She’s So Trauma

“Omigod, she’s so drama!” his friends jeer at him, laughing.

The word “drama” goes off like an alarm; the punitive voices from his past ringing in his head: “Don’t play like a girl, don’t talk like a girl, don’t act like a girl, don’t cry like a girl, DON’T BE DRAMATIC LIKE A GIRL!” Like a fugitive running from the law, he’s in a perpetual state of emergency, though he knows not what he’s done.

The phrase “she’s so drama” is used to needle someone who acts too “girly” (the “she”) by expressing more emotion than social conventions allow (the “drama”). This dramatic “she” or “drama queen” is a character we’ve come to know as both annoying and hilarious, especially when a man inhabits the role. (Bill Hader’s portrayal of a shrieking fireman on Saturday Night Live is a recent example). But if we consider the internal life of such a person, as in the vignette above, as well as studies showing that people underestimate the severity of social pain, we might ask ourselves whether he (or “she”) could be the victim of a social trauma, the trauma of being viewed, treated, and dismissed as “like a girl” (deemed the worst possible thing for a man to resemble), rather than the perpetrator of an indulgent “drama.” And if this is the case, why are we laughing?

Women have been stigmatized for heightened emotion throughout history. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that intense affect in females indicated a “wandering womb” (the word “hysteria” was later coined from the Greek word “hysterika,” meaning “uterus”). Western physicians later explained hysteria as sexual deprivation in women, prescribing “massage to orgasm” as the “cure.” In 1895, Sigmund Freud linked hysteria to sexual repression in women and developed psychoanalysis, in part, as the “cure.”

Fortunately, the last century has given us Erving Goffman’s Stigma, Michel Foucoult’s The History of Sexuality, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Nancy Chodorow’s Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistomology of the Closet, and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, to name only a few works placing traumas related to misogyny and homophobia in a social context, and spotlighting the subtle spectrum of anxieties lived by anyone other than a perfectly heterosexual, perfectly masculine, perfectly powerful, cool, calm, and collected man — a “stoic king” as opposed to a “drama queen,” a “he” vs. a “she.”

The American Psychiatric Association has helped maintain this binary of stoic, healthy “he” vs. dramatic, pathological “she.” For example, the APA’s third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM-III”) defined post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) as experiencing “an event that is outside the range of human experience.” This definition was challenged on the ground that the words “human experience” were, as psychotherapist Laura Brown wrote, viewed through the narrow lens of “the dominant class”: white, young, able-bodied, educated men (stoic kings?). In other words, to be understood as a victim of trauma, one would have to experience war, plane crashes, massacres, or events of such magnitude that even Bruce Willis’s Die Hard-ened John McClane character wouldn’t survive emotionally unscathed.

If that was the baseline for clinical trauma, what was the implied diagnosis for those whom society pressures to conform, to contort themselves, to keep secrets, or to conceal shame? How would we classify people who simply can’t walk our streets with a sense of safety because they are perceived as less than “manly”? Drama queens? Failed kings? (We might consider here that kings don’t “play” the role of “king”; their power comes from how they’re treated.)

The newly released DSM-V is more descriptive regarding gender than previous editions. It defines PTSD as the experience of events involving “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation” and acknowledges that women have a “greater likelihood of exposure to traumatic events such as rape and other forms of interpersonal violence.” While this is certainly a step toward greater empathy and understanding, the manual could go even further. It could, for example, acknowledge and describe various and specific states of helplessness, heightened affect, and hyper-vigilance into which people are rendered when they are targeted for being less than manly, or less than desirable to men. The little girl who is constantly ignored may seem as anxiously alert as the girl who is touched inappropriately or the girl who is told she is “ugly” and “fat” every day of her life. Or the boy who internalizes his parents’ palpable disappointment when he can’t catch a ball may seem as panicky as the boy who is called “faggot” every day of his life, or as the boy who is beaten unconscious for seeming effeminate, or as any of the aforementioned girls. Without making such scenarios explicit, we run the risk of dismissing signs of trauma for being mere flights of drama.

