Anybody who has ever seen Punch Drunk Love will obviously be aware that Adam Sandler’s character, Barry, functions as the scapegoat in his family. The scapegoat is a term used to describe the outcast in a Narcissistic family unit. A narcissist thrives on triangulating individual family members and separating them into patterns of treatment that consist of either showering them with adulation or abusing them and neglecting them in every way possible. This serves to elevate the narcissist above the imperfect scapegoat, using the child to inflate the narcissist’s sense of superiority. The polar opposite of the scapegoat in a narcissistic family is the golden child. While the scapegoat is abused repeatedly by one or both parents, the golden child is praised to the point where one would be misled to believe that the golden child could do no wrong. The golden child serves as an extension of the narcissist, able to succeed in life where the narcissist failed, giving the narcissist an opportunity to feel superior as a parent who is solely responsible for creating this golden human.
In Punch Drunk Love, the seven sisters are a gang of golden children, engaging in one of the numerous extending behaviors of their narcissistic parent, bullying the scapegoat. The sisters are nothing more than your garden variety bullies, collectively referring to Adam Sandler’s character as “gay boy”; a phrase which takes on a renewed semantic of abuse in our current era of intersectionality. The breaking point for Barry occurs at a celebration, during which Barry is derided for his suit, his gift of a cake, excusing himself from one sister’s abusive phone call, and for his perceived failure to set up a blind date with one of the sister’s friends. The words of abuse crescendo and climax with the sound of Barry breaking a sliding glass door, which is symbolic in a sense, Barry wants out of the family unit, he feels a need to escape. The scene is one of the most chilling in cinema, and I have always found the film to be revelatory as to where an individual’s temperament lies along the spectrum of cluster b disorders. Many partners I have dated, who were incredibly narcissistic/borderline/histrionic, seemed to identify with the sisters and one even called out, “What a fucking idiot!” in the silence after Barry smashes the glass doors. Another former lover, admitted that her and her friends called one of their boyfriends “gay boy”. The thing that was most alarming about this was that this was his nickname and they had called him “gay boy” for an entire decade, from the time they were 16 until they were 27 years old. I recommend showing this film to a lover, along with Bladerunner and Good Will Hunting, if you ever want to vett a potential long-term partner for malignant narcissism. If they are truly narcissistic, they will identify with the sisters in Punch Drunk Love, they won’t understand why the Vight-Kampff questions in Bladerunner are designed to identify robots from humans (empathy. . .duh), and they will think the emotional climax of Good Will Hunting is stupid, because therapy is stupid to a narcissist (believe me, everybody needs therapy as much as they need a doctor or a dentist) and a potentially narcissistic partner might also find Will to be a fool for pursuing love over money and power and prestige.
It would be interesting to see how the parents in Punch Drunk Love treated the sisters and Barry as they were growing up. Barry was most likely name-called by mom and dad, he was probably made to feel inferior despite getting good grades, pursuing hobbies, or achieving anything else growing up. He might have even been told he would never amount to anything. Perhaps, mom or dad was a drunk or a sex addict and rewarded the sisters for enabling behaviors like keeping their mouths shut about the drinking, the affairs, the lying, the stealing, and so on. If Barry did something amazing, like performed at a piano recital, or maybe he wrote an intelligent research paper, the narcissistic parent or parents probably found a reason to deride him and make him feel inferior. Maybe the way he sat during the performance was not to the narcissist’s liking or the writing in his research paper was insulted as being too wordy and pretentious or some other nonsense. Meanwhile, the sisters were more than likely told individually, they could do anything they wanted. That they were beautiful, brilliant, athletic, maybe even told they were a gift from God himself. When they failed, they were told that it was fine because we all make mistakes, and maybe they were even made to feel that no mistake was made. Perhaps they were even put on display for friends, showed off as the parents’ wonderful daughters, while Barry sat on the sidelines and kept quiet. This is all speculative, but it is likely because this family dynamic only results in distinctly abusive households.
This brings me to a consideration of Luke Cage. The main character, Luke Cage, definitely has a rivalry with his half-brother, Diamondback; inversely, the preliminary villain, Cottonmouth, has his own rivalry with his cousin, Black Mariah. I will be writing about my observations on the first season, as I have yet to watch the second season, so admittedly there may be assumptions of mine that are false.
