I heard Dodie Bellamy use the terms “emotional porn” and “operatic suffering” recently on her blog and I love that. I recently wrote on my blog about “emotional excess” in relation to the films of Andrzej Żuławski, and I’ve just been thinking–I love things that are flamboyantly and unapologetically emotional. It makes me think of teenagers. Since crossing over into my 20s, I look at teenagers and feel kind of embarrassed for them. They lack emotional filters. They’re so direct about their suffering. They’re making themselves look pathetic. But really–I kind of envy them, their lack of restraint. It must be really freeing to be that open without feeling the urge to censor yourself.
When I was in high school, I used to call a certain type of girl a “Plath Girl.” For me, the Plath Girl was white, upper-middle class, educated, a perfectionist, melodramatic, mean, and incapable of feeling joy. I guess I still used this term in college…isn’t that fucked up? This is my therapeutic admission of my fucked-upness. Yes, now I remember. There was a girl I thought was cute and I asked her on a date. She always wore black eyeliner and had a Virginia Woolf tattoo. I thought we could go to the airport and watch the planes take off but she was like, why don’t you just come to my room? When I went to her room, she did lines of coke off her desk while ranting about how much she hated everyone, how depressed she was at school, and before I knew it, she had left me so she could hang with other people. When my friends asked me about the date, I think I just said, “turns out she’s quite the Plath Girl.” (But was this an incorrect categorization? Did the tattoo mean she was actually a Woolf Girl?) Really, I think the Plath Girl is kind of sexy. She has direct access to her emotions and isn’t ashamed to show her bitterness or depression. (I am also involuntarily turned on by emotionally volatile people that can sometimes be cold to me. Perhaps it is a masochistic impulse.) There is certainly a performative element that pervades this kind of outward display of emotion, but that doesn’t mean it’s just some stupid act.
I think I was too awkward, ethnic looking, and weird growing up to be a Plath Girl even though I was teeming with emotional excess. I was more of an Alien Girl. A little Bjork or Yoko Ono. (Imagine what kind of babies the Plath Girl and the Alien Girl could make. Horrifyingly self-destructive and obsessive babies, I imagine.) Nobody is more emotionally excessive and operatic than Bjork. She epitomizes performative emotional excess. Her emotional affectedness is so over-the-top that most people can’t even stand to listen to it. Needless to say, I had an unhealthy obsession with Bjork that peaked when I was in 9th grade. When nobody was home at my house, I would blast her music on the stereo and scream her songs on the top of my lungs–the building symphonic ones with the violins and wailing vocal crescendos. It was my emotional porn.
What I love about Dodie’s terms “operatic suffering” and “emotional porn” is that they lack self-seriousness while still holding onto the idea that there is emotional truth within the performance of excessive emotion. There is an element of self-mockery and self-parody that come with these displays. I am utterly fascinated by literature and art that, like I wrote on my blog, straddles the “line between extreme seriousness and complete self-mockery,” the type of literature that puts on emotional drag, but doesn’t let you know what’s beneath the drag, whether or not you are supposed to laugh, take it as a joke, take it as sincere, feel embarrassed for the author, or some combination of all these things. I am reminded of Ariana Reines when she wrote, “I wanted to write poems that an educated person would feel embarrassed to read, poems that sound like Goth girls with feelings, except for sometimes they are ‘smarter’ than Goth girls with feelings are supposed to be.” The character Maggie in Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel also comes to mind.
The thing about performative emotional excess is, it’s not fake. As in, she’s not faking it to get your attention. She’s reveling in it, playing it up. She loves it and isn’t afraid even if she knows it might make her look pathetic. By exaggerating this type of direct articulation of emotion, we can explore the emotional worlds that are denied to us when we pass into our 20s and beyond. We exaggerate it to the point of absurdity, and we may do this to cover up the fact that we are still these over-feeling and fucked up human beings, and we have these little pimply and confused teenagers inside of us yelling and demanding a voice but we hush that voice–we have co-workers and editors and readers that are always eyeing us, looking for the places where the seams of the adult bodysuits are coming undone.