Jennifer Lawrence nails the histrionic personality in “American Hustle”

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Jennifer Lawrence made an interesting portrayal of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in the 2011 movie Silver Linings Playbook (actually, the whole movie is a bee hive of personality disorders). Her character, Tiffany, exhibits many of the textbook traits, such as lability, mood swings, splitting etc. The only flaw, in terms of BPD interpretation, is the uptone ending of the movie. Here, Tiffany ameliorates and ends up seemingly at peace and happy. This kind of personal development, though predictable from a viewpoint of cinematic drama, is, unfortunately, uncharacteristic for the disorder. BPD, at its core, is a state of chronic sadness and emptiness.

In American Hustle from 2013, Lawrence plays Rosalyn, the over-dramatic stay-at-home wife to the main protagonist. This is another fine cluster B impersonation by Lawrence, albeit with a histrionic flavor (HPD). Rosalyn employs sexuality, guilt, victimization and a range of other of strategies to get her will. “Passive-aggressive karate”, as her frustrated husband denotes it. Rosalyn can go from scolding to seducing him, literally seconds apart (and he can’t resist).

Rosalyn talks to her son and contradicts herself within the same sentence: “I don’t want to talk ill about your father, but he is an asshole”. This a an example of the fragmented self common for cluster B. Both statements are probably individually true for Roslyn, and the reason they don’t ring false put together is that they do not occupy the same cognitive space; they belong to separate fragments of Rosalyn’s personality that alternate as she speaks.

In one scene Rosalyn walks right up to a group of mobsters in a casino and brazenly starts flirting, right in front of her perplexed husband.

She is described as “the light of the party” by people around her, which is actually a common characterization of HPD in literature.

Later in the movie, Rosalyn deliberately leaks sensitive information to a mobster in order to get back at her husband. He subsequently gets kidnapped and almost killed, but escapes thanks to a last minute plan that fools the mobsters. After his return, Rosalyn now claims it’s him owing her gratitude, for making him come up with such a great plan. Voilà, a brand new narrative with her as the star.

Yet through all of this, Rosalyn is never portrayed as evil or even ill-intended. This is very skillful because while people suffering from HPD may and do cause pain and mayhem, they are nevertheless, in general, none of these things. Rosalyn is first and foremost a prisoner of her own anxiety and fears of being unloved and unseen. Like a permanent state of inner emergency. She is, much like a child, incapable of predicting or admitting bad outcomes of her actions, and even less so of taking responsibility for them. But these are issues of dysfunction, not malevolence.

Equally skillful, Rosalyn is never portrayed as someone who at he end of the day ultimately is all right and who can put her act together when it really matters. As if all that theatrics and oversexualization is something voluntary that can switched off at will. It cannot. As with BPD, the ailments of HPD are chronic and all-pervasive. In one of the final scenes, Rosalyn sits in her car next to the mobster-guy she flirted with and is now dating, complaining over a stiff neck she suffered when crashing into another car; seemingly experiencing some of the self-caused consequences she weren’t able to escape or re-narrate. As she drives away, her (now ex-) husband muses: “She will always be interesting”. He’s probably right.

Histrionics follow-up: Narcissistic antics in the aftermath of Army of Lovers’ flop

(Update)

There’s something of an epilogue to the aforementioned performance by Army of Lovers in Melodifestivalen. As it turned out, their showy number didn’t take them very far in the competition (one of the semifinals) as the viewers voted them to a meek 6:th place out of eight contenders. No doubt disappointing for the veteran trio judging from the promotions of this being their big comeback, of upcoming tours and so on.

Indeed, just days later band member Camilla “La Camilla” Henemark was abruptly kicked out of the band. She was ridiculed in the media for poor lipsynching during the performance. Shortly thereafter, Alexander Bard, the informal band head, tweeted:

If after three months you still can’t lipsynch two sentences, then collective therapy is useless, you need a brain transplant.