While we never see the interaction of Luke or Willis with their parents, we do witness Mariah and Cornell interacting with the matriarch of their crime family, Mama Mabel. Cornell, who is later to become the crime boss known as Cottonmouth, is very passionate about music. We see him practicing piano, casually improvising while Mariah is studying. Several things occur in this scene which are characteristic of the scapegoat and golden child dynamic. The children are actively compared and placed in a rivalry with one another, Mariah is upheld by Mabel for her studiousness and Cornell is upheld by Pete, Mariah’s lover, for his natural talent in music. At one point, one of Mabel’s thugs returns and he is derided for dealing drugs, Mabel’s twisted sense of morality refuses her involvement with drug racketeering despite her utilization of larceny, murder, extortion, prostitution and other crimes to achieve her ends. Mama Mabel cuts off the thugs’ finger in a rage and then sends Mariah away while demanding Cornell stay and witness the violence. Pete and Cornell are sent into the basement to murder the thug. Pete returns to his piano with blood on his hands. This scene has very powerful symbolism at play and is one of the most interesting representations of the narcissistic family dynamic in moving images.
The beginning of the scene is one of joy and innocence, Cornell is playing music, bringing art into the world. Mariah is studying, increasing her knowledge of the world. Pete, who we later learn has sexually abused Mariah, is praising Cornell. Mariah is counter-praised for her studies by Mabel. Here we see a rivalry emerge between the two Narcissists, the two sociopaths, at the head of the family, and it is played out with the children as pawns, as bargaining chips between Mabel and Pete. Cornell, being forced by Mabel to murder the thug, is sabotaged by Mabel and taught that he is a thug, a cold blooded killer, he is simultaneously Mabel’s scapegoat and Pete’s golden child. Mariah, being sexually abused by Pete and sent away before the murder by Mabel, is simultaneously Pete’s scapegoat and Mariah’s golden child. The scene ends with Mabel praising Cornell as a murderer and Mariah absent from the scene. Later, after Cornell murders Pete and is praised by both Mabel and Mariah, he permanently becomes the family scapegoat, as Pete is no longer around to praise him for his talents and continue his sexual abuse of Mariah. Later in life, as Cornell inherits Mabel’s criminal empire, Mariah uses him as a pawn in her own maneuverings to rise to political power. After Cornell’s involvement with Mariah is exposed by Luke Cage, she murders Cornell after being provoked by Cornell’s insistence that she seduced Pete and was never actually raped. Shades Alvarez, one of Cornell’s thugs, insists that she cover up the murder because she unconsciously wanted him dead. Alvarez understands the rivalry between the two and brings it into Mariah’s awareness. Mariah’s manipulation, slander, and eventual murder of Cornell is an extension of Mabel’s scapegoating and abuse of Cornell.
These two children could have gone either way between healing or inheriting the sociopathic characteristics of the adult role-models in their lives, as all children raised by sociopaths or narcissists could. The very thing that would have saved either of them was to remove themselves as far from the family unit as possible and begin healing. In adulthood, many scapegoats wind up attending years of therapy, desperately doing everything in their power to not wind up acting like their parents, continuing their abusive patterns. Eventually, the scapegoat comes to realize that abuse extends beyond hitting someone or calling someone a name. The scapegoat realizes that abuse can come in the forms of sabotaging another person, downplaying their efforts and achievements, slandering that person, neglecting that person, attempting to cut that person off from systems of support within friends and family, denying that person any opportunities, attempting to control that person’s finances, and making that person feel ashamed for being who they are. What the scapegoat who manages to free themselves from abuse must do is to take control of their life, regain their sanity through therapy, go no contact with every person in that toxic family unit (mom, dad, sibling, and so forth), and then recover their sense of self and discover their own passion and reason for thriving as a human being. Eventually, the scapegoat will realize they are not any of the things their abusive parents, and often abusive siblings, said they were. The scapegoat will be able to live a truly fulfilling life, separate from the family, which is something the golden child will never be able to completely do in the way the scapegoat could, as the golden child’s sense of self is completely imposed by a sociopath who over-praised the child and lied to the child, telling this young person they were the greatest and the best in the whole world. The sociopath lied to both children, for the scapegoat is not worthless or bad anymore than the golden child is the best in the world. Unfortunately, for the golden child, it is an insurmountable challenge to overcome decades of living as the creation of the sociopath, living as an extension of the narcissist’s false self, because the truth that both children were equals existing in a world of mixed grey, with equal potential, completely shatters the distorted black and white window the narcissist has forced the golden child to view the world through.