Created By: LunaAvril on July 14, 2011 Last Edited By: 69BookWorM69 on August 3, 2011
Troped

Madonna Whore Complex

A girl has no choice but to be either a slut or a Purity Sue.

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"It's kind of a double-edged sword, isn't it? If you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut. It's a trap. You want to, but you can't. And when you did, you wish you hadn't.

A pattern of thought that divides women into two mutually exclusive categories: Madonnas and Whores. The virtuous Madonna figure, possessing and protecting social virtue (and deploring sexuality) is an object of worship and everything that a woman should aspire to be. However, sex is not part of this. Any woman who fails to live up to the Madonna standard in any part is a worthless Whore, driven by sexual desire and therefore lacking morality. As soon as a woman is known to have an active sex life, she is automatically viewed as a whore.

The Madonna-Whore Complex (sometimes referred to as the "Virgin-Whore Complex") was described by Sigmund Freud on the basis of some of his clinical work. Specifically, he noticed the difficulty some men had in having sexual relations with their wives because they differentiated women into these categories. Those men were aroused by prostitutes and mistresses but not their wives.

Like most Double Standards, this presents problems for both sexes and carries major Unfortunate Implications. Many societies past and present have bought into this dichotomy (see All Women Are Lustful and Honor-Related Abuse and Defiled Forever). Women can be forced to identify with one or the other, and can be ostracized or socially stigmatized for failing to do so. This burden weighs heavily on the heterosexual relationships of both partners, entirely dismissing the sexual needs of "good" women and relegating the sex lives of "good" men to illicit partnerships. Practical considerations, such as the use of sex to strengthen a relationship or as the means by which the madonnas became mothers in the first place, have no place in this sort of thinking.

Commonly found in older, pre-feminism works (though it still sometimes turns up, especially in religious literature and because Most Writers Are Male). Under the Madonna-Whore Complex, all women are either portrayed as promiscuous, immoral, often Evil Is Sexy seductresses or sweet, naive ingenues (or the sweet, sexless matriarchs they become). Smart, capable, good women who enjoy sex do not exist.

Occasionally enforced by The Scourge of God. Contrast A Man Is Not a Virgin. See also: Betty and Veronica, Double Standard, My Girl Is Not a Slut

The madonna/virgin The madonna is always good at heart, though she sometimes is corrupted - often sexually, and often by the whore. Common tropes applying to the madonna:

The whore Always evil and scheming, but with massive sex appeal, catering to the Male Gaze and Fetish Fuel. Common tropes applying to the whore:

Examples:

  • There is probably not a single woman with normal sexuality in The Big Bang Theory.
  • Castlevania games... this element is pretty much universal to the series.
  • Grease. Oh God. Grease.
  • This is basically how Rorschach from Watchmen views women.
  • In Making Money this is exploited by Mr. Bent's Love Interest who concludes that she's already "ruined" simply by being in his room and may as well keep on going.
  • Swan Lake follows twin sisters, each expressing one side of this complex, and ultimately ends in tragedy. It subtly deconstructs this trope, as the prince loves the White Swan's purity, but doesn't seem to have any problem with it when she seduces him (though it's actually her sister). It further emphasizes the deconstruction by having the same dancer play both parts, implying a real woman has both the Black and White Swan.
  • Black Swan: explains the whole plot of the ballet, and juxtaposes beautiful but sexually repressed Natalie Portman vs. smoldering sexpot Mila Kunis.
  • Left Behind.
  • In Anita Blake, the titular character suffers from this kind of thinking. Often she and other characters, mostly male, believe her to be a 'slut' and treat her badly because she is forced to be promiscuous because she has something called The Arduer, which is a magical compulsion to have sex and gives her energy which if she didn't give in to, would eventually kill her and through her everyone she is magically tied to (which is most of the cast). This is a source of much Wangst in the series.
  • The music video for Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me".
Community Feedback Replies: 54
  • July 14, 2011
    NetMonster
    • There is probably not a single woman with normal sexuality in The Big Bang Theory. Except maybe Preeya.

    (I've stopped watching lately, though, so even she may have changed.)
  • July 14, 2011
    Octagon8
    Castlevania games... I think this element is universal to the series.
  • July 14, 2011
    elwoz
    You should probably explain the Freudian theory you're using as the Trope Namer a bit more. As I understand it, the theory says: Some men believe that "proper" women (madonnas) conform to All Women Are Prudes, so if a woman shows any sexual desire of her own, she must be a whore. And since such men want to believe that My Girl Is Not A Slut, this can really mess up a marriage: Freud wrote up case studies of men who were squicked at the thought that their own wives might want to have sex with them now and again.

