Warning - this essay is a powerful and intelligent analysis of domestic violence, from an author who has experienced it first hand. This essay is disturbing - but you should read it. You might learn something that could help a friend - or yourself - in a similar situation.
Thanks to Rachel Walker for formatting this essay! :-)
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Love him or hate him, Starscream is one of the most popular of the Transformers characters. At the very least, he is a character guaranteed to stir up some debate among Transformers fans. Some fans see him as a victim of circumstance, as someone worthy of compassion and sympathy, while others see him simply as a whiny, effeminate, and insufferably arrogant fool. Starscream is without a doubt my favorite character. As far as I'm concerned, Starscream is not "simply" anything, which is surprising considering that the character was created for a toy line/children's show. But Starscream is my favorite character for one main and rather simple reason: Because I can relate to him like I can relate to none of the other Transformers characters, on both a personal and emotional level.
You see, Starscream is me. Starscream is the same person I was about fifteen years ago, when I first started to watch the original cartoon. No, I don't mean that I was a giant-sized sentient robot bent on world domination. I'm not talking about any type of physical resemblance here. I'm talking about a multitude of psychological resemblances, and I'm talking about one rather disturbing situational resemblance.
But let me begin with Starscream himself, with how I see the character and, secondarily, how I see the character of Megatron. Put simply, I see Starscream as a person suffering from a severe lack of self-esteem. Even worse, I see him as a person who is at the same time caught up in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. And any Transformers fan would know who his abuser is, I would hope.
Why do I believe all of this? Is it because I am a raving lunatic? No. At least, I don't think so... Is it because I've long been fascinated by what makes people tick, what makes people act in the way that they do, so much so that I have a bad tendency to try to "psychoanalyze" and "label" everyone that I meet? Partly. Is it because I'm reading way too much into the relationship between two fictional, children's show characters? Well, perhaps. But if I am, then all of what I am about to discuss is a remarkable coincidence. All of the pieces, all of the clues to the mystery of Starscream's psyche, are right there in many of the cartoon episodes, as plain as day to anyone who pays attention and thinks about it a bit. Everything fits. If I'm reading too much into this relationship, then I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the writers of the cartoon episodes did, as well.
Now, I don't really want to go into any long, dry definitions and descriptions of the signs and symptoms of clinical self-esteem deficit here. Not only would it take up way too much space to go into a full discussion of this condition, but, frankly, it would also be very boring. And, actually, for my purposes here, I don't think it's really necessary. Instead, here are some common observations to consider about Starscream's character and the (odd) way in which he generally behaves. Here, also, are my interpretations of this odd, contradictory behavior of his-interpretations that are drawn from an admittedly biased, but still relatively sound psychological point of view. Or so I've been told, at any rate...
So you think that Starscream has a low self-esteem problem, eh? Well, if that's the case, then why is he such a cocky little jerk? Why is he always bragging about himself? Why is he so exaggeratedly arrogant?
This is actually a relatively easy cluster of questions to answer. An individual suffering from a self-esteem deficit-in short, a person who has an extremely low opinion of him/herself-usually does not act the part, at least not in public. People with a true, severe, clinical case of self-esteem deficit are not people who go around making facetious self-deprecating remarks. Everyone does that from time to time, and it's perfectly normal. On the other hand, people who have a severe self-esteem problem are, perversely, often the most exaggeratedly arrogant and petulant braggarts on the face of the planet. They will hardly ever say anything bad about themselves in public, and they are often bullies, to boot.
The reason? People with a severe self-esteem deficit tend to be very secretive about it. They literally hate themselves, think themselves worthless excuses for living beings. But of course they don't want to be that way and they certainly don't want anyone else to know that they feel that way. So they present to the world a carefully constructed façade, one that cloaks a hidden core of insecurity, vulnerability, and self-hate.
Often, an individual with self-esteem deficit will try to prove to his/herself that they're not worthless by attempting to prove it to everyone else in the world. They'll proclaim themselves to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, and/or they'll beat up anyone who says otherwise, all in the hope that someone-anyone-will believe that they're something special. After all, to his or her twisted way of thinking, if someone else believes it then it must be true. Unfortunately, the sheer, exaggerated arrogance of their behavior often has the effect of offending the very people they want to impress. Of course, those offended parties will usually set out to show the braggart that they aren't so wonderful at all. And of course they usually succeed-which only further destroys the braggart's self-esteem. It's a vicious cycle.
This is why, I think, Starscream is always making exaggerated claims about everything concerning himself. His behavior pattern is almost exactly like that of a human with severe self-esteem problems. He's usually cocky and arrogant because he's trying his darndest to make someone agree that he's worthy of taking up space on the planet. Of course, he doesn't get any agreement at all. In fact, most of the time he gets only ridicule from Megatron and from most, if not all, of his compatriots. And that only makes things worse for him.
