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How the “Diva” Label Went from Insulting to Iconic

The diva is loud, confident, demanding, and isn’t afraid to take up space. The term is often thrown around as an insult, but the diva is a figure of self-created power many of us can take inspiration from. These days we’re seeing more nuanced takes on the trope, like Birds Of Prey’s Harley Quinn and Abbott Elementary’s Principal Ava, that show the value in being loud and proud.

Transcript

Do we all need to embrace our inner diva? The term is often thrown around as an insult, but the diva is a figure of self-created power many of us can take inspiration from.

So what qualities define the diva?

- She’s loud. Adele, Aretha, Christina, Beyoncé – these vocal divas are famed for their signature voices that go right to the back of the room.

- She’s confident. She knows her worth and celebrates that, even when society tries to tear her down.

Principal Ava: “I’ll be there, and I would ask what I would bring, but I already know that I’m enough.” - Abbott Elementary, 1x09

- She takes up space. Divas come in all shapes and sizes, but whoever she is, she doesn’t shrink into the background and takes center stage. Attention is her oxygen.

Rachel: “Class, in Mr. Schuester’s absence, I’d like to go around and ask everyone what solos they’d like to hear me perform at sectionals.” - Glee, 2x07

- She’s demanding. The diva is not easy to please. This is where the diva is sometimes criticized, but using diva as an insult is often a sly, misogynistic dig at the fact that it’s women or queer people who are embodying things that are typically expected of straight men.

These days, we’re seeing more nuanced takes on the trope that show the value in being loud, proud, and confident.

Here’s our take on why the diva has become an icon to so many people.

Loud and Proud

When we think of divas, we think of loud, virtuoso vocalists who can take your breath away with one note. Originally, the term stems from Italian opera, deriving from the Italian word for ‘deity’ and harking back to a time where operatic first ladies – or prima donnas – were afforded a God-like status.

In cultural representations of divas, we see how these incredible voices become key to unlocking success or setting someone on the path to a new, better kind of life. In Burlesque, Christina Aguilera’s Ali Rose is a humble small-town girl whose voice – and voice alone—is enough to catapult her to stardom.

Ali Rose: “I wanna be up there; I wanna do that.”

Bar Tender: “Question is – do you have the talent?”

Alie Rose: “I do.”

- Burlesque

Similarly in A Star Is Born, Ally’s career skyrockets after her undeniable, God-given talent is placed in front of a captivated audience. There’s a sense that these divas are born for the spotlight, and it’s only a matter of time until they find it.

They would normally never let a girl sing at one of these shows, but they always loved my voice. They used to beg me to sing.” - Ally, A Star Is Born

The diva also seems to know that with great power comes great responsibility. Beyoncé, perhaps the most iconic vocal diva of our time, has transformed from pop star to political activist as her career has grown.

“Our collective hearts, when put to positive action, can start the wheels of change.” - Beyoncé, Dear Class of 2020

One of country music’s biggest divas, Dolly Parton, has also become widely appreciated for her activism, both through her Imagination Library, which gifts free books to children, and in her funding of one of the Covid vaccines.

“I’m finally gonna get my vaccine. I’m so excited. I’ve been waiting a while – I’m old enough to get it and I’m smart enough to get it.” - Dolly Parton, The Guardian

Historically speaking divas have always used their voice to stand up for things, even if that part of their lives was sometimes less celebrated than their vocal prowess. Aretha Franklin was a passionate civil rights advocate, touring with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and once famously saying, “I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace” (Franklin, Jet Magazine). After the election of Donald Trump, Barbara Streisand released her first self-featured album in over a decade, one with a staunchly anti-Trump message at its core.

So the diva may have a powerful voice, but it’s what she chooses to do with it that makes her so iconic.

Loving the Bad Diva

“What I want from you is…your voice.” - Ursula, The Little Mermaid

The more misogynistic understanding of the diva has seen the trope become a stand-in for villainesses over the years, but such is the charisma of the diva that these characters have become iconic and beloved despite, and maybe even because of, their mesmerizing villainy. In 2012, Disney officially branded their villains as the Disney Divas of Darkness, recognizing that characters like Cruella De Vil, Ursula, Maleficent, and Mother Gothel were just as captivating as their princess heroines. They’ve released a spate of Disney films that explicitly focus on these characters who originated as villains, while at the same time embodying attractive diva qualities like independence, confidence, strength, and attitude – all of which define the new generation of Disney heroines like Tiana, Moana, and Merida.

