Narcissistic Parents as Depicted in Film and Television
Narcissist Personality Disorder is a personality disorder that renders a person incapable of kindness, compassion, empathy, and love. Such people are only capable of caring about themselves, and as a result, they see other people as objects to use, rather than fully autonomous human beings.
Narcissists can be lovers, friends, extended family members, or parents. They can be overt (obviously sick and cruel) or covert (wearing a false mask of niceness). However, one thing all narcissists have in common is that they are incredibly dangerous individuals. They know how to brainwash and manipulate people, to the point that they can ruin lives. If you find yourself subject to narcissistic abuse, the only solution is to get as far away from them as possible, while cutting all contact.
I myself was raised by a narcissistic mother, which was the inspiration for this article. Talking about this form of abuse is really cathartic since I have suffered it, and so here I am.
The more I learn about NPD, more themes of it become obvious in my favorite films and television shows. So why not share?
Queen Mab from "Merlin"
Merlin was a 1998 miniseries that presented a new take on the Authorian legends. In it was a character named Queen Mab. Played by Miranda Richardson, she was the main antagonist of the series, constantly going out of her way to thwart the efforts of the wizard, Merlin (Sam Neill).
Queen Mab was selfish, cruel, completely lacking in empathy, and only cared about herself. She only saw other people as tools she could use for her own survival.
She was a classic narcissist.
When Queen Mab begins to realize that her subjects are no longer worshiping her (narcissists thrive on worship and adulation), she panics, realizing that she will disappear unless she can make people worship her again.
As I said above, the only way to deal with a narcissist is simply to ignore them. If you try to fight them, you only give them what they need to thrive: attention.
What's more, you can't win against them in a head-on fight because they are master manipulators. This is something that Merlin has to learn the hard way throughout the miniseries.
Merlin initially hates Mab because she used his mother to create him and then callously let her die (once again, zero empathy). She then killed Merlin's adoptive mother, and spends the rest of the miniseries trying to make Merlin obey her and fall under her control.
Narcissistic parents thrive on being able to control their children. A lot of them bring children in the world specifically to suit their purposes. Narcissists who do this usually want a person they can brainwash into a personal slave. Someone who will love them unconditionally, obey them, will be helpless to escape, and will grow up learning that abuse is love.
Basically, a child is the perfect victim of a narcissist.
Queen Mab created Merlin specifically for the purpose of bringing her subjects back to her temples. When Merlin rejected her path and chose his own way, she viewed it as the ultimate offense and declared him an enemy.
Narcissists do not see other people as autonomous human beings. They see us as extensions of themselves. Queen Mab brought Merlin into the world and attempted to shape his personality for him, imposing her own personality in an attempt to use him. It never occurred to her that he would grow up, go his own way, and make his own choices, and when he tried to, he was punished again and again.
Narcissists are also famous for throwing childish tantrums (feet stomping and screaming) when you refuse to obey them. This is known as Narcissistic Rage, and we see Queen Mab do it a few times in the miniseries. There is more than one incident where she just starts screaming like a child, sometimes bellowing out Merliin's name.
In the end, after struggling against Queen Mab for the duration of the miniseries, Merlin finally understands that the only way to stop her . . . is to ignore her.
After the climatic battle where Author and his son, Mordred, slay each other, a fed up Merlin turns his back to Queen Mab and simply ignores her. The rest of the kingdom does the same . . .until she disappears.
The Mega Beast from "Drop Dead Fred"
Drop Dead Fred is a 1991 black comedy film about a woman named Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates), who was emotionally (and sometimes physically) abused by her narcissistic mother as a child. Because she was often isolated and unhappy, she was visited by her imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall).
Elizabeth's mother, Marsha Mason (aka the Mega Beast), was a classic narcissist. She completely lacked empathy for her daughter, was even jealous of her, and as a result, frequently said cruel and appalling things in order to chip away at her self-esteem.
Narcissistic parents do this to their children because a child who is emotionally crippled is easy to brainwash and control. The narcissistic parent has a fierce need to control their child because they are terrified of being alone. To a narcissist, being alone and ignored is the worst fate they could ever endure.
