Exploring The Virgin Whore Dichotomy

Taylor Swift

When Kesha, the popstar famous for her party anthem radio hits, released an album of acoustic songs the general reaction was a pleasant surprise. You can hear the range of her voice without auto-tune and lots of people were shocked that she could “actually” sing. When these songs were released I was happy to see her getting recognition for her talent, but confused as to why said talent came as such a surprise. True, these songs are a change of pace musically, but since when did a slower tempo correlate to an increase in talent? Besides, if you’ve been paying attention you would know she was always talented. Say what you want about the current state of pop music, but most of the pop stars that rise to fame are truly talented. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kesha are just some examples. These women have great voices, are great songwriters and talented musicians—for Katy Perry, it’s the guitar, Lady Gaga the piano, for Kesha, it’s both. Listen to any of their albums and in addition to their upbeat party anthems you’ll find some beautiful songs that showcase their talents. So I found myself asking again, why the shock? I realized that in addition to talent, what these women have in common is the way in which they showcase their sexuality.

More famous than their music is the way these women dress and present themselves. Kesha’s look, with her glitter, feathers and faux hawk, is constantly described as ‘trashy’ and her mere presence on the Billboard charts is used by some as proof of the downfall of music. Katy Perry’s penchant for candy and cupcake themed clothing is disregarded as silly, even stupid, and Lady Gaga is notorious for her outrageous fashion choices, a fact that often overshadows her music. For all these women, their sexuality is intertwined with their style, and while their choices are not made in a vacuum, it’s clear that to some extent they are exerting their own agency and are choosing to present their sexuality in an unapologetic and empowering way. Not surprisingly, it seems that the sexuality of these women somehow renders their talent null and void. It’s also reflective of the misogynistic  virgin/whore dichotomy that exists as a trope in our culture.

In psychology, this concept is referred to as the Maddona-whore complex. Coined by the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, the Maddona-whore complex refers to men who cannot be sexually attracted to a woman who is “respectable” and “good”—the Madonna—and yet cannot respect a woman who is sexual—the whore. Freud’s theorized that this inability to mix sex and love caused anxiety in many men. The phrase “virgin whore dichotomy” expands on Freud’s idea and is often used in feminist media critiques and refers to the way women are portrayed and treated in media. If Kesha is the “whore” of pop music, then the “virgin” is undoubtedly Taylor Swift.  A blonde hair, blue eyed country girl, she embodies our society’s ideals of purity. Swift also perpetuates this virgin/whore dichotomy and places herself firmly on the virgin side with lyrics like, “she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts.” By treating these identities as mutually exclusive, the virgin/whore dichotomy limits a woman’s sexuality and worse, always leave women lacking.  If these a woman is sexual, empowered, and unapologetic then she cannot be talented, smart, or “classy”. If she is soft, sweet, and “good” then she cannot be outgoing, loud or autonomous. They must be one or the other—the virgin or the whore—and when women do not fit neatly into one category it is met with confusion. This is why it is so hard for people to believe Kesha sings about day drinking and is also a literal genius.

The reactions make these expectations clear: She is a sexualized pop star, and the idea that she could be anything else, even something she already is (a talented, intelligent woman) is shocking. It’s sad and frustrating to witness, especially when the largest consumers and witnesses to this virgin/whore dichotomy are young girls. They quickly learn that they must choose a side and stick with it. Each side thinks the other is inherently ‘wrong,’ as if there is any ‘right’ way to be a woman. It’s a game we’ve all played, and a game in which all women lose. As Ally Sheedy so aptly put it in The Breakfast Club:

Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have you’re a slut. It’s a trap. 

It was relevant in 1916 when Freud first conceptualized the Madonna-whore complex and it’s relevant in 2014. We need to start allowing women and girls to be the complex, deep, sometimes sexual, sometimes talented, always wonderful people they are. Not virgins or whores, but people.

About

Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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5 thoughts on “Exploring The Virgin Whore Dichotomy

  1. Thank you for writing this thought provoking article…..I have long told my teen girls that we don’t need to label girls with names like “slut” and “whore” because there are plenty of other people who will label and girls need to stick together and just see each other as girls.

  2. Hi how can I site this article? I want to use it for my research paper. I’m not really sure who to give credits to.

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