How Does Trauma Change Identity?

by Angel Michelli for Prof Hallstein's Rhetoric Class

Most people can see that traumatic experiences such as war, torture, or kidnapping can have a profound effect on the social skills, violent tendencies, and paranoia of victims after returning home. The problem with people’s perceptions of trauma victims is that they still believe that those victims are the same people that they were before. The reality is that trauma victims, depending on the severity and nature of the trauma, can be changed to the point where they can only identify themselves as existent in relation to the trauma. The question here is: how exactly does trauma change our identity? This new identity can lead to violence and anger, but it can also lead to changes in masculinity and perceptions of justified behavior; in order to understand how trauma affects victims, we must understand that they form a traumatized identity, which utilizes combination masculinity to cope with and hide the trauma, and creates the idea of justified violence to warrant using violence for survival and/or settling conflict.


This paper’s media artifacts are several episodes from the television series Arrow, particularly “Pilot”1, “Damaged”2, “Dodger”3, and “Salvation.”4 Each episode involves the vigilante known as “the Hood”, whom the audience knows as billionaire Oliver Queen, fighting to protect the poor in his hometown of Starling City. The primary story arc follows the Hood bringing justice to the people on a list of names of wealthy men and women whom his father believed had failed the city, and, at the same time, he is trying to stop an unseen foe from bringing about a terroristic event known as “the Undertaking.” Two of these episodes also introduce the story of Roy Harper, a troubled young delinquent from the slums of Starling City, who must steal to survive because of his socioeconomic disadvantages. Some controversy has surrounded the series regarding Oliver Queen’s willingness to kill and often torture his enemies. However, creators and the lead actor himself, Stephen Amell, have stated that killing enemies is a realistic character flaw that was necessary for the show.5 The difference between murder and justice is one of many important themes that the show addresses, along with post-traumatic stress, identity disorders, and different types of masculinity.


In order to analyze these themes, I used a method known as “generative criticism,” which creates a new method of analyzing a media text deviating from traditional methods of analysis, essentially creating your own method of analysis that is perfect for a specific text through the use of “explanatory schema” terms. These schema terms are used to organize your ideas about your text and interpret it from different angles of thought. According to Foss, by using generative criticism, you “generate units of analysis or an explanation from your artifact”6 rather than creating an explanation for your artifact. To analyze my text, I looked at storylines involving personal struggles after returning from five years on a deserted island, Oliver’s changes in identity and masculinity after coming home, and struggles between the upper and lower classes in Starling City. Spending five years in isolation has given Oliver a whole new identity, and he is now trying to help right the wrongs that the upper class has done to the lower class in his city by challenging the authority of the powerful and privileged. At the same time, we see this lower class struggling to get by, turning to violence and crime.


Traumatized Identity

After a traumatic experience, individuals often have trouble identifying themselves in relation to their life before the event and therefore form an identity based on that event. By creating a new identity that closely relates to the traumatic event, the traumatized individual creates a subconscious mechanism to cope with post-traumatic stress.

After traumatic events, people are never the same because their entire sense of self is heavily influenced by the details of the event. Oliver Queen identifies himself with the survivor he had to be on the island by becoming the Hood after returning home, remaining a warrior rather than becoming his former self; he says that “to live [he] had to forge [him]self into a weapon.”7 Many trauma victims go through similar identity crises because memories of the event are heavily integrated into their minds. Although most researchers believe in the difficulty of processing traumatic events in relation to post-traumatic life, Berntsen and Rubin argue that traumatic events are significant enough to create “a cognitive reference point for the organization of other memories and for generating expectations for the future.”8 Victims have trouble moving on because the event is difficult to forget. By understanding this heightened integration of memory, it is easy to see why veterans and survivors have trouble adjusting to a normal life after returning home.

Moreover, trauma victims often have feelings of reliving the traumatic event due to lingering memories. When Oliver is sleeping in his bedroom during his first night back home, he has a nightmare of the night his yacht crashed when he watched Laurel’s sister, Sara, die. He awakes from the dream terrified and attacks his mother.9 Oliver was reliving the event because many similar events had occurred over the last five years. Increased frequency in traumatic memories can trigger these reliving events. One study found that, in some cases, that with more severe or frequent symptoms of PTSD “there is an increase in reliving.”10 Thus, the constant reliving of the event is the reason why traumatized identity is able to form: the memories are so deeply integrated into victims’ minds that they define their reality and make them unable to properly readjust to their old lives.

