Of Madonnas and Whores

By Alexander Salyer

Art by Sabrina Eager

We humans love our categories. Whether it be highly-detailed scientific categorization like taxonomy, or even the simple puzzle games whose whole premise centers on moving and grouping objects with shapes and/or colors, humans have a proclivity to sort things into categories. We live to label! However, this proclivity is linked to more than just enjoyment of grouping like with like. According to famous cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, categories are how we understand the world around us. We construct little categories of information called schemas and then sort our observations and experiences into these schemas, making adjustments to the schemas and adding new ones when needed.[1]

Beyond broad groupings, humans often take categorization one-step further, streamlining understanding of what can be a wide array of information by employing the far simpler one-two binaries. These binaries proliferate our societies whether we consciously recognize them or not. Common ones include good/evil, female/male, black/white, abled/disabled, gay/straight, neurotypical/neurodivergent, and mentally-ill/normal.[2] Though very few things actually exist in such strict binaries, they are still used to conceptualize and comprehend the world, particularly other people.

But binaries aren’t the only thing humankind is obsessed with. There is another concept that has long entranced our minds: sex. Sex (focusing specifically on the physical experience of intercourse) holds vast importance in society and gravely affects how people navigate relationships with one another. For many people, sex is something they want and will have in their lifetimes. Holding such significance, sex interacts with and underlines some of these binaries. We see this intersect clearly demonstrated in the famous binary that has shaped and continues to shape the perception of women in societies influenced by Western, Judeo-Christian principles: the Madonna-Whore dichotomy.

Officially recognized and named by the infamous Sigmund Freud, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy is a binary, sex-based framework through which both men and women identity women as either the Madonna or the Whore. Freud identified that society has long conflated female sexuality with immorality and thus have also conflated female sexual purity with moral goodness. Freud believed that this conflation is rooted in men’s fears over feminine desires, specifically feminine sexual desires. In order to navigate this fear and their biological desire to copulate and procreate, men have created these two roles so that they can understand the foreign and scary entity of women.

The Madonna is the figure associated with sexual purity. Men do not associate her with the immoral act of sex and thus deem her as being worthy of respect and admiration. Due to her high moral standing, the Madonna is also further linked with motherhood, as men can only truly trust pure (and thus good) women with the preservation of their bloodline. It is this participation in extending man’s lineage that designates the Madonna as worthy of respect. By comparison, the Whore is identified primarily by her desirability; men regard her as a sexual object. However, in the same breath in which men lust after the Whore, they also condemn her. Because female sexuality is associated with moral depravity, the Whore becomes an evil figure or, at the very least, a figure worthy of disrespect and degradation due to her sexual impurity. These two figures exist in direct opposition, with a woman’s sexuality serving as the primary marker of distinction. Within this dichotomy, not only are women’s identities reduced to their sex lives (or lack thereof) but their moral worth as well as the only two positions women can occupy are the good virginal mother or the evil temptress.[3]

However, while Freud gave name to the dichotomy, the Madonna-Whore complex has its foundations in the Bible and has appeared in art far before the 1900s. The archetypes that compose this binary are rooted in the biblical figures of the Virgin Mary (as known as the Madonna) and Eve, the first woman. Able to fulfill woman’s ultimate purpose of reproduction without ever tainting her sexual purity, the Virgin Mary is the ultimate woman according to Judeo-Christian standards. The Christian Bible rewards Mary for this impossible feat by granting her the most esteemed female position in Christian society: the mother of God himself. Embodying both the virginal and the maternal, Mary represents the ideal for women, and with her popularity, she serves as a basal figure for the dichotomy and a standard to which women are impossibly held.[4]

On the other hand, Eve, the first woman, serves as the foundational character for the Whore figure. Though the Bible mentions very little about sex in regards to Eve, the common interpretation of Eve as the figure responsible for tempting and successfully luring Adam, the first man, towards sin, has led to her depiction as a hypersexualized temptress. Being the first woman of all time, Eve cannot be separated from her biological sex and her femininity, and in seeing the first female as the most culpable party in dooming mankind, some members of Christian society have demonized this femininity and given Eve’s act of temptation a female-driven sexual undertone that has connected female sexual desires to this damning act. Thus, female agency — particularly sexual agency — has been regarded as a great evil, and Eve with her reputation as a temptress is the basis for the immoral, female archetype of the Whore.