Why does Starscream hang around Megatron in the first place, and why does he often seem to be sucking up to him if, as he says, he wants to overthrow him so much?
This is a complex issue, one which is again firmly rooted, I believe, in Starscream's glaringly obvious (to me, at least!) self-esteem problem. Sometimes, an individual suffering from an extreme self-esteem deficit becomes a person who obsessively and irrationally believes that he or she is nowhere near as intelligent/talented/attractive/successful/powerful/what-have-you as everyone else in the universe. Of late, this type of thinking has become known as having an "inferiority complex," although the man who coined that particular term (turn-of-the-century psychologist Alfred Adler) did not define an inferiority complex in quite that way. In fact, he meant something entirely different. But for my purposes here, for lack of a better phrase, the term will suffice.
In any event, this "inferiority complex" is a self-esteem deficit taken to a bizarre extreme, coupled with an obsession about comparing oneself to other people. People with this type of "inferiority complex" compare themselves to other "normal" people all the time and they always find themselves lacking in some respect or another-or in every respect, in extreme cases.
One of the most common "symptoms" of this inferiority complex phenomenon is a dependent relationship with another person. Individuals with an inferiority complex often have a tendency to seek out and "attach" themselves to a person or persons who possess in abundance the qualities that they believe they lack-a person they perceive as "perfect." In essence, an individual with an inferiority complex often becomes a sycophant who constantly "kisses up" to that "better" person because they want to be like that person. They think that, by associating with people "better" than they are-by basking in reflected glory, as it were-then they will somehow become "better" themselves, as if by osmosis. They need to be around their chosen "perfect" person in almost the same way that a drug addict needs a fix, so they butter them up whenever they feel that there's a chance they might be sent away.
This, I believe, is exactly what draws Starscream to Megatron. Starscream wants more than anything to be a powerful person. He wants to control his own life, and he'd like to control everyone else's, too. Of course, love him or hate him, Megatron is an extremely powerful person, extremely charismatic. In short, Megatron is everything that Starscream wants to be. So to Starscream, Megatron would be like a psychological magnet, relentlessly drawing him in. He'll hang out with Megatron even if it kills him, in the hope that he can absorb some of Megatron's personal charisma and power. Unfortunately, Megatron's appeal to Starscream is akin to the appeal of an open flame to a moth: It's an imperative that can't be denied, but it's ultimately destructive to the moth.
Then why is Starscream always trying to humiliate and/or depose Megatron if he wants to be him? And why does he never quite pull it off, even when he has a clear chance to do it?
One of the odd, perverse things about the relationship between an individual with inferiority complex and their chosen "perfect" person is that their relationship can often be a violently confrontational one, characterized by a cycle of sudden violent arguments followed by eventual reconciliation. This is certainly the case with Starscream and Megatron. Starscream's relationship to Megatron is the ultimate love/hate relationship. Starscream admires Megatron because he's so powerful, because he's so "in control" of any situation. At the same time, Starscream despises Megatron for the very same reasons, because Starscream would like to be just like Megatron, but he thinks that he can't be. It's a difficult dichotomy to reconcile, especially when the dichotomy is irrational to begin with.
What often happens is that the individual with the inferiority complex often tries to bring the "perfect" person down a notch or two every once in a while, to make themselves feel better about their pitiful lack of characteristic "X," whatever it is. But of course, they don't really want to kill or otherwise defile the object of their admiration because then they wouldn't be around for them to admire and emulate.
This, I think, is why Starscream has never made any serious attempt to kill or permanently depose Megatron, even though he's had innumerable clear chances to do so. In fact, I think that it wouldn't be at all difficult for him to do it at any given time. No, I think Starscream simply chooses not to kill/depose Megatron. In truth, I think Starscream, at this point, would be lost without him.
Why doesn't Megatron just blow Starscream away, since he obviously doesn't trust Starscream and since Starscream so obviously yearns to replace Megatron?
Ah, now this is another very complex issue, one that has several different underlying explanations, all of which are interrelated and most of which are rooted in Megatron's personality.
Judging by what I've seen of his behavior, I believe that Megatron is an egomaniac. Without going into unnecessary detail, egomaniacs are, in short, the polar opposite of individuals with self-esteem deficit: They don't just act like they're the greatest thing since sliced bread, they fervently and sincerely believe that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. They hate nothing more than to be brought down a notch. They can't stand being wrong or being challenged and they will often lose their temper when either happens. And they love nothing more than to be told how wonderful they are, to be surrounded by adoring fans.
