We all know that female-coded or -affiliated words are often used to denigrate someone or something. So-and-so cried like a little bitch, Mel Gibson’s girlfriend was a worthless cunt in his eyes, etc. I don’t use those terms. But while I was on my way to Seattle, I happened to read or see something (I can’t remember what) that referred to some quasi-important man (I can’t remember who) as a very talented guy, but –thank heavens!–“not a prima donna.”
I’ve heard the expression a zillion times, and I know I’ve used it myself before, but this particular instance leaped out at me. Prima donna. Italian for “first lady (of an opera company),” English for “snotty bitch.” The masculine counterpart for the Italian is primo uomo (first man), which is heard outside the walls of La Scala approximately never, and the English counterpart is…well looky there, there is no counterpart! Because there’s nothing particularly nasty or contemptible about being a dude. But if a guy gets a little too big for his britches, the surest way to take him down a peg or three is to feminize him.
Prima donna reminded me of “diva,” which also comes from opera, and which is mostly heard in the English-speaking world as another way of slamming women for not being sufficiently deferential or self-loathing. Ever hear someone call a proud man called a “divo”? Probably not. If they’ve even heard the word, most probably think of these guys:
Or maybe these guys (if you can’t see the word and/or are way cooler):
In either case, the association is a positive one.
The purely English counterpart to these terms is equally woman-centered, whether it’s being used to describe a man or a woman: “drama queen.” Emotional excess being a womanly characteristic, and thus hideous. (And now I think of “sob sister” and “agony aunt”…I’m sure they are legion.)
I certainly know people of all sexes and orientations who have an over-inflated sense of self, or like to stir up shit for the pleasure of swooning and complaining, but “prima donna,” “diva,” and “drama queen,” while convenient and easily understandable in our misogyny-soaked culture, really aren’t the best terms, especially when we have the word “asshole,” and a panoply of highly-specific adjectives (“self-aggrandizing,” “preening,” or ” narcissistic”) to modify it.