Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Attention Whores

The idea for this post started a couple of months ago, when Lady Gaga wore a meat dress to the VMAs and spoke out about Don't Ask Don't Tell. Many internet commenters were insistent that Lady Gaga is not committed to gay rights, and that the entire effort was just to get attention. The phrase "attention whore" came up a few times. This bothered me. Since then, I've paid more attention to the way that celebrity women are talked about online.

Some examples (trigger warning for misogyny and wishes of death):

I’m tired of seeing this dirty slag… can someone please inform her that her 15 minutes of fame are up?

Snooki–because the world needs another no-talent fame-hag. 
Please dear God just make it go away..please…..
On a gif of Snooki floating through space:
Shame we can’t make this happen in reality – fortunately for me I’m not in the US, but I’ve seen enough pictures of this … *ahem* woman(?) … to know she’s a waste of oxygen!

Tila Tequila
Bitch should be kept in a damn cage.
this whore isn't dead yet?

Lady Gaga

She is disgusting, a completely irrelevant object. How can anyone look up to this woman.
god someone please set her on fire
When will this attention whore fall of the radar?

Lady Gaga and Yoko Ono

"I've been a talentless fame whore for decades. Let me take your hand and show you the way."

Most of these comments are from that pit of slut-shaming and homophobia, ROFLrazzi. The last one is from Jezebel.

There is so much wrong with the phrase "attention whore" itself, not to mention the way it is used to reinforce the dismissive and eliminationist language aimed at women who dare to live publicly, that it's taken me this long to figure out how to approach the subject. First, I'll address why we shouldn't be using "whore" as an insult. Then, why we shouldn't be using "attention seeker" as an insult. Finally, I'll talk about the implications of the entire phrase, and the way we talk about celebrities.


When you call someone a "whore" as an insult, you hurt sex workers; in much the same way as calling someone "gay" as an insult is harmful to gay people. You communicate the undesirableness of those people. The insult silently confirms and endorses the association between an individual's status and every stereotype and negative connotation about that status.

With sex workers, those are some seriously negative connotations. We live in a society where sex workers are often thought to be un-rapable; where killing a hooker is a punch line. When you call someone a "whore" you are saying that they are dirty and hence disposable. And in turn, you are reinforcing the idea that sex workers, as human beings, are of little worth.

If you take nothing else away from this post, please, just stop using "whore" as an insult.


This is one topic that Jezebel got right: there's nothing wrong with wanting attention. It's a human need. Treating an individual as unworthy of attention is deeply dehumanizing. Think of house servants treated as furniture, or the maxim that women and children should be "seen but not heard," or homeless people who are invisible to countless passers-by.

I briefly worked for a company that employed people to stand on street corners and try to get pedestrians to become regular donators to charitable causes. For several hours I would stand on the sidewalk, looking bright and alert, trying to make eye-contact, and to get people interested in donating to our client. Trying to get attention. I have never had another job that was so frustrating, unrewarding, and emotionally draining. Being continually ignored is tiring and disenheartening.

Saying someone "just wants attention" is, in my opinion, one of the more obnoxious ways to dismiss a person. Not only is it insulting and demeaning, but it is also a profoundly uncritical and unthinking way to approach an issue. Of course they want attention. We all want attention. The question is, what do they want attention for?

Attention Whores

Calling someone an "attention whore" is dehumanizing and objectifying. It implies that a person doesn't have an inner life or valid motivations - everything they do is an attempt to garner my precious attention. 