Furthermore, trauma victims cannot identify with their old life because no one at home understands their experiences, making them feel alone in their struggle. The Queen family and Oliver’s ex-girlfriend, Laurel Lance, do not believe that Oliver could ever be the Hood, even after he is arrested on several charges, including vigilantism; the Queens still just see him as their son, while Laurel believes that he is still too selfish to be a hero.11 The Queens and Laurel cannot see that Oliver is different now, just like veterans and survivors often have a score of personal problems hidden beneath the surface; PTSD does not just involve bad memories, but rather “extends beyond the signs and symptoms of the disorder to multiple domains of functional impairment,” such as compromised physical health or unemployment.12 The fact that no one can understand these changes is why victims retreat so far into themselves; they become someone strong who can deal with the trauma because they are doing it alone.

Combination Masculinity

Following the formation of traumatized identity, victims form a new type of masculinity combining several other types of masculinity, such as violent masculinity, face-off masculinity, and veteran masculinity. Combination masculinity can be utilized during traumatic events for survival and conflict resolution, as well as to hide the effects of post-traumatic stress.

Men often adopt a form of masculinity that conforms to society’s traditional norms of what it means to be a man. For example, Oliver conformed to the masculinity of a playboy during much of his relationship with Laurel when he was cheating on her with her sister, Sara.13 Many young boys do this because they believe that commitment is needless or undesired as part of what it means to be masculine. Aligned with this idea of masculinity, Burn and Ward’s study provides evidence that men most likely cheat on their significant other because conformity to playboy masculinity “appears to be at odds with satisfaction with a monogamous relationship.”14 These men are just not fully satisfied with being tied to one person, so they look for emotional and sexual fulfillment from multiple sources. This stage of masculinity is common before a traumatic event, and by understanding it we can understand why that masculinity may change in the aftermath of trauma.

Furthermore, when faced with violent trauma, men feel that their old masculinity is inadequate and must adopt a new masculinity defined by violence and intimidation in order to survive. The Oliver Queen of the present day is a violent vigilante whose masculinity has clear elements of the face-off, violent, and veteran forms of masculinity. However, the Oliver Queen seen training with his mentor, Yao Fei, on the island was someone who couldn’t even fire an arrow at a tree.15 Oliver’s attempt to hunt in this scene demonstrates a desire for a masculinity that can help him to survive and keep him from feeling vulnerable in dangerous situations. Men like Oliver must create a new form of masculinity that keeps them from being vulnerable and ensure their survival because experiencing trauma can be “more dangerous to masculinity in that it is dependent upon a considerable loss of control.”16 This control is something that every man believes he has, so when he loses it, he must adopt a new masculinity that can help him regain autonomy. Realizing the importance that masculinity has in relation to survival makes it easy to understand why trauma victims adopt combination masculinity.

Consequently, the elements of combination masculinity include violence, anger, and fear, which can lead to intense violence and repressed emotion in order to better deal with trauma. Oliver displays the ability to repress his emotions when he abandons a beaten, tied-up man on the island just because he may be a threat.17 Still, he is afraid of what rescuing the man could mean for him, sorrowful because he has to leave him, and likely angry and terrified that he has become the kind of person who would leave someone bleeding in a cave. Many times, trauma survivors cannot talk about an experience like the one Oliver had because conveyance through words just seem like they are “incapable of representing the physical and emotional sensations experienced”18 during the event. By understanding that combination masculinity allows for emotional suppression and why it is necessary, we begin to understand why it is an effective means of coping with trauma.

Justified Violence

The new masculinity created through traumatized identity involves aspects of violent masculinity, which uses violence to settle disputes and survive in a society governed by hegemonic views of masculinity. Therefore, when faced with a traumatic event, victims may adopt a form of justified violence that sees violence as morally acceptable in situations involving justice, survival, or resolving conflict.

Victims of violence who commit violence must dehumanize their victims or opponents due to the difficulty of committing violence against those they can empathize with. Oliver often dehumanizes the rich men and women that he targets to make violence and intimidation easier. If Oliver begins to humanize them, then he can no longer do what needs to be done to obtain justice. This is demonstrated when his tech expert, Felicity Smoak, points out that one of his targets, Kurt Williams, has a son.19 Without this information, Oliver might have dehumanized Williams and killed him if he did not cooperate. By dehumanizing our enemies and seeing them as weak, subhuman, or sometimes evil, violent behavior can be justified. To paraphrase the views of Judith Butler, this willingness to dehumanize can be especially dangerous because the human body is characterized by mortality and vulnerability, and we are therefore extremely vulnerable “to touch and to violence.”20 When survivors return home, they remember how they had to be violent and repress emotions involving guilt or sympathy just to stay alive. This explains how justified violence can be justified and why it continues.