Leaving the pages of the Bible, this early version of the Madonna-Whore complex further appears in historical Western art such as Olivuccio di Ciccarello’s famous painting The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve.[5] In this painting, the Virgin Mary, completely clothed and surrounded by gold and angels, occupies the center of the work. With a halo over her head, she holds Jesus Christ. Contrastingly, Eve lies at the bottom of the painting, surrounded by the color black. With a serpent wrapped around her body, Eve is entirely naked with her breasts fully-displayed, and she stares up at Mary with disdain as Eve holds the forbidden fruit. With their greatly diverging depictions, di Ciccarello clearly intended to draw a dichotomy between the two women.

What is most notable about this juxtaposition is the maternal air of Mary and the sexual air of Eve. Fully clothed and holding a baby, Mary embodies every bit of her virginal motherhood. Laying naked and prostrate with the serpent tangled promiscuously around her body, Eve is displayed in a sexual nature, and with the further inclusion of the apple, the fruit of Adam’s temptation, she embodies her archetype of the damning, temptress Whore. Painting the women with such different airs, di Ciccarello pits them against one another. In surrounding Mary with divine markers like angels, gold, and a halo, he decrees Mary and her archetype’s triumph over Eve’s. A celebration of the pure maternal and condemnation of the sexual, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve serves as a great visual demonstration of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy.

Beyond renaissance paintings, this dichotomy has continued into modern media, though updated with the shiny new coat of paint of name changes. A particularly popular re-naming that emerged in the 1960s was the Jackie-Marilyn binary, which associated the blonde bombshell sex symbol Marilyn Monroe with the figure of the Whore and the respectable and well-dressed yet sexually boring wife, mother, and First Lady Jackie Kennedy with the Madonna. With this update, women can either “take on the identity of happy homemaker and mother (like the First Lady) or a sexy seductress without children (like the blonde bombshell).”[6] Monroe’s tragic death is not separate from this dichotomy, and further adds to the condemnation of the Whore, while Jackie Kennedy’s positive and respected enduring public image contributes to the moralizing of the Madonna position. Like the Virgin Mary and Eve, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were pitted against one another and held up as representatives of the two roles in which society recognizes women: a one-night-stands or the wife and mother of man’s children.

This rebrand can be found referenced in the 2000s masterpiece Legally Blonde.[7] Though the movie takes a feminist perspective in rejecting the rigid binary of the Madonna-Whore complex, it demonstrates how the dichotomy, specifically the Jackie-Marilyn renaming, affects the main character Elle Woods. Ultra-feminine, pink-loving sorority girl, Elle appears to embody the Marilyn/Whore archetype at the film’s beginning. She is very pretty and dresses in outfits that highlight her attractive figure. With her mastery of the “bend and snap,” Elle knows how to move to attract male attention and frequently attempts to use her sexual desirability to win back her ex-boyfriend (dressing in a revealing outfit and positioning herself near him while he plays football, flirting with him while in a provocative bunny costume, etc.)

However, Elle’s desirability backfires on her. While men want Marilyn, they cannot respect Marilyn. The opening sequence of the movie shows Elle’s boyfriend Warner breaking up with her because he is about to attend Harvard Law School and needs a serious, respectable wife if he wants to achieve political success. Warner explicitly states that “if he wants to be a senator… [he] need[s] to marry a Jackie. Not a Marilyn.” Warner cannot see Elle as anything more than an object of sexual desire and knows (or believes) that society won’t either, so he trades her for a Jackie.

Legally Blonde’s “Jackie” comes in the form of Vivian Kensington. Whereas Elle is fun and flirty, Vivian is demure and serious. She dresses modestly and downplays her sexual desirability as to be seen as smart and worthy of respect. Initially, she and Elle clash quite violently. Judging Elle’s more feminine, pretty appearance, Vivian simultaneously underestimates Elle’s intelligence and regards Elle as a threat to her own relationship with Warner.

Between these two characters, we perfectly see the clash of the Jackie and the Marilyn and the mistreatment both roles receive from men. While the Marilyns are alright for fooling around, they cannot be considered as viable options for wives/mothers and must be dumped when men want to pursue more serious life endeavors, just as Warner dumps Elle. And while Jackies may ultimately end up in long-term relationships with the men, they are constantly aware of the allure of the Marilyn and fear infidelity (thinking back to JFK, oftentimes with great validity) just as Vivian fears Elle. However, Legally Blonde subverts this binary and competition by allowing its Marilyn and Jackie to befriend one another, and by giving both happy endings, not just the Jackie. The movie’s final decision to allow Elle to achieve a relationship in which she is valued and respected for her abilities while also being appreciated for her attractiveness and femininity, is particularly notable.

