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Shameless Women

Giving “attention whores” another look.

Illustration by Suzy X.

Illustration by Suzy X.

The dysfunctional relationship between celebrities and us unfamous folk is a curious thing that has me thinking. Celebrities only exist because certain people (us) make a choice to acknowledge other people (them), and proceed to back that choice with money, time, and energy. Then, in the blink of an eye, they go from saying, “Hey, world, take a chance on me!” to “Get out of my damn face!” And we sometimes resent them for it, skeptical as to whether that’s what they really want. Kanye could so easily have avoided getting onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009 and interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, but in doing so, he guaranteed that he would remain a tabloid subject for months afterwards. Kristen Stewart, who seems to literally shrink from the spotlight, still chooses to be in an industry that will inevitably try to wring every last detail from her.

Some celebrities seem particularly helpless in these matters. When Britney Spears snapped, shaved her head, and attacked the paparazzi with an umbrella, it became clear that she had had enough and presumably yearned for the days when she wasn’t watched by billions of strangers. But for a while before that, it looked like her transformation from pop sweetheart to bad girl was just a contrived series of strategic moves to keep her relevant and exciting: an onstage kiss with Madonna, her bizarre last-minute marriage in Vegas. And while I may not have ever uttered these exact words, I remember the phrase that pushed at the corners of my mind: attention whore.

This term is applied to anyone (but so often women) who attracts more attention than we feel they deserve. It continues a long, misogynistic tradition of mean phrases invented to admonish ladies for being too visible, too shameless. And it’s ironic, because every time we call someone an attention whore, we are paying attention to them! The thing that drives me to scream at the TV and roll my eyes whenever I hear the latest news about Kim Kardashian is the very same thing that keeps me from changing the channel.

Like all judgments, it’s totally subjective. I hadn’t been a fan of Britney’s music in the years leading up to that chaotic period in her life. She, like Lindsay Lohan, seemed to always be in the news for something unrelated to her career. Yet the same could be said of Amy Winehouse, and I had a huge soft spot for her. I had decided that she was one of the most special talents, and that it was a genuine ache inside of her that led her to create (and destroy) so beautifully. I came to her defense time and again, saying that she was being victimized by the media circus, even when it became clear that she wasn’t doing anything to help herself.

There is no doubt something inside of some people (an unhappiness, I suspect) that leads them to relish our morbid fascination with their bad behavior, knowing that we are silently daring them to do something crazier and crazier while being equally repulsed by how easily they do these things that we—or at least I—would never do. Maybe they know, too, that some hypocrisy will be revealed at the moment of inevitable tragedy, when everybody chastises themselves—or, more likely, others—for watching giddily from the sidelines the whole time. (When Whitney Houston was still alive, her drug addiction was a punchline, but once she died, only the crassest among us would create a meme.)

But it’s not just famous people who get derided for being attention whores, and it makes me realize there’s more to it than just judgment. There’s also a little bit of envy. I was raised by a strict Christian mother, who imparted to me every conservative, heteronormative value that you would think a strict Christian mother would. Imagine what someone like me would have thought of a “real-life” Rihanna? When I was a teen, I couldn’t stand sexually liberated and opinionated young women, and I often confused their confidence with narcissism, because I had been socialized to believe that those girls ended up being trouble. But secretly, I was jealous of their ability to do their own thing (sneaking out, having sex, cutting class) and also of the attention they got (from boys, from other girls, from teachers) while doing it. (An interesting but unpleasant bitterness can be aroused when it seems as though doing the “wrong” thing is actually more fun than obeying the rules.) Basically, I learned that shaming those who craved attention and acted on their impulses was a necessary part of upholding my self-esteem as a woman, and the wider the distinction between myself and them, the better.

