Extra: a Gendered Term?

By Stephanie Carmody

Looking at Urban Dictionary’s definition of “extra,” I’m reminded of an older, but equally popular phrase: “drama queen.” Growing up, my mom (lovingly) called me a drama queen for what she deemed excessive or over the top behavior. I remember one time in particular when I was in desperate need of a pink flip phone as all the cool kids at school had them. Waving a gray Android flip phone in hand, I begged my mom to see the light. My pretty please with cherries on top received only soft chuckles followed by the phrase, “you are such a drama queen.” Yet, my mom never used this phrase for my male cousins or friends when they had “tantrums.” Whenever they overreacted, my mom tried to get at the heart of the problem, or she soothed them by saying that everything would be okay. I asked my mom about this recently because it was never something I really noticed as a kid. In response to my question about whether she would call a guy a drama queen, she looked at me rather entertained, tilted her head, and said matter-of-factly, “What guy would I call a drama queen?”

I had no answer for her; it seemed rather silly, the idea of my barely 5-foot-tall mom going up to a masculine guy and calling him a “drama queen” for overreacting. Yet, the humor of the situation draws upon an interesting societal belief regarding gender and behavior. Women are more often called phrases like “extra” or “drama queen” compared to their male counterparts. So often language is taken as fact, but it may hide some deeper, problematic implications. An examination of the phrase “drama queen” further demonstrates this, as together the words literally mean “play; act; perform” and “woman.” There is a direct correlation with over-the-top behavior and its expression regarding the female gender.

The term “drama queen” has faded from American slang (though my mom will sometimes fondly bring the word back into circulation), just like its predecessor “prima donna,” which was used for nearly the exact same reasoning and stands for “first lady.” However, the appearance of the new phrase “extra” seems to pay homage to its previous gender-incriminating ancestors–the same ancestors that suggest exaggerated behavior is a feminine trait.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know some fine ladies who own the characteristic of being “extra” and are proud of it—the kinds of girls who can rock high heels with t-shirts and blast their boyfriend’s infidelities on social media. While you can see this kind of girl strut into a room and declare to her best friends that she’s “so extra,” a guy would never do this. A guy strays from the phrase unless it’s used to describe him. Sure, he can be called “extra” for writing a novel for an assignment or going out of his way to get a girl’s number, but these are all singular examples; the word isn’t used to define

him in totality. While girls seem to embrace extraness as a biological character trait, for boys it’s more in the moment. The deeper implication is that extraness plays into the role of being female, which is just not true.

Helen Hu.jpg
Art by Helen HU

Unlike its predecessors, “extra” can be used to define both males and females. It’s the more politically correct term for anything over-the-top and thus the gender implications become slightly blurred. Despite being an umbrella term, “extra” is used more often in chastising female behavior. When the phrase is used to describe males, it is because there are often blatant parallels to what is considered feminine (ex. salt bae who defined “extra” is seen in a tight-fitting shirt and ponytail flamboyantly sprinkling his prime steak). “Drama queen” was used in much the same regard, becoming popular in queer communities. Feminine men were referred to as ‘queens’ for their flamboyant and effeminate behavior, but heterosexual men hardly ever merited this title. Instead of being called “extra” or “drama queen,” heterosexual men are often called “bold” and are praised for their exuberant behavior. Words often are used to draw distinctions, but this becomes a problem when clear derogatory connotations exist in one and not the other.

On August 27, 2017 (the day the U.S. went into a frenzy), Taylor Swift dropped her latest album Reputation. That day I was bombarded with articles that had titles reading along the lines of “Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ Video Is Here & It’s So Extra.” For those of you who have not seen ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ (you should do that right now), the song is about the infamous Kanye-Swift feud. The song represents Swift’s transition into a “smarter,” “harder” version of herself after her reputation had been tarnished. The video is laden with scenes of Swift exhibiting scandalous behavior from robbing a bank to leading a motorcycle gang.

“Look What You Made Me Do” radiates a kind of crazed femininity. Scenes flicker from Swift draped in a plunging red gown, gracefully poised on a golden throne to her digging a grave. The whole recording was a response to Kanye’s lyrics: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that b—- famous.” While Kanye walks away unscathed and his video is deemed “brilliantly batshit,” Taylor’s music video is chided for being “extra” and “vengeful;” I’m not defending “Look What You Made Me Do” as good music (you’d have to find another writer for that), but here “extra” is again seen describing a woman that takes a problematic situation and further escalates the issue in ways described as “irrational.” I have no idea whether Swift was sincere in how deeply angered she was or if the act was all for publicity, but for society instantly to dismiss her video as “extra” in a negative sense, when for the majority of Swift’s career this has not been her kind of music, is just another instance of this fallacy: the one that believes women are capable of being melodramatic and over-the-top regardless of the situation.

The physiological impact of this fallacy is one that I think many girls feel; even Beyoncé is not safe from this paranoia. Before Taylor Swift dropped her earth-shattering album, the world was shook by Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. This album, like Swift’s, was written as a kind of exposé–specifically to bring her husband’s infidelities to light. One of the most iconic scenes appears in the song “Hold Up.” Beyoncé dons a gorgeous, flowing yellow dress that highlights her feminine beauty, but at the same time she violently swings a bat at unsuspecting car windows. The theme of “crazed femininity” recurs and it is further prompted by the repeating lines: “what’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy? Jealous or crazy?” Beyoncé knows that any response will look anything but rational. After discovering something as deeply wounding as a loved one cheating, she still has to stop and think about a “correct” response. This fear that causes girls to pause and to question their behavior is due to the psychological impact of constantly being labeled as dramatic. Previously she sings that she “kept it sexy, you know I kept it fun.” That’s the side society likes to see from females: the playful, teasing, light-hearted female with a little mystery; to be otherwise—to be opinionated, loud, and angry is simply seen as unattractive; it’s dismissible and “extra.”

While “extra” can be used in mock appreciation—I will admit it’s funny at times—it is dangerous when used in describing behavior. It touches on the fear many females have of being dismissed for overreacting, for being simply “melodramatic.” The idea that “extra” denotes intrinsic over-the-top behavior is ridiculous and should neither be used as a dismissible explanation nor implicate one gender over the other. In the wise words of Albert Ellis: “There’s no evidence whatsoever that men are more rational than women. Both sexes seem to be equally irrational.” So, to all the girls who have to ask themselves whether it’s better to look “jealous or crazy?” to a situation that could be mocked by others as “extra,” I say be the queen you are.

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