Furthermore, beyond just surface-level renamings, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy has also evolved over the years to reflect new cultural trends and contexts. Looking at classic teen movies and media in the last forty years, we find that this popular genre has its own version of this dichotomy: the Popular Girl and the shy, unpopular protagonist. The villain of many a female-led high school movie, the Popular Girl is a well-known staple of the genre. She is traditionally very pretty and dresses provocatively. Usually, the Popular Girl is a cheerleader or occupies another social position traditionally associated with attractiveness, and she is often portrayed in a relationship (or relationships), frequently confirmed to be sexual in nature. Her sex appeal is recognized as a large factor for her social success. Comparatively, the shy, unpopular protagonist is a Good Girl who is also traditionally pretty (or even stunningly pretty), but she dresses with clothing typically more modest than the popular girl and acts in a way that suggests she does not know it. This Good Girl tends to be quieter and fills her time with artistic or studious endeavors, and she often does not have a relationship and has not yet experienced sex.

These two characters are often placed in direct juxtaposition or antagonisms with one another, typically with the cheerleader/Popular Girl emerging as the more villainous of the pair. They compete for a similar goal or, most frequently, a common man. Notably, when a Male Love Interest is involved with this cliché, the Good Girl protagonist tends to end the movie “winning” the Male Love Interest. Her non-sexual ways win his affection over the shallow sexual advances and cruelty of the Popular Girl. Though modernized, the same ideals that define the Madonna and the Whore led to the creation of these two opposing characters and the customary ultimate triumph of the Good Girl protagonist over the Popular Girl.

While this version of the dichotomy appears quite frequently in teen movies and literature, another easily-recognizable utilization of the binary appears in Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” music video.[8] The song’s premise is that the singer is in love with her best friend, and she believes that she would make a better girlfriend than his current more feminine, popular girlfriend. In the song alone, there are traces of the Madonna-Whore complex and the Good Girl vs. the popular cheerleader, but the music video amplifies these pieces until the complex becomes blatantly obvious.

In the “You Belong with Me” video, Taylor doubles casts herself to play the quiet, bookish band geek (blonde Taylor) who is crushing on her male best friend as well as the male best friend’s hyperfeminine, cheerleader girlfriend (brunette Taylor). The characters’ outfits further emphasize the Madonna-Whore dichotomy as blonde Taylor wears loose-fitting, modest t-shirts while brunette Taylor wears tighter-fitting, more revealing short skirts outfits. Beyond character design, the video’s visuals further establish the binary as it portrays brunette Taylor flirting with other guys while blonde Taylor looks on with disapproval, establishing brunette Taylor as not only sexually-desirably but promiscuous. Once again, the popular cheerleader figure is linked to adultery and betrayal aka the vices of the Whore.

Ultimately, the music video ends with a “victory” for good girl Taylor and a reinforcement of the binary. Wearing a virginal white dress, blonde Taylor enters the prom, and upon seeing her, the male best friend realizes blonde’s Taylor’s superiority as a potential girlfriend and abandons brunette Taylor who is quite noticeably wearing a skimpier, red, more sexual dress. In depicting the fight between the Popular Girl and the Good Girl, “You Belong with Me” demonstrates this updated version of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. Although the language and visual coding has changed, the core theme of the dichotomy in praising modest, non-sexual women as better, romantic partners over their more sexually-desirable, feminine counterparts endures even in this 2009 woman-created work.

Though renamed and evolved, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy has remained prevalent in art, and this prevalence does not exist in a bubble. Beyond paintings, movies, and songs, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy has been observed to directly affect female perception here in the twenty-first century. In 2017, a study interviewed 15 young female New Zealanders aged 19–25 living about their thoughts on topics surrounding sexuality, and the study found that these girls held beliefs supported by the Madonna-Whore Complex. Though general consensus did emerge over believing casual sex to be “pleasurable and acceptable for women to engage in” and condemning “the notion that society judges women harshly, holding them up to a different standard of sexual behavior to men” as unjust and sexist, the women still supported other ideas that reflected the Madonna-Whore complex.[9] In their interviews, the women “worked hard to convince the interviewer that they themselves did not have a sexual reputation,” which suggests a belief in the immorality of casual sex and or at least a behavior-affecting awareness that society negatively perceives casual sex.[10] The women further condemned specific types of sexual actions, outlining acceptable methods for pursuing sex and unacceptable methods. The unacceptable actions included frequent sex, giving a man sex too easily, or having sex with someone not already known to you.[11] Even though these women claimed to believe and uphold general ideas antithetical to the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, when they spoke about their specific experiences and beliefs, the dichotomy seeped into their responses, affecting how they presented themselves and judged other women on the matter of sex.