Not only are those who suffer from traumas of the “not boy”/”not man”/”not manly” variety oft-dismissed, but we also tend to laugh at them. In the SNL sketch referenced above, Bill Hader shrieks excessively in a high-pitched “girly” voice, expressing more emotion than appears necessary over the break-up of a two-week relationship, and disrupting the mellow masculine vibe at the firemen’s fundraiser by vogueing to a club song containing the lyrics “all eyes on me.” Clearly he’s “making a scene.” Hilarious! Or is it? At the same time, his intense affect, shortness of breath, blood curdling shrieks, and ungrounded body indicate the severe suffering of one who has been made to feel helpless and unsafe. Hader intends to make us laugh, but he commits to this character so deeply that a dark and complicated truth reveals itself beneath the comic veneer.

So why do we laugh at “her” when “she” clearly suffers? Many explanations have been offered across the centuries. According to Aristotle, we laugh out of contempt for the “ridiculous.” Italian Renaissance author Castiglione said we laugh at exaggerated “affectation,” while Shakespeare’s Hamlet advised the court actors to avoid a “whirlwind of passion” or else risk getting “whipped for o’erdoing Termagant.” (Termagant, incidentally, was shorthand for an overbearing woman.) English author Henry Fielding wrote that of the most laughable vices is “vanity.” Throughout history we’ve found it acceptable to laugh at another’s suffering if we can write them off as un-masculine, excessive, artificial, and therefore vain — and perhaps we’ve become conditioned to think these words are synonymous with each other. It’s certainly easier to dismiss other people with laughter — denying our own vulnerability (femininity?) by doing so — than to identify with their palpable plight.

Laughter isn’t the problem here, though. I laughed at Hader’s sketch; it was fresh and ticklingly uncomfortable. Laughter grabs our attention. It’s where we go next that matters — hopefully to a place of curiosity and empathy as opposed to one of contempt and derision.

As psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin writes, “[t]he recognition of pain and vulnerability, the wound to the phallic version of masculinity, offers a release: a letting go of the destructive illusion of … stoic loneliness and denial.” With white men leading in suicide rates among all demographic groups, we can safely assume that there is more suffering taking place than the “stoic king” persona allows for, and that there are far more “trauma queens” in need of recognition than meets the eye.

A final fleeting image from the 1998 Academy Awards: Italian actor Roberto Benigni accepted two Oscars for Life Is Beautiful, physically gesturing with exuberant “dramatic” excess. Later, the stoical writer Tom Stoppard accepted his Oscar for screenwriting and said, in calm, measured tones, “I feel like Roberto Benigni on the inside.” Like Stoppard, perhaps we can learn to recognize the “drama” and the underlying trauma we see in women and men not just as “hers” but as belonging to all of us.

Michael Douglas Liberates as Liberace

Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderberg’s highly buzzed-about final bow, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, has arrived on HBO, and it has made Douglas’ father uncomfortable. In an interview with ABC, Douglas said, “My father was uncomfortable with–,” before pausing. With what? With the furs and makeout scenes, to which the press constantly, anxiously directs our attention? Not exactly. The actor continued: “With my death scene.” Douglas had been diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer prior to filming Candelabra, so his mortality was understandably on his father’s mind. But with all the talk of these “brave” straight actors stepping into “flamboyant” roles, Douglas’ poignant admission may clarify the discomfort this film more generally evokes, revealing what lies beneath (or behind) male anxieties about homosexuality, feminine behaviors or anything we associate with vulnerability: the fear of death.

