1. From Wikipedia:
Originally used in opera companies, “prima donna” is Italian for “first lady”. The term was used to designate the leading female singer in the opera company, the person to whom the prime roles would be given. The prima donna was normally, but not necessarily, a soprano. The corresponding term for the male lead (almost always a tenor) is “primo uomo”.
Legendarily, these “prima donnas” (prime donne in Italian) were often regarded as egotistical, unreasonable and irritable, with a rather high opinion of themselves not shared by others. Although whether they are truly more vain or more hot-tempered than other singers (or than any other people in the opera houses) is not substantiated, the term often describes a vain, obnoxious and temperamental person who, although irritating, cannot be done without.
2. Yet another instance of Wikipedia not quite getting it right : )
If primadonnas were simply irritable and obnoxiously vain but indispensable, for the most part, they could be dealt with; not in all cases, obviously. Stories about Lindsay Lohan, for example, reveal her to be particularly impossible. Still, the trick is not to make one’s happiness contingent on them.
3. There’s a much more subtle form of excessive vanity around. The term “drama queen” sort of gets at it, but not quite. Xenophon, Memorabilia IV.2.6 is closer: there, a youth who wants to be regarded as moderate so as to rule, even though he knows nothing, tries to stay away from a Socratic discussion about the nature of rule precisely so he can appear moderate.
The difference is between vanity that’s obvious and vanity that runs much deeper. People think that merely wanting attention is vain nowadays, and miss that there are ways of getting and holding attention that are anything but vain. Those ways might require some showmanship, but perhaps what characterizes them best is the fact that they can make us uncomfortable. Sometimes they’re a bit too authentic, a bit too forward, and I think that’s a good thing. Gracefulness is not perfection, or the illusion of perfection.
Someone who really knows what they’re doing as a primadonna always wants to be the center of attention, and gets it, even if there are far more important things to attend to.
4. So why is this important? Those people are trivial, right? Well, in a media-dominated society, where many are striving to be the next big personality without doing or giving anything of worth, it could be the case that our central problem is that we don’t have any other standard for qualification other than the fact someone holds our attention.
How did this happen, if this is true? – It’s all Opera’s fault, right? A culture where celebrity was acceptable for the most trivial of reasons brought this into being. – We can’t quite go that road, for celebrity culture is visible; what we’re fighting is almost impossible to detect until it is too late.
The problem isn’t celebrities or media. It’s us, and that’s the strangest answer one could possibly give. I mean, we’re a specialized, technical society. We have qualifications and resumes and criteria for everything, right? That’s exactly the trap that created this: if you’re really good at holding people’s attention, that’s a specialized skill. We should have a media that is nothing but broadcasting, getting any given message out to the broadest possible audience. We should have marketing that sells the most of an item independent of its quality.
5. Alright, so you want to know what to do about this. I think the trick is not to retreat into simple moralism. Firstly, those of you in religious circles especially know that primadonnas abound and can sell snake oil via third-rate readings of the Bible. Emphasizing humility alone goes nowhere if one can speak for God when “humble.” Secondly, anyone halfway decent at public affairs needs pride, especially since in today’s world actually doing your job well will result in the severest criticism.
I think the easiest way around this is to start asking on a common sense level if someone is doing their job well, not whether we like them or not. The thing about “common sense” in this case is that it keeps in mind some jobs can be helpful or hurtful, and some jobs are more important than others. The notion that created this most subtle and most dangerous vanity – that everything can be specialized – isn’t science; it arose from our pretentions to philosophy, and no surprise, we made a colossal error and rationalized it. Socrates in the Republic calls the political multitude the greatest sophist; the irony is that common sense is not something all people share.