Jonah Hill in "You People"
Jonah Hill in "You People"

Jonah Hill’s therapy-speak exposes the dark side of the Nice Jewish Boy

This story was originally published in the Forward.

Jonah Hill is being canceled. It feels sort of surprising; the actor and director has spent the past several years cultivating an image centered around self-work and self-care, talking publicly about issues such as anxiety, mental health and his struggles with body image. We stan a progressive king, right? He’s the iconic Nice Jewish Boy: a little neurotic, a little nebbish, but funny, successful and self-aware, and working on himself in therapy to boot. He even made a documentary about his therapist.

But Hill’s ex-girlfriend, surfer Sarah Brady, released screenshots of alleged texts between the two in which Hill demanded that she stop posting pictures of herself in bathing suits online and policed her friendships with both men and women, saying that Brady’s decisions to surf with men and post pictures in swimsuits violated his boundaries for a romantic relationship. Brady accused Hill of gaslighting and controlling her, calling him a misogynist.

“This is a warning to all girls,” she wrote on Instagram. “If your partner is talking to you like this, make an exit plan.”

People on both sides are up in arms. Some say that Brady’s screenshots reveal clear abusive behavior. Others argue that Hill sounds calm and reasonable, and is simply asking for the things he wants in a relationship — after all, don’t therapists usually encourage people to advocate for their needs? Aren’t boundaries a good thing?

It’s a given, at least online, that #AllMenNeedTherapy; the hashtag has nearly 10 million views on TikTok alone. “Men would rather ___ than go to therapy” is an inescapable meme on Twitter. Therapy can fix people, and if you go, you’re probably a better person, or so the logic goes.

On dating apps, men brag about being in therapy; they know it’s desirable. It’s a way to signal that you’re not like the other guys. It’s a way to show you’re emotionally open and have #donethework. It’s a way to get more right-swipes.

The Nice Jewish Boy, at least stereotypically, was way ahead on this trend. Jews have long been in therapy and talked about being in therapy. It’s one of the things that makes the Nice Jewish Boy, well, nice. As one screenshot shows Hill saying: “I literally am the best boyfriend. On earth.”

But the more therapy becomes meme-ified and nearly deified in its fundamental goodness — and the more non-professionals use what has become known as therapy-speak — the more it becomes corrupted. Terms like “boundaries” and “triggering” are so loaded with therapeutic authority that they’ve become like cheat codes, leveraged to legitimize nearly anything and convey authority. But they’ve also been sapped of all nuance. If someone says you’re violating their boundaries, it implies their request must be reasonable — and that your needs must be harmful. After all, some therapist on TikTok or Instagram said boundaries are essential to healthy relationships.

In the screenshots, Hill repeatedly tosses out therapy vocabulary. Though he repeatedly says that he “respects” her love of surfing and her friendships, he also says that his “boundaries” require that she not and that her doing so is “triggering.”

But, as numerous therapists have reminded readers since the news broke, the therapeutic concept of boundaries refers to decisions you apply to yourself, not to other people. The issue isn’t the boundaries themselves — it’s his deployment of them. None of these terms are meant to be conversation-ending bludgeons; they’re meant to enhance communication.

“It’s important that we go over this misuse of therapy language, which is kind of a thing these days, and how it can be super problematic,” said Jeff Guenther, a licensed therapist, in an Instagram video about Hill.

“It masks controlling behavior under a commonly accepted positive concept, in this case boundaries, making it harder for the person on the receiving end — Sarah — to challenge it.” (Guenther’s popular Instagram and TikTok accounts ironically have almost certainly contributed to the rise of therapy-speak.)

Of course, it’s extremely possible to take text screenshots out of context. Everyone has bad moments in relationships, and, so far, we have only heard Brady’s side of the story. But the drama has opened an important dialogue about the misuse of therapeutic terms to manipulate or control others.

Therapy is meant to help people work on themselves; it is not a magic wand that creates perfected, actualized people. There’s no perfect set of ingredients to make a Nice Jewish Boy. Or the best boyfriend. On earth.

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.