was placed on three psychotropic medications and it was absolutely miraculous–she was finally who she was supposed to have been all along. She was sweet, funny, and a joy to be around. I finally had a real Mom. She did great for five years and then died from a stroke, God rest her soul. Sorry, back to Shelley. The delusions, her appearance, all the oddness that makes her “good television” are actually insignificant. It all begins and ends with the paranoia. We all share a deep sense of survival, of protection, we do not want to die (except the poor souls who are suicidal, such as my sister who took her life at 31). If you watch that horrid “interview” again, note how many times Shelley says she does not want to be murdered. In her mind, anyone offering help is seen as a threat. Paranoia can be an impenetrable wall that causes unbearable suffering for the mentally ill. Shelley’s level of paranoia may prevent her from drawing a sane breath the rest of her life. I hope some good comes from this tragedy somehow, someday. Mental illness needs a true champion to help diminish stigma and improve treatment options, not a bald ringmaster who suffers from narcissism.

  11. Of course he was unethical and for someone who has at least had the education to understand what was going on, it was opportunistic and negligent.

    As a a psychiatric nurse, I work with people like Shelley daily. The moment he started asking his questions I cringed. What was the point of this interview? He took advantage of her. Did he try to promote awareness of mental illness? Not really? Talking about @clanging” really? Was it the most relevant? There was NO justification for this.. none. His demeanor, the phrasing of his questions…

    You asked about ethics.. yes it is her choice.. she has not been conserved, she does have clarity. But her reality is also skewed. She asks for help, yes. But did she fully understand what this was about? Yes, she acknowledged the cameras, they are familiar to her, did she know that she was on a show that was being televised to MILLIONS? Did they try to preserve her dignity?

    Comparing her to Bonaduce, Helm, Tammy Faye is unfair at best.

    He paraded her like a pony, took advantage of her illness. He does present people unkindly on his show frequently, but they aren’t untreated very mentally ill people..

    Yes she can make her own medical, financial decisions because legally she has not been declared incompetent. As a care provider that’s tough especially when you know there is no clear understanding of what you are asking her to consent to. So legally, Dr Phil was ok. But ethically I think he was completely out of line and took advantage of her.

    This whole thing could have been handled very differently if it had to be presented at all. For example, wait til she has been assessed and treatment has stabilized her. She could probably have made a more informed decision at which point she can really determine if she wanted her private life made public.

    I can hardly articulate ( obviously) how irate I am.

    • Thanks for your perspective.

      1. Reality TV of this sort is inherently unethical. Dr. Phil is professionally unethical. We know this. The Quiz is about whether this is unethical even within this context.

      2. I am not convinced. To begin with, it’s the Ick Factor: its distasteful, and icky to see Duvall in such a state. But she still has rights. She still has autonomy. When celebrities vanish from public view, they are dead to us, and for attention junkies, which so many are, that’s unbearable.

      3. Did the appearance make her feel better or worse? If she felt she accomplished something and it gave her a sense that people cared about her…how is that unethical? How is it not more ethical to allow her that, than not?

      4. I have worked in show business, and know a lot about performers, past and present. Most of them have skewed reality. It’s a spectrum. How crazy is Woody Allen? Britney Spears? Alec Baldwin? Kanye West? Ozzie Osborne? Bonaduce is obviously not well. Did you watch the show? Tammy Faye’s an idiot. Is it unethical to exploit the pathetic and desperate? The delineation isn’t as clear as you claim.

      5. Sure it could have been handled differently, delayed, etc. But would she have wanted that? What if she felt she needed it now? Who are we, or you, to say no—we know best. Do we?

  12. I am prohibited by law by saying anything. I saw and heard a lot, but am not allowed to speak-just as anyone affiliaed with the show is. It’s called non-disclosure

  13. I did not see the documentary my partner told me and we talked about it. Doctor Phil in my opinion tries to help people with all types of problems. The backlash on this subject of Shelley Duvall’s mental illness is more related to people with an aversion to those with mental illness. It is why we have huge numbers of homeless people on the streets addicted to drugs as they try to self medicate. Most people who write in negatively just don’t want to know they want to bury their head in the sand and pretend such things don’t happen to people.
    I know from experience that mental illness turns people into strangers and destroys lives as my thirty nine year old son is mentally ill with schizophrenia. I would take any help that was available to get him back. He was out going bright hard working as a young man until his early twenties. Face it people we need more exposure to the terrible effects of mental illness then maybe these people could be helped with treatment.
    I for one would like to see Dr. Phil have more people with mental health problems on his show. Those that find it distasteful or unethical don’t have to watch and help the ratings of the show then complain about it. Without exposure there will never be enough help for the vast majority of those who suffer with mental illness.

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