By Atreyee Majumder
The ancient queens supposedly had a rage chamber where they retired to perform their melancholy. Poor Ophelia, Hamlet’s neglected girlfriend, had no such luck. We live in a time when women pride themselves on being able to shrug off emotional ups and downs, pick up their pieces and ‘move on’.
But I propose a model of emotional habitation of the ancient queens. I learn from Hannah Horvath of the HBO show (directed by Lena Dunham who plays Hannah) Girls, who says to her very attentive and quite judgmental English-teacher boyfriend — ‘I am not too much, I am just enough’. Hannah Horvath is an indulgent, 20-something, writer-aspirant young woman in Manhattan/Brooklyn. She would shrug at Carrie Bradshaw’s life where her love of writing is coupled with an older-man-fantasy and expansive (and expensive) shoes and boozy lunches. Hannah runs out of money often. Hannah prides herself on paying attention to each and every impulse in her body and mind and leading it through to its logical conclusion. She loves like a child — petulantly and passionately. She makes light and dark of her extra 13 pounds. She flaunts body fat in a way that would make Carrie Bradshaw shudder. Her friends — the other three girls Jessa, Shoshanna and Marnie and her gay best friend Elijah — and the men she fell in and out of love with would often see Hannah as a ‘drama queen’ as ‘too much’. And Hannah declares that she is ‘just enough’.
We live with a legacy of shame and judgment of ‘drama queens’. I am guilty of calling myself and friends this pejorative term. So this essay grows out of a process of self-admonition. My friend E spent a week processing grief and loss. She decorated her apartment obsessively, naming a pouf after me, and wallowed. I found myself telling her in a parental tone, “E, fuck all that. Write your damn novel.” It’s what many boyfriends and my father would have said to me. I channeled many men in judging E’s outpour of grief and emotional excess. The word excess resounds outpouring — the imagination that something is fluid, and it spills out of its appropriate container, and exceeds its otherwise mandated model.
In admonition of myself for judging E’s excess, I wish to take a moment and ponder upon the reason — as in rationality — of the ‘drama queen’. Imagine being high and seeing bright colours and boats in the sea and being told that one is not seeing and feeling all that one is. The threshold of being stoned is denied by the one who views the world with clear reason. Clear-sightedness. Clear-mindedness. And what about this denial? It’s like us telling birds that spring is not coming even as they chirpily begin to assert the coming of spring amidst the remains of winter snow. It’s like telling dogs they are foolish for knowing there is a stranger at the gate. The clear-sighted, clear-minded man, sometimes women like me included in that bracket, are unable to comprehend the limitations of their lines of vision, their fields of smell, importantly, their emotional bandwidth. They come to firm up in the belief that their perception with all its limitation is the only handle of truth. It’s like when you exchange a glance in the morning train and tell a friend and he’s like no way, the man was reading his newspaper all the while. But no. It is a secret truth that the glance-exchangers will share. No outsider will have access to that truth. Whether or not, like Hannah, we choose to pay attention to the power of a glance on the morning train, is anybody’s guess.
We are all in some measure subjected to masculine conditioning. If we are men, then directly. If we are women, then indirectly, by taking seriously the perspectives of men as they assert those as truths. In all of this, the ‘drama queen’ is giving expression to a different rationality — an infra-reason. The power of this infra-reason is that it does not count colours in the rainbow. It takes in the full spectrum — in this case, of emotions — refusing the floodgates and boundary lines of where this ends and that begins. I once wrote an essay on reading black authors and was told it was too personal. Highbrow and personal must not mix. Work and angst must not mix. Grief and survival must not cross-fertilise. So this is an elegy to women in popular culture and literature who have taught me that ‘being too much’ is not only okay, it must be highly recommended as a way of being, a way of seeing. So hello again Adele, never let me go Laura Marling, and take a bow Hannah Horvath.
Let me push gears and generations now to take your attention to another Hannah. Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old high school student from the show 13 Reasons Why. I started watching this show while processing my grief at the ending of Girls. Hannah is a dead girl. We know her in her recounting of her intense, short life in cassette tapes. In long, excruciating detail. Of every slight, every hurt, carefully curated into narrative. Specific tapes are given to specific actors of her short life. Some friends, some enemies, an ex-boyfriend who molested her in a park. It is all teenage angst, some would say. I thought so too. She is a ghost. An indulgent ‘drama queen’. She makes ghosts of all the characters who could have taken note, paid attention, taken care of the fringes and ranges of their perception at various points, and chose to ignore. Chose to ‘block it out’ as wasteful thought, perception, words, actions. Block it out. Your therapist or know-all friend is likely to tell you so, and it might seem like a practical solution to deal with loss and pain. Move on. Pick up your pieces. Let things go. But the rainbow… the rainbow doesn’t tell you there are seven colours. The rainbow gives you a spectrum of light and asks you to make what you will out of it. Hannah Baker chose to tell her story in all its uncomfortable shades and textures and peculiarities. So much so that her erstwhile friends struggled to ignore and to digest the tapes. So this is the ‘drama queen’. You can’t ignore her for she tells a truth that you can’t perceive. You can’t digest her truth for you have already counted the colours of the rainbow.