Bard didn’t explicitly mention Henemark’s name, but it wouldn’t seem like a very far cry to guess it’s indeed her he’s referring to.

So, why bother with this kind of gossip? Because it so picture-perfectly illustrates the idealization–devaluation cycle – one of the major defense mechanisms in reaction to narcissistic injury (suffered, in this illustration, by Bard and the other members due to the bands failure). Just consider the figurative Rise and Fall of La Camilla over just a few days; from being worshiped as a queen during the Melodifestivalen performance – to being dethroned, derided as an idiot and sacrificed on the public altar. Wow!

We certainly don’t know all the whereabouts in this little episode and it can all be just a big coincidence, but the symbolism just doesn’t get any more colorful than this.

Psychologically, devaluation is utilized to regulate wavering sense of self-worth, caused by a setback of some kind (narcissistic injury). By devaluating someone else, the perpetrator feels re-empowered and rejuvenated. It exists in most relationships in varying forms and degrees, but it’s more common in persons with narcissistic propensities (such as histrionics), due to their common trait of fluctuating sense of self-worth (and thus need for mechanisms of regulation).

hen2 Update: Well, bad goes to worse. During a recent club performance, the band – now with a replacement for the female lead – apparently brought a live size Henemark-impersonating sex doll on stage and placed it mockingly on a throne. According to spectators (and seemingly evident in the footage), Bard even stabbed the doll at the end of the show (adding a new meaning to the “sacrifice” mentioned earlier). Well, I guess the fun of it ebbs out just about here. No need to be implicative any longer: this is clearly a vicious, vengeful behavior from someone with deep narcissistic wounds.

Histrionicism in LGBT culture

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As expected, Army of Lover’s contribution to Melodifestivalen the other day was a spectacle of rank. Alexander Bard in his trademark school uniform and red beard, Jean-Pierre Barda with nipple accessories and a partial lion (?) costume. La Camilla sat on a huge throne in a pompous queen outfit, flashing her underpants with a cross pictured in a “peccant” place (in reference to outfits from earlier hits, such as her nurse outfit in Obsession). The song and show itself was about, in short, having na-na-na-na-na-na, i.e. sex.

In the introduction, the band members proclaim (freely translated & emphasis added):

Today, many artists cozy up to the LGBT movement – Army of Lovers is LGBT!
–The Queer! The Lesbian! The Transvestite! We’re just a bit confused about who’s who…

In attempting to describe the whole thing, depictions such as bland and boring aren’t exactly the first that comes to mind. Rather, something like the opposite: flamboyant, ostentatious, provocative. Fawning for shock and awe. In fact, a suiting psychological description would be of it as histrionic. Histrionic behavior is characterized by exhibitionism, attention-seeking, superficiality, sexualization, lacking sense of boundaries etc. The underlying mechanisms hereto are traced from, among other factors, an under-developed or diffuse sense of self-identity[1]. Is there any correlation between this type of personality and LGBT culture?

An apparent paradox with the LGBT movement is that while it is purportedly about acceptance and tolerance of non-normative (sexual) identities – Accept yourself for who you really are! – elements within the very same movement, such as self-proclaimed LGBT artists, TV-personalities, even the Pride Parade etc, seem to be the source of some of the most notoriously materialistic, stereotype-adopting (usually of female attributes) and otherwise identity-externalizing displays you come across in society.

Perhaps this escape into exaggerated personas is not an act of actual identity formation, but rather a demonstration of emancipation: Look! I can be anyone I want and You can’t stop me! Like an obstinate adolescent acting to establish his identity with respect to his parents. Here, for the LGBT-person, the prejudiced and heteronormative society symbolizes the parents from which he emancipates. That would imply, however, that this “flamboyant period” of narcissistic exploration is transient and subsides as the identity solidifies…

…seeing that the Army of Lovers band members are in their 40’s and 50s, they’d seem either to be stuck in their personal development, or to be cynically exploiting the process.

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[1] Histrionic Personality Disorder, Melissa Arthur LCSW MA