If you have watched Turkish TV anytime within the past two months, you have definitely seen ads for the series Kırmızı Oda. Alongside Masterchef, it is one of the most watched and discussed TV programs of the summer. Since the first episode aired on TV8 at the start of September, it has consistently topped the ratings. On YouTube alone Kırmızı Oda has upwards of 5, 6, 7 million views.
The show has an unusual format within a TV industry that focuses mostly on “rich girl-poor guy” love stories and narratives of our glorious Ottoman ancestors. The majority of Kırmızı Oda’s 2-plus hour episodes is taken up simply by talking.
The series focuses on a therapist and her patients. Binnur Kaya plays our “Ms. Doctor,” who works in a palatial building that contains the expensively decorated “Red Room” where she conducts her sessions. Yet these long and painfully drawn-out therapy sessions have clearly struck a chord with viewers. They tune in every week to hear a new story of trauma, violence, and abuse.
The person behind this TV success story is 73-year-old Dr. Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu. She studied psychiatry at the best schools in Ankara, worked as an announcer for Turkish state TV, and in addition to practicing and teaching, opened Ankara’s first private psychiatric center: Madalyon.
Beyond her professional life, Budayıcıoğlu is a best-selling author. She has written several books, including Madalyonun İçi, from which Kırmızı Oda was adapted for TV. As if this wasn’t enough, there are two other Budayıcıoğlu adaptations currently being shown on the small screen. She has made a fortune practicing psychiatry, writing about it, and now letting others make TV out of it.
It is not surprising that a figure like this would face heavy criticism. After all, the stories told every week on Kırmızı Oda are based explicitly on the stories told to Budayıcıoğlu by her patients. She claims that she received consent to reveal their darkest secrets to millions of eager readers and viewers, but we are forced to take her word for it. At the same time, being a celebrity shrink allows Budayıcıoğlu to charge 1,500 TL per session for therapy. Her fame has also allowed her to cozy up to media mogul Acun Ilıcalı and other people close to the government. There is a certain conservatism to her views. For example, she has called been gay a “sin” and an “extreme.”
According to a recent, hard-hitting review of Kırmızı Oda by Haziran Düzkan for the feminist website 5Harfliler, both this TV show and the state of psychiatry in Turkey show that “as a society, our mental health has been entrusted to a circus. And if this is indeed a circus, then it can be said that Budayıcıoğlu is its master illusionist. She takes a scientific discipline, a practice developed to help people, and turns it into an objective of consumption fit for conservative-neoliberalism.”
Beyond the ethical question of profiting off of your patient’s stories, there have also been accusations regarding the working conditions of junior psychiatrists at her private clinic. In May, Pınar Öğünç published an exposé featuring interviews with psychiatrists who describe low wages, abusive superiors, and excessive work hours. The story seemed to be about Budayıcıoğlu’s private psychiatric center Madalyon. After the article came out, 5 psychiatrists who worked there shared it on social media. They were promptly fired in a move that Budayıcıoğlu has subsequently defended.
According to Budayıcıoğlu herself, her main goal has always been to educate every level of society regarding mental health issues. For example, each episode of Kırmızı Oda begins with a statement about violence in society: “Most people who experience or witness physical or psychological violence will at some point either commit violence against others themselves or bring violent people into their lives.” It is hard to argue with this fact, but this opening message also declares that “neither laws nor harsh punishments” are enough to stop violence. As Düzkan rightly points out, this is a strange thing to argue at a time when activists are pushing for the Istanbul Convention to be implemented in the country and for rapists and murderers to stop going unpunished.
If one of Budayıcıoğlu’s goals is also to destigmatize therapy among the wider public, we must admit that Kırmızı Oda will give viewers a very warped idea of what occurs between therapist and patient. Binnur Kaya’s character has serious problems maintaining the professional and ethical stance of a licensed therapist. She sometimes scolds her patients, judges their life choices, or else drinks coffee with and sometimes even hugs them when they get sad. All these things can happen among friends, but certainly not with a therapist.
Since the pandemic began, levels of anxiety and depression are steadily increasing in Turkey. Domestic violence has long been on the rise. At a time like this, it is admirable to want to show the public that therapy is always a possibility. However, when the issues are as life-and-death as anxiety, depression, and abuse, it is important to offer a realistic portrayal, not a sensationalist one. Düzkan asks us to imagine women who has been abused and left alone with their traumas and fears watching this show:
“Watching Kırmızı Oda, they try to make sense of their feelings. What happened to me? Why is living this difficult for me? Why does the man who says he loves me beat me? Kırmızı Oda on TV8 promises answers to all of these questions. The show makes this promise while Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu becomes more famous every day and Acun is out there enjoying the fourth speedboat he bought this summer.”
Mental health should never be about fame or profit—the stakes are too high.