Madonna in New York, 1984. (Photo by Michael Putland)
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Madonna or whore? How women’s femininity is used to deny them victimhood

You’ve probably never heard of the Madonna Whore duality- I know I hadn’t until a gender studies class. Thing is, health it explains so much of how women’s femininity either grants them victimhood, store or denies them.

The Madonna Whore duality is simple: it’s the idea that either a woman is a Madonna type figure-pure, more about untouched, lives up to all the traditional views of womanhood- or a Whore. The ‘whore’ is sexually promiscuous and goes against what society views a woman should be.

 Michelangelo's Madonna and Child
Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child

What’s troubling is that this duality frames how women are portrayed in society, especially female victims of crime. It contributes to the idea of a ‘right’ female victim; a victim whose actions and life means she isn’t responsible for the crime committed against her. She is a ‘worthy’ victim, the ‘Madonna’, whereas those women deemed to be ‘whores’ are not.

Take, for example, when a woman, who is a sex worker, is murdered or suffers some kind of harm. Rather than being seen through the lens of victimhood, often media coverage focuses on the woman’s deviance from social norms- her sex work becomes a way to subtly deny her victimhood and attribute responsibility.

As Joan Smith notes in the Guardian: “the press can never quite decide whether murdered sex workers are tragic victims, like any woman targeted by a serial killer, or have chosen a lifestyle that means they are partly responsible for their deaths.”

Madonna in New York, 1984. (Photo by Michael Putland)
Madonna in New York, 1984. (Photo by Michael Putland)

The ‘whore’ represents a fallen woman, who is upheld by society as being the example of what not to become. Don’t go out at night in a short skirt, otherwise you’re just another whore asking for it. Don’t sleep around. Instead, know your place. Be respectful, demure.

Be the ‘Madonna’ who obeys the unspoken rules society has for women.

The Madonna Whore duality worms its way into the everyday conversations we have and everyday experiences. It’s the “well, what were you wearing?” when you tell a friend you were catcalled on your way home. It’s in girls having to stress they weren’t drunk when they were raped, as if being so somehow renders the assault less of a violation.

And, in case you hadn’t already guessed, the Madonna Whore duality applies exclusively to women. There’s no male counterpart. Instead, it’s women who are denied their victimhood.

 

Unless you happen to be the picture perfect Madonna, that is.

Written by Susannah Keogh

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