This even becomes apparent at the end of the film when Elizabeth finally has the strength to leave her mother. Her mother turns on the crocodile tears and exclaims, "Don't go! I'll be lonely!" Elizabeth hugs her mother goodbye and says, "Then get yourself a friend" before finally walking out the front door and setting herself free.
I think because I grew up in a similar situation, I really fell in love with this film. To me, I was Elizabeth, trying to break free of an abusive and controlling mother who could only see me as a tool to stroke her own ego and an extension of herself.
With Elizabeth and Marsha, it's the exact same way. At one point in the film, Marsha even gets Elizabeth a makeover, turning her into a younger version of herself.
Mother Gothel from "Tangled"
Tangled is a 2010 Disney film based on the fairy tale of Rapunzel. In this version, Mother Gothel is depicted as a cruel, self-absorbed monster who isolates Rapunzel, while routinely belittling her and stifling her potential as a human being . . . basically a narcissist.
Because I was in the middle of being abused in the same way, I think I sat through the first fifteen minutes of the film before I decided I couldn't go on. I knew exactly the sort of relationship Disney was trying to portray because I could see my mother in Mother Gothel and myself in poor, clueness Rapunzel.
What was really painful to see was the fact that Rapunzel had no idea she was being abused and manipulated by someone she loved and trusted. She was raised from the cradle by this woman, after all, and when a person is kept in isolation, they have no way of knowing what is normal. Someone in this situation would grow up thinking abuse was love. And the narcissist isolates their victim for this express purpose.
It really is just purely evil.
For instance, Rapunzel is so oblivious to her own abuse, she has no idea that she is supposed to be wearing shoes. You ever see pictures of old slaves in America? What do they have in common? They're usually not wearing shoes. This was done to keep them from running away. (And yes, I'm aware that it was done to pretty much all slaves throughout history. I'm using American slaves because my audience is primarily American and would be familiar with them.)
Rapunzel is a prisoner mentally and physically. She's a slave. She serves Mother Gothel emotionally and domestically, while never receiving any of that love and care in return. In this manner, she learns that love is conditional and that she must earn it through being an obedient servant. That she runs into the arms of another narcissist after this (Flynn) isn't shocking at all.
Sorry, but I hated Flynn the second I heard his voice. To be fair, I know I didn't even finish the movie, but reading reviews of the film later made it obvious to me that he was just another toxic Disney "prince." In this case, he was a narcissist, just not as malignant as Mother Gothel.
If you go Google it, you'll find a lot of people who agree with me that Flynn is a terrible guy, and yet his behavior -- rather than being called out as reprehensible -- is depicted as normal. Makes me glad I never finished the film.
Baroness Rodmilla from "Ever After"
1998's Ever After is one of my favorite takes on the classic fairy tale Cinderella. The Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Angelica Houston) was the "evil stepmother" of the film . . .and she was a narcissist.
So was her daughter, Marguerite de Ghent (Megan Dodds). In fact, they were both covert narcissists, the type of narcissists who know how to wear a mask of niceness while charming people in public, but once they get behind closed doors, the monster comes out.
The mother and daughter were completely and utterly selfish and lacked empathy for everyone, even each other. They both used each other to gain riches and prestige by manipulating other courtiers. They also both enjoyed verbally, emotionally abusing Danielle (aka "Cinderella" played by Drew Barrymore), as well as the baroness' other daughter, Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey).
Narcissists usually save their most vile behavior for people they are envious of, and the baroness and her daughter were both envious of Danielle. As a result, they turned her into their domestic slave, while daily insulting her and keeping her isolated from the outside world.
Danielle is smart enough to play a manipulation game of her own, often tricking the baroness into thinking she has full control, while pretending to be helpless and stupid and in need of her care.
Stroking a narcissist's ego and making them think you adore them is probably the easiest way to survive a situation where you can't simply move out of their house. Otherwise, anytime a narcissist feels their self-worth and esteem is threatened, they will fly into a Narcissistic Rage.
While watching a grown-ass person throw a hissy fit can be hilarious, these fits can often turn into real violence for the narcissist's victim.
The baroness' daughter is given to tantrums. At one point in the film, Marguerite throws a crazy fit, then sits down and says sweetly,"There was a bee."
