Freaky Friday: How to do Empathy, Even Without a Body Swap

Freaky Friday. Alternate title: Extreme Empathy.

Okay, not really. But, hey, it could work. More on that later.

There are four – yes, count it – four versions of Freaky Friday. Starting in 1976, with a 13-year-old Jodie Foster (!!!), and with three subsequent versions in 1995, 2003, and 2018.

Each different, but the basic blueprint is always the same: Mother and daughter magically switch bodies for one day. Hilarity ensues. Forced to see things from a different perspective, important lessons are learned.

We are going to focus on the 2003 treatment starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan. Without further ado….

Let’s get freaky

Tess Coleman (Curtis) is a stressed out psychologist trying to juggle work, family and upcoming marriage nuptials to her fiancé, Ryan (Mark Harmon), who is trying to connect with the kids.

Daughter Anna (Lohan) has her own life challenges – a teacher that seemingly has it out for her, a former friend turned nemesis, and, naturally, a mother that she believes is ruining her life. Not to mention a battle of the bands tryout that is – GASP – on the same night as mom’s wedding rehearsal. If she doesn’t make that, HER LIFE IS OVER.

Like all teens, Anna rebels. Although, this being a Disney movie, her moments of acting out amounts mostly to attitude, dress, and, as mom experiences through first hand (body?) experience, a belly button piercing. You know, acts of rebellion that, compared to real world scenarios, are a parent’s dream.

The movie works in large part due to the top notch acting. Curtis and Lohan are entirely believable and really sell it through small subtleties such as use of hands and vocal inflections. It’s a credit to both actresses that we never lose sight of the characters. It’s a fun, entertaining movie.

Cringey Friday

There are some scenes in Freaky Friday that are, well, freaky. For instance, Anna unsurprisingly has a crush on a boy named Jake (Chad Michael Murray). All is well with that little subplot, except for when she is heavily flirting with him … in her mom’s body. Granted, it is still technically a teen romance, but… *shudder*. Doubly awkward when Jake, thinking that Anna is actually the middle aged mom that her body portrays her to be, falls head over heels for her! Yikes, right?

The body switch happens when Tess and Anna are at a Chinese restaurant. The mother of the eatery’s owner overhears an argument between the two and, instantly recognizing the need for some much needed (extreme) empathy, offers up a little non-consensual magic via fortune cookie tray. The phrase “strange Asian voodoo” was actually used. The whole scene plays into some strong stereotypes (amongst others throughout the movie) and is far from the film’s finest moment. *cringe*

Despite this, the fortune cookie text is poetic and effectively sets up our characters on their empathetic journey.

The two read it together:

Anna and Tess: A journey soon begins...
Tess: ... its prize reflected in the other's eyes.
Anna: When what you see is what you lack...
Anna and Tess: ... then selfless love will turn you back.

It shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Tess is reminded that being a teenager isn’t a walk in the park and, likewise, Anna learns that being a single mother of two and “adulting” aren’t exactly the easiest skills to navigate.

No body switch required

Is there somebody in your life who you are having trouble understanding? Fortunately, we can also exercise empathy – no body switch required! But it will require you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. This requires imagination. Have a friend who has been laid off from work? Try to think of a time you have experienced your own career setback. How did you feel?

But beware! Being TOO empathetic and not practicing safe emotional boundaries can be unhealthy. This can happen when you are trying to empathize with a suffering person and taking on their emotions as your own. Caregivers and healthcare workers are especially susceptible to this. This practice is called empathy with distance.

Here is a fun exercise to do with your kids, as suggested by Nell Minow, aka the Movie Mom: Watch the movie together as a family. Discuss why Tess and Anna had such difficulty understanding each other at the beginning of the movie. Then, pretend you have to spend a day as other members of the family. What might you find most surprising?

Empathy improves relationships and, like Tess and Anna, will bring us closer together!

Let’s move

To recap:

  • Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes
  • Practice safe emotional boundaries
  • As a family, pretend what it might be like spending a day as a parent or sibling or child
  • Avoid those nasty stereotypes!

Freaky Friday is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

Freaky Friday (2003)

Director: Mark S. Waters

Screenplay: Heather Hach, Leslie Dixon

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsey Lohan, Mark Harmon, Ryan Malgarini

Rated: PG

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      1. Tanya

        Great post Scott! I loved this movie. Haha. Jamie Curtis: I’m old! Lindsey: I beg your pardon? Jamie: I’m like the cript keeper. Lol

        Good times. But yes, you definitely don’t need a body swap to practice empathy 🙂

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  1. Unwanted Life

    A good film that’s been reimagined a number of times.

    You’re right about boundaries, if you don’t have healthy ones set up and maintained properly, then empathy can cause you harm if it gets out of control

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