On Theatricality

‘Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper.’ – Julia Child

In many, many of the books and articles I’ve read about girlhood, especially gifted or high-achieving girls, the issue of bossiness is brought up.  In “Who Cares if I’m Smart, Am I Thin Enough?” Linda Silverman argues that in children and adolescents, girls are called bossy when they are demonstrating traits that would be called leadership in their male peers. Worse, she found that girls are more likely to attribute their successes to luck, easy assignments, or teacher preferences and their failures to lack of ability. Showing authority is discouraged in girls, even though it’s a quality necessary for so many of the goals and achievements we also demand of them.

In my life, and I suspect in the lives of other girls, there was a similar dynamic surrounding my bent toward the dramatic. On good days I was passionate or enthusiastic. On bad days I was a drama queen (a phrase I loathe to this day). I never looked for drama intentionally.  I stayed out of trouble. But I felt things very strongly. I still do. A former roommate of mine observed that I pretty much live my life at a 10 of 10. This is a blessing and a curse. As much as it has enabled me to dive into my endeavors whole-heartedly and has brought so much joy and excitement into my life, it can also be exhausting for me and for others. I’m working on it. Balance is, in fact, terribly important to me.

My family would never let me forget the time on the long drive home from vacation when my cousin kept waking me up and I exasperatedly proclaimed, “I want to be alone!” It’s been over 15 years and the impressions continue. Think Grand HotelI’ve finally hit a point in my life when I think, “Hey, compare me to Garbo all you want.” At the time, however, it was so embarrassing (and I was really being a pill).

But there’s another side to this. When I was growing up, I loved The Unsinkable Molly Brown (see trailer below). That film probably has more of a grip on my subconscious than any other influence. Crazy, right? But when I’ve been at my lowest points, when I’ve wanted to give up, there’s a little Debbie Reynolds in the back of my mind that hollers, “I ain’t down yet.” Theatricality, drama even, can be an asset when you’re trying to change or persevere or make a difference or get on your own feet. Theatricality can do things that calmness just can’t. There is a powerful way that theatricality allows girls (and women) a sense of control over their own narrative. If you can shape your story, in theory you can shape your life.

What I am interested in here is the dynamic that plays out around girls’ theatricality and how similar it is to girls’ leadership. It seems to me that if a girl is doing something positive with her emotions she is called vivacious or passionate or enthusiastic or zesty or tenacious or perky. She is perceived as performing positive qualities. If her performance fails or if her feelings are inconvenient, she is dramatic, high-strung, or crazy. (You Are Not Crazy!) Let’s also not forget that so much of the entertainment geared toward girls is teaching them that to go unnoticed, to be boring, is as bad as not existing (*cough* Gossip Girl).

In Where the Girls Are, writing about Gidget, Susan J Douglas notes, “Perkiness, while at times nauseating, also allowed girls to take control, initiate action, and have some fun–even, at times, at the expense of boys.” Notice, perkiness here is performative. It’s an attitude, an approach, not necessarily tied to content. In a way, then,  there is a right and a wrong way to be yourself and this is confounding, especially if you’re still figuring out who you are. Glee’s Rachel Berry is a perfect example of this dynamic. When her passion and theatricality work for the Glee Club she’s lauded. Otherwise she is criticized and ostracized. What I love about this character is that she matures but she doesn’t betray herself.

As a grown up, Parks and Rec‘s Leslie Knope encounters a similar issue. So much of what Leslie does is theatrical. Think about the penguin wedding, or the smallest park, or the bowling event just to prove one voter wrong. What is great about the development of Leslie is that instead of just making fun of a highly passionate, committed, dramatic woman, the show has embraced those larger than life qualities in a way that doesn’t feel too caricaturized. And we love her more for it.

What do you think? Other examples? Experiences?

‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.’ -e.e. cummings

4 thoughts on “On Theatricality

  1. I do feel like my bent for the dramatic was squashed out of me at an early age, and I still have trouble dealing with the fact that I have strong emotions without feeling like I’m out of control. One thing about theatricality is that sometimes it seems like the only option a girl has in order to be heard or taken seriously, even though the theatrical performance often detracts from the seriousness. I say this as a girl who once started throwing things at a boyfriend in order to convince him that I was really upset about something he did (he didn’t seem to really believe how upset I was until I got violent, or attempted to in my “cute” feminine way).

    • The thing I like least about my own theatricality is when it intersects with anger. I hate being angry. So yeah, I’ve so been there.
      I’ve found that more often than not, however, it’s self-soothing. In college I realized that if I start reacting dramatically I usually figure out pretty quickly that I’m over-reacting and it becomes a comedic performance and I feel better. It took me years of angst to get to the silliness though.

  2. I have been called bossy and intimidating since the time I was in preschool. To my teachers defense, I did convince my entire class to play dress up and then I would judge my favorite based on my 4 yr old mood. However, I like your points!

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