Expanding the gender and nationality limitations of its participants, a 2019 study surveyed heterosexual Israeli, American, and German men and women about their thoughts on topics relating to sex and found both similar results and greater negative implications caused by a belief in the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. This international survey examined the participants’ belief in the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy as well as their beliefs in other patriarchal ideologies and their relationship satisfaction. The survey found that there was a positive correlation between belief in the ideas of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy and a variety of sexist and derogatory ideologies like “social dominance orientation, gender-specific system justification, benevolent sexism, and hostile sexism” in both men and women.[12] However, men specifically were found to believe in the dichotomy to a greater extent than women.[13] In men that did agree with the ideas of the Madonna-Whore complex, there was positive correlation with “ideologies that reinforce gender inequality; that is, social dominance orientation, gender-specific system justification, benevolent sexism, hostile sexism, and the sexual objectification of women” as well.[14] Furthermore, beyond a subscription to problematic ideologies, belief in the Madonna-Whore Complex also was found to correlate negatively with relationship satisfaction in men.[15] Not only was the Madonna-Whore dichotomy found present in some men and women, it was also found to be associated with problematic, sexist ideologies that negatively affect society as well as less contentment with heterosexual romantic relationships.

Though it may have its origins in a book written a couple thousand years ago, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy is very much alive and well. It proliferates our media and affects how both men and women perceive women. As shown by the 2017 survey, even those who hold general progressive beliefs about female sexuality can still subconsciously find themselves projecting the dichotomy onto themselves and others. Personally, I know that I have not been able to escape this effect myself. Though I firmly believe that as long as sex is consensual and enjoyed by all participants, it is perfectly fine and should have no effect on how you perceive someone’s morality, I still find myself holding myself to different standards. I fear the possible attachment of “whore” or “slut” to my name one day. The believed immorality of female sexuality affects us all, and as long as art, movies, songs, and society continue to encourage its condemnation, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy will keep on ensnaring women in its binary of the impossible virginal mother and the evil slut.

[1] Saul McLeod, Ph.D. “Piaget’s Theory and Stages of Cognitive Development.” Simply Psychology. December 7, 2020. Accessed May 10, 2021. https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html#:~:text=Piaget%20(1952%2C%20p.,a%20way%20of%20organizing%20knowledge.

[2]Susan Robbins. “From the Editor – The Red Pill or the Blue Pill? Transcending Binary Thinking.” Journal of Social Work Education, 51,1 (2015): 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2015.979112

[3] “Madonna-whore complex.” PSYCH 424 Blog. Pennsylvania State University. October 3, 2015.


[4] Vladimir Tumanov. “Mary Versus Eve: Paternal Uncertainty and the Christian View of Women.”

Neophilologus, 95(4), 507-521. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11061-011-9253-5

[5] “The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve.” The Cleveland Museum of Art. Accessed May 10, 2021. https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1916.795

[6] Diana Davidson. “‘A Mother Like You’: Pregnancy, the Maternal, and Nostalgia.” In Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series, edited by Scott F. Stoddart (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011), 136-154.

[7]Robert Luketic. Director. Legally Blonde. Type A Films, 2001.

[8] Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me.” Taylor Swift, June 16, 2009, Youtube Video, 3:48,


[9]Pantea Farvid, Virginia Braun and Casey Rowney. “No Girl Wants to Be Called a Slut: Women,

Heterosexual Casual Sex and the Sexual Double Standard.” Journal of Gender Studies 25, 5 (March 2016): 544-560.

[10] Pantea Farvid, Viriginia Braun and Casey Rowney, 556.

[11] Ibid, 556.

[12] Orly Bareket, Kahalon Rotem, Shnabel Nurit and Peter Glick. “The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy: Men Who Perceive Women's Nurturance and Sexuality as Mutually Exclusive Endorse Patriarchy

and Show Lower Relationship Satisfaction.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 79 (February 2018): 519-532. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0895-7

[13]Orly Bareket, Rotem Kahalon, Nurit Shnabel, and Peter Glick, 359.

[14] Ibid, 359.

[15] Ibid, 360.