The Royal Tenenbaums: Psychosocial Development, Case Study Example
Words: 3551Case Study
Models of resilience in family therapy seek to model how the various family members interact in ways that either promote or undermine resilience and overall functioning. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) presents the case of an extremely dysfunctional family of child prodigies turned troubled, and largely washed up and stunted, adults. The many dysfunctions and neuroses of the grown children Margot, Richie, and Chas can largely be explained by the neglectful and absentee behavior of their rakish, narcissistic father, Royal Tenenbaum. Royal’s change of heart and attempts to redeem himself serve as the catalyst for the resolution of much of the family’s dysfunctions.
Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum is a man driven by a profound need to seek some kind of atonement with his estranged family. As a younger man Royal left his own wife and three children, only to have a change of heart late in life. But, being Royal Tenenbaum, his idea for reaching out to his family after 22 years entails lying to them: he tells them he has terminal cancer, and attempts to use this in order to gain their sympathies (“Psychological,” n.d.). He left the family originally after his wife took exception to his “philandering, lying, and general scumbaggery,” and he remains very much the rake (Barsanti, 2012). Nonetheless, he genuinely wants his family to forgive him and accept him, and this drives the entire movie.
Royal is in the life stage of later adulthood to elderhood. Following Newman and Newman (2012), a major developmental task of later adulthood is the search for meaning on a personal level, which centers on a need for acceptance of one’s life (pp. 528-529). This is very obviously what Royal is trying to do in his own way: after having spent much of his life at odds with his family, having left them and seriously hurt them in many ways even before leaving, Royal is seeking to make some kind of amends. “Can’t somebody be a shit for their whole life, and then try and repair the damage?” he asks (qtd. in Mottram, 2007, p. 342).
This is Royal’s psychological crisis: the realization that he has been a terrible father and husband, one who has deeply scarred his own family. Even—or especially—in his modus operandi of return, Royal manages to continue much of his self-centered, tactless, manipulative behavior: he manipulates their sympathies with an outright lie about cancer, using this to effectively intrude into their lives in a way that comes off as quite thoughtless (Perkins, 2012, p. 91). The very reason he steps back into their lives is learning that his wife has become involved with another man, and the fact that he himself has run out of money (Zee, n.d.). However, Royal becomes truly sincere in his desire to right the wrongs he has committed: in fact, as the story progresses he becomes increasingly committed to this. As Zee explains, by the time Etheline discovers his ruse and kicks him out, Royal has effectively captured viewer sympathies. “Look, I know I’m going to be the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life,” Royal says, just as he’s being kicked out of the house after his ruse has been discovered (IMDB, n.d.).
Royal’s actions are comprehensible through the SOC model of adaptation (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 529). The first element of this model is selection, wherein the individual must decide exactly which activities or opportunities they wish to prioritize (p. 529). For Royal, being reconciled to his family is the overarching imperative, which he has made his number one priority. Within this, he must try particularly hard to repair his relationships with both Chas (Ben Stiller) and his adopted daughter (as he never tires of reminding her) Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston).
The second part of the model is optimization (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 529). With optimization, the individual must decide how they will allocate resources in order to best achieve functioning in whatever it is they are trying to do (p. 529). An obvious example concerns Royal’s relationship with Chas, a one-time financial genius and breeder of peculiar Dalmatian mice: the two were especially antagonistic, given that Royal stole money from Chas, and Chas later sued Royal twice and had him disbarred (IMDB). The third stage is compensation: carrying out the plan by using the resources allotted to attempt to rectify the negative effects of whatever the individual is adapting to (p. 529).
Applying this model, Royal realizes that Chas is hurting, both from the damage that Royal himself inflicted on him, and due to being bereaved after his wife’s death. As a result, Chas has become paranoid about looking after his two sons, Ari and Uzi. “Chas has those boys cooped up like a pair of jackrabbits, Ethel,” Royal states (IMDB, n.d.). Ethel states that Chas has his reasons, to which Royal replies: “Oh, I know that, but you can’t raise boys to be scared of life. You gotta brew some recklessness into them” (IMDB, n.d.). This, of course, is the lead-in for Royal to attempt to make things better by spending time with Chas’s sons, his grandsons—by taking them out to go shoplifting (Mottram, 2007, p. 345; Zee, n.d.). This is a clear demonstration of both optimization and compensation.
