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'THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY', VANYA HARGREEVES, AND THE IMPACT OF RESIDUAL TRAUMA

‘The Umbrella Academy’, Vanya Hargreeves, and The Impact of Residual Trauma

‘The Umbrella Academy’ presents Vanya as a villain—and understood as such by many fans—but, in truth, she is the one who has been the most victimized.

This essay contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of The Umbrella Academy. It also discusses childhood, familial, and partner abuse. 

The Umbrella Academy is a deeply flawed, but very binge-able Netflix show about a group of seven siblings adopted by an eccentric billionaire, Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), who experimented with their special abilities and trained them to be superheroes. But Reginald was a cold, withholding, and abusive man, giving the children designated numbers instead of names and failing—or perhaps rather refusing—to form any emotional bonds or intimacy with any of them. When Reginald dies, the siblings return home and reluctantly reunite for the first time in many years, just in time for the end of the world. 

Reginald’s abuse has impacted each sibling in distinct ways, leaving all of them with the inability to form healthy relationships as adults. Each of them has a common response to having been brought up by emotionally unavailable parents—from substance abuse to extreme manipulation—with the majority of them either despising each other, or resenting their own maladapted existence, or both. The sibling most outcast and least embraced in this group of maladjusted, walking disasters is Vanya (Ellen Page). 

Quiet, small, meek, and with a deep well of untapped emotion, it’s Vanya who ends the world. As such, Vanya is presented as a villain—and understood as such by many fans—but, in truth, she is the one who has been the most victimized. What the recent second season confirms is that Vanya’s status as The Umbrella Academy’s villain is not a matter of nature, but of nurture—specifically the lack of it. 

Ellen Page as Vanya in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

Once the most defiant and strong-willed of the bunch, Vanya was made into the timid and soft-spoken woman we meet when the show begins. Even though the Hargreeves have spent their lives believing that Vanya is different from and lesser than them due to her lack of powers, it is revealed that she is more powerful than all of them combined. 

Their father intentionally suppressed her powers because he was afraid of her, and he was afraid of her because he realized that he would not be able to control her or her power like he could with the others. He not only rendered her powerless by feeding her mood stabilizers since she was only 4 years old, but he also enlisted her sister (Emmy Raver-Lampan) to be an unwitting accomplice, forcing her to use her mind control abilities to effectively make Vanya forget that she ever had any powers at all. 

When Vanya learns this secret and also finally has her powers unleashed thanks to the actions of her new boyfriend (John Magaro), who turns out to be a serial killer (more on that later), she loses control. Unable to properly regulate her emotions—which are directly tied to her powers and how she uses them—after years of both familial abuse and mood-altering drugs, Vanya finds herself unable to cope with her rightful anger in a healthy way and she explodes. But this is not what ends the world. 

Instead of responding to Vanya with the understanding and support that she needs, instead of acknowledging their role in her hurt, her siblings ultimately isolate and leave her uncared for yet again. Vanya’s memories of being mistreated by her family continue to drive her rage until the Hargreeves family drama culminates in the apocalypse that none of them are able to stop from happening. 

So, Vanya cannot regulate her emotions or her powers because of the emotional and psychological abuse of her father. Meanwhile, none of her siblings have the tools to respond to the situation with the emotional intelligence it requires due to the failures of the same unfeeling man. It’s clear to me that the real cause of the apocalypse is the abuse of Reginald Hargreeves and the trauma it has wrought. 

Ellen Page as Vanya in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

People raised in emotionally immature and neglectful families can become depressed, emotionally unavailable adults who feel deeply flawed and worthless. Consumed by feelings of shame, they often display anger and aggression in unhealthy ways. Their self-esteem is impacted forever by the inability of their parents to connect with and support them on an emotional level. 

Reginald intentionally leaves Vanya out of family portraits and outings, and even tells her disapprovingly, “There’s just nothing special about you.” Her isolation as a child is an imposed one, first socially excluded by her father and then by her siblings following his example. Every person around her was either a participant of or complicit in her abuse, even a close family friend who she thought she could trust more than anyone. But Vanya wasn’t just neglected by her family; she was rejected by them.

One of Vanya’s primary trauma responses is to fawn—becoming a people-pleaser who often “apologize[s] for existing“—in an attempt to keep from being rejected again. Studies have shown that the emotional and psychological pain of peer and familial rejection can be worse than physical pain, and it often results in initial social withdrawal and an eventual eruption of anger. With all of this taken into consideration, knowing what happens to victims of abuse and how it impacts their lives, Vanya’s choices and behaviors make sense. Yes, even her explosive rage. 

