What We Mean When We Call Women “Drama Queens”

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What We Mean When We Call Women “Drama Queens”

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The threat of a woman who challenges the status quo

There’s a long history of weaponizing words to maintain the status quo – particularly against women. From “spinsters” and “witches” to modern-day tropes like the “drama queen”, which new “Too Ambitious” contributor Annie Midori Atherton is breaking down for us today.

Annie is a writer, content producer, and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are. Please join me in welcoming her to “Too Ambitious.”


Imagine two different work scenarios.

In one, an event planner is hosting her biggest conference of the year, only to find out that the catering company completely botched the order. After panicking for a minute, she snaps at the caterer, saying, “Listen, this is not okay. You have to figure out how to fix this.”

In another, a film producer shows up to a shoot to find that the venue was double-booked. He turns to the person responsible and barks, “You’ve got to be kidding me. These kinds of mistakes aren’t gonna fly and if that means eating the cost, then that’s on you.”

Which of these people would we respect more?

Research suggests that the event planner simply by being a woman who dared to show anger would be viewed as less deserving of status and power in her job. Meanwhile, the man would merely be considered a competent leader. It’s a classic case of double standards.

In our society, we have a word for a women who share their bad feelings too openly: “Drama Queens.” It’s a label that has no male equivalent (an easy shortcut for recognizing sexism in everyday language).

And though it’s often said jokingly, any gendered insult – especially when used in reference to a woman’s work – reinforces stereotypes that undermine women in general.

The danger with any label is that it leads us to write off someone’s behavior as a symptom of their being a “certain type of person.” We roll our eyes at the event planner, saying “she’s just a drama queen” rather than, say, a reasonable person responding to a frustrating situation.

One study actually showed that when a woman reacts emotionally, both men and women are more likely to attribute this to her personality (like that she’s “out of control” or an “angry person”), but when a man does the same, we give him more grace, attributing his reactions to circumstance.

While some people call men drama kings, it’s far less common. More often, people simply apply the term to men they want to insult, such as when Bill Maher called Trump an “aging, unstable, drama queen.” Much like when men are called sissies, using drama queen on Trump works as an insult because it’s feminized. The assumption Maher makes is that no man would want to be put in the same bucket as a woman, let alone an obnoxious one. Hence, “drama king” just doesn’t hit the same.

Other words like “diva” and “high-maintenance” have the similar effect of undermining a woman who makes demands and gets upset when those demands aren’t met.

In reality, women are no more emotional than men.

Lest people still question this, a 2021 study that tracked 142 men and women found no meaningful differences in their emotional fluctuation. One study even suggests that men display anger more often than women.

Yet the misconception persists, as does society’s tendency to punish women for displaying negative emotions. This is perhaps why a YouTube video titled simply “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Drama Queen!” has garnered more than 470,000 views.

Liz Coleclough, PhD, LICSW, a social worker specializing in trauma therapy told Verywell Mind, “Women are ‘allowed’ to be emotional—but also must exhibit the right kind and level of emotion. Crying is acceptable. Anger is not.”

In instances where the “drama” a woman dares to raise is truly nefarious – say, sexual harassment or racism in the workplace – how dangerous that we have such a readily-available label with which to discredit them.

While the term drama queen is fairly modern (its first known use was in 1923), Western society’s tendency to treat women’s emotions as a problem reaches far back into history. For centuries, physicians commonly diagnosed women with hysteria, a vague medical condition that included, among many other symptoms, anxiety and “a tendency to cause trouble for others”. With roots in ancient Greece (hystera means uterus in Greek) wherein some believed the uterus could float around the body causing all manner of problems, the idea of hysteria evolved along with western medicine. In the 18th century, a prominent French physician described hysteria as a form of emotional instability and claimed that it rarely affected men. In the 19th century, doctors recommended an array of cures for hysteria ranging from marriage and pregnancy to something like assisted masturbation and in extreme cases, institutionalization. By the 20th century, Freud incorporated the concept into his theories of psychoanalysis. Eventually, diagnoses declined, but as recently as 1980, hysteria was a formally studied psychological disorder that could be found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Drama queen is not the formal diagnosis that hysteria was, but both terms grow from the broad soil of cultural perception that women can’t control their emotions.

So when we wield this insult against women in power, we’re hurling with it centuries of accumulated baggage.

If you enjoyed this column, you might also like:

What We Mean When We Call Women “Spinsters”

What We Mean When We Call Women “Witches”

If you have an experience of hearing or seeing a woman vilified her power and independence, drop it in the comments. And if you know someone who can relate, please share.

Image: Peter Dazeley/ The Image Bank via GettyImages

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