It’s 2015, and I’d like to know why we still believe that a woman can’t be both smart and desirable.
It’s late January and while navigating a sea of new course syllabi, doctoral applications, and conference research, I haven’t been the best at keeping up with recent news. What little media trickles through the stacks of paperwork comes from conversations with friends and the occasional Facebook share, specifically from the lovely Sam Eyler.
Lately, the feminist spotlight seems to be shining on the Madonna-whore complex. It’s alive and well, and it’s everywhere. An Elite Daily piece recently made the rounds detailing “the actual difference between women who are hot and who are beautiful,” to which I responded with the Mr. Yuck face from those poison control labels. The Telegraph responded to more Miley nudes! and an adult film star’s public ridicule with an op-ed on why women shame one another for stripping down. Sam Eyler photographed a charming little sign she found in Colombia reading: “When a lady says no she means perhaps, when she says perhaps she means yes, and when she says yes she is no lady.” In other news, circular reasoning is circular.
Filmmaker Jason Pollock informed women last weekend that they “don’t need lots of makeup or fancy clothes to impress us.” Yes, I’m sure his heart was in the right place. But you know what they say about the road to hell.
The larger point about these instances, whether they’re as crass as the Colombian sign or as well-meaning as Mr. Pollock’s advice, is that they perpetuate a mentality that should have died with Freud himself. It’s 2015, and I’d like to know why we still believe that a woman can’t be both smart and desirable, that her wardrobe choices or sexual proclivities change her at some foundational level, and that these preferences can’t be examined apart from what the men in her life might think.
I’ve written before about how dangerous this polarized way of thinking is, using a short story by Milan Kundera to illustrate the damage to both sexes caused by categorizing women as this or that. In short, the Madonna or virgin-whore dichotomy maintains that all women fit into one of two exclusive categories: the virtuous future wife, or the degraded prostitute.
As childishly simplistic as this sounds, it’s a very real presence in the lives of adult women. Ever had to fake modesty in a sexual encounter to avoid looking like the aggressor? Ever had a man suddenly treat you differently after you slept with him? Ever guiltily put back clothing or makeup you genuinely liked because it might “attract the wrong kind of attention”? The effects are all around us.
Men who evaluate women in this split way have difficulty reconciling sex with romantic idealism, viewing a woman’s sexual enjoyment or positive body image as evidence that she wants and deserves to be treated like an object. This is often masked in suggestions that seem complimentary on the surface, e.g. Jason Pollock’s urge for women to pitch the beauty products. A nice thought, maybe, until we remember that women are also ridiculed whenever they don’t put enough effort into their appearance.
Likewise, the Elite Daily “hot/beautiful” piece opposes commercial standards and the objectification of women…by, well, objectifying women who don’t dress like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Lauren Martin claims that “there is a certain type of man that continually defames women, judging them solely on sex appeal…these are the men who don’t understand the concept of natural beauty and uniqueness in flaws,” but I’d argue that the vast majority of men can and do appreciate “natural beauty.” Unfortunately, they are just taught that natural beauty and sex appeal cannot exist within the same woman.
Women who apply the virgin-whore dichotomy to their own gender are constantly searching for ways to prove their own virginal worthiness in a little game I like to call “At Least I Don’t Do That,” shaming one another for choices deemed less.
When Rachel Hobbs was recognized as her porn star alias Lacey Lorenzo at a UK restaurant, her waitress fired back at her request for a clean drinking glass with “At least I don’t get my tits out on TV.” And when nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities were hacked last fall, comments poured in condemning Lawrence and her ilk for having made “shameful decisions.”
The hypocrisy of condemning women who shed their clothes is startling, as most of us would be hard pressed to think of an adult who hasn’t ever viewed porn or ever taken or received a nude photo. But the attacks we women make on each other are largely fueled by a desire not to be shamed ourselves. By filing sex work and publicized nudity under “bad behavior,” we turn J-Law and Rachel Hobbs into our scapegoats, and “At Least I Don’t Do That” becomes “See how virginal I am next to this whore with the leaked photos?”
And beyond all this angel/devil nonsense lies the absurdity of expecting men to weigh in on the decisions of female partners or family members. The Telegraph reports that Miley Cyrus’ recent bath time photo fun with strategically-placed bubbles over her nether regions “has caused intense speculation of the nature of her relationship with boyfriend Patrick Schwarzenegger.”
Similarly, Brian Williams was asked “how he felt” about daughter Allison’s performance in the analingus scene that rocked this month’s Girls season premiere. Cool as a cucumber, Williams retorted with “No animals were harmed during the filming,” reminding us that some parents are (gasp) able to respect the decisions of their adult children.
Did we cry slut! when Adam Levine posed nude on the cover of Cosmopolitan? Did we ask if Michael Fassbender’s nudity in Shame was an embarrassment to his mother and sister? We unquestioningly accept the agency of male choice while doubting, always, that women act just as authentically. Who is she trying to impress? Is she not smart enough to get a job keeping her clothes on? Doesn’t she want to be “wife material”?
It’s time to retire the idea that by wearing a miniskirt, shooting a nude scene, or enjoying certain acts in the bedroom women undergo some kind of molecular transformation. There is no Madonna and there is no whore, there is what we like and how we feel. And when we bare our bodies and our selves, there’s a good chance that it’s not always about you.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.