Obviously, I’ve since realized how messed up my logic was and it’s taken some serious introspection to understand why I even needed to think this way—and part of it, I’ve concluded, is that we sometimes tend to demonize what we don’t understand. I had the script flipped on me by a former friend once when I was 16 and changed my religion twice in a few months. It wasn’t a careless decision: My switch from Christianity to Islam was preceded by my locking myself away with a Malcolm X biography for days at a time, talking about his politics whenever I was with other people, and gathering information from my Muslim friends. But I wasn’t completely satisfied, so about four months later, I switched to Rastafari and started getting in touch with African arts and history. Basically, like every other teenager, I was just trying to find a place in this world, but I was deviating from the Christian background that my friends and I shared. One of them called me an attention whore. She couldn’t grasp why something as abstract as spirituality bothered me so much, and it was easier to dismiss me as just desperate for attention.

It rattles our sensibilities when people do things that we don’t understand, when they seem to need more than we do, and even the Lindsays and the Courtneys and the Kanyes—people whose very job it is to be in the public eye—cause us to distance ourselves with labels, certain that with the same fame and riches we would conduct ourselves more sensibly. But a slur says more about the user than it does about the target. Craving attention isn’t a crime, even if some of the things people do to get it are. Sometimes it’s a publicity stunt. Other times it’s a cry for help. And sometimes people are just doing their own thing, and they can’t escape the gaze of everybody else. Maybe then it would help to remind ourselves that we can always look away. ♦

25 Comments

  • wackygerman May 21st, 2013 7:42 PM

    So this whole article ist about “don’t criticize anybody, look away?” I didn’t get it.

    • EmmaS May 22nd, 2013 1:47 PM

      I think that this article is more about how famous people make mistakes and it isn’t up to us (the public) to force our labels and opinions on them. People make mistakes, it just so happens the famous people have to listen to the masses views on their mistakes.

    • hanalady May 31st, 2013 1:43 AM

      i don’t think it’s necessarily “about” celebrities at all… it’s more a reflection on attention-seeking behaviors and the labels we (the audience) project on the people who garner the most attention. i don’t think it was supposed to have a “point” or a moral but just to get us to think about the way we view loud, shameless people (particularly women) and to challenge our own assumptions.

  • vonnegutcobain May 21st, 2013 7:44 PM

    very well said. I wish i could tell this to the girls at my school who call girls “sluts” if they wear revealing clothing.

  • Abby May 21st, 2013 8:29 PM

    I LOVE this. I recently got home from college, and it’s been making me CAH-RAZY how judgmental my parents and sister are. I guess it’s probably because I haven’t been around them for so long… but now it’s just like a smack in the face. They’re always saying nasty things about other people, women especially, and it makes me cringe. I try to ask them not to, but they always brush me off… ugh. Anyway, thank you for this article… it’s GREAT :)

  • Ella May 21st, 2013 8:37 PM

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!
    -Ella
    http://lilliputianliberal.blogspot.com

  • Faith May 21st, 2013 9:43 PM

    This is a good article that really got me thinking. I remember being so frustrated in middle school with spirituality, that I went from Christian to agnostic to atheist to Christianity again (and I’m super happy about that choice, don’t worry)!! Lately I’ve been more receptive of how to be accepting of others around me, despite those around me who shake their fingers at everyone as though they’re Soo Perfect. Like if I haven’t done this certain thing or that, it certainly doesn’t give me ANY right to judge the person next to me, and call them an attention whore. It’s upsetting to see other girls hating on each other. Which brings me to my next point which I’ve been dying to put out there, is there such a thing as Christian feminists?? Cause I am, but is that okay? Or are there any out there? (I’m beginning to wonder if that was an ignorant question, but I don’t think so really)

    http://conformconform.tumblr.com/

    • sa93 May 21st, 2013 10:00 PM

      Yes there is a thing as Christian feminism (I’m catholic) – it’s simply understanding that Christianity and Judaism, etc. developed in a Patriarchal society and still is implicated by such but just because women are not priests or what other arguments there are, there is an understanding that God is neither male nor female. But I often like to use non-male pronouns to describe God

      But just curious why could a Christian not be a feminist?

