The Sacred and Profane: The Old Dichotomy

The dichotomy of which I speak is, of course, that old chestnut of masculinity: the dichotomy between the Madonna and the whore. You know, the one that destroys families and relationships and all that fun stuff? Yeah, that one.

So why I am talking about it on a writing blog, of all places?  Good question. The answer is kind of complicated, but I woke up with the concept in my head, and I’ve been turning over ways to put a new spin on the concept. The truth is that I think that, like a lot of those old tropes, even a destructive one such as this, there is still some light to be drawn from it if we can only examine it from a different angle. I would especially like to remove the myth’s power because I’ve experienced the damage that it can do to people’s lives on a very personal level. It functions as an essential working part of sexual addiction and helps to keep that particular illness going strong and refuses to die in American society, so I come here not to bury the myth, but to deconstruct it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the myth, it basically posits that there are two classes of women: obviously, the Madonna and the whore. If a woman is not sexually chaste (or at least present the facade of chastity), she’s somehow less of a person. A whore, in other words, and “whoredom” confers both positives and negatives, but mostly negatives. The label is definitely not as cut-and-dried as it seems on the surface.  For instance, a man with such a problem of perception may be married to a wonderful woman. He puts her on a pedestal, seeing her as the pure epitome of womanhood. Sex is tainted, so he can’t possibly sully her with sexuality. Therefore he goes out and finds his “whores” upon which he can visit his wretched sexuality. You can see how this represents a splitting of the psyche, an inability to put together sex and love. There is an opposite problem, wherein sexuality always equals love, but we’ll talk about that some other time.

This should seem obvious, but this rarely has anything to do with the woman herself as an individual but instead as a vessel for the issues that the man is compelled to act out. You see how this dehumanizes and becomes a barrier for healthy communication, interaction, and intimacy. This is why the myth is destructive.One prominent example of the Madonna and whore dichotomy is the Star Wars prequels, wherein there is a literal virgin birth, a pursued chaste woman who must turn down a relationship at all costs (while dressing provocatively), the same woman who had the virgin birth suffering sexual assault and therefore dying….the examples of negative attitudes toward women from that series could just go on and on.

I’m not going to get too much into how it represents the patriarchy’s attempt to stifle and control women’s sexuality.  For me that’s just a given and, while with this topic it’s nearly impossible to side step the political implications, I’m going to do my best.

By the way, if you’re still writing characters that are divided in such a fashion you really need to think about your characterization, unless you are deliberately going to explore this theme.  Every now and then I come across a book that still has a throwback mentality, but for the most part I think people are a lot better about this.

So why bring this up at all, especially as it applies to modern fiction? Why not let it die? Well, because even as things improve, it still stubbornly refuses to die.  As such, I would like to take the concept and reverse it – in two ways. One reversal would be to show a character who sees women in such a fashion coming to grips with his own flaws in his thinking and how it continually thwarts what he wants.

I mean, take the typical plot structure.  You have the character’s desire, and some functions to thwart the protagonist’s desire. In this instance, the flaw could be the thing thwarting him. In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that the 40‑Year‑Old Virgin is a really good example of that.  He puts women on a pedestal.  For him it’s all Madonna, ironically enough, and the movie is about him learning that women are just people.  That movie is a gentle, delicate kind of thing, though, and I would like to see something that is not. Something that takes the gloves off and shows the real destruction such a maladaptive idea can wreak. The problem is that this is a very tricky line to walk – the character could end up way too unlikable, rendering him useless. But this is an exploration of ideas, so for now, just assume that it is possible to show an unlikable character who doesn’t turn you off immediately.

The other angle that  seems worthy of pursuit is showing a woman who has this complex toward men. They exist. Believe me. I’ve dated a woman who struggled with it. Yet I don’t see the concept used so much, but maybe it’s just because I’m not reading the right kind of fiction? Either way, I think that I might be able to bring something new to it, given my experience.

What I’m looking for is a way to take the old concept and infuse it with modern sensibilities, showing an awareness of how destructive the myth is, what it represents, the destruction it causes in people’s lives. I’m not necessarily looking to teach some sort of writing technique here, just exploring ideas. I’d also be curious to hear what other people have experienced as far as this sort of myth-making goes, and whether there could be other, similar myths that could use deconstruction.

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  1. Maybe turn it around and take the woman’s point of view. Girls have been traditionally taught to be Madonna-like. What happens to a woman’s self-image when she falls off the pedestal?

  2. Women get a lot of warped ideas from society, their peers and the culture. About their self image and what they’re supposed to be. Then we find out we’re only human after all. It’s an interesting journey to examine.

  3. I agree with your concept of the dichotomy. I hope that the main female character in our book is one that despite being a victim is also still a real woman with real feelings towards men. Of course, in order to see her story, a person would have to read our book. 😉

  4. I can’t wait to see where you go with this one. Love your posts, btw

  5. I was just outlining a story about this called “A Righteous Slut”.

  6. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention during the Star Wars prequels. I was pretty sure since they were married they were having sex. And I thought she died in childbirth. It’s been a while, maybe I’ve forgotten.

    Classically women are sexually inhibited because of a number of things they are taught, particularly around the process of menstruation and bodily fluids being ‘dirty’. You can see this changing with younger generations who are more sexually confident. However, I’m not sure that young women’s attitudes of interpreting equality to mean behaving like a man (by which I mean the worst examples of men, not all men) is necessarily a step in the right direction.

    • Ciara, that’s correct – for the last of the prequels (of course, that movie has its own problems with him choking her and killing children, but I digress). I was specifically talking about Attack of the Clones, the second one, in which a lot of the romantic “plot” centers around how their love is forbidden for some asinine reason.

      Agree with you in part, at least. I think it’d be best if some of those attitudes that you’re talking about that have classically been attributed to men would just vanish altogether, but I guess it takes time.

  7. Pingback: THE CHASTE EWE « Greg Silva

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