Blog Archives

Can you feel the force? The psychopathology of ‘Star Wars’

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Dunn sent all the psychology staff members a paper published in the December 2015 issue of Australasian Psychiatry by Susan Friedman and Ryan Hall entitled ‘Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology’. As a fan of Star Wars and science fiction more generally, I immediately read the paper and thought it would be a good topic to write a blog about.

It turns out that Friedman and Ryan have written a series of papers in psychiatric journals over the last year arguing that many of the characters in the Star Wars movies have underlying psychopathologies and that because of the films’ popularity, the films could be used to teach students about various psychiatric disorders. The authors asserted that supporting characters in Star Wars can be used to teach about a wide variety of psychiatric conditions which are not commonly so accessible in one story, including [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] ADHD, anxiety, kleptomania, and paedophilia”. I have to admit that in my own teaching I often use characters and/or storylines from film and television to explain psychological phenomena to my own students (and have also published articles and papers demonstrating the utility of using such sources in both teaching and research contexts – see ‘Further reading’ below). Therefore, I was intrigued to read what psychiatric disorders had been attributed to which Star Wars characters.

In the Australasian Psychiatry paper, it is argued that Jar Jar Binks has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD):

“Jar Jar frequently overlooks details and makes careless mistakes…His difficulty in sustaining his attention is evident…His difficulty in following instructions almost results in him being put to death…trainees can determine whether [the examples provided] are related to inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity”.

More controversially, Friedman and Ryan make the case for Qui-Gon Jinn showing paedophilic grooming behaviour.

“In Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon engages in many behaviours with young Anakin Skywalker the same way a paedophile would with a child victim. Anakin seems to fit a pattern which Qui-Gon has of cultivating prepubescent, fair-complexioned boys with no strong male family ties…Anakin’s mother has no power or relations with authority, which decreases the likelihood that either she or Anakin would report the paedophile, or potentially be believed by others…Qui-Gon develops a relationship with Anakin, noting his special features and abilities: he often gives compliments to the child…He fosters a relationship where secrets are kept…and the child is slowly isolated from others…After trust is gained, there is a gradual increase in physical intimacy. In the movies this was symbolised by Qui-Gon drawing blood samples from Anakin. A paedophile may incorporate other children or older victims into the grooming process to further lower the child’s inhibitions”.

I’m not overly convinced by the argument but it does at least lead to discussions on the topic of grooming that I could see having a place in the classroom. Friedman and Ryan also examine a whole species (the Jawas) and claim that they are by nature kleptomaniacs:

“Jawas can introduce the concepts of kleptomania and hoarding, since they ‘have a tendency to pick up anything that’s not tied down’. It is important from a diagnostic point of view to recognise that kleptomania is more than just stealing or shoplifting…To meet criteria for kleptomania, one must recurrently fail to resist the impulse to steal unneeded or non-valuable objects. Tension before committing the theft is followed by gratification or release afterwards. These characteristics of kleptomania can be inferred from the Jawas’ capture of R2D2…The gratification of stealing R2D2 is clear from the Jawas’ excited scream…As for the need or value of the stolen items and the repetitive nature of the theft, the Jawas’ sandcrawler is filled with droids in various states of dysfunction…Although on a desert planet almost anything might have value, the Jawas seem to take this to extremes given the number of broken droids in their possession which do not even appear to be in good enough shape to use as spare parts”.

Elsewhere in the paper is a table listing many Star Wars characters along with “potential concept discussions” related to the characters’ behaviours in the films. This includes (amongst others) Darth Vader (borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), Jabba the Hutt (psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder), Boba Fett (Oedipal issues – Hamlet type), Yoda (dyslexia, malingering), Luke Skywalker (prodromal schizophrenia), Princess Leia (histrionic personality disorder), Padme Amidala (postnatal delirium, postnatal depression), Obi-Wan Kenobi (major depression in old age, pseudo-dementia), and C3PO (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).

