Today I’d like to talk about the whore/Madonna complex. Since I’d like to distance our discussion today from Freud’s original (and kinda wacky) ideas about this subject, I’m going to rename it the whore/angel complex. For the purposes of the blog, I’m going to define the whore/angel (or vice versa) complex as stated below. I’m kind of making this up on the fly, so feel free to jump in and correct me if there actually is a good definition of this phenomenon floating around, or chime in with additions. I’m just describing what I see (not very scientific or scholarly of me, but…that’s why this is a blog and not a research paper!).
A western societal meme that stereotypes women by placing them into one of two categories: angel or whore. The angel personality tends to be stereotyped as: pure, good, giving, the mother, non-sexual, perfect, child-like, iconic, chaste, disembodied, worthy of worship. The whore personality tends to be the reverse: dirty, the bitch, the prostitute, hypersexual, bodied, animal/beastly, fertile, demonic, violent, deviant. With this meme, there is no middle ground – a woman is one or the other, and can shift between these personalities, but cannot bridge the dichotomy.
This meme goes way back in time for western society. Think about all those fairytale stories, and you might notice that the princesses tend to be in the “angel” column and their stepmothers tend to be in the “whore” column. The step-mother can never be the mother (who’s usually so chaste and perfect that she’s literally become disembodied in death). It’s Queen Guinevere’s deviation from her position of “angel” and her shift to “whore” when she takes up her lover Lancelot that causes a lot of the destruction of Camelot that happens in the King Arthur legends. It’s also probably a visual meme in our social psyche – think about the history of western art and the prevalence of the Madonna icon, which embodies the “angel” half of this complex! Or consider how this stereotype lives on in modern media – have you ever watched Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns? While Selina Kyle is mild-mannered and lives in an apartment that’s candy-pink and full of stuffed animals, Catwoman is like literally and figuratively, the bitch in heat. (By the way, Tim Burton’s other take on female characters in the previous film, Batman is just as bad – Vicki Vale’s bedroom is outfitted with like a zillion teddy bears. How old is she supposed to be again!?)
So what does this have to do with the virago? you might be asking. Because of the way that I’ve structured the virago rules, the virago is more complex than this dichotomy and she can’t just be one or the other. In fact, at best, she’s probably neither. However, this doesn’t mean that representations of her aren’t above trying to shove her into one of these categories or the other. I’m all for diversifying the virago and changing models of women that just don’t work very well, and I feel like the angel/whore complex is one of them. While Catwoman from Batman Returns gets a pass (and only maybe) as a virago according to my rules, she doesn’t add anything new to the idea of being a virago and possibly reinforces negative stereotypes of women and their sexuality. I’m not saying that Catwoman isn’t wildly entertaining or fun to watch – part of what makes her so dynamic is the change between the angel and whore personalities – but I often think that part of what makes her character so satisfying is the fact that she is a western society staple and that her character is so incredibly predictable. (You may disagree with me here, that’s fine!). However, there’s very little (to no!) space for a woman who doesn’t fit this restrictive model of women’s sexuality on screen – and I’d like to see that change.
And, more fascinatingly, we, as audience members (regardless of gender) may also be unconsciously using this meme to categorize these women. I’m all about being aware of how we “read” the virago and under what circumstances she can “live” as a body, so to speak, so I’m going to take an example of a space where she just doesn’t appear – and that’s the popular show, Sex and the City.
If you’re looking for viragoes, this show sucks, since it doesn’t contain any (the only one that comes closest is Samantha, who I personally feel breaks rules #3, 4b and 5 in many episodes. She may be able to fulfill these rules in one episode, or part of an episode, but her inability to keep the rules consistently is what disqualifies her). However, Sex and the City is good for something else for we virago-purporters – it’s a good example of some of the pressures which the virago faces in modern media. While Carrie and her friends cavort around the city, living impossibly glamorous lives and having sex with those who catch their fancy, the fab foursome are constantly under the pressures of the whore/angel complex. (I find it especially ironic that a show which stakes its premise on women’s sexual liberation reverts back to this myopic divide.) It gets a bad rap from feminists for a variety of reasons, but I’m with Orson Scott Card on this one – he writes that the show was one of the “best-written […] shows in the history of television. It was also a moral nightmare.” The dialogue is certainly snappy, although I often feel the show tries too hard to make the characters fit into either side of the Angel/Whore divide. Some characters are pretty much entirely based on this (Samantha, representing the Whore and Charlotte representing the Angel).
But, why aren’t there any viragoes in this show? Why doesn’t Samantha, or any of the women on this show, get the proverbial “room” to count as a virago on this show? we might be asking ourselves. What keeps this show from presenting alternatives to the angel/whore divide? I think it’s because of the way that Sex and the City lays out the world structure of its “New York” and the guidelines of its narrative structure, the virago cannot exist fully.
I’ll admit that a lot of this is dependent on rules 4 and 5 in my definition of the virago. It’s got to be a challenge to get around rule 5 (a virago’s sexuality must make sense according to her as a character, not simply to appeal to a mass market audience) when you’re writing a show like this. However, that’s no excuse for Carrie and her friends to type themselves according to this angel/whore model. Certainly, they get the complex from the outside judgment of society, but it’s odd to me that these women who spend the majority of their time together discussing their sexual exploits, have so few ways to describe themselves outside of this societal model.
The episode “Cover Girl” in the fifth season of the show exemplifies this nicely. When Carrie walks into Samantha’s office and sees her having sex with a delivery boy, Samantha takes offense, thinking that Carrie has typed her as the “whore.” While Samantha later defends her actions, Carrie admits that she still harbors a little judgment against her friend. The reaction is typical for the show – as Samantha’s exploits are usually met with judgment by her friends when they all sit down and have brunch. Samantha, who has the most healthy self-esteem and most powerful career out of all the girls, constantly has to take some flak for her expressions of sexuality and she is constantly the measuring stick of “inappropriate.”
In “Unoriginal Sin,” Carrie and Charlotte are sitting around watching men walk down the street, and they mark which ones they would sleep with. Carrie points out that Charlotte has marked down a lot of men already, and states, “You’re an imaginary whore […] you’ve slept with eight men and we’ve only had appetizers!” Granted, these kind of one liners makes for snappy dialogue, but it’s kind of sad that Carrie can’t see outside the boundary lines of “bad girl vs. good girl” when it comes to her friends.
My point is simple – we may employ these judgments on our own, without realizing it. Just like Carrie, perhaps we’re judging our friends and their actions according to an outdated model that doesn’t do anything but demonize anyone who’s not the picture of virtue. And I do, quite literally, mean picture of virtue – the angel is a disembodied image, an icon, that can never be fully human. The virago should not have to compromise between having a body as well as desires and being respected. I’d like to see more human viragoes, and that means scrapping this model or at least reworking it to become more flexible and different.
Just so you know, I am headed somewhere with this argument – keep it in mind when I discuss the idea of the cyborg woman in upcoming posts! And, as always, I invite you to join me again next week!
Image from here and here.