Under The Mask: The Psychology of Batman
What makes Dr. Letamendi’s approach to creating a safe conversational space for mental health so unique are the ties she creates between BTAS and the mental health world. Last week, I had the privilege of talking with her about the role she has created for herself with her podcast, alongside Ward.
The development of The Arkham Sessions posed a “chicken or egg” situation. Was it Dr. Letamendi’s affinity for mental health that lead her to create a safe haven for discussion through BTAS? Well, just as the idiom states that one can never have existed with out the other, so goes the creation of The Arkham Sessions. Dr. Letamendi shared how her childhood hero later transformed into a professional tool. “Growing up in the ’90s, I was a huge fan of BTAS,” she says. “I really immersed myself in the characters and really understood that Batman was, like many of us, human. He doesn’t have these amazing powers, like x-ray vision, or the ability to fly or heal. He’s not superhuman—he’s just human.” Fast-forwarding to last year, Letamendi tells how her now co-host Brian Ward helped spearhead the podcast, and conceptualize an approach that hasn’t been done time and time again after realizing what was so blatantly in front of them.
She says it started after she interviewed for a movie, A Necessary Evil; Super Villains of DC Comics. “When I was being interviewed, I was asked a lot of questions about the psychology of villains,” she says. “‘What makes them tick? What makes them evil?’ All really great questions. Brain pointed out that all my references were to the animated series. And, in fact, when they cut the documentary, they wound up using many clips and images from the animated series.” It was at that point that Ward suggested that Letamendi set a focus for a show, retelling the show and lifting the psychology out of the characters and examining topics such as the mental health and illnesses that present themselves in BTAS. When talking about Ward’s goal for the show, she says, “His vision was to give it a focus—a beginning, middle and end. He’s a producer, an editor, he has an amazing imagination and is very creative. He didn’t want to review each episode—that’s been done—he wanted to retell the story and assess the elements that hadn’t been covered in the last 30 years.”
During our discussion, I took an opportunity to express my appreciation for Letamendi’s approach at humanizing the villains, who often meet the criteria for many diagnoses. Taking away from the idea that “mental health” can only be observed negatively, she expressed her own concerns on the matter. “I worry that people think I am putting a negative light on mental heath problems or illness, that I could potentially be adding to the stigma, because these villains are having and meeting the same criteria that people in the community are meeting,” she says. “That’s not my intent. My intent is on increasing awareness about what the criteria is, and having a better understanding about how these villains got to where they are, to begin with.” She went on to say that, “If you watch the series, you’ll see that it’s hard for us to categorize them as villains, because their stories are meaningful insights to their actions, and that’s something I try to focus on.” While I have now become thoroughly addicted to the podcast, I suggested the possibility that The Arkham Sessions has become an educational source for those seeking alternatives to traditional textbook explanations of psychology and mental illness.
She shared her concerns about the multitudes who have also expressed the same sentiment. “The cartoon is for most ages, but when we are listing out these psychological themes, we’re talking about things that do require some sort of cognitive intelligence,” she says. “That would include not just explanations about mental health, but also correct labels, misconceptions about mental health and research. We talk a lot about the evidence out there. That helps us better understand mental health processes and mental health illness.” Something she explained should be taken into consideration and may not be within the grasp of younger children. She did go on to comment on the messaging of the animated series itself.
“One of the reasons I really like the animated series, apart from my analysis of it, is that it does give you the history and background and critical events that a villain might need to tell us about in order for us to understand where he or she is coming from, why he or she behaves the way that they do,” she says. “‘Birds of a Feather’ (Episode 48 of Under The Mask) is a really fascinating story, where Penguin is taken advantage of by two socialites of Gotham City who believed he was this spectacle, were very demeaning towards him, dehumanizing. They didn’t treat him like a human being. You don’t need me, as a psychologist, to tell you that can be very damaging to the way [someone] would then view society, and then in turn the way they behave towards others. I think the show itself can really tell those stories to children.”
With 85 episodes of BTAS, The Arkham Sessions is making a quick ascent to successfully completing analysis of the entire series. While she has received suggestions given to continue the podcast with other animated shows such as Justice League The Animated Series and Green Latern, Dr. Letamendi says, “Six months ago, I wouldn’t even be thinking about it. But, you’re right—we probably will be wrapping up at the end of the year. We haven’t made a decision yet, but we’re definitely open to continuing with the show in order to continue to talk about some of these topics and draw attention to, essentially, what the focus is of the show—mental health education and comic-related content.” She explained her initial reluctance at beginning the podcast, wondering whether it would be interesting enough.
Dr. Letamendi says, “At the end of the day, it’s a cartoon, but sure enough, we’re close to 50 episodes and there is always something new (to discuss)—Relationship issues coming up or between characters, new characters we haven’t seen before. It’s something that isn’t easy to do, but certainly has become natural, analyzing this fascinating, deep animated cartoon.” This new take on mental health analysis has moved not only the fandom of BTAS, but also made waves in the realm of Psychology as well. Dr. Letamendi has been featured in a variety of interviews including The Geek Speak Show, where she engages in the great “Star Trek versus Star Wars” debate. She joined The Badass Digest in discussing “The Fake Geek Girl,” and has been featured on sites such as UCLA Magazine Online and Mashable. Stop reading this article and go check out Under The Mask, where she examines psychological themes ranging from addiction to virtual realities.