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Erickson’s Theories through Television Characters

Television characters often reflect psychological realities faced by everyone. Although their situations may be dramatic and unrealistic, the development of the characters often mirrors that of most people. Eric Erikson’s stages of development identify eight distinct conflict-resolutions stages. (Harder, 2002) Each one of these is illustrated in some form by a character on a television show. While these examples are not perfect in their representation, an examination of their situations, behavior, and fates of these characters offers insight to the applications, whether intentional or not, of Erikson’s theory on television writing.

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Child characters are often not featured on television shows. The primary reason for this is that the actors and actresses grow up in real time, while the character’s development is slower. Nevertheless, there are some examples of child characters who display traits associated with Erikson’s model. On the television program, Lost, for example, a young man of about 11 years is stranded on a mysterious island with his father and several others after surviving a plane crash. (Lost…n.d.)At the age of eleven, Walt would be in the late stage of the Latency phase according to Erickson’s theory. (Harder, 2002)  He would be developing social skills and resolving the industry vs. inferiority conflict. In the show, Walt exhibits signs of being industrious, rather than inferior. He aids the others in taking care of their needs, finding water, and hunting for food. He also helps his father build a raft that they intend to use to leave the island. (Lost…n.d.) In a major plot twist, Walt burns the raft in an attempt to stay on the island. (Lost…n.d.)Walt develops a friendship with others and attaches more to his social group than his father. He becomes friends with an older man named John Locke, and a Korean Couple named Jin and Sun. (Lost…n.d.) Even though his father disapproves of these relationships, they serve as a surrogate peer group for Walt. (Lost…n.d.)He has no friends of his age on the island, so he socializes as a peer to older people. (Lost…n.d.) In the Eriksonian model, people in this stage begin to focus socially on their external environment and interactions; (Harder, 2002)  they reject family and begin to prefer the company of peers. (Harder, 2002) Walt also has a built-in tendency toward inferiority based on the fact that he was the only surviving school-aged child. (Lost…n.d.) In the show, he seeks out John Locke so he can learn about weaponry (throwing knives) and self-sufficiency. (Lost…n.d.)Combined with the feelings of helplessness that anyone might feel in his situation, Walt has some abandonment issues as well. His father had not always been in his life, and his mother had died shortly before Walt got on the plane that crashed. (Lost…n.d.) As it happens, the story “catches up” with Walt about five years later, and we find him abandoned yet again by his father, and resentful and angry at his former peers for failing to stay in touch(Lost…n.d.).

The adolescent mindset, in contrast, is an often-explored area in the realm of television drama. The CW network’s series, Smallville follows the teen life of a adolescent Clark Kent, as he develops into the mythic hero, Superman. (Smallville…n.d.) The issue in Erikson’s model is the finding of identity, (Harder, 2002) which is the prime conflict facing the character of Clark Kent. (Smallville…n.d.) As he progresses through high school, Clark discovers and masters more and more of his abilities, and has numerous conflicts with respect to his identity. (Smallville…n.d.)  He resents having to hide his real self, but at the same time, he wishes to create a positive image of himself. (Smallville…n.d.)  To that end, he variously writes for the school newspaper, runs for class president, and quarterbacks the school’s football team, with varying degrees of success. (Smallville…n.d.) Erikson describes a period on “moratorium”, wherein an individual in this stage withdraws from his or her responsibilities. (Harder, 2002)  Clark illustrates this trait when he encounters red Kryptonite, which causes him to lose his inhibitions and become a “rebellious teen.” (Smallville…n.d.) The bulk of the entire series is based on Clark’s developing his sense of morality with respect to his abilities and responsibilities. He struggles with sharing his secrets, and the decision as to whether to use his power for the greater good, or remain hidden in the relative safety of his home. (Smallville…n.d.) He meets others with powers who form a group dedicated to fighting evil, but he does not permanently join them until after his teen years. (Smallville…n.d.)  By the time the character is 23 years old; he has made his choices, and determined that he must fight evil forces, while keeping his identity secret. (Smallville…n.d.)  He thus develops a separate persona from his hero-self that he presents publicly. This dualism is not unique to superheroes. Most people struggle with their identity and morality during this stage of life, and many come to the decision to live one way, and publicly present a different persona.

In mid-adulthood, few characters on television better represent Erickson’s conflict between generativity and self absorption(Harder, 2002)  than Dr. Gregory House, from the TV show that bears his name. (Gregory House, n.d.) In his mid-forties, House is a successful doctor with a world-renowned reputation as a diagnostician. (Gregory House, n.d.)  Despite his professional brilliance and talent, he is personally unhappy. (Gregory House, n.d.)  He is a drug addict with a permanent disability that causes him constant pain. (Gregory House, n.d.) As an older man with no family, House runs afoul of the generativity characteristic. (Harder, 2002)  Though professionally, he saves numerous lives, he does not internalize that accomplishment, and takes now ownership of the good he generates for society. (Gregory House, n.d.) His inability to maintain relationships, as evinced by his unsuccessful attempts with his ex-fiance, Stacy, and his subordinate, Dr. Cameron, illustrate both the causes and effects of his poor Eriksonian development. (Gregory House, n.d.) In the course of the series, we find that Dr. House’s problems are rooted in his stunted development in the industry vs. inferiority stage, (Harder, 2002)  when he was emotionally abused by his father. (Gregory House, n.d.)  Nevertheless, House fits one characteristic of this stage in that his paramount relationships all involve work. His best (only) friend, Dr. Wilson is a work colleague, as were his love interests. (Gregory House, n.d.)

In the last stage of Erickson’s development theory, the individual reflects on his or her life and reacts to perceived success or failure. Whichever they perceive predicts whether they embrace integrity or despair. (Harder, 2002) On the animated TV series, King of the Hill, the older generation is personified by Cotton Hill, the main character’s father. (Cotton Hill n.d.) Cotton, throughout the series, comes to terms with some of his acts during WWII. (Cotton Hill n.d.)  Some of these acts were courageous, such as getting his shins shot off in an offensive against the Germans, (Cotton Hill n.d.) and some not-so-admirable, like getting a Japanese woman pregnant, and leaving. (Cotton Hill n.d.) Cotton is a misogynistic, bitter, and unhappy character. (Cotton Hill n.d.) One could argue the reason for his unhappiness lies in his perceived failure as a father, and a man. He re-marries late in life, has a child, and gives it the name “Good Hank” (His adult child is Hank) in an attempt to “get this one right.” (Cotton Hill n.d.) He refers to his daughter-in-law as “Hank’s wife”, and is generally mean-spirited and abusive. Such is the outcome for people who despair of their choices late in life, according to Erikson’s model. (Harder, 2002)

It is clear that in these cases, art reflects life. The development of these TV characters lines up well with Eric Erikson’s description of identity development.

 
References

 

“Cotton Hill” (n.d.) retrieved October 29th, 2008 from Wikipedia website

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_Hill

 

“Gregory House” (n.d.) retrieved October 29th, 2008 from Wikia Entertainment website:

http://house.wikia.com/wiki/Gregory_House

 

Harder, A. (2002). “The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson”. Retrieved October 29th, 2008 from Learning Place Online website:

http://www.learningplaceonline.com/stages/organize/Erikson.htm

 

“Lost/Walt Loyd” (n.d.) retrieved October 29th, 2008 from TV IV website: http://tviv.org/Lost/Walt_Lloyd

 

“Smallville: Summary” (n.d.) retrieved October 29th, 2008 from TV IV website:

http://www.tv.com/smallville/show/1718/summary.html