However, given my own research interests, the character that most interested me in Friedman and Ryan’s list was the claim that Lando Calrissian might be a pathological gambler. According to one of the Wiki entries:

“Lando Calrissian was a human male smuggler, gambler, and card player who became Baron Administrator of Cloud City, and, later, a general in the Rebel Alliance. [He] was born on the planet Socorro…During his youth, he became a smuggler and a gambler, playing a card game known as sabbacc. Calrissian was able to make a living by illegally acquiring and redistributing rare or valuable goods. However, due to Calrissian’s penchant for gambling, he and his business partner Lobot were in deep with the wrong people”.

Gambling does make the occasional appearance in Star Wars films – particularly in bar scenes. In describing Calrissian to Han Solo, Princess Leia notes “he’s a card player, gambler, scoundrel. You’d like him“. Qui-Gon Jinn notes in The Phantom Menace that “Whenever you gamble my friend, eventually you’ll lose”. The Star Wars Wiki on gambling notes that it involves the betting of credits or possessions in wagers or games like sabbacc. For example, Lando Calrissian bet the Millennium Falcon in a game of sabacc with Han Solo, and lost. Gambling was rampant on Tatooine [the home planet of Luke Skywalker]”. The Star Wars Wiki on sabacc also notes that there are several variants of the game and that Calrissian lost the Millenium Falcon to Han Solo while playing ‘Corellian Spike’ and that Solo kept the two golden dice that were used while gambling. A profile article on Calrissian in the Washington Post describes him as a “suave gambler” rather than a pathological gambler.

There is no doubt that Calrissian liked to gamble but there is little evidence from the film that it was pathological. However, other articles (as well as older and newer fiction) about him claim that he is. For instance, in an online article by Shane Cowlishaw discussing the personality disorders of Star Wars characters, the following is claimed: 

“He may have ended up leading the final assault on the Death Star, but Lando perhaps was only successful due to being a pathological gambler. Having lost the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo in a bet, conned the Bespin Gas Mine out of somebody and gambling on a deal to betray Han and Chewbacca to the Empire, it is clear he can’t help himself. Lando gambles with the lives of other rebels, albeit successfully, be demanding that the spaceship not abort their mission when Admiral Ackbar orders everyone to retreat from the unexpectedly operational Death Star. A perfect character to debate whether pathological gambling is an addiction or an impulse-control disorder, apparently”

It’s also worth mentioning that Calrissian will also be making an appearance in upcoming Marvel comics. In an interview with writer Charles Soule (who will be scripting the new stories), it is evident that the crux of his character will focus on the gambling part of his personality – but more on the problem side:

“I focused on the whole gambler archetype for Lando; more specifically, the sort of lifelong card player who never really knows when to walk away from the table. He’s always chasing his losses, hoping that if he makes a big enough bet, he can get ahead with just one good hand. It’s tweaked a bit here—the idea is that Lando had something happen to him in his past that put him way behind, and now he’s just trying to get back to even. This isn’t really a financial thing, although that’s part of it – it’s more like a moral thing. Like a life debt. I don’t hit it too hard in this story—it’s all background—but the shading is there…Lando gets into crazy, extreme situations because they’re his version of making big bets at the card table. If he can make it through his next adventure, maybe he can just retire and live a quiet life. It never really works out, though. One step forward, two steps back. That’s Lando Calrissian…It’s a story about a hyper-charismatic, ultra-smooth guy who gets into huge jams constantly, and tends to get out of them through a combination of luck and charm. He’d never punch his way out of a fight; he’d rather buy everyone a few drinks and leave on good terms. Assuming he hasn’t gambled away all his money, that is”.

