In Defense of the Attention Whore

Attention whores are the Rodney Dangerfields of the world: They get no respect. It's not hard to see why. They hurl themselves at the spotlight and writhe pathetically in its ethereal glow, all but begging us — and sometimes outright begging us — to look at them, no matter how awkward, how painful, how sad, how pitiful. We get to have it both ways, too: We look, we linger, and then we play judge and jury. Then they get all invaded-feeling and just want some normal peace and quiet. I didn't ask for this! HA, we say, HA! Because they always come back. BTW, the people we label this way are also mostly women.

Teen Moms like Farrah Abraham, or Lindsay Lohan, or Britney Spears, or the Kardashians, or Courtney Stodden, AKA, "Attention Whore Barbie." They are all celebrity women who openly sought the limelight. Sometimes, as in the case with reality stars like the Real Housewives, they have seemingly directly offered up their hot messes of a life for us to excavate. When we appear only interested in their self-destruct button, they sometimes seem genuinely befuddled or hurt, as if the spotlight wasn't quite the warm, fuzzy embrace they thought it would be, like when Lohan asked the media to point its spotlight on something more important after her no contest plea to theft in 2011. Or when Kim and Kanye set a wedding date and demand NO MEDIA!

There they go again, mistaking the spotlight for a reading lamp when it's obviously always been a fire hose. But here I am doing it: Admonishing them for not knowing better, for not taking what they have coming to them and skipping the pious pose. Obviously they want us to look, right? So they don't get to turn it off. They invite criticism. Judgment. Celebrities and public figures are, of course, our punching bags. This is nothing new.

What's worth revisiting, though, in an era where we have never been more invested in a more progressive, tolerant take on the secret lives of porn stars, sex workers, and other people who were formerly shunned and condemned — people we actually called whores — is why we can't seem to muster that compassionate curiosity for a less literal form of whoring, the attention-seeking kind. Or admit it's wrapped up in our own weird systems of fame, our own prejudices about how women should conduct themselves.

No matter that Charlie Sheen, James Franco and Scott Disick litter the landscape — those are "bad boys." Attention whore is a term mostly reserved for women — sad, fucked up women who deserve every last little fleck of spit we project their way.

And it's not just female celebrities. Everyday women are labeled as attention whores when they seek out male attention in a too-obvious way. Girls who flirt too much. Women who seem to never shut up. Women who, for whatever reason, value attention from men over women, and will do anything to get it, ruining friendships, threatening relationships and mucking things up along the way. And it is women who are advised on how not to become an attention whore, not men.

In a RookieMag piece that gives attention whores a second look, a writer who goes by Nova breaks it down:

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!

She goes on to examine the roots of her disdain for attention whores, turning the spotlight directly onto herself, her conservative Christian upbringing, and the envy she felt toward women who broke the rules:

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.

Think about it: We all grow up wanting attention and validation. But as girls, we are taught to not beg for it. To not attract unwanted attention. To not draw unnecessary (read: sexual) attention to ourselves. So in order to be good girls, we couldn't like sexually liberated and opinionated young women. We couldn't like confused or damaged women who seemed to want to form their alliances with men first, and us second. Or we couldn't like women who didn't concern themselves with the rules of female bonding at all, who chose instead to pursue their own kicks, their own adventures, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Oddly, we consider this kind of recklessness or disregard for others, and sexual and adventure-seeking as part and parcel of the rites of passage of becoming a man.

And while we are willing to reclaim slut and bitch for positive rebranding, maybe there's something in attention whore that is not so different from these once-pejorative terms that we've come to see as merely synonyms for difficult, sad, or complicated women who don't play by our rules.

Some thoughts:

What is an attention whore anyway?

In short, it's a highly gendered term for a desperate woman. Someone (usually a woman) who will DO ANYTHING to be in the spotlight. But just like slut, also basically a gendered term for a desperate woman, there is no one definition for how many guys you have to bone to be one.

Exactly how much attention do you have to want to be an attention whore? Do you have to be famous for nothing? Is just being famous for being attractive a good enough reason? Do you have to be sad and fucked up to want the attention? Or is there a culturally approved "healthy" version of wanting to be looked at that excludes you from the label? Does a good actress who likes being looked at and being paid to be pretty count? Or is an attention whore only a talentless hack? And so on.

We don't do this to men

Why, for instance, do we call Lindsay Lohan a fame whore and not Charlie Sheen? Courtney Love but not Kurt Cobain? (He allegedly didn't want any part of fame, but his journals tell another story: namely, that he practiced witty answers to the interviews he imagined having in the future, when he was famous, years in advance.) There are some examples of male attention whores — O.J. Simpson murder trial witness Kato Kaelin, and White House party crashers the Salahis, but this is rare.

What about the men of Jackass — aping completely for attention, or the guys at the table who won't shut up or who have to always be the funniest? Blowhards? Class clowns?

We can hold the contradiction in our minds that men embrace attention, but their fucked-up exploits are just a product of their fucked-upness or maleness, or their inability to be tamed. We don't afford most women such a depth of character, much less intrigue. We just call it sad.

Isn't this just another way to police female aggression?

We like aggressive men — they go after what they want. Pursuing fame/attention requires the ultimate in proactive behavior. When men do this, we grin/snicker. When women do this nakedly, we shudder.

Or is this about a culturally acceptable way to express narcissism?

Men can be egomaniacs, but women can't be narcissistic. Never forget: A large part of femininity is predicated upon looking good, but not drawing overt attention to how good you look or acting like you know you look good. This is why for a long time, the stripper was the ultimate taboo in terms of so-called femininity: she met the male gaze, she controlled where it landed, and she liked it. Her message was: Look at me, I get off on you looking at me, and I want something for it. Only in the last decade or so has this become an acceptable expression of female power.

But the woman whoring for attention, who might post pictures on Facebook saying how fat she is or unattractive, all seemingly designed to garner muchos likes and a slew of affirmations of her prettiness, is pathetically needy. But in a world where we don't give women permission to brag, is it so unexpected?

Is the more "compassionate" response to "attention whoring" — pity — actually any more compassionate?

Back at RookieMag, Nova wonders if it isn't a basic unhappiness that drives people to attention-whoring fame:

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.

There may very well be an element of sadness in every bid for attention. It may be as simple as not having been loved enough by your family of origin. Or perhaps it's more calculated than that. Perhaps it's a genuine desire to be validated gone haywire. Pity, though, implies it is wrong to want the world's — or the room's — eyes on you, unless we say you deserve it. And that by pitying you, we are allowing for you to be the sad mess you are, and forgive your exhibitionism.

In a way, it's a mindfuck: We create this sad narrative out of the seemingly erratic lives of these women — a gender we burden so much more heavily with being NICE TO LOOK AT. The message is: Look good, but don't openly act like you want the whole world worshipping you or anything. Unless you can make it seem sad-tinged in a non-threatening way so we can forgive you (see: Marilyn Monroe).

Perhaps it's really about us.

As Nova points out succinctly, the whole thing is perhaps really about our need to put a term to a thing we can't make sense of — a woman who embodies all the pressures of what it means to be female in this culture, but who, instead of hiding it, makes plain the rewards she seeks from it.

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.

Her advice: Remember that you can just look away. But it's also important to remember that the entertainment media doesn't do nuance, and looking away doesn't teach us anything. So if you're looking for the real story, try locking eyes every now and then, looking past the up-shot camera angles and the slick edit of trainwreck-isms waiting to be memed, and reading between the lines.

Image by Jim Cooke, silhouette by Shutterstock.