Narcissists also love drama and they love to argue, so arguing with them is always going to be pointless. While you are angry and yelling and hurt, they are silently celebrating the fact that they got under your skin.
At one point in the film, Danielle finally gets fed up enough to call Marguerite a "fat, selfish cow!" If you pay close attention, the baroness has a little smile on her lips while Danielle is screaming at the top of her voice. It is because she is enjoying the fact that Danielle has been so hurt by what she and Marguerite have done.
Without a conscience or a care in the world, the baroness and her daughter psychologically tortured everyone they could in their household without even blinking.
Sometimes I feel narcissists are like cats torturing a live mouse.
The Other Mother from "Coraline"
Coraline is a 2009 stop-motion animation film based on the children's book of the same name. It's about a lonely little girl named Coraline (Dakota Fanning) whose loneliness and isolation drives her into a codependent relationship with the Other Mother (Teri Hatcher), a supernatural being known as the Beldam.
I see the Other Mother as a narcissist because she has all the classic traits of a covert.
- She knows how to pretend to be nice in order to lure her victims in.
- She has a complete lack of empathy and sees other people as objects she can use.
- She thinks giving Coraline basic food and clothes and spoiling her with candy and desert is "love."
- She collects the souls of children and keeps them wretched and trapped for her own purposes, which is basically what narcissist parents do to their children depicted in a very literal sense.
- She has temper tantrums when she can't get Coraline to obey her, transforming into a monster when she's angry. This one in particular stands out to me, since a narcissistic parent throwing a wild toddler's tantrum can be horrifying to a child who is small and helpless against them. The Other Mother's witch form symbolizes this.
I have to admit, the one thing that bothers me about narcissist portrayals in fiction is that they are almost always women. But NPD is a personality disorder, and as such, it is no respecter of biological sex.
Plenty of men have NPD as well. Which brings me to the next film on our list.
Vernon Dursley from "Harry Potter"
The "Harry Potter" books came out when I was a little kid, and I connected to them immediately because I saw so much of myself in Harry. I, too, was being abused. I, too, was being kept locked away, screamed at, shoved around, with no one to talk to but spiders. Because of this, I must've read the first book, Sorcerer's Stone (US title), about fifty million times.
Vernon Dursley was clearly a narcissist, while Aunt Petunia was what is known as an "Enabler."
Enablers tend to look the other way when narcissists are abusing their victim and/or they help the narcissist continue to abuse. They do this because they, too, are sick people and look to the narcissist for approval.
Petunia hated Harry because she was jealous of his mother and her magic, and also because hating him was a way to bond with her husband and secure his love.
Vernon, meanwhile, has no reason whatsoever to hate and despise Harry the way he does. He does it simply because he's is self-centered and completely lacks empathy for others. In other words, he is a narcissist, and Dudley is his "Golden Child."
A Golden Child is basically the child the narcissist parent has selected to represent everything they want to be. The narcissist parent then lives vicariously through this child, who can do no wrong.
So we have this dynamic where Dudley is the praised, spoiled Golden Child, while Harry is what is known as the "Scapegoat," the child who takes all the abuse and blame.
It's funny in the sixth book (I think it was the sixth book) when Dumbledore calls the Dursleys out for being monsters who failed to love Harry and who also turned their son, Dudley, into a monster.
What's amazing about Dudley, though, is that he eventually gains some self-awareness. In one of the final books, he apologizes to Harry and they part on good terms.
Dudley actually grew and changed, learned from his mistakes, and tried to be a better person. This means that he did not develop a personality disorder, instead developing some humanity: empathy and compassion for others.
I always liked that.
It's Not Just Fiction
I could continue on with movies like Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, Matilda, Single White Female, The Good Son (1993), or Snow White, but I think you get the point. Also, this article is long enough as it is.
It's amazing -- no, it's terrifying to think that these cartoony evil people actually exist in real life, but they most certainly do. If you had great parents who loved you, nurtured you, and cherished you, then count yourself lucky.
And please think twice about judging someone who grew up in an abusive home and was given no choice but to walk away.
© 2019 Ash