Over and over again, I see and hear it from friends and friends of friends. And you’ve probably heard it before, too. Statements like, “My daughter is such a drama queen” or “I’m so glad I don’t have daughters–they’re so much drama!” are common on social media and in face-to-face conversations. And I understand why this is the case. Our society maintains needless, groundless, and even dangerous gender roles and the institutions we all share, like education, media, religion, and others encourage us to cling to these gendered assumptions about behavior. So, I want to dig a little deeper into why the daughters as drama queens narrative exists, why this perception is so dangerous, and what we can do to stop this damaging cycle that hurts all children.
But first, one caveat. Our understandings of gender and sex are changing as we start to recognize the artificial binaries of male/female, boys/girls, and masculine/feminine. These binaries our society has constructed and encouraged are problematic, and there are plenty of people for whom the gender binary is restrictive or even painful. At the same time, this binary is the dominant organizing framework for how many people today still understand gender differences in roles and expectations. Changes in our ideas about sex and gender are happening, but it’s a slow progression and beyond the scope of what I’m addressing here, which is how gender and sex roles currently tend to play out in our country.
Okay, back to our discussion. So, how does this gendering of emotion happen? That’s a relatively easy one. Simply put, we encourage children who are reared as girls to express emotion and disallow children who are reared as boys from doing the same. Research shows that from the day they are born, we treat girls and boys differently. Girls are coddled and held more than boys because they are considered more fragile. When girls want to cry, we let them. And we encourage girls to play games and enjoy toys linked to relationships and emotions. We give girls dolls to mother, play kitchens to prepare food for others, and encourage role playing games such as “teacher” and “healthcare worker”, which are roles that encourage emotion and empathy.
Boys, however, are coddled and held far less. They are encouraged to wander and explore. They are considered less fragile and more strong. When boys cry, they are often told to stop it, to “Quit acting like a girl”, or to “Be a little man.” We don’t give boys dolls, we give them “action figures”, which means they don’t dote on GI Joe, they fight “bad people” with him. We also give them things like trucks, balls linked to different sports, and weapons. We encourage boys to play games of domination and competition like sports, “cops and robbers”, and “war”.
And here’s why all of this is so important. Research tells us that children understand gendered expectations (like a girl understanding she “should” choose a doll over a truck) by the age of two or three. Yes, you read correctly. Our children understand a lot of our gendered expectations of them by the time they are two or three years old. Thus, we can’t be surprised when by the time they can walk and choose their own toys and games, they choose the very ones we’ve encouraged implicitly and explicitly since the day they were born. So, that’s the first piece of all of this. We very much train our girls to emote and discourage the same behaviors from our boys and we often do it without even realizing it.
Our kids spend years with these gendered messages about how they should and shouldn’t behave and what they should and shouldn’t do in terms of play and those messages stick with them as they enter adolescence. And during adolescence, while hormonal changes differ between boys and girls, those changes are just as dramatic and unsettling for boys as they are for girls. That is, testosterone and estrogen both wreak havoc on our bodies and even our brains as we mature. In addition, both boys and girls are dealing with the same pressures of fitting in, getting along, finding themselves, and finding their places as emerging adults. All of these physical changes and socialization pressures fall equally on boys and girls, but how they deal with these changes is often quite different and this gets us to the crux of the issue.
As adolescents are going through all of these physical and social changes, because girls have been taught that it’s okay to emote, they tend to do so more. And because hormonal changes are impacting them at the same time as they are working through complex and, in the age of social media, possibly really negative socialization processes, they often communicate serious emotional issues in what is perceived as a very dramatic fashion–hence the emergence of the term “drama queen” to identify adolescent girls. But here’s the thing: Boys are going through just as much as girls and they are impacted by hormonal changes just as much as girls as well, but they are not encouraged, or sometimes even allowed, to emote. Both girls and boys can be negatively impacted by these tendencies. For girls, we roll our eyes at their “drama” and perhaps don’t take it as seriously as we should (and tell them their being “drama queens”) and for boys, we let them go through the trauma of puberty-linked changes and the very difficult process of middle and high school socialization without the kind of permission we’ve given girls to communicate their pain and other emotions.
And here’s where things get really bad. Even though we don’t typically encourage boys (and men) to talk about their emotions or pain, they communicate it anyway and they often do so in ways that can be self-destructive. Boys tend to “prove” their masculinity by externalizing pain and suffering rather than internalizing it and dealing with it in more healthy ways. Depression-linked symptoms for males often include anger, aggression, substance abuse, and risk-taking behaviors. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that males engage in higher levels of risky behavior, including heavy drinking, driving that leads to car crashes, using drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamines, owning firearms, and drinking and driving. Moreover, physical aggression may be an attractive option to males because it is often a publicly visible option of communicating emotion that speaks to our dangerous definitions of “masculinity”. Suicide was the seventh-leading cause of death for all men in 2014 (CDC), while not even registering in the top ten causes of death for all women that year. And it’s likely that suicide is more common among men, in part, because the rules of masculinity require men to act on problems, to eschew dependence on anyone else, and to avoid concern for their own emotions while at the same time making it difficult for them even to talk about their problems, much less seek help for them. And all of this starts, to a large extent, with our culture’s insistence of harmful gendered expectations beginning before our children can really even talk.
So, rather than lament your daughter’s “drama” and calling her names like “drama queen”, be thankful that you’re hearing about her difficulties, regardless of how ungraceful that communication may be, be grateful that it’s being processed by your daughter and that the communication of that trauma allows you the opportunity to intervene. In addition, we need to encourage our sons to do communicate their emotions and pain, no matter how ungraceful that communication may be. Adolescence is dramatic and traumatic for both boys and girls and their communication of that trauma is likely to be clumsy, inelegant, and even impolite. But when we lament or make fun of the communication of a girl’s pain and discourage that type of communication in boys altogether, all children lose. And parents lose, too. They lose the ability to better bond with children, to teach children better ways of communicating and dealing with pain, and to discourage the kinds of gendered ideas about the communication of emotion that can lead to detrimental and even tragic consequences, especially for boys.
So, please, I beg you: Stop normalizing making fun of girls and how they communicate their emotions with epithets like “drama queen” and stop normalizing the expectation that boys don’t have “drama” or aren’t “dramatic”. All adolescents are dealing with pain and trauma at a time when their physical bodies are changing dramatically and they are trying to figure out who they are. In addition, unlike the majority of us when we were growing up, they are doing so during a time when social media can make all of their problems and trauma public, often through no fault of their own.
The great thing about gender roles and expectations is that they are socially constructed rather than “natural” (remember at a time when women couldn’t wear pants in this country, men were wearing powder on their faces and wigs). Gendered roles and expectations are learned, which means that they can be unlearned. And that also means we can take steps to teach all kids how to play, act, and engage as humans, not as “males” or “females”. We need to be willing to make these changes in our own thinking and teach the children in our lives to do the same. Their mental health and even their lives can depend on our willingness to do so.
- My thanks to Dr. Lauren Jade Martin, associate professor of sociology at Penn State Berks for her helpful editorial comments.
- Some of the arguments about gender and health are laid out more carefully and fully cited here: Ramsey, E.M. (2017). Gender as a consideration when designing health and risk messages. In Encyclopedia of Health and Risk Management Design and Processing. Parrot, R. (Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 37-56.