I absolutely believe that Megatron knows how much Starscream secretly admires him. I think he figured it out a long time ago. And I also believe that having Starscream around strokes Megatron's ego in several ways, which is extremely important to an egomaniac. Soundwave may be steadfastly loyal to Megatron (Why, I have no idea. I'll leave that determination to the Soundwave fans out there in "TransFan Land"), but I don't think that Soundwave admires Megatron in quite the same way that Starscream does. Nor does Soundwave suck up to Megatron the way Starscream often does, which also strokes Megatron's ego. True, Soundwave would never attempt to humiliate Megatron the way that Starscream does, either, but I also think Megatron knows that Starscream would never actually go through with killing him or deposing him. So Megatron has no real reason to kill Starscream. Why destroy a perfectly good avenue to a pleasant ego trip, after all?
Another explanation is that Megatron is a control freak. This often goes hand-in-hand with egomania, stemming from an egomaniac's belief that no one can do anything better or more efficiently than they can. Megatron has a definite need to be in control of any situation, and has a marked dislike for those who would stop him from controlling everything (i.e. the Autobots). Even more than he likes to control situations, however, Megatron likes to control people. He is a master manipulator, and he enjoys being that way. He obviously likes to figure out what makes other people tick and then, using that knowledge, he casually exploits them, as he once did to the Dinobots.
But the person that Megatron can most easily manipulate and control, I think, is Starscream. This is because, ultimately, Megatron understands what motivates Starscream, what makes him tick. He figured Starscream out long ago, and he has Starscream pegged as, at his core, a vulnerable and insecure person, no matter the image that he tries to project. Megatron understands that Starscream is desperately seeking approval and acceptance. He occasionally offers those two precious commodities to Starscream, treats Starscream like a real person with a real opinion every once in a while. (The beginning of the episode "The Core" springs to mind, for an example.) But then he always ends up hastily ripping that calculated kindness away from Starscream with a vicious insult or a physical blow-or both at the same time. In this way, Megatron keeps Starscream coming back for more every time. Dangle praise and acceptance in front of Starscream once and he becomes like a puppy that's gotten its first taste of table scraps: He likes it so much that he'll beg for more, even at the risk of annoying his "master." Megatron would have to get a charge out of having that kind of power over someone, of having someone around who is so easy to manipulate. So, again, why kill Starscream?
And, of course, the desire to have power over another person is the ultimate reason behind any physically and/or emotionally abusive relationship. This is the disturbing crux of the Megatron/Starscream relationship, as I see it-that of abuser and abused.
Even within the limited confines of a cartoon series aimed at pre-pubescent boys, Megatron shows many of the characteristics of a classic abusive personality. Here's but a few:
Megatron obsesses about control. He jealously defends his position of power and constantly seeks to widen his circle of influence and complete control.
· He's physically stronger than most of those around him.
· He has a hair-trigger temper, and he vents that temper upon primarily one person.
· He enjoys having power over other people. He likes the fact that other people-his subordinates, the Autobots, the humans-are afraid of him, and he exploits that fear to the best of his ability, uses it to expand his power, intimidate his enemies, and keep his own troops in line.
· He's a persuasive smooth-talker when he wants to be or when he has to be, but his true nature is exposed when he's challenged or when he loses control of his temper and takes it out on the closest target.
· Most of all, he loves to manipulate people and situations.
And, like Megatron, a classic abuser rarely deliberately kills the object of their abuse. They will often cause them severe physical harm and still worse emotional damage, but killing them is not usually on the agenda. Killing is not what abuse is about. Abusing a person is about having complete control over another person's mental and physical life, and that is what the abuser enjoys most-the power. And if an abuser did kill their chosen victim, then that one person who they so much enjoy tormenting obviously would no longer be around to abuse. So while Megatron will cheerfully knock Starscream around a bit, will gladly humiliate and insult him whenever the opportunity arises, Megatron truly does not want Starscream to die or otherwise leave. And he would never deliberately kill him.
Starscream, meanwhile, is a laughably easy target for Megatron's abuse. With no self-esteem to speak of, he probably believes deep down that he's done something to "deserve" whatever Megatron dishes out to him-physical abuse, verbal abuse, whatever. He also no doubt believes that no one would treat him any better, so why bother resisting Megatron's abuse? Why bother looking elsewhere for the approval that he desperately desires? And because of his "inferiority complex," he is helplessly drawn to those people who display the characteristics that he most admires and that he feels he utterly lacks. In his case, he admires power and control, which, of course, are Megatron's middle names. It's yet another vicious cycle in which Starscream is essentially trapped. And Megatron, much to Starscream's disadvantage, knows it.
In a way, Starscream is very much like a battered spouse-He is someone who feels trapped in a hideous situation from which he believes he cannot escape and so he therefore makes no serious attempt to escape. I'm sure that he'd love to end the abuse, to have a better estimation of his own worth. I'm sure that he'd love to leave his abuser, but he just can't. He can't because, when all is said and done, he doesn't believe that he can leave. He can't because he secretly believes that he deserves whatever he gets. He can't because he believes that no one in the universe would treat him any better than Megatron does, because he thinks that he is unworthy of better treatment. And, at the very least, Starscream knows that he will always get some attention, some sort of acknowledgment from Megatron, even if it's of the negative variety. Starscream knows that he's trapped, but he also feels that he can do nothing about it. He'll continue to feel that way unless and until something fundamental in his psyche shifts, until something happens that pushes him over the edge, until he realizes that he doesn't deserve what he's getting and that he can do something about it.
