The Art of Being "Extra": Finding Power in Doing The Most

The word “extra” has become a common phrase in our generation’s ever-expanding vocabulary. To best define the word, I would say it means that you’re doing too much, or “the most,” and being excessive. It’s bad to be “extra,” it means you’re trying too hard. It originated circa 2015 and is derived from the same place most of our slang terms come from these days, African-American Vernacular English, otherwise known as AAVE.

The world ran with it, which is already incredibly problematic regarding white people adopting (stealing) language from people of color. But there also are more overarching connotations that this word has. It could mean that someone is too loud, opinionated, or dramatic. It’s a word that’s often directed towards women (especially women of color) and the gay community, which puts a completely misogynistic and, not to mention, racist lense over the term.

I’ve definitely been called “extra” a few times in my life. I’m a loud, excitable person when I’m comfortable enough. Hearing someone say, “Oh my God, you’re so ‘extra,’” eyes wide and tone dripping with judgement, immediately has the the power to shut me up. I would grapple with myself in my own head, “How could I be accused of being ‘extra’? They’re being ‘extra’ by calling me ‘extra,’ right?”

So I decided to talk to other students about their thoughts on “extra”—whether they consider themselves “extra” or not and what they, themselves think about the term.

Senior visual media arts major, Meredith Nestor, explained her affinity for the term:

“I think being a little ‘extra’ in my daily life makes me exactly who I am—someone who cares enough about everything and anything to ‘over speak.’ I see being a little ‘extra’ as something that enhances the levels in which I think about detail to everything around me, until someone makes me feel bad about it. If I’m taking something not that serious too far, I’m having fun in doing so, so I truly don’t understand why someone is trying to make me feel bad for being who I am.”

Emma Newsome, a senior marketing communications major, brought up another point:

“I don’t consider myself as ‘extra’ but I’m sure other people do because I’m definitely loud and intense. I feel like a lot of people—especially younger women of color in white spaces who are more expressive—get called ‘extra.’ There’s something really jarring to us about women who are loud. And just calling it ‘extra’ obviously has a negative connotation.”

And why do we have to do that? Why do we police the behavior of women of any kind or anyone more “feminine” than your typical straight-white-cis-dudebro? As women, we are so quick to shrink ourselves, to not take up space, to apologize for making any sort of misstep. Men are allowed to be unabashed and loud. They are allowed to speak their minds, and they’ll likely receive praise for this behavior. Meanwhile, women are taught to practice restraint and passivity. And there is nothing wrong with having self-control, it’s an important part of how we communicate and behave. The point is, men can be emotional, assertive, and energetic and be seen as powerful. When women and queer folk do it, it is seen as hysterical, bitchy, and excessive.

This comes from the behavioral policing of the feminine, something that has always existed in patriarchal societies. The feminine is seen as inferior, and the masculine as superior so in turn, anything that a woman does is scrutinized.  

Claudia Castañeda, PhD, is a professor in the interdisciplinary studies department at Emerson, and teaches classes relating to feminism, gender, and sexuality. She broke down how masculinity and femininity pervades our societal norms:

“There is a patriarchal system in place that understands and reinforces the status of men as higher than that of women. So that functions through, for example, notions about biological make up, what is men's biological makeup and also their qualities and skills and capacities. So through valuing those things that are associated with men and devaluing those things that are associated with women, we get a system that is always situating men above women. It's a hierarchical system that maintains the dominance of men.”

This is why the gender roles that exist in our social structures produce terms like “extra”—to ultimately place these straight-white-cis men above anyone who isn’t traditionally masculine on the gender binary that was created by society.

This calls back to movements like the one started by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, #BanBossy, a campaign that influential women such as Michelle Obama, Christiane Amanpour, and Beyonce have supported.

Sandberg’s most famous quote, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills,” changed the perspective of so many, and got people thinking about why young girls are shut down so quickly from reaching their potential.

A movement such as Sheryl Sandberg’s directly links to words like “extra” and how they can so quickly shut women down from expressing themselves. We use these words to devalue any semblance of passion or pride that a woman might have. Our society loves to invalidate women’s thoughts, behaviors, and opinions so much that we don’t even bother listening to them half the time, which is so incredibly frustrating and exclusive.

Recently, I had a moment of clarity, and thought to myself, why am I so afraid of being perceived as “extra”? I should be “extra”. It is the most courageous and liberating thing to take ownership of your true self. We all want to live our most authentic lives, right? Why keep up with this “cool” facade we as a society has deemed acceptable? It’s just boring.

There are ways to unlearn this toxic way we have been taught to think. When I spoke with Castañeda, she mentioned, “The first thing that's important is to understand that the differences that seem to ascribe to male and female are not biological or natural. They're actually created by and for a system of male dominance. And it's not individual men who create the system. They’re born into it, but they do reinforce and reproduce it. And that happens through our institutions and systems of knowledge-making as well. Understanding that that is actually a function of oppression on women rather than our own weakness or failure or lack of value.”

So to my fellow women, people of color, and queer community, yes, you’re allowed to be excited about what you’re passionate about. You’re allowed to dress the way you want to. You’re allowed to lead the conversation every once in a while. Be loud. Be unapologetic. We have to deconstruct these roles that patriarchy has decided for us. And that goes for everyone (including you, straight-white-cis-dudebro). In a world where it’s a radical act to be yourself, do it. You’ll never turn back.