Additionally, violence may feel justified in settling conflict because other means of obtaining justice are not functioning adequately. On Arrow, a vigilante known as the Savior begins killing tenement owners and politicians in the Glades because he feels that the upper class has been taking advantage of people like him for too long.21 It is well known that the upper class can sometimes take advantage of the lower class in order to maximize profit. This can be done because, when the upper class judges the lower class, they are unable to empathize with them and do not see them as fully human; this dehumanization based on status can allow the upper class to more easily commit violent or immoral acts toward the lower class because “they unintentionally strengthen the association between the outgroup and animality,”22 basically seeing the lower class as nothing more than cattle to be moved at will. This injustice after a violent traumatic experience can lead to violent forms of justice such as those carried out by the Savior. Since trauma victims often feel alone in their struggle, feeling that society’s justice has failed them will only cultivate violent responses to injustice.

Furthermore, it is so easy to accept and carry out justified violence because violence is cultivated by society as the primary means of resolving conflict. Young boys like Roy Harper believe that the only way to survive poverty is to take what you need through violence and intimidation.23 They believe their situation is hopeless and that they need to prove themselves because the world has made them believe that. Hegemonic masculinity is one that normalizes violence, and thus young boys often feel that there is no alternative way to solve disputes or survive in today’s world. Since our society is so dominated by hegemonic ideals, many perceive violence “not as a last resort, but as the go?to method of resolving disputes.”24 Since violence is cultivated in such a way by society, justified violence is also cultivated. This cultivation explains why violent crime is so prominent today, particularly those crimes committed by men.


If my analysis of this text is reasonable, then, I have discovered how identity, masculinity, and perceptions of violence can be altered when faced with significant events. Traumatic experiences create memories that victims cannot ever let go of. By trying to forget these memories, they only remember them more vividly and completely. This creates a new form of identity in which victims can only define themselves by their traumatic experiences. Within this new identity, particularly in men who have been through violent trauma, we find a new form of masculinity characterized by emotional repression, internal anger, and new tendencies and justifications for violent behavior. Family and friends of these victims do not always believe that these changes have occurred, which only amnplifies the change, since victims are forced to deal with their new identity without outside support.

Moreover, understanding traumatized identity, its causes, and its consequences helps us to understand different ways that identity can form. Violent traumatic experiences seem to form a new type of violent masculinity characterized by an instinctual need to survive. If this is true, that means that identity can be completely, or at least quite significantly, changed by a powerful enough experience. This shows a new side of how identity can form. Understanding how those who went through violent trauma change also provides insight into a different kind of post-traumatic stress. Oliver Queen appears to function normally because he has had two normalized lives: Playboy Oliver Queen and Shipwreck-Survivor Oliver Queen. The latter seems to be able to mimic the mannerisms and masculinity of the former very easily, hiding the post-traumatic stress from friends, family, and significant others. This means that it is possible that some who are suffering from PTSD may be suffering alone in need of treatment. There may not even be visible signs of the disorder in many victims. A strong understanding of how this new identity forms can provide implications for new methods of treatment because psychiatrists can understand that the sign of the disorder may be worse on the inside than they appear on the surface.

Conversely, a problem may be presented with this new hypothesis about traumatized identity. The fact is that most, if not all, war veterans do not dress up in costumes at night to fight crime in the real world. Since this definition is primarily based on Oliver Queen/The Hood, it could be misinterpreted to be a definition of superhero identity. In fact, different aspects of this definition can exist in someone with traumatized identity when others do not. Someone can identify primarily with a traumatic event, but seem completely normal and show no desire to use violence for settling conflict or other violent tendencies. Alternatively, they could deny that they identify with the event and try to forget everything about it, but still display a tendency for violence. An incomplete or misinformed understanding of traumatized identity can lead to misdiagnosis in victims if psychiatrists are not careful. Traumatized identity only exists when someone identifies their life primarily with a traumatic event. Combination masculinity and justified violence are likely to follow, especially in cases of violent trauma, but there is the possibility that there can be one without the others.


