Our nervous system governs, and is governed, by our emotional reactions to outside stimulation. When in balance, the body may renew and heal—a stasis of safety in one’s physical form. Regardless of this occasional stasis, though, the system is still operating, the neurons still firing—a counterbalance of motion and rest working in conjunction, akin to a perfectly rehearsed dance.
Anger, too, is a function of neurons firing. Balance is disrupted. At its core, anger stems from a self-protective impulse. A reaction to a violation, a crossing of boundaries, an injustice. An innate, physiological response that, time and time again, women and queer people are told they are not allowed to experience; one that they must suppress. “When you follow that for the comfortability of other people,” says singer/actor, Dove Cameron, on the inequity of who gets to be angry, “your nervous system is taking hit after hit, whether it’s tiny or massive, whether it’s trauma or ‘just slight uncomfortability.’” The 26 year old is intent on embracing the healing power of anger to step into her full power as she embarks on creative endeavors, all of which espouse messages of empowerment.
Cameron credits her start on Disney (Liv and Maddie; Descendants) to her ability to make the statements—both personal and political—that she does today in the musical realm. For that, she’s grateful. “I hope,” she says with force, “through my music, that women and queer people are empowered, powerful, and pissed.” While Disney afforded the performer the platform that she now has, this didn’t conveniently equate to a smooth ascent. Cameron has been open about the fact that depression and anxiety are part of her life, and her experiences of thick trauma therein. With this, however, comes a conviction to work hard to help others. “I had so much unhealed and unprocessed trauma for so long,” she says, “that I think a lot of it in my adulthood has manifested as passionate, angry, directed work.”
Anger in the body, without being expressed “is what every woman and queer person in the States and around the world is told is the right way to handle themselves,” says Cameron. A literal shutting down of the nervous system’s innate response to threat. But anger can, and does, have a place, the artist attests. “When you become angry and you discharge that emotion, that’s when healing can happen,” says Cameron, “That’s when you can step into your full power, your full potential, your full communication mode.” That’s when you can make a difference.
Cameron’s editorial shoot—wherein she embodies eight different historical women bent on making their own difference—blends her own messaging and beliefs into the creative concepts behind and adjacent to her work. Through her embodiment of these women, Cameron seeks to highlight heroines—many of whom remain unsung heroes—she feels deserve more attention. Many of these women were all too frequently spoken about in the context of their male counterparts; philosopher and mathematician Émilie du Châtelet as Voltaire’s mistress, or poet and writer Sylvia Plath in the context of her abusive relationship with fellow poet Ted Hughes. Instead, Cameron plays a part in reframing and reclaiming narratives of “the most badass, risk-taking people,” spotlighting women who more than earned recognition.
Cameron’s most recent music video is a retelling of sorts, though instead of merely reframing a narrative, she subverts it. The video for Cameron’s most recent single, “Breakfast,” was slated for release shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Upon learning of the decision, Cameron was paralyzed. “I was more than terrorized,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe, it was like the whole world lost color.” The thought of having to rebuild fifty years’ worth of progress is a sickening thought—one Cameron could not simply push aside to promote a single. Upon telling her record label, Columbia asked her: what video do you want to make? “If I could say anything right now, it would be a big ‘fuck you’ to the Supreme Court,” Cameron decided at the time. So that’s exactly what she set about to do.
The video recontextualizes all-too-familiar images and themes of (wo)men doing housework; (wo)men degraded in the workplace; (wo)men hearing they ‘shouldn’t have provoked him,’ flipping the asymmetry of everyday situations to make clear the absurdity of this supposed normalcy. The portrait’s subversion is one which Gloria Steinem (“an icon,” hence Steinem’s inclusion in the shoot references) supports. Steinem reposted the video in what the artist describes as one of the greatest honors in her life.
The quick concept change meant filming the video in the throes of the verdict’s aftermath. “Me making the video was exactly what I needed to help process this,” she says. She affirms that she finds value in taking in emotions and information, mulling over them, and putting them back out into the world. It is, she says, her one superpower: “I’m able to phrase things in a way that people are like, ‘Oh, that makes sense to me, and before it didn’t.’” In processing—and allowing people to see her process of doing so—Cameron hopes to engender in viewers their own sense of identity, be it in the context of politics, music, art, self-expression, or autonomy. “I know that’s kind of a big ask, but that’s the feeling” she says with a hint of a smile. “That’s the hope, for sure. Empowerment.”
This lens on her own processing and thinking over doesn’t invite a sort of voyeurism of sadness. Quite the opposite, in fact. Cameron leans on camp and levity to impart her messaging. These have always gone hand in hand with trauma and pain for the singer—perhaps because of her history with the former, she says. In this, the camp elements of the video were important for Cameron. “You’re going to reach your highest point of evolution when you reach your lowest point of your ego,” she explains. “And I think that’s the same thing with camp and levity and pain, which is why I think a lot of people who have been highly traumatized—a lot of the queer community—actually find a lot of levity in celebration. Because the other side of that coin is immense pain.” This, too, ties into the subversion rife in the approach; by drawing out the camp, she doesn’t make the video palatable so much as digestible. “The camp allows us to [take in] a lot of the super disturbing stuff we’re watching without needing to turn it off,” she contends.
Through Cameron’s favorite look of the shoot, for the portrayal of Coco Chanel, she engages in a different type of re-contextualization: a sartorial subversion. On the surface, the look rejects expectations of the ‘classic Chanel look,’ Cameron describes the outfit as gothic, shapeless, and layered (no tweed in sight). She’s been finding empowerment in heavy garments as of late. “When you’re a young woman, you’re told that your entire value is your sex appeal,” she explains. “You’re told that your entire value is your looks, your fuckability, your marketability.” As a young girl, Cameron ascertained an inextricable link between performance and approval, as opposed to self-expression. That’s not to say Cameron doesn’t enjoy feeling sexual—she does—but she finds freedom in, as she puts it, “Relieving [her]self of the duty of feminine performance.”