    How do we get from here to fiction? Well, Most Writers Are Male, and this was a depressingly common attitude (not always as bad as Freud's case studies, but still there) in the days before second-wave feminism, so you'll see aspects of it in female characterization, particularly when said females are Flat Characters and/or potential Love Interests.

    See also: Double Standard, Betty and Veronica, Girl Next Door (belongs in your 'madonna' list), Ms Fanservice ('whore' list), Cant Act Perverted Toward A Love Interest.
  • July 14, 2011
    Discovery
    Possibly related to Black And White Morality.
  • July 14, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    This is a good and important trope to have.

    It may also be worth mentioning the related trope where women who have sex, putting themselves into the whore category, are often punished by being killed immediately -- do we have that one?
  • July 14, 2011
    Discovery
    Do you mean Death By Sex?
  • July 14, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Mmm, close, though I'm thinking there's a specific version that gets applied specifically to female characters. (It's not always death either, now that I think about it, just various horrible things happening after a female character decides to be sexually assertive.) We might not have a trope for it but it's still probably worth mentioning here.

    It's also important to mention the contrast with A Man Is Not A Virgin.
  • July 14, 2011
    LunaAvril
    @elwoz Feel free to edit my draft, I'm not that eloquent.
  • July 14, 2011
    GinaInTheKingsRoad
    Hmm, interesting. These are two of the Three Faces Of Eve- perhaps we could expand that page to list some of the subtropes of each face? The Mother gets tropes like Closer To Earth and Team Mom, just for starters.
  • July 14, 2011
    ElleWednesday
    I could have sworn the term was "Virgin-Whore Complex"?

    Anyway I agree that this is definently a trope, but rather than just listing pure and impure female character types, maybe we should include/focus on portrayals of men seeing women this way?
  • July 14, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Virgin/Whore Complex and Madonna/Whore Complex are both common. (It's possible there's some subtle distinction between them, but I think they're interchangeable.)
  • July 14, 2011
    ElleWednesday
    ^ Ah, okay. :) I've just never heard it with Madonna before. Maybe Virgin/Whore Complex should be a redirect?
  • July 14, 2011
    Xtifr
    These days, "Madonna" may lead to confusion with the singer. (I'm tempted to say especially in conjunction with the word whore, but I won't.
  • July 14, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Virgin/Whore Complex is both more common and easier to understand IMO. I'd use that as the trope title and make Madonna/Whore Complex the redirect.
  • July 23, 2011
    MoG2
    It is telling that people talking about this tend to leave out of of the Three Faces Of Eve. As if they had a problem with motherhood... why leaving out the option which around 80% of women in world history chose?
  • July 23, 2011
    MoG2
    And I'd say that most Straw Feminists will see themselves rather as pure. The secular version of the madonna.
  • July 23, 2011
    StarryEyed
    Even if a show averts this, expect it to crop up in the fandom, where any female character who dares wear revealing clothing will be immediately labeled a slut.
  • July 24, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    I've edited the draft, but not the index lists or added examples. What do you lot think?
  • July 24, 2011
    captainpat
    ^ that middle paragraph about Double Standard and Unfortunate Implications needs to be removed and placed in the analysis section when the trope launches. Trope descriptions are just for description the trope not reactions to it. Also Fetish Fuel needs to be replaced with Fanservice.
  • July 24, 2011
    Mimimurlough
    My Girl Is Not A Slut, for the virgin section. Does Straw Feminst really belong here, by the way? One of the most prominent features of her is that she is "frigid" and undesireable after all
  • July 24, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Yeah, Straw Feminist doesn't fit into this schema all that well.

    It's also worth mentioning that practically every positive motherhood-related trope fits under the Madonna side; part of the trope is that moms, being good and respectable women, are basically sexually untouchable, and won't be portrayed in a sexualized way even though they're obviously not literally virginal. (Obviously there are also subversions; Single Mom Stripper is probably the most obvious one - and it gets its impact precisely from the fact that moms aren't usually portrayed this way.)
  • July 26, 2011
    LunaAvril
    How does Straw Feminist not fit? It is not a personality type, just a portrayal of a woman as villainous because she supports women's rights.
  • July 26, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    It doesn't fit because the Straw Feminist is actually more often portrayed as sexually frigid than as promiscuous and seductive.
  • July 26, 2011
    jatay3
    "It's also worth mentioning that practically every positive motherhood-related trope fits under the Madonna side; part of the trope is that moms, being good and respectable women, are basically sexually untouchable, and won't be portrayed in a sexualized way even though they're obviously not literally virginal. "

    The moms in some more recent Dom Com s were referred to in a sexual way in the Happily Married Good People Have Good Sex sense. At least once in Boy Meets World and a number of times in Step By Step.
  • July 26, 2011
    KevinKlawitter
    This is one of the trademarks of the films of Martin Scorsese. Raging Bull is the most blatant, but Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and even his debut Who's That Knocking At My Door use it to flavor their main characters.
  • July 26, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Yeah, I'd agree that the trope in general is becoming less prominent in recent years, but that doesn't change the fact that there's still a general tendency for moms to be portrayed as basically asexual. (After all, The Chick and the Love Interest aren't necessarily always portrayed as sweet naive virgins, either.)
  • July 26, 2011
    Mimimurlough
    Betty And Veronica derserves a mention here I think, if only because they often represent this dichotomy and Betty tends to win (unless Veronica is supernatural in some way. I think there was a YKTTW for that)
  • July 27, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Should join the Unfortunate Implications Index if/when launched.
  • July 27, 2011
    FrodoGoofballCoTV
    See Good Bad Girl for the case where a character is able to Take A Third Option.
  • July 27, 2011
    madelinemary
    The Breakfast Club: "It's kind of a double edged sword, isn't it? If you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut. It's a trap. You want to, but you can't. And when you did, you wish you hadn't."
  • July 29, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    ^ I like this for an opening quotation.
  • July 29, 2011
    Belfagor
    • This is basically how Rorschach from Watchmen views women.
  • July 29, 2011
    Bisected8
    • In Making Money this is exploited by Mr. Bent's Love Interest who concludes that she's already "ruined" simply by being in his room and may as well keep on going.
  • July 29, 2011
    callsignecho
    Do we have a section for ballet?

    • Swan Lake follows twin sisters, each expressing one side of this complex, and ultimately ends in tragedy. It subtly deconstructs this trope, as the prince loves the White Swan's purity, but doesn't seem to have any problem with it when she seduces him (though it's actually her sister). It further emphasizes the deconstruction by having the same dancer play both parts, implying a real woman has both the Black and White Swan.

    If you prefer movies:

    • Black Swan: explains the whole plot of the ballet, and juxtaposes beautiful but sexually repressed Natalie Portman vs. smoldering sexpot Mila Kunis.
  • July 29, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Put ballet under Theatre.

    Should first list heading be "madonna/virgin"? I don't think The Ingenue is exactly maternal.
  • July 29, 2011
    NoirGrimoir
    • In Anita Blake, the titular character suffers from this kind of thinking. Often she and other characters, mostly male, believe her to be a 'slut' and treat her badly because she is forced to be promiscuous because she has something called The Arduer, which is a magical compulsion to have sex and gives her energy which if she didn't give in to, would eventually kill her and through her everyone she is magically tied to (which is most of the cast). This is a source of much Wangst in the series.
  • July 30, 2011
    TwinBird
    @Xtifr: Actually, we probably should say that. Pop music is one example that's often trotted out.

    @69BookWorM69: The point is that she's a good candidate for an eventual wife and mother, unlike the "whore," who, in twenty years, except in the rare cases she's "saved" (c.f. Pretty Woman), will be a whore twenty years older. The Roman stock play, for instance, had two "meretrices": one was a young girl, an object of desire for the boy, and the other an older woman, a source of worldly wisdom. (That might be too old to qualify as an example; I'm not well-versed in feminist critical analysis.)
  • July 30, 2011
    Bisected8
    @Luna Avril: Just so you know; you can click on the edit button of a post (the pencil icon on the left of each) and copy the markup when you transfer examples into the OP.
  • July 30, 2011
    GoodGuyGreg
    Madonna's name is probably an ironic reference to the concept, since her public persona is exactly the other half of the equation.
  • July 30, 2011
    blueranger
    The traditional slasher film Final Girl was always a virgin while there was always a couple who would die after having sex. If the Final Girl had a boyfriend then they would never be shown even close to having sex and usually the boyfriend would get killed off anyway. These days however a Final Girl isn't usually a virgin and she'll usually just be portrayed as less promiscuous than another girl (who will get killed off).
  • July 30, 2011
    randomsurfer
    ^^It's her actual birth name (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone).
  • July 30, 2011
    elwoz
    Having thought about it some, it seems to me that fictional stereotyping of women as either frigid or sluts by the author(s) is adequately covered by Betty And Veronica, The Three Faces Of Eve, and the All Women Are Prudes / All Women Are Lustful dichotomy, and maybe this trope should instead be the actual complex: that is, this trope applies to male characters who, in-universe, treat women as necessarily being either frigid or sluts.