Fear of death “will culminate in a disparagement of the feminine,” writes professor Jerry S. Piven, explaining that internal conflicts that men have about women (e.g., lust vs. rejection, love vs. loss, power vs. vulnerability, etc.) are often “displaced onto those feared and detested women, and they become sirens, murderous temptresses … while the men gain moral victory.” Ironically, two of Michael Douglas’ iconic characters are seduced by “murderous temptresses,” in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. So when the press marvels at his “risky”/”risqué” turn in Candelabra, it may have less to do with him kissing a man than with his willful and thorough embodiment of a “temptress” (a seductively feminine rather than victoriously masculine character) and the great vulnerability he reveals, which we’ve never before seen from him. Perhaps it’s no accident that he embraces this effeminate role at a time when he has no choice but to confront his own mortality.

Douglas gives an emboldened performance, and though he consistently moves and speaks with a mellifluous, feminine sensuality throughout the film, what’s most uncanny is that he seems to be playing Michael Douglas. Rather than impersonate his sparkly subject superficially, his flame is lit from within, and as if by anesthetizing his own famously gruff, straight-leading-man-persona, he exposes a playful, gentle, compassionate version of himself. (Watching him in the role, one imagines that he understands Liberace’s vanity and struggle between public and private life much more deeply than initially meets the eye). As the complicated, glitzy piano man, Douglas is confidently life-affirming and love-affirming and boldly death-aware, reminding us, by contrast, that when we limit our expressive possibilities, we deny ourselves access to such empathy and creativity, instead perpetuating fear and hate (of death, of women and of those more vulnerable than ourselves).

Do all men have to wait for death to flutter so close to be allowed such freedom? Douglas praises his co-star, Matt Damon, for risking “career death” and taking an effeminate, gay role while still in his prime, but Damon is an outlier among his peers, and films about gay, effeminate or just plain vulnerable men are nearly nonexistent, even to this day. (Behind the Candelabra was turned down by every major film studio.) Are men and boys expected to limit their expression to forms of dominance and aggression until death taps on their doors?

Here we might consider the great resources within women: the willingness to play a range of emotions and gendered behaviors onscreen among them. Studies show that women cope with stress, grief and loss more openly and seek support (including mental health treatment) more frequently than men do, suggesting that they generally have a stronger grasp on researcher Brene Brown’s conclusion that “[v]ulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is courage.” If we allowed more men to believe those words, we might see fewer of them anxiously grasping at illusions of virility and impenetrability, as if to cheat death. We might see less aggression and derision at the expense of women, gay men, effeminate men and emotionally sensitive men. For example, when Ben Affleck presented an award to his good friend Damon before filming for Candelabra began, he felt the compulsion to facetiously impersonate Damon’s father, saying, “Terrific, Matt. I can’t wait to see you up there blowing Michael Douglas under a piano.” In contrast, Candelabra producer Jerry Weintraub says that while on set during a sex scene between Damon and Douglas, he turned anxiously to Damon’s mother, who simply stated, “That was beautiful.”

Hopefully we won’t view this as a masculine/feminine divide for long. The new Star Trek film, for example, indicates that men embracing vulnerability could be the way of the future. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (as Kirk and Spock, respectively) give wonderfully sensitive performances, and although we are reminded that their characters are both unquestionably straight (Kirk constantly flirts with every species of female, while Spock frequently kisses Zoe Saldana), the film is undeniably centered on the love story (or “bromance,” if you like) between the two men, both of them affected and changed by the possibility of the other’s death. This focus on a male/male emotional relationship only strengthens the story rather than weakening it, allowing both actors to play a variety of emotions, freely and without restraint. We can see more of this if we allow it. Men don’t have to be at death’s door, or play the most bedazzled guy who ever was, in order to express themselves with emotional freedom.

Michael Douglas’ performance as Liberace is vital, revealing what is possible beyond fear of loss, fear of emasculation or fear of death. Maybe soon we’ll see more leading men playing emotionally diverse roles and more films about women and gender-nonconforming people, and maybe more of these people will be able to play themselves. As for the rest of us, perhaps we’ll risk more discomfort as we perform our own lives, enriching them with vulnerability rather than enshrouding them in fear.