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Top 5 blondes versus brunettes in television: the modern-day Madonna-Whore complex in teen dramas

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The blonde-brunette rivalry is a common theme in a host of fictional books, magazine articles, television, and film and represents one of the most enduring tropes in popular culture and media (Reinke, 2010). The media and entertainment industry has utilised this trope throughout the decades, pitting blondes and brunettes against each other time and time again. The prevalence of this trope throughout innumerable tv shows and movies begs the question of why it is such a popular dichotomy to begin with?

If we are to apply an academic facet to the blonde-brunette rivalry, one might suggest that the psychoanalytical nature of the Madonna-whore complex is a befitting tool for analysis. Coined by Sigmund Freud, the ‘Madonna-whore complex’ represents the polarity of the Madonna (a perceivably virtuous and chaste woman) and the whore (a promiscuous, seductive, and suggestive woman). While the Madonna-whore complex is undoubtedly damaging and a patriarchal concept, it continues to be portrayed throughout television shows and movies. 

Media critics, such as Tucker Cummings, have cited various TV shows which have featured the “classic war between blonde and brunette love interests”, stating that “the blonde is stable and typifies the ‘girl next door,’ while the brunette is haughty and a bit more exotic” (Tucker, 2011). 

Media tools such as the Bechdel Test have been used in order to measure the representation of women in fiction, investigating the degree to which fictitious work features two women talking to each other about something other than a man (Bechdel, 1985). The test is used as an indicator for the active presence of female characters in TV shows and films. The tendency for TV shows, especially teen drama shows, to incorporate love triangles into their main storylines relates to the Bechdel test. 

The source of conflict for many blonde-brunette duos is recurrently shown to be a white, straight, male protagonist. Media’s obsession with the blonde-brunette contrast is simultaneously fascinating and troubling and has repeatedly cropped up in a number of teen drama shows over the past two decades. The categorisation of women as either chaste or promiscuous is deeply problematic yet has continuously been represented through fictional characters in media. This article seeks to remark on the top 5 blonde versus brunettes’ rivalries in television, demonstrating the prevalence of the damaging Madonna-whore complex in teen dramas. 

1. Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge (Archie Comics / Riverdale)

Betty and Veronica represent one of the most enduring blonde versus brunette rivalries in pop culture, wherein their competition for the mutual love interest Archie Andrews has spanned for nearly a century! In the comics, Betty is portrayed as a wholesome, approachable, and perceivably pure girl, exhibiting the characteristics of Freud’s “Madonna”. Betty is continuously remarked to be beautiful – blonde haired and blue eyed, innocent.

Contrastingly, Veronica embodies Freud’s “Whore” and is presented as a privileged and spoilt competitor. It has been suggested that the Betty and Veronica was the original blueprint for the blonde-brunette dichotomy; their rivalry has been reincarnated throughout comics and other forms of media such as television (Tucker, 2011). Interestingly, this rivalry is often triggered by a love triangle with an additional male character (such as Archie). 

The formulae remains generic – with a typical blonde girl who is angelic and “good… while her brunette rival is the bad girl” (Randy, 2009). The teen drama rendition of the Archie Comics known as Riverdale was aired in 2018, bringing Betty and Veronicas rivalry to life. While the TV series has shown deviations from the comics, the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle will forever be at its core. While Betty and Veronica’s TV counterparts deviate from their simplified, comic-book personas in some respects, the Betty-Veronica-Archie love triangle remains at the heart of the series (especially in earlier seasons). 

2. Payton Sawyer and Brooke Davis (One Tree Hill)

One Tree Hill aired in 2003 and encompassed one of television’s most identifiable teen drama love triangles. In earlier seasons, Brooke (the brunette) is shown to be rather promiscuous and flirty in comparison to Payton (the blonde), who is presented to be more introverted and introspective. Despite Brooke’s character being considerably developed as the series goes on, it is clear that the Madonna-whore dichotomy applies to Payton and Brookes dynamic in earlier seasons. 

Similarly, to Betty and Veronica, Payton and Brooke are seen to be best friends in One Tree Hill – it is established early on that they have a long history and share a close relationship. Despite this, an eventual love triangle forms with Lucas Scott (the main protagonist throughout most of the series). Their rivalry against each other blossoms due to their mutual attraction and love for Lucas, leading to a series of betrayals and arguments between the two best friends. 

3. Serena Van Der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf (Gossip Girl)

Serena and Blair continue to be one of the most notable blonde-brunette frenemies in teen drama history. Following a similar trend from their predecessors, Serena and Blair are shown to be close childhood friends. 

In the early seasons, their rivalry initially revolves around Nate Archibold, which results in a subsequent deterioration of their friendship when it is revealed that Serena (our supposed “Madonna”) slept with Blair’s boyfriend prior to the pilot episode. While the two eventually repair their friendship, their rivalry and toxic relationship prevails throughout the course of the series. Serena and Blair embody the Madonna-whore complex to a t. from the outset. Serena is presented as flirtatious and bold, whereas Blair is portrayed as haughty in earlier seasons.  

4. Marissa Cooper and Summer Roberts (The OC)

While Marissa and Summer are not necessarily portrayed as rivals in the OC, it is clearly evident that the Madonna-whore contrast is in effect throughout the first couple of episodes of the series. Marissa, despite her many family and personal problems, is conveyed as extremely attractive, fragile, and docile, offering a stark contrast to Summer’s boisterous and seemingly superficial attitude. 

As with One Tree Hill, this stark contrast becomes more nuanced as the series progresses, allowing room for greater character development and layering to take place. Despite the Madonna-whore dichotomy being applicable to Marissa and Summer, it is interesting that the series turned the “stable, girl-next-door” trope on its head with Marissa who is shown to be a deeply troubled and problematic character throughout the series. 

Cassie Howard and Maddy Perez (Euphoria)

Lastly, but not least importantly, Cassie and Maddy portray a modern rendition of the Madonna-whore complex. Throughout the first season of Euphoria, Maddy and Cassie are shown to be best friends. This friendship is damaged throughout the second season however, when Cassie sleeps with Maddy’s ex-boyfriend Nate Jacobs (There must be something about the Nate’s ladies!). After discovering this, Maddy and Cassie’s friendship deteriorates, leading to a physical showdown in the last episode of season 2.  

Despite Cassie’s actions she continuously protests her innocence, despite Maddy suffering the consequences of her betrayal. Cassie represents the typical Madonna throughout the series, being conveyed as the sweet, innocent blonde throughout the first series and then the damaged victim in the second. Contrastingly, Maddy is portrayed as the “exotic” brunette. Their polarity is exemplified through Cassie’s betrayal, and their history as best friends deepens Cassie’s disloyalty further, echoing the rivalries of their blonde-brunette predecessors.

Andi Waters

Exeter '24

A huge nerd with a passion for niche tv shows, marvel movies and playing my guitar. You’ll usually find me waiting in the campus pret queue or stressing in the library!
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