When I was in middle school, the greatest evil a girl could perpetrate was to show her bra straps. Neglecting to conceal these corrupt contraptions was a mark of the immoral, an overstep of the rigid boundaries of gender, an open acknowledgement of the start of womanhood, and thus, the beginning of an irrevocable descent into the perpetual depravity of her gender.
It may seem like I’m blowing the whole bra strap thing out of proportion, but then again, what else would you expect from a woman? We are notorious for being emotional and irrational beings.
If I seem a bit bitter, it’s only because I am.
As I’ve grown older, I have become increasingly aware that the playing field between my male counterparts and me is anything but level. In fact, it is inclined at such a steep angle towards those of the XY variety that sometimes I feel at danger of falling off the field completely.
Having lived only seventeen years, I can’t pretend to understand some of the challenges, like the wage gap or paid family leave, that this imbalance forces upon other women. But what I have experienced—and what hasn’t changed in any of those seventeen years—is the toxicity of the Madonna-Whore complex, a dichotomy that extends its tentacles into an alarmingly large portion of my life and the lives of other women.
The complex finds its roots in the early 1900s with the postulations of the infamous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. But before completely dismissing the Madonna-Whore complex as the ravings of the man who coined various stages of adolescence as “phallic” and “genital,” truly consider the meaning of the term.
The complex slyly divides all women into two distinct categories: the Madonna, a saintly individual that disavows all sin, and the prostitute, a debased creature that bathes in wickedness. The former is loved; the latter is desired. And the middle? Well, that just doesn’t exist.
The Madonna-Whore complex began as the lens through which men would assess women. Those who inspired lust were the mistresses, the concubines, the temptresses of otherwise honorable men. They were the corrupting factor, while the Madonna purified. She was the mother, the wife, the nun—respected, but not the object of lust.
You may scorn this view as totally antiquated, and I would agree with you. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is just as prevalent now as it was in the time of corsets. The complex has just switched masks to fit with the times.
Now, we possess new classifications for women. We have the slut, the cool girl, the friend-zoner, the girl-next-door, the tease, and the nice girl. There are more, but each of these, positive or negative, has something in common: they all are descriptions based on how a woman measures up to the desires of a man.
Flirts but doesn’t go farther? Tease. Pretty, but unattainable? Girl-next-door. Appreciates her sexuality? Slut. Won’t date the “nice guy”? Friend-zoner.
These typecasts have been bred so deeply into our culture that it is no longer acceptable to place blame for them exclusively on men. The labels are slapped on women by people of all genders, all races, and in all classes.
A perfect example of this cropped a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting with a group of people—men and women—as they debated the merits of two members at the very top of the social stratum, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Praise was given to Swift for refusing to bare her midriff, while Beyoncé was vilified for performing in more revealing outfits. No remark was made on either of their singing, songwriting, or dancing abilities—which is what the women are actually famous for—yet Swift was still selected as superior, solely for the clothing she wears.
Once again, the Madonna-Whore complex reared its chauvinistic head. In this case, wardrobe titled Swift as the sweet girl-next-door and Beyoncé as the dangerous temptress. Yet if dating habits had been the topic in question, the labels could certainly have been reversed, with Swift condemned as a serial dater and Beyoncé lauded as a wife and mother.
That a woman can effortlessly bounce from one stereotype to its opposite reveals just how arbitrary the Madonna-Whore complex truly is. The sole determining factor is the attribute that her judges choose to analyze that day.
So if it’s so simple to slip from one category to the next, why do we care at all? Why do we, as women, allow these categories to define us, and why do we define each other in that way?
Because accepting complacency towards social norms is easier than encouraging defiance. Because championing the fair treatment of women carries the risk of being called an estrogen-crazed feminist. Because only now are we beginning to realize that adding the label of Madonna or whore removes all other aspects of a woman’s identity.
Strip away the saint and the sinner, though, and so many more important layers are revealed. Beyoncé is co-founder of an organization called CHIME FOR CHANGE, which seeks to empower women. Taylor Swift was the youngest artist ever to win the “Album of the Year” Grammy award.
We are taught as children not to judge a book by its cover, that there is more to a person than meets the eye. As we age, many of us toss these tenets aside, brushing them off as tired clichés.
But if we all choose to look at more than just a title page and a review, we would see that women are equally deserving of respect and equally worthy of love. We merit more than a wanton label.
I am a seventeen-year-old woman. I’m a rabid Giants fan. My cat obsession could be called frightening. I belt Britney Spears when I’m alone. I like to wear makeup because it makes me feel pretty. I can be a slob when I want and I can dress to the nines whenever else. If my bra straps show once in awhile, who cares?
I am not a devil. I am not an angel. And that’s okay.