      • loonylizzy May 22nd, 2013 1:43 PM

        yay for catholic feminism :) i do the same with the non-male pronouns. there’s often such a negative light cast on feminism by religion, or on religion by feminism, but people often don’t realize that the two can go hand in hand, and it is most definitely possible to be religious and also a feminist.

        http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

    • izzyisnotsane May 21st, 2013 10:02 PM

      I think there is a thing as a Christian feminist! I consider myself to be a feminist and I am a Christian. :)

      • Faith May 21st, 2013 10:25 PM

        Thanks you guys for the feedback! I just needed assurance/closure, something like that. And to answer your question, I’m pretty new to both these things, hehe, so I was curious to know if there were any Christian feminists out there. Turns out there are! woot woot! ^_^

        • Caden May 22nd, 2013 1:35 AM

          I’m a Christian feminist too :) :) x x there are plenty of strong women in the bible

        • MichelleCarneece May 23rd, 2013 12:47 AM

          I consider myself a Christian feminist as well! It’s encouraging to see so many of my Christian friends recognizing that the two aren’t mutually exclusive by any means. :)

      • wannabebotanist May 25th, 2013 1:38 AM

        Timothy 2:11-15
        Let a woman learn in quietness with all submission.
        I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.
        For Adam was first formed, then Eve;
        and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression:
        but she shall be saved through her child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.

  • Chloe22 May 21st, 2013 9:56 PM

    Well, being rude and telling someone they don’t deserve their award, attacking paparazzi….That isn’t ”doing your thing”. Your negatively affecting others when they don’t deserve it. Using drugs and getting drunk all the time when you have kids, again, is not okay. No, these people shouldn’t be hated, and I am a very compassionate person, but if we want to help these people, telling them it’s cool is going to make it worse. I do hate how some (mostly girl) celebs are chastised simply for trying new things or dressing a certain way. That’s different. It’s their choices. Dressing a little edgy and trying a new music style is not going to ruin their life.

    • hanalady May 31st, 2013 1:55 AM

      well in my opinion it’s not really the public’s job to try to “fix” a celebrity or make them not ruin their lives. if they want to ruin their lives that’s their business. but i think the article’s point isn’t that it’s never okay to disapprove of a famous person’s actions but that if we do disapprove, we should “look away” (choose not to buy their music/clothing/movies/media) for our own sanity, rather than to continue to draw attention to the behavior we find so objectionable by making nasty comments about how much attention it’s getting.

  • elliecp May 22nd, 2013 2:17 AM

    This reminds me of the way people say I ‘try too hard’ because I wear outfits instead of hollister for head to toe. I’m not necessarily looking for attention, I just feel more comfortable in my kind of clothes, and I think it’s weird that other people can’t understand why I do it if its not for some kind of attention.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

    • loonylizzy May 22nd, 2013 1:44 PM

      i have the same problem! i’ve been called an “attention whore” and told that i “try too hard” so many times, just because i dress the way i like to dress. it’s quite annoying, i’ve never understood it.

      http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

      • jayne12 May 24th, 2013 12:14 PM

        haha this just sounds like jealousy to me and nothing much else :) i had a friend that always used to bitch about this other girl saying she “tried too hard” etc but i always thought she was just jealous of her beautiful clothes!

  • Charlotte CallaGirl May 22nd, 2013 6:25 AM

    THIS WAS JUST TOO AMAZING, ROOKIE!
    It was the best post I’ve seen in a while, because of how clear everything was in just the first paragraph already. I have to say, I thought that it was absolutely perfect to read though that may just be me. ❤❤❤❤❤

    http://thecallagirl.wordpress.com

  • girlswithsecrets May 22nd, 2013 12:39 PM

    I though the last lines were the best “Sometimes people are just doing their own thing, and they can’t escape the gaze of everybody else. Maybe then it would help to remind ourselves that we can always look away.” I would’ve liked to see a bit more emphasis on this in the article. It’d be interesting to explore the dehumanizing judgement of celebrities and compare it to the way we judge our peers. Neither of which is at all okay!

  • ArmyOfRabbits May 22nd, 2013 3:04 PM

    Nicely written!

  • abby111039 May 22nd, 2013 6:32 PM

    Well said.

  • Syazka Narindra May 22nd, 2013 10:13 PM

    i literally can relate to this, is not about how people being attention whore or etc but it’s about the people around us that contribute to put a label on someone.

    well written

  • Stienz July 27th, 2013 7:12 AM

    This really made me think. Thanks.