As for her boyfriend, the serial killer. His backstory is also a tragic one, marked by familial abuse of a different sort that resulted in his fixation on the Hargreeves family and his penchant for murder. Thanks to circumstances which allow him to obtain the secrets of the late Reginald, he is privy to the truth about Vanya’s powers before he ever meets her and it’s why he targets her. 

The short amount of time she spends with him—falling hard for him in less than a week—serves as a template for how emotionally abusive romantic relationships often take shape and how Vanya’s trauma plays into her susceptibility to being further abused as an adult, as her fawning trauma response also makes her easily codependent. She is manipulated, gaslighted, lied to, and emotionally abused by this boyfriend, whom she falls for dangerously fast because he offers her what she has never had: he makes her feel special and wanted. He supports her, but unfortunately, he does so with the ulterior motive of steering her towards the destruction that he himself spiraled into as another victim of childhood abuse. 

Ellen Page as Vanya and John Magaro as Leonard Peabody in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

An easy comparison to be made here is Jean Grey and the Dark Phoenix storyline from the X-Men comics and movies, or to a lesser extent, Andrew Detmer from Chronicle (2012). But, to me, Vanya is most akin to Carrie White, on stage at the prom after the bucket of pig’s blood has been dumped on her head. 

Neither Vanya nor Carrie—also a survivor of an extremely abusive childhood of a different kind—are ever given the tools to properly regulate their emotions or their responses to those emotions, and this lack of emotional intelligence means that their anger becomes extremely dangerous to themselves and everyone around them when they finally come into their power and unleash it. When you grow up never allowed to be angry, anger becomes a terrifying thing to hold.  

They are both essentially made to feel guilt, disgust, and shame for their own bodies, for their very existence—Carrie because of her menstruating body as she grows into her womanhood and sexual maturity, and Vanya because of her supposedly “ordinary” and unremarkable body juxtaposed against the special abilities of her siblings. Like Vanya in season one, Carrie’s story ends in total destruction after a lifetime of being taught to loathe her body and herself. 

Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Carrie (1976)

When people engage with Stephen King’s story, they do not see Carrie—the abused girl, quiet and isolated and ostracized by her peers—as a clear-cut villain undeserving of sympathy, even when she goes on a murder rampage. Carrie is understood as a victim who was driven to her villainous actions. It’s interesting to me that Vanya is not regarded in the same way by many fans, despite the show plainly laying out the depravity of the abuse she’s endured, both from family and a romantic partner. 

Perhaps the show itself is somewhat to blame for this. Vanya is constructed and spoken about as a sort of perversion of the Chosen One trope. The second season presents another Prevent The End of The World scenario after the Hargreeves siblings have time-traveled to the past and have to work together to stop another apocalypse which Vanya, again, turns out to be the impetus for. One of her brothers laments that this scenario will simply keep replaying itself over and over no matter what they do, and the cause of it will “always be” Vanya. It seems that Vanya is Chosen, not to save the world but to end it. They write it off as an inevitability—which effectively amounts to writing her off—rather than questioning what they can do to change the outcome, like trying to help her instead of trying to defeat her. 

And, again, it’s not an intentional act of villainy from Vanya that causes the apocalypse in this new timeline. As it was before, it’s how Vanya is mistreated and abused by people around her that precipitates an opportunity for the apocalyptic event to occur. But this time, they are able to stop it. The only difference this time around is that someone shows her gentleness and love. Only after she gets the support and affirmation that she needs is she no longer a threat, no longer the cause of the end of the world.

RECOMMENDED: ‘Captain Marvel’ and the Power of Women’s Emotions

To me, Vanya’s story feels like it belongs to a larger trend of narratives about women’s emotions and changing bodies being seen as too powerful and too dangerous, in one way or another, across various genres: from Jean Grey becoming Dark Phoenix and Carrie White setting her prom ablaze, to Jennifer’s Body (2009) and Captain Marvel (2018), to a whole host of demonic possession narratives including and beyond The Exorcist (1973). It is also along a similar vein of stories in which the emotional distress and manipulation of women is at the center, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Mother! (2017), Hereditary (2017), Midsommar (2019), and of course their ancestor, Gaslight (1944).

Empathy—or the lack thereof—plays a significant role in each of these stories. One of the things I love about horror, sci-fi, and fantasy is that the genres allow us to contend with trauma as much as they allow us to live out impossibilities like time travel. What they also give us are opportunities to interrogate our own capacity for empathy and understanding for victims and survivors of that trauma, even when the stories they live in try to convince us that they are villains. 

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

Comments
  • Devon

    The movies you listed about women being dangerous due to their being powerful and/or in changing states is full of films for older audiences, but let’s not forget that Frozen fits right in with them. Poor Elsa, her household, and the rest of the kingdom go into lockdown for fear of what she might do.

    Sep 21, 2020
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