Breaking Down The Dismissive Sexism Behind The Statement “She Just Wants Attention”

By Kaytie Coughlin

This seems to be a common western trope about the female who speaks her mind, expresses concern, wears scantily clad clothing, makeup, or simply voices an unpopular opinion. This unfavorable stereotype is so widely used in contemporary culture that it seems like an almost inevitable description used for debasing a female who expresses herself. This cliche of females desperately needing attention, or specifically male attention as the stereotype often goes, is a way to simplify a woman’s intelligence. And if coming from a male, it can not only create a hierarchy between females but determine what social agency a woman possesses. 

If you look up the definition of attention in the Merriam Webster dictionary the examples given all use female pronouns. “3a: an act of civility or courtesy especially in courtship. She welcomed his attentions. b: sympathetic consideration of the needs and wants of others: ATTENTIVENESS She lavished attention on her children.” It appears that by standard definition we see women as giving or receiving attention. Thus, the implication is that women have a stronger need for it than men.

Someone seeking attention and someone expressing an opinion out of concern are two different situations that society seems unable to differentiate between. The person seeking attention has a superficial want for gratification. The person expressing the opinion has a desire to let others know what she is thinking. And sure, she may want her opinion validated at times in order to be heard, but mostly to let others see a specific point of view. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people, mostly men, say that a woman is lying about something just to get people to see her. Whoever says this about the female in question is demoting her intelligence by claiming her as superficial and starved for something she cannot find within herself. 

The idea that any kind of sexual or flamboyant gesture coming from a woman is a cry for attention stems in large part from the Electra Complex. For those who don’t know, the Electra Complex is a term coined by Carl Jung and is Freud’s idea of the Female Oedipal Complex. This theory says that the woman begins to envy and despise her mother and begins to compete with her mother for the sexual attention of her father. Were the daughter to be born with a penis she would have no need for this kind of behavior. Basically, the woman is lacking and has to find ways to overcompensate for not having a penis. Thus, she inevitably craves some kind of male attention according to the theory.

Regardless of Freud’s theories being long disputed, certain sexist ideas haunt modern day society. By using some reminisce of Freud to explain a woman’s behavior, the person is literally reducing the woman to a child-like state of phallic envy. The accusation of desperate need for attention reduces the woman to that of a child who pulls on her mother or father’s shirt over and over again in the checkout line at the grocery store. 

One way that society deems women as attention-seekers is self made: fashion. Women are constantly told that their skirts and shirts are too short and that they are showing too much cleavage. Generally women’s shorts, skirts and dresses are also typically cut shorter. In addition, even women’s long pants are cut tighter as are most blouses and shirts aside. It’s also interesting that school girls are constantly getting written up for the clothes that are manufactured for them.

There are plenty of males both in and out of high school who deliberately sag their pants and show their underwear. This is one-hundred percent a choice on the part of the male unless they desperately need a belt and can’t find one that morning. Yet supposedly it’s women who wear scantily clad outfits to obtain male attention. One Reddit user suggested that if the dresses are too short perhaps wear tights. But if they are meant to be worn that way why should we be chastised when we don’t cover up? 

I have personally experienced this my whole life. Despite that crop tops are now back in fashion, many people think that I show my midriff and thighs to get guys attention. Believe me, I have more interesting and intelligent things to show men than my belly ring.

The man-made idea that women are attention seeking also creates a hierarchy between women. It teaches them to compete with each other and reproduce the sexism that men have taught. Two different sources have expressed a scenario that happened to them previously. Both scenarios included a friend of theirs and the friend’s boyfriend.

One girl said that her friend dressed her in provocative clothing and a lot of makeup then accused her of needing male attention when she allegedly flirted with her boyfriend. Another source told me that a friend that she was living with got drunk one night and accused her of flirting in desperate need of male attention. This same source has often been accused of needing male attention and called a “slut” growing up simply because she mainly had guy friends. Her explanation? She grew up with brothers and was more used to being around males. As my source said, these kinds of scenarios create competition rather than dialogue. 

Women can be indirectly accused as well. Oftentimes in the medical field serious conditions are overlooked because women who go in are accused of being over-dramatic or hypochondriacal. Recently I had a female friend tell me while at a medical facility to make sure I advocate for myself. “Don’t let them get away with sending you home and doing nothing at all,” her text read. Although in situations of wrongful medical dismissal women may not be told directly that they are seeking attention, certain demeanors may act in place of these kinds of phrases. 

This isn’t to say that there aren’t women who crave attention. What is important to understand is the way that we are socialized to have certain beliefs about women. Saying “she just wants attention” silences women in their ability to participate in feminism and live as citizens equal to men. Rather than blindly going with what we are taught, perhaps it’s best to look at the surrounding factors of a woman’s situation. Are jeans cut tighter for women? Are advertisements teaching women to be more concerned about their appearance in general? Are women taught to be quieter so when she does speak up she is going against norms? A woman may simply be proud of how she looks and enjoy putting on outfits and makeup, and this shouldn’t automatically be classified as a cry for attention.

Despite the sexist definitions in the Miriam Webster Dictionary there was one that stood out: “1a: the act or state of applying the mind to something. … //You should pay attention to what she says.” 

So yes, perhaps you should pay attention to what she says.


Kaytie Coughlin originally hails from New Jersey and currently lives in Austin, Texas. She has a Bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She has two beautiful rescue dogs, Elliott and Reba. In her free time she enjoys studying pop culture, liberal politics, and watching obscure and cult horror films. She mostly does her hair herself. Kaytie also has a collection of personal essays she hopes to publish one day.