Despite finding liberation in wearing clothes with personalities, she’d forgotten the influence of clothing, wigs, hair, and makeup on her persona. When stepping into the different looks, she found her body language changing. Not contorting into uncomfortable shapes like the fashion that once made her feel watched and uncomfortable, but moving in an expressive manner, grinning, appearing solemn, all depending on the influence of a given garment. This transformation was a reminder: “I was like, ‘Oh right, this is what I do, I’m an actor’,” she laughs.
Recently, Cameron’s been filming Schmigadoon! season two—the only shoot she’s been on recently given her focus on music. It’s a welcome working environment, she says, contrasting the social aspect of acting with the loneliness of music. “Music is just you and yourself all the time,” she says. “You’re looking in the mirror getting your makeup done. You’re going out to a crowd you can’t see. You’re in the car alone, you go back to the hotel.”
She speaks fondly of the community found on the Schmigadoon! set, recalling times sat in a tent with Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong doing bits about restaurants. “We basically put on SNL skits all day long, and it’s like we’re at summer camp,” she says. “What could be better than that?” Indeed, Cameron’s recent acting endeavors lean towards the joyous. “I have a weird thing with comedy,” she says on her pattern of gravitating towards the satirical. “That levity is something that’s very real for me and my nervous system.” An innate pull, she suggests, stemming from her propensity to connect with the absurd. Prior to Schmigadoon! (and with a COVID-induced pause), Cameron shot B.J. Novak’s recently-released Vengeance, a dark comedy/thriller.
Comedies may provide the laughter but, in Cameron’s experience, it’s the act of stepping into the shoes and soul of another that allows one to switch-off, even for a little. And in doing so, to put one’s own pain aside in experiencing the all-encompassing life of another. This is in stark contract with her musical endeavors. “Music is all about your identity and who you are and how you present yourself to the world,” she explains. “You’re being asked a hundred times a day how you feel, what you believe, what your style is, what your sound is, how you dress, what your message is.” Acting is the opposite. “You’re pretending to be someone else and hoping that none of who you are breaks through into that character,” she explains. Acting is like escape—“a literal and emotional one. I get to turn myself off.”
While acting can serve as a means of escape—or, at least, an attempt at getting away—it offers only a brief and transient respite. Particularly amidst Cameron’s busy music-driven schedule. Days before this interview, Cameron left the VMAs with a Best New Artist win. No small feat, nor one she expected. “I’m more than a little shocked, but very, very honored,” she gushes, happy to have been nominated, let alone awarded the win. All the more rewarding is that the song that played a large part in Cameron’s inclusion is one with a message close to her heart, both in content and reception.
“It’s such an overtly queer song.” She explains that “Boyfriend” isn’t anything special, attributing the song’s dispersion to the media’s embracing of queerness. “I think it’s beautiful because it means that the LGBTQIA community is becoming less of a ‘category’ of music,” she says. “Which I always thought to be limiting.” She likens previous iterations of this ‘category’ to a brand or aesthetic—one which “Boyfriend” notably rejects. Perhaps this rejection, Cameron’s refusal to explicitly differentiate (while very intentionally writing about her own experience as a queer woman), is something special.
For in this clever messaging, there’s potential to drive change. “I know I’m not reinventing any wheels here,” Cameron stipulates on the topic of making impactful pop music. But there’s room in pop to impart intentional, directed messaging into music that plays on the radio, or at the local supermarket. “See, that’s the one secret,” she smiles, “The whole funny thing about being a girl in mainstream media and looking fairly unassuming, it leads you to be able to make these grand statements and sneak them in [to the music].” It’s her MO, she says proudly. To make statements, not just to change minds, but to make people receptive to these (sometimes) covert ideas feel seen. “Anyone who can hear a song come on out in public and feel represented, what’s more magical than that?” she asks in earnest.
Cameron is forging her own path to success—one based on her own definition, the parameters of which society plays no part in demarcating. This, to Cameron, is what power is all about: “The self and autonomy and being unafraid, and not allowing anything else to have any sort of affect or hold over you.” Cameron hopes to help listeners (and viewers) to step into their own power, whatever this may mean for them.
It’s a hefty goal, one which the artist feels the weight of at times. “I have a habit, when I’m working a lot, of medicating with even more stimulation,” she reflects. “I’m like, social media, movies, TV, working out, go go go, caffeine!” And then she burns out, her nervous system overloaded. “What [it’s] doing,” she explains, “Is it’s trying to regulate all of the stress with an equal amount of stimulation so that I don’t feel depressed and sad.” While this deference to more stimulation is a coping mechanism to which many can relate, Cameron knows it can be counter-intuitive, so she’s found ways to move forward. “The thing to do when there’s so much noise is to get really, really quiet,” she says with resolution.
For the need to escape, to distract, to run, is not an uncommon impulse, particularly for young women and queer people living and operating in a post-Roe world. Yet this isn’t actually a desire to get away, Cameron contends. Even if it were, it’s an unattainable goal. “I have found that, in the same sentiment of ‘Wherever you go, there you are,’ there’s no getting away from yourself,” she says.
The only way to get away is, therefore, to become increasingly present within oneself. Not the most comfortable of endeavors, she cautions, but one well worth aspiring to. For in coming home to yourself, Cameron says, to become hyper-present, you can reach a place of awareness, of calmness, of steadiness, to reset. To restore the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. To once again get to work in this strange reality in which we continue to move and toil through. On what this work entails for Dove Cameron? “I want to create an army of empowered, educated, unafraid bad bitches,” she says with assurance. “That’s my goal.”
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