On Primadonnas (more properly: “prima donne”)

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.


  1. LOL. I’m sorry, that’s kind of the only thing I can say. Why are you talking about this? Not that it isn’t perfectly relevant to- everything- it’s just particularly funny to hear right now.

    Celebrity makes me gag, but it’s also fascinating. That we value somebody’s ability to make us value them for nothing is hilarious.

  2. Thanks for the term, “primo uomo!” : )

    FTA– “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,” Bravo! Bravo! But those of us who read/learn/study across disciplines are “specialists” at nothing. : ( Yet we may be able to offer a more balanced opinion than the “specialists” who tend to think on one dimension….

    How do you define “moralism?” Is it moralistic to quote G-d (as opposed to saying what you think He might say) and try to live with relevant application–even going so far as to give personal reasoning behind your belief or action to critics and/or other curious observers? Do you think personal moralism is acceptable (or should it be called “moralism” only when a person is attempting to impose their will on another?…)?

    Humility seems to frequently play as a backdrop in your thoughts…Many “great” people have this trait…I don’t think it has much to do with being recognized–some humble people are recognized and others aren’t–I think it may be linked directly to a persons willingness to NOT be recognized while still contributing however possible. There ARE more important jobs and less important ones…but we should value every contribution–sometimes the people we least value meet our most basic needs. Pride is relative because we tend to use it interchangeably with egotism, arrogance, and haughtiness. (I think pride actually has more positive definitions and uses than negative.) We are not doormats, but neither are we exactly indispensable. And traditionally that is why there are two kinds of people…those who cater to the prima donna and those who challange her (and consider replacements).

    ramble, ramble…at least I enjoyed thinking this over…

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