Jonah Hill’s leaked messages betray more than just the mainstreaming of therapy-speak
When I was in college I ran with a crowd of student Marxists, which were predominantly comprised of cis-hetero men. They were a certain specimen of intellectual—highly sardonic, well-read in matters of theory and always locked and loaded with the right thing to say for every hot button issue on campus. Emancipatory, anti-capitalist language is hard to string into cohesive sentences, but these men did it with ease, which made them look like good men. It was hard to make a case for douchebaggery when they were quoting Gramsci and saying shit like “dialectic.”
It doesn’t take a lot for the veneer to fall away. Many of these men were cruel and misogynistic, mistreating their girlfriends while fronting as radicals. Their patterns of toxicity threatened to undercut the cause they claimed to side with, while silencing the women and queer folks in the party who were doing actual good work. Consider yourself blessed if you’ve never encountered this breed of bro—“brocialists,” we called them. But for sure, you’ve encountered this type of man; the kind that twists language and image to present himself as intelligent and mature, when he’s anything but. It’s a universal experience, found in any field, from doctors who save lives while belittling their assisting nurses, to photographers who claim to revere the human body while harassing their subjects.
So when Jonah Hill’s texts to ex-girlfriend and surfer Sarah Brady circulated, it was a familiar rage that collectively bubbled up. In a series of texts, we see Hill making pleas to Brady that trip over their own feet, asking her to stop “friendships with women who are in unstable places” and posting “sexual pictures” that could be just Brady wearing a bikini, qualifying these pleas by saying that “These are the boundaries for romantic partnership. My boundaries with you based on the ways these actions have hurt our trust.”
While we can’t claim to know the finer details of Jonah Hill and Sarah Brady’s relationship, the actor’s texts read like textbook subjugation, like when a controlling boyfriend asks you to wear something that shows less skin (germane to this discussion is Darius Jackson, acting a fool)—the language happens to be more sterile. It is embarrassing how painfully plain these requests betray a panicked mind rummaging through a file system of dry jargon, saying so much just to say nothing at all. This kind of language register can only exist in a cultural milieu where therapy-speak has become so commonly used, it becomes a replacement for actual communication. It certainly casts “Stutz,” the documentary directed by Hill in which the actor interviews his therapist, in a nauseating new light.
A relatively new phenomenon I've witnessed is people weaponizing therapy language to justify behavior that's non-compassionate, to legitimize their victimhood, or to avoid real self reflection about their harmful behaviors.
— Anna Akana (@AnnaAkana) September 11, 2020
Katy Waldman for The New Yorker acknowledges that with the rise of therapy-speak, we risk reducing complicated concepts to colloquialisms. “Using these words as bludgeons strips them of complexity,” Waldman writes. When was the last time you ran into the word “gaslight” when it wasn’t next to the words “gatekeep” and “girlboss?” Though mental health discourse has allowed us to grow our vocabularies to describe our pathologies, we constantly run the risk of misusing the terms we tend to hear being facetiously thrown around, like “neurodivergence,” “triggers,” “emotional labor,” and other terms that are perfectly fine in a glossary, but mutate when the creep into everyday conversation.
(Side note: one could make the case that Brady misuses the term “emotional abuse” when she refers to Jonah Hill’s texts. Still, I find that in cases like these, the heuristic to believe women, takes precedence over everything else.)
For Refinery29, Meg Walters writes: “Therapeutic language promises to tidy up all the mess that comes with human relationships into convenient little emotional boxes. In theory, there should be nothing wrong with this kind of emotional tidying.” Sometimes it’s easier to understand one’s self and others through the lens of shared traumas, or similar experiences of depression or anxiety. However, Walter cautions: “These kinds of therapy-speak phrases hint at something sinister. At its worst, therapy-speak allows us to arm ourselves with language that masquerades as a kinder, more empathetic form of communication, while in reality it is weaponized to excuse our most selfish choices.”
The internal monologue of people who wield therapy-speak in this way is easy to imagine: I’m already going to therapy. I’m using the right words. Surely, that means I’m a good man.
Walters puts it so well, to call this insipid communication trend “jargonistic pathologizing,” and it seems Jonah Hill has become the poster boy of it. However, our takeaway from Hill’s little break-up texts shouldn’t be that therapy-speak is bound to be weaponized, and that men should stop going to therapy. What a terrible diagnosis that would be. Better to say that therapy should be viewed as one means of self-actualization, and not some ultimate solution.
Instead—as sickening as it is to consider—we ought to reflect on whether we treat this kind of language with the deference it deserves, or if we wield it to avoid accountability for harmful behaviors and patterns. In order to not become the Jonah Hills who talk down to us, in order to not become the brocialists we despise, we have to be real with ourselves for a second.
Do you wield therapy-speak like them? Do you text like Jonah Hill?
Words Jam Pascual
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver