"It's kind of a double-edged sword, isn't it? If you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut. It's a trap. You want to, but you can't. And when you did, you wish you hadn't."
"Women who cannot become princesses have no choice but to become witches."
—Akio, Revolutionary Girl Utena
A pattern of thought that divides women into two mutually exclusive categories: Madonnas and Whores. The virtuous Madonna figure, possessing and protecting social virtue (and deploring sexuality) is an object of worship and everything that a woman should aspire to be. However, sex is not part of this. Any woman who fails to live up to the Madonna standard in any part is a worthless Whore, driven by sexual desire and therefore lacking morality. As soon as a woman is known to have an active sex life, she is automatically viewed as a whore.
The Madonna-Whore Complex (sometimes referred to as the "Virgin-Whore Complex") was described by Sigmund Freud on the basis of some of his clinical work. Specifically, he noticed the difficulty some men had in having sexual relations with their wives because they differentiated women into these categories. Those men were aroused by prostitutes and mistresses but not their wives.
The Madonna is not necessarily a wife. It is commonly also oriented on the mother or a sister, or another woman with close emotional ties.
Note how this contradicts The Three Faces of Eve.
Many societies past and present have bought into this dichotomy (see All Women Are Lustful and Honor-Related Abuse and Defiled Forever). Women can be forced to identify with one or the other, and can be ostracized or socially stigmatized for failing to do so. This burden weighs heavily on the heterosexual relationships of both partners, entirely dismissing the sexual needs of "good" women and relegating the sex lives of "good" men to illicit partnerships (since A Man Is Not a Virgin). Practical considerations, such as the use of sex to strengthen a relationship or as the means by which the madonnas became mothers in the first place, have no place in this sort of thinking.
Commonly found in older, pre-feminism works. Under the Madonna-Whore Complex, all women are either portrayed as promiscuous, immoral, often Evil Is Sexy seductresses or sweet, naive ingenues (or the sweet, sexless matriarchs they become). Smart, capable, good women who enjoy sex do not exist.
Occasionally this is enforced by The Scourge of God.
The madonna/virgin The madonna is always good at heart, though she sometimes is corrupted - often sexually, and often by the whore. Common tropes applying to the madonna:
- Purity Sue
- Ice Queen (because frigidity means chastity)
- The Cutie (who may be corrupted)
- Hair of Gold
- Damsel in Distress
- The Ingenue
- Love Interest
- The Chick
- Light Feminine
- Shrinking Violet
- Fragile Flower
- Innocent Flower Girl
- Winter Royal Lady
- The High Queen
- Woman in White
- Proper Lady
- Yamato Nadeshiko
- My Girl Is Not a Slut
- Evil Is Sexy
- Evil Redhead
- Fille Fatale
- Femme Fatale
- Black Widow
- Manipulative Bitch
- The Mistress
- Really Gets Around
- Depraved Bisexual
- Psycho Lesbian
- Straw Feminist (well, some of them call themselves "sex-positive"...)
- Dark Feminine
- The Vamp
- Rich Bitch
- I Have Boobs - You Must Obey!
- Lady in Red
- My Girl Is a Slut
- Your Mom / I Banged Your Mom. Mothers tend to be viewed as "Madonnas." Implying that they enjoy sex puts them in the "Whore" category in the minds of some men, which they find deeply insulting.
- Occasionally, particularly in more modern works, the "whore" may be more of an Ethical Slut, Good Bad Girl, or Hooker with a Heart of Gold. The line between Madonna and Whore may be blurred, or subverted altogether.
- Revolutionary Girl Utena deconstructs this with the character of Anthy. As Akio says, "Women who cannot become princesses have no choice but to become witches."
- Naruto contains a variation with the characterization of Sakura and Karin. Sakura is never seen making any sexual advances to Sasuke, only a teary Anguished Declaration of Love and total devotion pre-timeskip. Whereas Karin is much more openly sexual, to the point of planning to drug Sasuke's teammates post-timsekip so as to rape him while he's weakened.
- This is basically how Rorschach from Watchmen views women.
- Except that he doesn't seem to know any Madonnas.
- In Promethea when you get to the upper layer of what is basically Heaven you find out that the Madonna and the Whore of Babalon are the same concept seen from different angles.
- In most Disney films, but especially Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and The Little Mermaid, where the "good" princess is pure and virginal and the "evil" villainess is an older woman with more sexuality.
- Black Swan: Explains the whole plot of the ballet, and juxtaposes beautiful but sexually repressed Natalie Portman vs. smoldering sexpot Mila Kunis.
- The Night of the Hunter: The villain Harry Powell has this—being caught at a strip club at the beginning of the film, then later refusing to have sex with his wife on their wedding night and lecturing her that her body is only meant for having children.
- The Cabin in the Woods has Jules and Dana shoehorned into both roles, Jules becoming "The Whore" and Dana being "The Virgin". Though in reality the Whore is in a steady relationship with her boyfriend and isn't exactly that promiscuous while the Virgin/Madonna isn't actually a virgin and has been having an affair with her professor.
- The existence of the Final Girl in slasher movies runs on this trope. The Final Girl is typically a virgin and above vices such as drinking, smoking and being promiscuous. She is usually contrasted with other girls in the film who enjoy frequent sex and therefore don't survive the film. Halloween was among the first to do this with all the female victims being killed in relation to sex. Two had just had sex while the third was on her way to do so.
- The titular heroine of Malèna. Renato sees Malena as a Madonna figure, even having an Imagine Spot where she rides through the town dressed as the Virgin Mary. The women of the town see her as a Whore because the men ogle her and stare at her as she passes by. Malena herself starts out the film as a Madonna but becomes a Whore when she is forced to become a prostitute to make money.
- Cruel Intentions has the virginal Annette Hargrove contrasted with the manipulative and sexual Kathryn Merteuil.
- In Saturday Night Fever, Tony believes a girl can be a "nice girl" or a "c**t", not both.
- In Making Money this is exploited by Mr. Bent's Love Interest, who concludes that she's already "ruined" simply by being in his room and may as well keep on going.
- Left Behind.
- In Anita Blake, the eponymous character suffers from this kind of thinking. Often she and other characters, mostly male, believe her to be a 'slut' and treat her badly because she has something called The Arduer, a magical compulsion to have sex. If she didn't give in to it, it would eventually kill her, and through her, everyone she is magically tied to (most of the cast). This is a source of much Wangst in the series.
- In And Eternity, the protagonists read the memories of a rapist/serial killer, and find that he was motivated by this.
- Certainly the view of Ambrosio in The Monk, who tires of Matilda and Antonia for that matter after she is no longer "pure." Lewis himself seems to take a less extreme stance on the matter, painting Antonia as an innocent victim.
- A Tale of Two Cities has an interesting variant. Lucie Manette is The Ingenue who is good and possesses a childlike beauty, but depends on others to take care of her. Madame Defarge is the sexy, strong-willed villain. Then there is Miss Pross, who is both strong and good, but implied to be so ugly that she looks no different after a fight than before one.
- Dollhouse has an entertaining scene where Victor, who has apparently been given the imprint of a psychologist, speculates that Adelle is jealous of Echo and the other female actives because they get to be both the Madonna (their innocent resting states) and the Whore (a fair amount of their requested personas.) Adelle is not amused.
- Discussed in an episode of Mad Men where the characters mull over ideas for an ad and conclude that every woman is either a "Jackie" or a "Marilyn."
- In Noah's Arc, initially it appears that Ricky doesn't want to have sex with Junito because Junito is HIV positive. Ricky later confesses that it's because Ricky's falling in love with him, despite having had random sex partners in the quadruple digits.
- The music video for Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me".
- In the "The Story of Us" music video, where Taylor's love interest chooses a girl who's much more physical in her affections than Taylor is, who shows to be more flirty and playful.
- Taylor Swift in general gets a lot of hate for villainizing women that dress skimpily. On the internet, she is often accused of slut shaming.
- Lampshaped in "Opheliac" by Emilie Autumn
She knows in society she either is
- Christina Aguilera has been very vocal about her dislike of the whole thing, and her second album Stripped spends a good amount of time complaining about it.
- Britney Spears is have been noted for using this as her selling point. In her Greatest Hits:My Prerogative collection the writer says is she a good girl, doing bad things, a bad girl doing good things or a mixture of both
- Justin Timberlake uses this in his musical work.
I know that you're a bad girl
- Meat Loaf has a song titled "Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere."
- Grease has this in spades.
- "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee/Lousy with virginity/Won't go to bed 'til I'm legally wed/I can't; I'm Sandra Dee"
- There Are Worse Things I Could Do" deconstructs this trope.
- Swan Lake follows two identical girls, each expressing one side of this complex, and ultimately ends in tragedy. It subtly deconstructs this trope, as the prince loves the White Swan's purity, but doesn't seem to have any problem with it when she seduces him (though it's actually an imposter). It further emphasizes the deconstruction by having the same dancer play both parts, implying a real woman has both the Black and White Swan.
- Played with in Man of La Mancha: Aldonza is literally selling her favors; while the narrative treats her more-or-less sympathetically, most of the other characters view her as trash for doing so. Alonso views her—quite insistently, nonetheless—as his pure and noble liege-lady.
- In Faust Greta's brother used to boast of her virtue and feminine perfection until she started an affair. Then he calls her a whore and tells her to start charging all comers. Okay, so he's mortally wounded and understandably bitter when he says that bit, but still!
- Famously, nowhere does The Bible say "Mary Magdalene was a prostitute", neither is she positively identified with the Woman With The Alabaster Jar (who seems to be a shamed slut, whether professional or not), it just strikes many men as a great idea to call her a whore to counterbalance, you know, The Madonna.
- Gender-inverted with The Nostalgia Chick, Todd in the Shadows and The Nostalgia Critic. In the Chick's eyes, Todd is the every way perfect man who'll fix her, and she's driving herself crazy in order to attain him. Critic on the other hand, is the comfortable flirt who jacks off butter and sings about how everyone should be slutty, but is just too fucked up for her to think a proper relationship with him could work.
- The BB Corps in Metal Gear Solid 4 - ultrasexualised female villains depicted with animalistic traits who molest the hero, who are then portrayed (once 'purified' upon Snake's defeat of them) as beautiful, virtuous and helpless people, who only hurt people because they have been corrupted by outside influences. Many Metal Gear villains reveal their tragic pasts on their deathbed, but the BB Corps have no agency over theirs (their stories are even told to the protagonist by a male character) and it's so extreme that it falls hard into this trope.