The Madonna, the whore & you
Sigmund Freud said a lot of things, many of them creepy and disturbing, many of them oddly insightful. The father of psychoanalysis was the first to identify a theory I find particularly interesting called the MadonnaWhore complex, where the concerned man sees women as either Madonna (the virgin mother Mary) or a whore. I thought the theory seemed especially suited to understand today’s Indian man, caught between his modern ideas of sexual freedom and a traditional upbringing, and the different ways he thinks of female sexuality, while integrating two contrasting value systems.
To understand the phenomenon, I spoke to Jimmy Mody, a psychoanalytic therapist. He explained, “Freud discovered some men facing an inability to maintain sexual arousal in a loving relationship. He observed: ‘Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.’ Love, in fact, had been unconsciously split into two separate elements, that of ‘idealisation’, and that of ‘desire’. The ideal qualities of purity, virginity, beauty, divinity and motherhood, needed to be kept away and protected from defilement by one’s sexual desires.”
This complex rings a bell when you think of so many aspects of our daily lives. One of the most common ways of swearing at someone is to say something sexual and thus, taint a female close to them, for e.g. Teri ma ki ****. Until lately, Bollywood also played off this complex, with the heroine embodying all things pure (in a typically self- sacrificial sati savitri way), while it is the vamp who is oozing sexuality and out to corrupt the hero. Back in the day, the only way audiences could be titillated by a good girl was if she was being raped. For example, in Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980), when we watch Zeenat Aman brutally raped, and we see her bra straps dramatically removed, we are led to feel both aroused and disgusted. We hate the rapist, but we derive pleasure from watching his act while being able to distance ourselves from it and transfer all our guilt and shame about our sexuality on to him.
The blockbuster family dramas of the ’90s, like Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge very strictly followed the archetype of the virginal Madonna: self- sacrificing, deferential and pure. Cocktail, a recent film that did well at the box- office, but was critcised for being regressive, relied heavily on the Madonna-Whore dynamic to make it work. In the film, the male protagonist ditches his female counterpart for having the same values and habits as him (whore), and leaves her for her pious, traditional and rather drab best friend (Madonna).
Films, however, seem to be merely reflecting long held ideas about purity. Talking about the ways our culture places great importance on female virginity, Jimmy said, “In many orthodox Hindu weddings, giving away the daughter to the husband’s family is seen as the most precious gift given by Vishnu. And, the
Do we, as a culture still feel the need to categorise women as either divine virgins or debased whores, with nothing in between? And, how does this affect the modern Indian man and the women in his life?
wife’s family sees the husband as Vishnu. This act of kanyadan ensures prestige to both families and makes the bridegroom place great value on the position of his virginal bride. Another thing is, every year on the eighth and ninth day of Navratri, Kanya Puja is performed. Virgin girls, till the age of puberty and younger, are worshipped. In fact, in every major religion, the virgin is either worshipped or given a special position.”
Author Shobhaa De gave the issue a broader sociological perspective. “This is not unique to India or restricted to Indian society alone. Most of the world views women through a similar prism. It has to do with patriarchal social structures that equate women with property. Female sexuality poses a great threat to societies worldwide. A female who takes ownership of her body is a female who refuses to be ‘controlled’—what could be worse for those who would prefer to keep a woman enslaved—physically, emotionally and psychologically?”
Aside from the political correctness of it all, such thinking can lead to many difficulties for men. Jimmy explained that a man suffering from such a condition will never be completely fulfilled by any relationship with a woman, seeing her as incapable of satisfying either one of his dominant needs. His lack of integration could affect all of his attempts to relate with women. He may even develop physically abusive and sadistic tendencies towards women, and power could become one of the driving forces behind his sexual fantasies.
Taking about how a woman in such a relationship would be affected, Jimmy said, “The ideal wife in such a marriage would grow extremely frustrated and angry at being denied a sexual life with her partner. Whereas, the sexually available woman would feel a great need to get a commitment from him, and to feel loved by him. You need only to search the net for blog sites that show what some of these women are saying, ‘Dump him!’, ‘Enjoy him!’, ‘Feel free to go outside for a meaningful relationship.’ They feel stuck, trapped and unloved. Even the Madonna may become a whore.”
As times change, men may find themselves compelled to adapt and develop a more integrated view of women. Talking about how one can overcome this, Jimmy said, “Healing oneself in this situation requires a lot of initial self-awareness. But, this may not be enough. He may then have to head to a therapist who is competent in dealing with this complex (not all are). Look for someone who has experience in doing ‘inner child work’. A psychoanalyst may help, but would take a lot of time.”
Shobhaa got to the crux in one simple line when she said, “A man who is comfortable with his own sexuality would automatically extend the same standards to a woman.” However, the reverse is also true, and our shaming of sexuality is not exclusive to women. Men live in fear of their sexual fantasies being known and being exposed as perverts. Recent incidents of rape have also gone a long way in giving sex a bad name.
Jimmy explained that men are often troubled by thoughts like, ‘Women are constantly telling us men that men only think of sex all the time. I experience pangs of guilt when they say this. I want to show them that I am different...even though I do think of sex a lot!’
This shame and repression may even result in intense anger towards women. For example, a man may respond to his guilt by saying, ‘As if women don’t also think of sex and enjoy masturbatory fantasies! They just like to act as if they are holier than thou!’
The more we seek to contain and repress our sexuality, the more confusing and perverted it seems to become. The more we resist, the more embroiled we become, as if trapped in quicksand. Perhaps, the best course of action is one of non judgment. These days, we hear a lot about respecting and accepting women, but what we often don’t hear is that the first step to doing that is accepting ourselves.