However, there is also the 2013 novel Scoundrels written by Timothy Zahn featuring Calrissian, Han Solo, and Chewbacca and includes the short story Winner Lose All based on Calrissian’s love of gambling but here, there is nothing to suggest the behaviour is pathological. There is also a fictional online interview with Calrissian that puts forward the idea that he was a professional gambler rather than a pathological gambler:

“Basically I was born to a normal middle class family and found I had a talent for gambling. I traipsed across the universe as a professional gambler, but occasionally need more money so I hired out as mercenary and treasure hunter. Eventually I won the Millennium Falcon, but didn’t know how to fly it. So I paid Han Solo to teach me, he won the ship from me in a game of Sabbac. I won it back but, it like taking your best friend’s girl so I gave it back to him. When I wound up on Cloud City I won my title of Barron Administrator in a card game. The rest is they sat history”.

Finally, on a more academic note, Calrissian also makes an appearance as one of the ‘Gambler’ archetypes the book Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists by Margaret Hartwell and Joshua Chen. The book is a novel approach to brand development and includes a deck of 60 archetype cards with the aim of revealing a brand’s motivation and why it attracts certain customers. The authors hope that the book will be used repeatedly to inform and enliven brand strategy. This again suggests that Calrissian’s gambling is not seen as pathological (otherwise he wouldn’t have been included in the book as a brand to be modelled upon).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cowlishaw, S. (2015). Star Wars characters and their personality disorders. Stuff, July 8. Located at: http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/70017741/Star-Wars-characters-and-their-personality-disorders

Friedman, S. H., & Hall, R. C. (2015). Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology. Australasian Psychiatry, 23(4), 432-434.

Friedman, S. H., & Hall, R. C. (2015). Teaching psychopathology in a galaxy far, far away: The light side of the force. Academic Psychiatry, 39(6), 719-725.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Media literature as a teaching aid for psychology: Some comments. Psychology Teaching Review, 5(2), 90.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Hall, R. C., & Friedman, S. H. (2015). Psychopathology in a galaxy far, far away: The use of Star Wars’ dark side in teaching. Academic Psychiatry, 39(6), 726-732.

Hartwell, M. & Chen, J.C. (2012). Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists. How Design Books.

Cutting womb flaw: A brief overview of female genital self-mutilation

In a previous blog I examined the rare act of genital self-mutilation (GSM) in males. More rare are cases of female genital self-mutilation. Back in 1970, Goldfield and Glick first described a syndrome of dysorexia (i.e.. disordered and/or unnatural appetite) and GSM in the Journal of Nervous Diseases. Of the cases reported since 1970, the majority of cases reported have had personality disorders (typically borderline personality disorder) and a history of childhood sexual abuse. In the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Wise and colleagues categorized female GSM into three groups: (i) patients with personality disorders, (ii) self-induced aborters and (iii) psychotic patients. This slightly differs from male GSM where the cases have been categorized into: schizophrenics, transsexuals (i.e., those with a gender identity crisis), those with complex cultural and religious beliefs, and a small number of severely depressed people who engage in GSM as part of a suicide attempt.

Excluding injuries secondary to self-induced abortion or the insertions of foreign bodies in children, to date, only a handful of female genital self-mutilation have been reported in the literature. Some papers have discussed the differences between self-induced abortion and GSM. However, the differential diagnosis has become increasingly rare because abortion laws have become liberal in many countries.

An early 1957 case in the Journal of Mount Sinai Hospital described a patient who mutilated her vagina on four occasions with a hatpin and knitting needle in late pregnancy that eventually led to a Caesarean section. The 1970 case in the Journal of Nervous Diseases (above) involved a 19-year old female who scratched and gorged her internal genitalia with her fingernails and led to a lot of vaginal bleeding that needed medical attention. A 1972 case in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported the case of a woman who lacerated her vulva with a razor blade.

Following one instance of sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, she feared pregnancy and subsequently penetrated her vagina with a knitting needle. This particular act was not her first episode of self-mutilation. For instance, she had previously swallowed dangerous metal objects, cut her wrists, and had inflicted a deep laceration on her left breast. She also began inserting objects into her vagina including (on one occasion) a twig that had to be medically removed. She later lacerated her vulva and vagina with a knitting needle and a kitchen knife. While in hospital she smashed a window on the gynaecology ward and slashed her arm. Several months later, she again ended up in casualty having cut her vagina with scissors on the previous day, sustaining multiple superficial lacerations of the vagina and cervix.