Royal’s selfish behavior seems largely to be the result of personal choices and dispositions. The fact that he was a lawyer certainly invokes many jokes about the profession, given that Royal is utterly self-centered, ambitious, devious, conniving, manipulative, and completely impervious to the effects of his actions on other people—until he has a change of heart, of course. In many ways, it is circumstances that propel him toward personal revelation, since again, the catalyst for his ruse is exactly the sort of thing that one would expect would motivate such a character: he learns his wife has taken up with another man, and he himself has run out of money. However, as he spends time with his family and starts to see the effects of his actions, his desire to try to set things right solidifies and intensifies.
Royal reaches the next stage—death—by the film’s end. He has, in the end, achieved his objective of making things right with his family. While most of them would probably not have mourned him even a short time before, the degree to which he has been reconciled to them makes his passing an occasion of bereavement for all of them. The family will have to adapt to deal with Royal’s passing, a process that will take time. However, in making things right with his family, Royal has done a surprising amount to help equip them to move forward with their lives: not just their lives after him, but also in terms of where they were. He has—finally—gotten out of the way of Ethel and her new fiancé Henry. Every single one of the younger adults—not only his children but also Eli and even Raleigh, Margot’s husband-then-ex-husband—is able to move on in some way.
Royal’s and Etheline’s son Chas is another quite interesting character in the film, one with a great deal of issues. At a young age, Chas became a successful entrepreneur, one who bred a strain of Dalmatian mice that made him very wealthy (Mottram, 2007, pp. 343-344). While he remains eminently successful as a businessman, Chas has been deeply affected by the loss of his wife in a plane crash: he has developed a rather acute case of paranoia about the safety of his sons, Ari and Uzi. This phobia has motivated him to engage in truly bizarre behavior: he and his sons wear matching red track suits, the better to identify each other in a crowd, and he regularly makes them conduct fire drills, in order to ensure that they will be safe if a fire should take their building (Browning, 2011, pp. 39-40; Mottram, 2007, p. 345). Chas is living in perpetual panic, and is doing his damnedest to make sure his sons are living the same way. In fact, when he moves back into the Tenenbaum family home, he immediately advocates for the installation of a sprinkler system—in case of fire (p. 40).
Chas is a widower, at an unusually young age, and this explains a great deal of his behavior. He has been bereaved, and he has responded with paranoia about his sons’ safety. This is quite understandable: having lost someone so important to him, Chas is obsessed with trying to prevent losing his beloved sons. His being a father is perhaps the single most important aspect of his life: that social role drives, or at least significantly influences, a great deal of his behavior. His feelings of insecurity also seem to be solidly grounded in his childhood experiences: in one particularly memorable and awful scene, Royal shoots a young Chas with a BB gun. This event was very hurtful to the young Chas, because it left him with a feeling of betrayal (Zee, n.d.).
As Newman and Newman (2012) explained, a growing literature is recognizing the importance of fatherhood, and the roles that men adopt on becoming fathers (pp. 498-499). As a father, Chas clearly derives personal and emotional fulfillment from his relationships with his sons (p. 499). Indeed, his dysfunctional behavior—his over-protectiveness—is motivated both by his own experiences and by his love for them. With the loss of his wife, Chas now bears sole responsibility for raising his sons, a challenging and difficult responsibility.
Taken together with the fact that he and Margot were clearly less favored by Royal than was Richie, not to mention his father stealing money from him, Chas has obviously internalized the idea that the world is a hostile, scary place (Zee, n.d.). Having come to maturity with such a deeply damaged psyche, it is small wonder that Chas’s subsequent loss of his wife has pushed him to such extremes. It is also very understandable why forgiving his father is the last thing Chas wants to do: this is the man who taught him about betrayal, hurt, and all the things that have made his world a lonelier, scarier, more hostile place.
Mottram (2007) observed that all three of the Tenenbaum children—Chas, Margot, and Richie—are, in some sense, in a state of arrested development (p. 345). The combination of being youthful prodigies and having had such a tumultuous home life thanks to their father has effectively stunted all of them (p. 345). A giveaway is their apparel: all three of them are shown, as adults, wearing clothing similar to what they wore as children (p. 345). When not wearing a red track suit to ensure that his sons can find him in a crowd, Chas sports exactly the same kind of business suit he wore as a teenager (p. 345).
Where Chas is much more successful is in the area of his career. He has been an entrepreneur for much of his life, and alone among the Tenenbaum children-plus-Eli he remains a success in the very field in which he became a youthful prodigy. While this is clearly hollow in light of his personal troubles and traumas, it is still a significant achievement from a developmental perspective (Newman & Newman, 2012, pp. 484-486). His work seems to be of the type that involves a high degree of substantive complexity, that is to say, “thought, independent judgment, and frequent decision making” (p. 486).
Still, Chas’s overall picture is unquestionably one of stagnation (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 515). Until he makes peace with his father, he is effectively a prisoner of his own damaged psyche and the loss of his wife. His difficulty in overcoming these personal issues leaves him in a state of personal stagnation, limiting his social and emotional possibilities. Although he is still a successful businessman, the fact that he moves back into his childhood home, coupled with every other aspect of his behavior, clearly evinces a lack of healthy, normal social relationships with other adults. This explains the rather poor character of his person-environment interactions: for Chas, the external environment is a place of fear and insecurity, one that has taken so much from him already (p. 516).
Chas is able, however, to make peace with his father. This is a particularly important and liberating development for him, because it provides the key to resolving his paranoia. Royal was the reason that Chas internalized a view of the world as a fearful place of betrayal, hurt, and loss. But that loss has been filled, filled in a way that seems to evince a much better life for Chas and his boys. Going forward, Chas will probably become a much healthier, more social and outgoing person, which will help his relationships with his siblings, as well as a much better father to his sons. As he ages, he will transition in time to later adulthood, and Ari and Uzi will become the young adults of the Tenenbaum family. Chas’s character changes will probably not only help them to develop in a more healthy manner, but also give them a great deal of perspective on his psyche. It may help them to become more critical thinkers, if they see their father admitting the error of his ways.
Margot is perhaps the most interesting case of all. The adopted daughter of Royal and Ethel, this status of hers is important, both because Royal is constantly reminding her of it and because it features prominently in a significant plot point. Margot was the troubled one as a youngster: Royal’s lack of fatherliness toward her contributes to her delinquency, including a smoking habit she takes up at twelve, running away from school at the age of fourteen, and a secret marriage at the age of nineteen (Browning, 2011, p. 43). These actions are entirely comprehensible as manifestations of Margot’s angst and almost certainly depression, both of which are quite common in adolescents of this age, although usually not to such a degree (Newman & Newman, 2012, pp. 363-364). Her use of cigarettes, prohibited for minors, evinces not only a willingness to flout authority (a typical adolescent desire) but also a need for experimentation (also quite typical).
The fact that Margot married so young may also indicate that she felt a strong need for belonging with someone else, doubtless a legacy of her own troubled childhood (Newman & Newman, 2012, pp. 390-392). It may also indicate that she thought of herself as being more grownup than she was in fact: since marriage is a very “grownup” thing to do, Margot may have done it at least in part as a gesture of autonomy and self-sufficiency—even though, of course, marriage is supposed to signal a decrease of the same (pp. 391-393). In American culture, nineteen is a very young age at which to get married, so it is probable that she was acting on a mixture of very strong emotions of attachment to the person in question, as well as desires for autonomy and self-sufficiency, etc. (pp. 391-393).
Margot’s area of proficiency as a youngster was playwriting, a craft in which she excelled, although sadly, at the time the film begins, she has not written a complete play in seven years (Perkins, 2012, p. 86). Like Chas and like Richie, Margot is stuck, and as with both of them, this is signaled in her attire. As a child, she wore a zebra costume; as an adult, she wears a fur coat, “as well as the blue and white horizontal-striped Le Coste dress and black loafers” (Mottram, 2007, p. 345). She wears her hair in the same style, with identical red plastic clip, and black eye shadow, completing the effect (p. 345). Like both of her siblings, Margot is experiencing arrested development: her growth as a person was stunted by the mixture of dizzying success as an adolescent and having an absent and neglectful father.
