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?