All in all, why an abused person stays with their abuser is an extremely complex issue, one far beyond the scope of this discussion. It's also a very difficult thing to understand. In fact, I truly believe that it's something that no one can truly understand...unless they've been there.
I've been there. I know what it's like. I know precisely what Starscream is going through. And this, in the end, is why I think of Starscream as me. This is why I absolutely identify with and sympathize with Starscream and his situation.
Many years ago, I had such abysmally low self-esteem for various reasons that I sincerely believed that no one-not my family, not my friends, and certainly not any man-could ever really love me. What was to love, I thought? So when I was in college, when someone finally came along who showed interest in me...well, you can bet that I latched onto him like a drowning woman would latch onto a life preserver. I thought he was a god, that he was the most wonderful thing since (you guessed it!) sliced bread. I essentially told him that I thought he was wonderful all the time-which he, as an egomaniac like Megatron, loved. But when I eventually started to realize that I wasn't worthless, when I started to have an opinion of my own, and when he started to realize that he no longer totally controlled me...well, let's just say that he didn't take kindly to it.
That was when the physical abuse started, adding to the verbal abuse that was already plentiful. And wham! Right when I was starting to emerge out of the depths of self-hate, I was sent reeling right back into the hell of no self-esteem, of perceived inferiority. I put up with the abuse because, in my twisted mind, I literally believed that I must have done something to deserve it. I denied the abuse to all and sundry, especially to my family. I covered the inevitable bruises with artfully applied makeup and with unrevealing clothing. To emergency-room doctors, I made the weakest of excuses: I fell down more steps or walked into more walls and doorjambs than probably any other person on the planet. I did whatever I had to do, because I'd be damned before I'd admit to my private hell. I thought I was worthless, but I still had my pride. I didn't want anyone's pity or even anyone's help; I just wanted to hide away from the world, curl up, and die.
What changed, you may ask? One night, my fiancé came home drunk at 3 AM, powerfully angry about something and, as usual, he took that anger out on me. Somewhere in my battered and broken psyche I still believed that the man loved me, but that night he broke three of my ribs, my nose, and my upper jaw, the latter of which is something that is not easy to do without extreme force, or so I'm told. That was the night when something in me finally snapped, when I finally said, "Enough," found myself a good psychiatrist, and began, ever so slowly, to heal.
Do I believe that Starscream will eventually reach the same fateful point that I reached? Well, actually yes, I do. Or at least, I think he would have if Galvatron hadn't killed him. (Which, incidentally, is proof to me that Megatron and Galvatron are not entirely the same guy. Like I said, Megatron never would have deliberately killed Starscream. Humiliated him, yes; killed him, no.) Toward the end of the pre-movie episodes, I saw some definite signs that Starscream was reaching the point of no return, as it were. I think that if there'd been another season-and that if this type of thing was appropriate for a children's show and if the Transformers universe was real, of course-then there might have been an explosive reckoning between them, one far worse and far more violent than any of their previous confrontations. I'm not sure who would have come out of that confrontation as the "winner," but I sure do know for whom I'd be rooting!
So...there you have it, the whole sordid and twisted tale. All of this is why I identify with Starscream so much. Whether I'm right or not in my interpretations of his and Megatron's psychological quirks is really irrelevant to me at this point; it's just what I think. It's ingrained. It's what I've thought since I first watched the show, way back in 1985. That was not long after my own situation started and two years before I pressed charges against my ex-fiancé, landing him in jail on multiple charges of battery and aggravated assault. Did recognizing echoes of myself in a pathetic, abused cartoon character have anything to do with how I found the resolve to break free from an abusive relationship? Honestly, I don't know. When all is said and done, I suppose that it couldn't have hurt...
Ultimately, all of this is why I'm always rooting for Starscream, and why I will always will root for Starscream, no matter what he does. It doesn't matter if other TransFans that I know-precious few of them!-think that I'm crazy because of it. It doesn't matter if Starscream's being the world's whiniest, most shortsighted fool. It doesn't matter if he's being the biggest idiot or the cockiest, most arrogant jerk I've ever seen. It even doesn't matter when he's brown-nosing Megatron enough to make me want to vomit. I forgive Starscream for all of his "sins," you see, because I have at times committed the very same sins for what I think are the very same reasons. And I pity Starscream in the same way that I used to pity myself. Because as far as I'm concerned, no one-not even a giant sentient robot bent on world domination-should have to live with physical and emotional abuse.
No one ever deserves it.