A detailed case study was reported in 1974 by Simpson and Anstee in the Postgraduate Medical Journal. The authors reported that her self-mutilating behaviour shared several features with the typical wrist cutters (e.g., planning the incident carefully, enjoying the anticipation of the event). She felt no pain when cutting and felt relief and fascination when watching blood flow from her vagina.

There have been a few reports of female GSM associated with psychosis and one 1989 report in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy reported an association between, an isolated delusional system, and body dysmorphic disorder. In fact, the feelings of a distorted body image have been noted in a couple of cases where the women view their genitals as abnormal, and as a consequence tried to remove them.

In a 2005 issue of the German Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Silke Marckmann and colleagues reported the case of a female with paranoid psychosis who had injured her external genitals in an attempt to stop coenaesthetic dysaesthesias (i.e., feelings of abnormal sensations which in this case was described as “feeling like an electric current” running through her genitals). They also noted that in this particular case, secondary erotomania was a feature associated with female GSM. (Erotomania is a type of delusion where the affected person believes that another person is in love with them). The authors also reported that:

“In the last months before hospital admission she felt that the dysaesthesias did not allow her to concentrate on anything else which included eating. She lost 10 kg weight in the 2 months before she agreed to hospital admission. She then reported, that she had been hitting herself repeatedly in the genital area in the attempt to stop the dysaesthesias”

However, the condition is complex and as Dr Nagaraja Rao and colleagues highlighted in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, thatgenital self mutilation like any other serious self injury is not a single clinical entity and it occurs in any psychiatric condition with corresponding psychopathology”.

Marckmann and colleagues believe that compared to male GSM, female GSM might be underreported. This is because they speculate there may be a bias towards those individuals with GSM needing acute medical attention (e.g., men cutting of their penis and/or testicles). Female self-mutilators may find it easier to hide their chronic self-inflicted genital injuries and not seek immediate medical help. Such GSM injuries may be more likely to be spotted by gynaecologists (and as Marckmann and colleagues note, there have been increased reporting of female GSM case studies in gynaecological journals such as the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and European Journal of Obstetric, Gynecological and Reproductive Biology).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ajibona, O.O. & Hartwell, R. (2002). Feigned miscarriage by genital self-mutilation in a hysterectomised patient. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 22, 451.

Alao, A.O., Yolles, J.C & Huslander, W. (1999). Female genital self- mutilation. Psychiatric Services, 50, 971.

French, A.P.& Nelson, H.L. (1972). Genital self-mutilation in women. Archives of General Psychiatry, 27, 618.

Gersble, M.L., Guttmacher, A.F. & Brown, F. (1957). A case of recurrent malingered placenta praevia. Journal of Mount Sinai Hospital, 24, 641.

Goldfield, M.D. & Glick, I.R. (1970). Self-mutilation of the female genitalia: a case report. Diseases of the Nervous System, 31, 843.

Habek, D., Barbir, A., Galovic, J., Habek, J.C. et al. (2002). Autosection of the prolapsed uterus and vagina. European Journal of Obstetric, Gynecological and Reproductive Biology, 103, 99-100.

Krasucki, C, Kemp, R., & David A. (1995). A case study of female genital self-mutilation in schizophrenia. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 68, 179-186

Marckmann, S., Garlipp, P., Krampfl, K., & Haltenhof. H. (2005). Genital self-mutilation and erotomania. German Journal of Psychiatry. Located at: http://www.gjpsy.uni-goettingen.de

Simpson, M.A. & Anstee, B.H. (1974). Female genital self-mutilation as a cause of vaginal bleeding. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 50, 308-309.

Standage, K.F., Moore, J.A,. & Cole, M.G. (1974). Self-mutilation of the genitalia by a female schizophrenic. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 19, 17-20.

Wise, T.N., Dietrich, A.M. & Segall, E. (1989). Female genital self- mutilation: Case reports and literature review. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 15, 269-274