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When trying to understand something, sometimes it’s best to create two polar opposites as an analogy for the sake of creating a distinct enough contrast to spark realization. This may be a familiar concept in popular media, where the rejection of moderation and a tendency to over-exaggerate and hyperpolarize go hand in hand in creating sensationalism—particularly with women and the policing of their behavior and appearance. 

Within this realm of do’s and don’ts, there are two dominant, clashing ideologies: we have the classic, traditional ideal of the perfect girl being associated with sweet purity and the color white, having innocence and being soft-spoken, while also being domestic and preferring to be indoors. And as a rejection of this stereotype, modern media has taken to trying to redefine femininity and what a strong and capable woman looks like — and it may be no surprise that the easiest way to do so is through taking the exact opposite approach that they are trying to deviate from. Women in movies often exercise their independence in the form of being a “bad girl” with a combative personality, being capable of seducing men without falling in love with them, and overall rejecting the idea of being a “good girl”. 

As a result, we can see this pattern exemplified under the term, the “Madonna-Whore complex” where the concept was first conceived by Sigmund Freud—in which women are pigeonholed into being one or the other. The “Madonna” is the pure, “respectable” woman who has all the virtues of being the pure virgin—she is beautiful, hard to get, and a virgin until marriage—and then she becomes a loving mother who devotes her life to her family. She cannot express any desire to engage in “promiscuous” activity and isn’t supposed to derive any pleasure from it either — and therefore remains chaste and pure in the eyes of her husband. However, this then makes her undesirable to her husband, as her domestic and motherly charms override her feminine identity as a woman who can satisfy the desires of her male partner. This change in the role of the “Madonna” causes the husband to grow romantically distant from his wife, and in some extreme cases, he seeks out the “whore”. 

Unlike the “Madonna”, the “whore” is easily accessible, seductive, lascivious, and overall extremely sexually attractive to men who want their desires satisfied. However, because she enjoys and is in control of her sexual prowess, she is seen as overly promiscuous—therefore she is unworthy of respect or commitment. The man’s meetings with the “whore” are oftentimes at night, where his interactions with her are kept down low and hidden as she is seen as a degraded, inferior woman to the respectable “Madonna”. 

We can see the Madonna-whore complex demonstrated with Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Frollo considers Esmeralda to be seductive and promiscuous, a whore; lusting after her but knowing he can’t have her because of his internalized degraded view of her. Contrast this with Quasimoto who idealizes Esmeralda as an untouchable, pure, and holy savior figure—the Madonna, someone he can not sexually desire due to him putting her on a pedestal.

As such, the Madonna-whore complex reveals not only the contradictory and hypocritical expectations placed on women but also the way their freedom to express themselves is restricted to the understanding and lens of men and their own desires. To regard women with the narrow perspective of being either one extreme or the either strips them of their individuality and ability to exist in society without being judged. It’s impossible to ask for misogyny to end overnight, but it can begin with taking apart the layers that have created the foundation of the patriarchy that exists to this day. 

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Hello, nice to meet you! I'm Monica Lee from UC Davis, pursuing an English major and a Psychology minor. I greatly enjoy writing, editing, and the works! In my free time I love finding new things to eat from Trader Joe's and playing games :)