As I mentioned, this post was inspired by some of the responses to Lady Gaga's public opposition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. For example, on ROFLrazzi, the webmaster wrote of her Video Music Award appearance,
Lady ‘Salmonella Head’ Gaga changed into three outfits at the VMAs. The final ensemble was this meaty little number made of… um, meat. Franc Fernandez, the designer, said he scored the meat from his local butcher shop (buy local, everyone). Lady Gaga gave some confusing explanation about the dress, claiming she was “taking a stand,” which I guess roughly translates to, “Look at me!”
A user comment: 
The cause is attention.
And, commenting on a photo of Lady Gaga speaking at a gay rights rally: 
They’re poking fun at how Gaag isn’t really into “polictics”, she’s just attention whoring.
As I said, these responses are uncritical and unthinking, intellectually lazy. These responses also objectify the woman in question. They presume that she has no convictions, no concerns, no genuine desire to help. She is not a full human being in her own right; rather her existence is focused on the observer, in a never-ending attempt to wrest their attention. This mentality has been taken to ridiculous extremes, such as Jezebel entertaining speculation that Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan are essentially faking their personal breakdowns as elaborate publicity stunts.

Most often, "attention whore" is directed at famous people, usually women. Of course, these women's careers depend on being in the public eye. It is their job to seek attention, and there's nothing wrong with that. No one is being forced to pay attention to any celebrity. And yet the fact that some women regularly attempt to, and succeed, at getting public attention earns them the label "attention whore." The idea that there is something wrong with seeking attention is a way to justify the derision, scorn, and hatred (exhibited in the comments quoted at the beginning of this post) leveled at women who dare to have a career that puts them in the public eye. To punish women, like the women above, for being publicly successful, for being more than attractive furniture. 

The hateful, eliminationist language aimed at celebrity women is aimed at all women. The very existence of these women is a source of disgust. You don't want to be like that, do you? How well-deserved their fame is is besides the point. There are very few people who deserve the vitriol and bile that is regularly directed at famous women. And, as a woman, when I read that someone thinks that Tila Tequila should be dead, or locked in a cage - that's scary. That tells me that the impulse to control women not only still exists, but to many people, is acceptable.


  1. I couldn't have said it better myself.

  2. Brilliant.

    I have a friend who uses this term all the time, even for herself. I've explained over and over again why it is inappropriate but she always just laughs me away like it's some joke. Frankly, I don't find it funny.

    I used to be a huge reader of Jezebel but I was turned off a long time ago. Which makes me sad because I used to think of it as this great feminist space.

  3. Thanks for clearing this up.

    What do they expect people to do? Sit around twiddling their thumbs, hoping for attention?

  4. Well said.

    "Many internet commenters were insistent that Lady Gaga is not committed to gay rights, and that the entire effort was just to get attention"

    My reaction to people like this is, so what? If she's succeeding in bringing attention to the issue, that's what matters.

  5. Jumping off what you said about Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan, it's this "she's just an attention whore" mentality that's eventually lead to some individuals even committing or just attempting suicide. Seeking attention is the first step towards seeking help for some people but more often than not, that person is scorned or ignored and thus driven even further to the edge of a breakdown.

    I totally agree with people using "attention whore" as an intellectually lazy comment. If only more people could pause and reflect on the "why" before just stating "what".

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    That is an excellent point.

  7. Really excellent, thought-provoking post. I totally agree, especially about people using the term "whore" as an insult. It's a misogynistic term meant to indicate women are not supposed to be sexual in the first place, and like you said, very insulting to sex workers in particular.

  8. I'm not going to lie...I clicked on your link over at Feministe because I thought this was a post titled: "Attention, Whores!" and I was like, "What's up?"

    But a great post.

  9. just wanted to say, what an amazing post. I don't like most of these celebrities mentioned above, but like you said, we are NOT forced to pay attention to them. We can choose to ignore them if we wish.

    I've seen so much hateful, disgusting, misogynistic comments posted all over the Internet aimed at female celebrities and it's truly disgusting and frightening.

  10. THANK YOU. I'm an "attention whore" myself (a performance artist, writer, producer, and someone who generally likes to be noticed) and it's frustrating when on the one hand you have to promote yourself to be noticed and on the other hand you're seen as being less worthy of anything because you're calling attention to yourself instead of letting your work speak for you. And it's only ever feminine people that get this - with men it's networking or business savvy.

  11. with men it's networking or business savvy.

    excellent point.

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