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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Pop Culture Fridays: The Fosters

Sometimes coming across a depiction of massage therapy in popular media can be about as rare as coming across a character with my first name…

I am Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB and this is Pop Culture Fridays!

Valentines Day is upon us and that means one thing to massage therapists… Couple’s Massages! That dreaded time of year where spas and employees are often overbooked, and schedules are confusing and hectic for two of the four weeks in February.

To take some of the stress out of this time of year, I wanted to take a look back at one of my favorite television programs and their episode that featured massage therapy- and Couple’s Massage in particular.

The Fosters was a family drama series on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) that lasted 5 seasons from 2013 to 2018. It follows the day to day lives of a multiethnic foster family led by a biracial lesbian couple and their five children.

In season two, the matriarchal heads of the family leave their eldest two teenagers in charge to spend a weekend getaway to celebrate Lena's recent pregnancy with a babymoon. As one of the moms puts it “it’s kinda like a honeymoon, only instead of going away after you get married, you go away after you get pregnant. Before there’s no more time for fun, or travel, or romance.”

In the episodes leading up to this, we are shown that their marriage is going through a rough patch as they struggle to connect to one another while also putting out the fires caused by their children’s stress inducing high jinks. This is further emphasized by Stef, the more strict and tough-love mama voicing displeasure with the hotel room and wanting to call the children to check in (even though, as her wife points out she just called from the car). Stef’s uptight attitude is further displayed when she keeps the other mom, Lena, from opening the min-fridge, saying that “we can’t afford to splurge right now.”

“I guess this wouldn’t be the best time to tell you about the couples massage I ordered?” Lena says meekly. And while Stef insists that its fine, it sends her immediately out to the grocery store and gives her an excuse to call the kids- abandoning the spouse she’s supposed to be reconnecting with.

Later on, after Stef gets back from her self-imposed mission. Stef and Lena are shown getting their couples massage (also known as tandem or unity massages to avoid the connotations associated with the label “couples”). They are outside, under a canopy, with the sunset and  Pacific Ocean in the background.

Stef, still clearly not in the mindset to relax her mind (and likely not her body either), engages in excessive chattiness with the therapist working with her. Asking questions like where the therapist is from, how long has she been in the Country, what made her come to America, does she have family here, does she have kids? And what started out as a clearly relaxing experience for Lena is quickly disturbed by Stef’s interrogation of her massage therapist, Inka.

When Inka makes the assumption that the two women are here on a girl’s getaway from their husbands, the couples massage takes an awkward turn.

“Actually, we’re a couple.” Stef tells her. “Hence the couples massage.”

Which gives both Lena and Stef’s therapists pause. And Stef’s therapist is visibly thrown off.

Trying to recover, Stef’s therapist says, “oh… oh, nice.” And Lena is left looking utterly annoyed.

There are a couple of things in this scene that really stick in my craw. While the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful and looks incredibly relaxing. A big pet peeve of mine is when massage is portrayed as this very light, all-over-the-place, thoughtless caricature of technique- I can’t fault the actors for that (although maybe I can… do you remember how well Steve Buscemi did in last month’s Pop Culture Friday? Buscemi ate that role up and clearly dedicated learning some techniques.)

And while tandem/unity/couple massages aren’t my favorite thing on a service menu, this perfectly displays many of them. First of which being, don’t just surprise your partner with a massage session booked for them at the last minute (unless you know very well that they are going to be excited and enthusiastic about begin on the table). Nobody likes to feel obligated to do something just because their significant other sprang it on them out of nowhere. And if a client doesn’t want to be on the table, it’s a waste of time, energy, and ultimately money for everyone involved.

Secondly, couples massages are so very difficult to provide optimal care for everyone involved- there are four people that have to be in the same room together for anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes. The more people in a massage room, the more opportunity for things to go wrong or dissatisfaction to take place. You also don’t want to be stuck in a situation like Lena found herself in, with her spouse being excessively chatty and keeping her from her own peace and relaxation.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a chatty client. In a massage session, we can talk as little or as much as each individual client would like. But what makes for an awkward hour for everyone is when one half of a couples massage is carrying on a full-blown conversation while the other half is struggling to get in their zen.

Finally, back in their hotel room, Stef asks Lena how her massage was.

To which Lena just nonchalantly responds that it was “pretty good” (which incidentally is how I would probably describe it based on how it looked). Then, somewhat snidey, “how about you, how was your interview with Inka?” Pointing out their increasing divide as a couple in that Stef seemed more interested in Inka’s life story than anything she’s had to say lately.

Stef gets defensive, that she was just making conversation.

To which Lena scoffs and asks incredulously, “during a couples massage?”

And again, this isn’t to judge Stef and how she chose to spend her table time. Sometimes conversation and chatting with the practitioner helps clients relax or at least begin to trust their therapist. I personally prefer and am used to working in silence, but at the end of the day- it’s not my table time nor my preferences that really matter. It just goes to prove that you should really give a lot of thought to how your partner would react to and behave during a massage session (especially if you totally blindside them with it)!

Stef eventually laughs it off, “but as soon as she (Inka) heard we were a couple of lesbians that shut her up, didn’t it?”

Which goes to the mistake the therapist made. A professional shouldn’t make any assumptions, and especially shouldn’t vocalize them to the clients. And why the term “couples massage” is problematic for modern day. I’ve worked with all kinds of combinations of tandem massages- parents and child, same-sex couples, siblings, cousins, friends, co-workers… you name it! In this day and age, massage therapists should be in a habit of using more inclusive language (instead of “husbands”, Inka could have used “spouses”, if she’s going to bring it up at all) and not changing the way they interact with clients who are different from them (or different from what we expect from our clients).

Overall, this isn’t a great representation of best practices in massage therapy. But it is a beautiful space for massage (oceanside with the sunset!) and illustrates some real considerations one should keep in mind when booking a couples (or tandem/unity) massage.

Accompanying Vlog:


Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB


What about you? What are your favorite (or least favorite) representations of massage therapy in pop culture? Let me know in the comments below.

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