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She's so Trauma

Sometimes we have good reason to be dramatic

“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 the question: could he (or “she”) be the victim of a social trauma, the trauma of being viewed, treated, and dismissed “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" versus a ”she.”

The American Psychiatric Association has helped maintain this binary of stoic, healthy “he” versus 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 (feminity?) 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.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, L.C.S.W.


American Psychiatric Association. (1980). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Benjamin, J. (1988) The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books.

Brown, Laura S. (1991) Not outside the range: One feminist perspective on psychic trauma. American Imago, Vol 48(1), 1991, 119-133.

Maines, Rachel P. (1999) The Technology of Ogasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University Press

Nordgren LF, Banas K, MacDonald G. (2011) Empathy gaps for social pain: why people underestimate the pain of social suffering. Journal of Personality Social Psychology. Jan;100(1):120-8. doi: 10.1037/a0020938.

Rockett, I. (2012) Leading Causes of Unintentional and Intentional Injury Mortality, American Journal of Public Health, 102(11):e84-e92

Skinner, Q. (2002) 'Hobbes and the classical theory of laughter', in Visions of Politics. Volume 3: Hobbes and Civil Science. Cambridge: 142–76

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