1. Arrow, “Pilot,” 1, directed by David Nutter, written by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg, The CW, 2012.
2. Arrow, “Damaged,” 5, directed by Michael Schultz, written by Wendy Mericle and Ben Sokolowski, The CW, 2012.
3. Arrow, “Dodger,” 15, directed by Eagle Egilsson, written by Beth Schwartz, The CW, 2013.
4. Arrow, “Salvation,” 18, directed by Nick Copus, written by Drew Z. Greenberg and Wendy Mericle, The CW, 2013.
5. Kevin Yeoman, “‘Arrow’ Star Explains Why Oliver Queen Is A Killer,”, last modified July 18, 2014,
6. Sonja K. Foss, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Incorporated), 387.
7. “Pilot,” 1:34.
8. Dorthe Berntsen and David C. Rubin, “When a Trauma Becomes a Key to Identity: Enhanced Integration of Trauma Memories Predicts Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms,” Applied Cognitive Psychology 21, no. 4 (2007): 427.
9. “Pilot,” 8:57-10:32.
10. David C. Rubin, Michelle E. Feldman, and Jean C. Beckman, “Reliving, emotions, and fragmentation in the autobiographical memories of veterans diagnosed with PTSD” Applied Cognitive Psychology 18, no. 1 (2004): 31.
11. “Damaged,” 4:12-8:28.
12. Douglas F. Zatzick, M.D., et al., “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Functioning and Quality of Life Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Sample of Male Vietnam Veterans,” The American Journal of Psychiatry 154, no. 12 (1997): 1693.
13. “Pilot,” 9:05-9:30.
14. Shawn Meghan Burn and A. Zachary Ward, “Men’s Conformity to Traditional Masculinity and Relationship Satisfaction,” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 6, no. 4 (2005): 260.
15. Arrow, “Damaged,” 1:00-2:45.
16. Lizabeth Mason, “American Masculinity in Crisis: Trauma and Superhero Blockbusters,” Electronic Thesis or Dissertation, Bowling Green State University (2010): 62, .
17. “Dodger,” 34:45-35:16.
18. Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker, “Emotional Reconciliation Reconstituting Identity and Community after Trauma,” European Journal of Social Theory 11 (2008): 388.
19. “Dodger,” 2:30-3:40.
20. Judith Butler, “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” in Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010), 243.
21. “Salvation,” 9:50-11:30.
22. Dora Capozza, Luca Andrighetto, Gian Antonio Di Bernardo, and Rossella Falvo, “Does status affect intergroup perceptions of humanity?,” Group Processes Intergroup Relations 15, no. 3 (2012): 374.
23. “Salvation,” 22:42-23:35.
24. Jeremy Earp, Jackson Katz, Jason T. Young, Sut Jhally, and David Rabinovitz, Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture, (2013; Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2013), DVD.


Arrow. “Damaged.” 5. Directed by Michael Schultz. Written by Wendy Mericle and Ben Sokolowski. The CW, 2012.

Arrow. “Dodger.” 15. Directed by Eagle Egilsson. Written by Beth Schwartz. The CW, 2013.

Arrow. “Pilot.” 1. Directed by David Nutter. Written by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg. The CW, 2012.

Arrow. “Salvation.” 18. Directed by Nick Copus. Written by Drew Z. Greenberg and Wendy Mericle. The CW, 2013.

Berntsen, Dorthe and David C. Rubin. “When a Trauma Becomes a Key to Identity: Enhanced Integration of Trauma Memories Predicts Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 21, no. 4 (2007): 417-431.

Burn, Shawn Meghan and A. Zachary Ward. “Men’s Conformity to Traditional Masculinity and Relationship Satisfaction.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 6, no. 4 (2005): 254–263.

Butler, Judith. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” in Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, 240-263. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Capozza, Dora, Luca Andrighetto, Gian Antonio Di Bernardo, and Rossella Falvo. “Does status affect intergroup perceptions of humanity?.” Group Processes Intergroup Relations 15, no. 3 (2012): 363-377.

Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Incorporated, 2009.

Hutchison, Emma and Roland Bleiker. “Emotional Reconciliation Reconstituting Identity and Community after Trauma.” European Journal of Social Theory 11 (2008): 385-403.

Katz, Jackson, Jeremy Earp, Jason T. Young, Sut Jhally, and David Rabinovitz. Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture. 2013. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2013. DVD.

Mason, Lizabeth. “American Masculinity in Crisis: Trauma and Superhero Blockbusters.” Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. Bowling Green State University, 2010.

Yeoman, Kevin. “‘Arrow’ Star Explains Why Oliver Queen Is A Killer.” Screen Rant. Last modified July 18, 2014.

Zatzick, Douglas F., M.D., Charles R. Marmar, M.D., Daniel S. Weiss, Ph.D., Warren S. Browner, M.D., M.P.H., Thomas J. Metzler, M.A., Jacqueline M. Golding, Ph.D., Anita Stewart, Ph.D., William E. Schlenger, Ph.D., and Kenneth B. Wells, M.D, M.P.H. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Functioning and Quality of Life Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Sample of Male Vietnam Veterans.” The American Journal of Psychiatry 154, no. 12 (1997): 1690-5.

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