At the center of Disney’s CRUELLA (2021) is the tense relationship between a narcissistic manager and her assistant. A rather typical situation we have all grappled with on various levels. But this film has some interesting new insights.
Set in the high-strung world of high fashion, the story leans heavily on THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006). In that seminal comedy, Meryl Streep played a career-obsessed manager who tortures her shy assistant. In CRUELLA, Emma Thompson takes that same character to the next level of narcissism.
An explanation is due regarding this phenomenon. People usually think of narcissism as a case of ‘’the inflated ego’’. The narcissistic person overvalues her abilities and accomplishments. However, clinical psychology shows that in reality, the reverse takes place. A narcissist has a fragile sense of the self. She needs to reinforce a false image to the outside world. Without that amplification, her ego falls apart, in so-called ‘’defragmentation’’ crises. Narcissism is like a defense mechanism, shielding the person from her own (unrealistic) expectations.
The twist in CRUELLA is that the manager’s assistant — the titular Cruella — is a narcissist herself. She uses her flamboyant performances to challenge the manager’s dominion in the fashion world. In THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, the assistant reached a point where she could steal the manager’s power for herself. But she ultimately decided this is a path of self-destruction and gave up the fashion business. Cruella never comes to this conclusion. In a game of mirroring, she uses the manager’s insecurities to boost her own narcissism. The end of the story sees her accomplishing omnipotence. Not only has she humiliated the rival manager, she also took her place on top of the fashion industry.
And this reveals a repressed truth. In the game with the narcissistic manager, we like to see ourselves as the innocent lamb. The manager exploited our insecurities. She crossed our boundaries, because we couldn’t defend them. We take a course in assertiveness, to learn how we can set the boundaries. This is all fine and useful, but it doesn’t address a structural problem. In the manager’s narcissism, we have encountered a projection of our own.
I am by no means suggesting that this cinematic solution should be applied in business practice. But there is a lot we can learn from the way CRUELLA uses the figure of the villain (or Nemesis, in the language of drama). In storytelling, it is the villain who enables the path to self-knowledge. Only when you get in touch with the ‘dark side’ can you try and overcome it.