This shift has coincided with a more nuanced portrayal of the diva in pop culture at large – one which doesn’t shy away from their more self-aggrandizing qualities but also leans into why we are so entranced by them. In Abbott Elementary, when we first meet Principal Ava Coleman, it feels as if she’s just out for herself and holding the school back. But as the show progresses, we see more layers to her character and the unique values that come directly from her diva attitude. In “Step Class”, it’s immediately clear that she has a natural rapport with the kids that enables them to relax and enjoy themselves, which leads to them delivering a better performance. And in the same episode, we find out that she actually has a difficult home life, having to act as a carer for her grandmother.

Care Giver: “She had an episode, we couldn’t calm her down and figured it would help her to see your face.”

Principal Ava: “I’m here now, Grandma.”

- Abbott Elementary, 1x09

The moment gives greater dimension to her character – but what’s important is the fact that it’s Ava’s embracing her inner diva that makes us root for her by the end of the series. We see how her charisma and charm are important skills when leveraged for good. Even if she can be annoying, and selfish, and clearly isn’t the best candidate to be leading the school, she’s also entertaining, joyful, and brings something to the school that nobody else does.

In these ways, she reminds us of characters like High School Musical’s Sharpay Evans or even Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth. These characters embody extreme self-confidence, won’t be held back by someone less strong, and they’re endlessly entertaining – showing us just how fun and funny female characters can be, without getting too hung up on judging if they’re good role models.

The Diva as a Queer Icon

Perhaps it’s exactly because of the fact that divas operate outside of social boundaries that has made them such icons in the queer community, specifically. In the case of Disney villains, historically many of them have been very queer-coded – Ursula the Sea Witch was famously modeled on the drag queen Divine.

By acting in a way that women aren’t expected to act, divas challenge the status quo and imagine a world in which the cultural expectations associated with gender can start being dismantled. We see this at play in iconic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning or in ballroom culture show Pose, where diva-ish behavior is an art and an act of resilience that deserves to be celebrated.

Elektra: “We fought for our place at this table. Now pick your jaw up off the floor and go back to your clam chowder and shallow conversations.” Pose, 2x09

In RuPaul’s Drag Race, we see how these divas have been celebrated through drag queens embodying them on the runway and in challenges, dramatically exaggerating the qualities that make them stand out whilst paying loving tribute to their iconic looks. This drag tradition is also played with in 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney, who ends up falling in love with the performer who does a drag performance of her – and then feeling completely betrayed when he starts performing as Cher instead. While almost everyone else sees Jenna as annoying and high-maintenance, it’s telling that she finds kinship in queer characters who appreciate the drama and self-assertiveness she brings to her art and life.

Killing Eve writer Luke Jennings alludes to how diva moves can likewise be empowering for cis straight women in describing the character Villanelle; quote: “Clothes reflect her status and independence. She doesn’t have to conform or please anyone’s gaze” (Jennings, Glamour).

Conclusion

When divas are criticized, it’s worth asking: who’s doing the criticizing? Invariably, it’s people who feel uncomfortable that women aren’t behaving in the way they’d like.

Now society seems to be catching up with the divas and recognizing that all the things people used to think made them self-centered, brash, and obnoxious are actually the things that make us want to see more of them and want to be in their presence. Yes, they do challenge the established order – but maybe it needs challenging, and why not look a little glamorous while doing it?

Kurt: “You’re not a diva because you’ve been a nightmare; you’re a diva because you’re talented and ambitious.” - Glee, 4x13

Sources

“Diva: Criticism or Compliment?.” Welsh National Opera, 21 July 2020 https://wno.org.uk/news/diva-criticism-or-compliment

Smith, Jamil. “The Political Power of Aretha Franklin.” Rolling Stone, 16 Aug. 2018 https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/political-power-aretha-franklin-711906/

Ray, Ashley. “What Makes Principal Ava So Funny on Abbott Elementary?” Harper’s Bazaar, 22 Mar. 2022 https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/film-tv/a39454925/what-makes-principal-ava-so-funny-on-abbott-elementary/

Gutowitz, Jill. “Killing Eve’s Villanelle Is the Queer Fashion Icon of My Twisted Lesbian Dreams.” Glamour, 3 May 2019 https://www.glamour.com/story/killing-eve-villanelle-suits-costumes