From the perspective of fulfillment theory, Margot is having trouble finding fulfillment in life. She has not completed a play in years, and she is married to a man—Raleigh (Bill Murray)—she does not love (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 433). She seems to lack competence motivation, despite the fact that she is extremely competent, evincing shortcomings in terms of her self-acceptance and self-actualization (p. 433). Between these factors and her family history, it is perhaps not too surprising that Margot has had such a turbulent history with respect to the formation of intimate relationships.
Margot appears to be having trouble finding genuine intimacy (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 468). Her marriage to Raleigh is a sham, and it takes most of the movie—plus a suicide attempt by Richie—for her and Richie to admit their feelings for each other. She is isolated, and this is her key crisis, because she does want intimacy (pp. 467-468). Her seminal problem, then, is to figure out what it will take for her to be able to be truly intimate. A big part of this is the right person, Richie, but her relationship with her father is also pivotal. Royal has made Margot feel marginalized and like an outsider for her whole life: he is always reminding her she is adopted, and he has generally treated her very poorly. The fact that he is able to repair his relationship with her is integral to her finding happiness and fulfillment.
Like Chas, Margot has stagnated. Her career has stalled, and she is in a sham marriage. Her seamy past is a closely-guarded secret. The effects of Royal’s calamitous fatherhood have taken a considerable toll on her: they explain her inability to find a solid attachment with a partner, as well as her protracted writer’s block. Developmentally speaking, she needs to resolve her underlying psychological issues before she can truly progress, either personally or career-wise. Resolving those issues is therefore her character arc.
Margot’s status as adopted daughter is significant to the quasi-incestuous relationship she has with Richie, which itself is part of what seems to be a love quadrangle—Margot, her husband Raleigh, Eli, and Richie (Perkins, 2012, p. 91). Of course, there is a parallel between her situation and Etheline’s courtship with Henry: in both cases, a lover—a husband, actually—must decide that they need to step aside and not get in the way of their wives’ happiness (p. 91). Her rather seamy past—including affairs with many men—drives Richie to attempt to take his own life. But in this failed suicide attempt is a second chance for Richie and Margot, one that results in them finally admitting that they love each other (Browning, 2011, p. 45; Mayshark, 2007, pp. 130-131).
By movie’s end, Margot too has made peace with Royal. At the beginning of the movie, she was in a loveless marriage and had not written a complete play for years. By the end of the movie, she is with Richie, a man she loves and who loves her in return. This resolves her intimacy issues: she is finally able to be honest about what—and whom—she wants. However belatedly, she has come to find fatherly love from Royal, which proves important for her healing and general wellbeing. This also opens the door for her to resolve her issues with respect to her career. Going forward, Margot will probably have a much more fulfilling life in every respect: her writer’s block at an end, she is writing again, and she has found love. Over time, she and Richie will become the elder generation of the Tenenbaum family, and pass on the value of their experiences to the next generation.
From a structural-functionalist perspective, the Tenenbaum family utterly failed to properly socialize Margot, Chas, and Richie—or rather, Royal failed (Rasheed, Rasheed, & Marley, 2011, p. 15). Similarly, from a symbolic interactionist standpoint, Royal failed to mold them into individuals with healthily-formed selves, capable of effective and fulfilling social interaction (p. 15). However, the beauty of the film is the ways in which Royal is able to, however belatedly, atone for his many failings. From the perspective of family therapy, the Tenenbaum family is a family of individuals who are for the most part extremely damaged. However, all of the Tenenbaum children, as well as Eli, are able to resolve their issues, thanks to Royal’s determination to make things right. While reality might seldom provide such neat resolution, it is nonetheless an interesting film from a therapeutic standpoint, one that captures both the sources of poor family dynamics, and some ways in which they can be resolved.
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