This is a guest post by Charles Hackney as part of the ongoing conversation here at Political Jesus on Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Just for the record, Chuck agrees with me 100% that #OUAT is the better show (and no that is not just because he’s married to me).
This is the second of two investigations of the principal villains in Once Upon a Time. In response to Amanda Mac’s post on the theology of evil in OUaT, I previously discussed a possible Adlerian interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin.
Regina, like Rumpelstiltskin, begins in a position of powerlessness. Although the daughter of a wealthy family, she is bullied by her mother, a powerful sorceress who is not shy about forcefully using magic to get her way. Regina’s mother also uses her as a pawn in her bid for status, manipulating circumstances so that the king requests Regina’s hand in marriage. She later kills Regina’s true love, a common stableboy. Through an act of childish naivete, it was Snow White (the king’s daughter) who revealed Regina’s secret love. Regina not only becomes queen, but a powerful wielder of magic herself, and a common theme that runs through her plots is her desire to avenge herself on Snow in as painful a manner as possible. When her scheme with the poison apple fails, her final stroke is a curse that transports everyone to a terrible place with no happy endings (our world). Here, in the town of Storybrooke, the people’s memories are replaced, and their personalities stunted, and Regina reigns as Mayor, with only Mr. Gold (Rumpelstiltskin) rivalling her in wealth and influence.
Storybrooke presents the appearance of a pleasant small New England town, and Regina makes an attempt at establishing a happy family by adopting a son, Henry. It is, however, all illusion. The town is frozen in time, with none of the inhabitants growing or changing until the arrival of Emma, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and mother of Henry. Henry’s interactions with Regina reveal her motherhood to be more about control than about love. Emma’s investigations reveal the degree to which the inhabitants of Storybrooke are under Regina’s thumb. Scratch the surface of Storybrooke, and one finds that it is indeed a terrible place with no happy endings.
Many questions could be asked about Regina. One that occurs to me is this: why did her curse take this form? Why create a superficially-happy small town as her great act of vengeance upon Snow and Charming? Why include herself in the curse, eliminating her magic and her royal status in exchange for domination of an obscure little town? Why did she only begin to torment Snow (named Mary Margaret Blanchard in our world) after Emma’s presence had begun to weaken the curse?
To help explain Regina’s character, I turn to a classic psychological examination of evil, M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. In People of the Lie, Peck describes the essence of evil as a form of self-deceptive narcissism.
“Malignant narcissism,” says Peck, “is characterized by an unsubmitted will” (p.78). He argues that all mentally-healthy people submit to something other than themselves, be it God or love or truth or whatever else requires personal preferences to be subordinated to a greater good. The core of evil, however, is an unwillingness to submit to anything beyond the self. If anyone wonders why “healthy” is being contrasted with “evil,” instead of “good and evil” or “healthy and unhealthy,” Peck considers evil to be the ultimate form of human dysfunction, akin to a personality disorder. But Peck believes that evil is different from mere psychopathy. Psychopaths lack empathy, the emotional capacity to care about the rights and feelings of others, and so are, according to Peck, blissfully unconflicted about their antisocial actions. Evil people retain a sense that they have done wrong, but they suppress the truth in order to maintain their narcissistic self-concept and see themselves as faultless. But suppression is not elimination, and the unconscious conflict between their vision of their perfection and their deep intuitive sense of their imperfection requires them to engage in constant activity to maintain the illusion of perfection. “The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’” says Peck, “deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception” (p.66). The following is Peck’s formal proposal for evil as a personality dysfunction:
“the time is right, I believe, for psychiatry to recognize a distinct new type of personality disorder to encompass those I have named evil. In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes all personality disorders, this one would specifically be distinguished by:
(a) consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle.
(b) excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury.
(c) pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives
(d) intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophreniclike disturbance of thinking at times of stress.” (p.129)
We can see quite a lot of this in the behavior of Queen Regina. Peck spends a great deal of his book on the scapegoating behavior of the evil person. Because they see themselves as perfect, but with the insecurity that comes from knowing at a deep level that they are not, anything that threatens the illusion of perfection is intolerable. Regina frequently casts herself in the role of the victim in search of justified retribution. Snow White robbed her of her happily-ever-after, so she will do the same to Snow White. When Snow (as Mary in our world) is framed for murder, Regina says “We got her, Daniel. We got her.”, as if all this has been about righting a wrong committed by Snow. In the seventh episode (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”), Regina says that others “don’t know the wretchedness inside [Snow] like I do.” It never seems to occur to her that Snow’s “betrayal” of her secret was the act of an innocent child being manipulated by an evil sorceress. The true villain here was Regina’s mother, but instead of blaming her mother, Regina blames Snow, and in essence becomes her mother. To admit that Snow was innocent would require Regina to admit that she had misplaced blame and had become the thing she had despised. Similarly, we see no indication that Regina has considered the possibility that her cold and controlling behavior toward Henry might be a large contributor to his belief that she is the Evil Queen from his fairy-tale book. Instead, she places the blame entirely on Emma.
A scene that shows Regina’s intolerance to criticism also comes from the seventh episode. Regina confronts Emma, claiming that everything bad that has happened (including Sheriff Graham’s romantic preference for Emma over Regina) is Emma’s fault. Emma replies, “You ever stop to think that maybe the problem isn’t with me but with you? Henry came and found me. Graham kissed me. Both were miserable. Maybe, Madam Mayor, you need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why that is. Why is everyone running away from you?” In one of the few instances of Regina losing control, she punches Emma in the face.
The personal image of perfection can lead to a concern for a similarly-positive public image. Regina can be seen in Storybrooke engaged in many of the pro-community activities of a small-town mayor, including fundraisers and public projects. She presents the appearance of caring for the community, keeps a beautiful house, and her appearance is never less than perfect. This concern for an image of respectability may also be one of the best explanations of Regina’s desire to adopt a child. Another explanation might be the power of thralldom.
Peck devotes a section of his book to the idea of thralldom. He connects thralldom to “the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending and preserving the integrity of our own sick selves… For the evil to so misuse their power, they must have the power to use in the first place. They must have some kind of dominion over their victims” (p.119). When one enthralls another, the victim is rendered weak and passive, further enhancing the offender’s feelings of power and superiority. Thralldom runs through Regina’s actions in the show. She steals the huntsman’s heart, sapping his will and making him her slave, a relationship that continued in Storybrooke until Emma frees him. When the Genie falls in love with her, Regina manipulates him into killing by her command, and seems quite happy about the idea of him being trapped in her mirrors, making him an easily-accessible and easily-ignored resource. In Storybrooke, the Genie is transformed into a journalist, who remains her miserable but willing puppet. In fact, a major component of the curse involves the enthrallment of the people of Storybrooke. As can be seen in the character of Prince Charming, a strong and courageous hero is changed into a spineless coward. Jiminy Cricket, an unwavering voice of principle, becomes easily manipulable. The frightening Red Riding Hood loses her willingness to take risks. The defiant Grumpy becomes the pitiable town drunk. Only Rumpelstiltskin seems to have retained any of his former willpower.
Perhaps the attraction to evil of thralldrom best explains why Regina chose the kind of curse that she did. Not only did she rob the people of their happy endings, and thus exact revenge, but she caused a collection of powerful and brave characters to become submissive to her, feeding her narcissism. Adopting a child would have given Regina another life to dominate, had Henry not seen through her illusion.
Peck is pessimistic about the possibility that an evil person can change. Change requires admitting that one is wrong, and it is highly unlikely that Regina’s narcissism will permit this first step (this is a common problem among those with personality disorders). Regina will never see the truth. All we can hope for is her defeat.