A response to Emilia Clarke’s New Yorker Essay

Nicole Tone
Mar 21 · 4 min read

Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. How many times have you been asked this? How many times have you asked yourself this? For me, it’s a daily ritual, done before I even pick up my phone. I have to know where my body is, what type of day I’m going to be having so I can allocate my resources. Because some days there isn’t a way to get around the blinding pain of a migraine. Some days, no matter how much medicine and essential oils and every other trick to beat migraine pain I try, I can’t push through. And I shouldn’t have to.

Women and pain are trendy topics right now. Their battle to be believed, to be treated in a way that improves quality of life, is a topic that has been the focus of many recently published books and essays, such as Maya Dusenbuery’s Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick. But these stories aren’t new. In 2015, The Atlantic published an essay written by a concerned husband who had to watch his wife go through an ovarian cyst rupturing while the hospital staff wrote her off as “just having” kidney stones. In his essay, the author cites Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, publishing in 2014, and The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, published in 2001 in the Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics. So when Emilia Clarke’s essay describing how she pushed through pain she was sure was going to kill her, where I should’ve felt inspired, proud of her even, all I felt was betrayal.

There’s no arguing over the fact that Clarke’s story is an amazing one. She defied the odds, managed surgeries and recovery in time to get back to work. It speaks to how resilient she is as a human being. But, at the same time, the message her story sends is a familiar one: your pain isn’t as bad as you think, you just need to push through. After all, if Emilia Clarke can, why can’t you?

Of course, there are many factors that come into play when deciding how much pain you, personally, can take. For Clarke, perhaps it came down to being unemployed versus being employed: if she didn’t push through, she’d lose her source of income. She’d be letting down a fan base that is still growing today as Game of Thrones enters its final season. But isn’t that one of the main reasons so many of us push ourselves beyond the limits of what we should be doing — so we don’t let people down?

Financial situations are hard to navigate where pain and having to push through is concerned. But what we need to look is why there isn’t more support in place from companies and from our healthcare system for people who are suffering from excruciating pain. We, as a society, need to stop looking at pain as just another thing to be conquered. We need to stop looking at stories like Emilia Clarke’s as inspiration, but instead as a terrifying criticism of what people are expected to do for the sake of others. The most horrific part of Clarke’s story was when, despite telling her employers of her condition, she was still pushed to ComicCon, pushed to go do an interview when she was in pain and resigned herself to the idea that dying during an interview would be an okay way to go. “ As I stepped offstage,” Clarke wrote, “my publicist looked at me and asked what was wrong. I told her, but she said that a reporter from MTV was waiting for an interview. I figured, if I’m going to go, it might as well be on live television.” Clarke’s pain was dismissed so she could, instead, do a TV interview to help promote the television show she was in. Yes, she got through it, but why did she have to in the first place?

I don’t believe it was Clarke, or The New Yorker’s, intent to present a story that minimized and normalized pain. Yet, I still found myself questioning what was so wrong with me that I, too, couldn’t just push through on my worst days instead of questioning why the healthcare system keeps failing us. Why is finding a medication that only works to curb migraine pain 40% of the time an acceptable solution for my doctor? Why do I keep being told I’m just being too sensitive? But then I circle back around to stories like Clarke’s, and I know why. At some point, the energy that could or would go into fighting doctors and trying to advocate harder for ourselves has to go into daily living. So we keep on pushing through. Because that’s what’s expected of us.

Nicole Tone

Written by

writer, poet, novelist • book reviewer • seen on Hello Giggles, Femsplain, xoJane, Heels Down Magazine, etc. • For writing: ntommasulo@gmail.com

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