    We should probably explain that "Madonna" can be another name for the Virgin Mary (who, miraculously, manages to be both a mother and a virgin) and that's how Freud meant it.
  • July 30, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    The trope isn't just "women are either frigid or slutty" at all. It's the idea that women are either absolutely chaste and therefore morally good, or they're sexual beings and therefore worthless and evil.
  • July 30, 2011
    elwoz
    Okay, but that's still adequately covered by other tropes.
  • July 31, 2011
    kjnoren
    No, the trope is still valid and needed. It can be argued that Betty And Veronica is a special case of this, but Madonna Whore Complex is far more general, but also more stringent. The Three Faces Of Eve also has similarities, but it's about a trio, not about general groups. As for the last trope pair, this trope places them in a context, and exposes the value dissonance therein.

    However, there is one split within the trope that needs to be dealt with: one in-story and one out-story. If one or more characters in a story sees all women through this complex, then it's in-story (example: Rorschach in Watchmen. If all women in the story fits the complex, then it's out-story.

    This is very much a real-life trope (or meme) too, and a quite dangerous one.
  • July 31, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Yeah, I agree, there's plenty of works that apply this tropes in how they portray women - works where all the good girls are desexualized and all the bad girls are sexy, or where a female character's Heel Face Turn is marked by the switch to a sexier costume and more deliberately seductive or sexually aggressive behavior, for instance, and that sort of thing isn't fully covered by any other trope. The closest is My Girl Is Not A Slut but that's not quite the same thing.

    It's not really covered by any of the other tropes brought up. Betty And Veronica is related, but not only is it a specific case, Veronica needn't be portrayed negatively.

    Also, can we get some explanation on the Grease example? We're trying to avoid "X Just X" entries.
  • August 1, 2011
    kjnoren
    Anyway, I'd wish for a better introduction. Right now you get a special case of the trope and how it was discovered first, instead of a proper description. How about:

    A pattern of thought that divides women into two categories: Madonnas and Whores. The Madonna is an object of worship and shows everything that a woman should aspire to be. However, sex is not part of this. Any woman who fails to live up to the Madonna standard in any part is a Whore, and worthless. As soon as a woman is known to have an active sex life, she is automatically viewed as a whore.

    It was first described by Sigmund Freud… (continue as per original draft).
  • August 1, 2011
    callsignecho
    In one of Piers Anthony's novels, With a Tangled Skein IIRC, there is a serial rapist-murderer who has this complex. The teenaged prostitute he's marked for murder manages to escape via psychological tricks--mostly doing whatever she can to portray herself like his "madonna": his Dead Little Sister.
  • August 1, 2011
    TwinBird
    @kjnoren: You make it sound a lot more cut-and-dried than it (or anything in psychology or gender studies) actually is.
  • August 1, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    In re Grease
    • Lyrics like "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee/Lousy with virginity/Won't go to bed/'Til I'm legally wed/I can't! I'm Sandra Dee."
    • The whole of Rizzo's song "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"
  • August 1, 2011
    kjnoren
    ^^ Quite probable, yes. The main thing IMO is to get a better introduction (that can be fixed post-launch, of course).
  • August 1, 2011
    DragonQuestZ
    Call it something like Virgin Or Whore Dichotomy.
  • August 2, 2011
    kjnoren
    No, I'd say that Madonna is far preferable for several reasons:

    The virtues of motherhood are very important in this pattern. This is shown by using madonna, but not at all with virgin.

    There is also a worshipful/idealistic part of the Madonna. This is also lost by using virgin.
  • August 3, 2011
    LunaAvril
    I'll be launching this now. I shall be adding more examples when I'm done.
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