How the Madonna-Whore complex never left society after all despite the sexual revolution.

By: Venus Osmani, SATSC Contributor

cw: hypersexualization of women, mistreatment of women, racism

The sexual liberation movement began with the implementation of oral birth control pills in the United States, allowing for a drastic increase in female post-secondary graduates and careers. The benefits of easily accessible contraception were huge, but criticism can be given for the uprising in hypersexualizing of women seen in the media, notably Playboy magazines. The infamous rise of Hugh Hefner’s and his Playboy Mansion dominated the 60s sexual 

revolution of discarding the feminized norm of the “housewife” and embracing sex. The rise of Playboy was arguably one of the most influential marketing moves of the century. The company created an outlet for women to embrace sexual liberation after a puritan and sexually repressed America which was dominated by the Madonna-Whore complex proposed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.  

The psychological dichotomy in Freud’s male patients essentially states women must be seen as either chaste and virginal or promiscuous and forthcoming; but never both. The great America prior to Playboy ostracized alleged sexual deviants and Hefner broke this ideology and challenged social restrictions. Playboy encouraged women to eradicate the norms of purity and to strive to become, for lack of better terms, sexual objects. 

Yes, Hefner encouraged women to express their sexual nature and reach beyond the prudish nature of social norms, but here is the main critique to the evolution of the sexual revolution: the movement “revolutionized” women as sexual objects but it grotesquely presented women as exactly that. Women were now reduced to objects separate to that of their own sexual desires, creating an even more restricted role to be confined to. After the publication of this reformed ideology, the market turned women's bodies into a profitable business. 

The movement 
“revolutionized” women as sexual objects but it grotesquely presented women as exactly that.

Aside from pure pornographic material, female sexual imagery leaked through to clothing, cosmetic and most famously, fragrance industries because ultimately, sex sells. But how this sexual imagery plays a role in what sexuality entails? 

Take Eva Mendes in the Calvin Klein Secret Obsession Ad or Victoria’s Secret in how embracing sexuality has its limitations based upon physical appearances. These advertisements show a woman who is not fully nude, yet still exposes herself entirely, containing the innocence centered around male dominated femininity — the epitome of the Madonna-Whore complex.  

The Madonna-Whore complex and the idea surrounding sexual liberation targets white women at its core. Birth control pills in the early 1960s allowed for women to gain bodily autonomy with the freedom of choice and sparked the discussion of female sexuality and social norms. What failed to be mentioned was whether the pill complicated racist degradation of Black fertility, evoking several campaigns to promote sexist norms within Black communities and degrade Black childbearing. 

What failed to be mentioned was whether the pill complicated racist degradation of Black fertility, evoking several campaigns to promote sexist norms within Black communities and degrade Black childbearing.

Black women were given the opportunity to gain control over their reproductive rights more than ever before, so why the criticism towards the pill? From the early 1900s to 1970s, many states supported the false idea of eugenics, stating that Black people are biologically less intelligent than white people, often denoted as scientific racism’.  

Despite a lack of scientific evidence to support Black inferiority, Black women were often sterilized regardless. So given the time period of the rise of eugenics and birth control, oral contraception was seen as a weapon against Black fertility as opposed to mere liberation and sexual endorsement towards predominantly white women. 

The question is whether Hefner's influence was for the greater good or greater evil. Playboy reconstructed social norms to create a sexual revolution for women and he was an open supporter of the civil rights and queer rights movements. However, the company was inherently misogynist and normalized the objectification of women and at large, it was established for the benefit of men. In fact, former playmate Sondra Theodore had described the abuse of the sedative Quaaludes used for sex under the codename ‘thigh openers’. 

Women are surrounded by sexuality in modern times. Much about sexual liberation is empowering and allows for reproductive control, but in another lens, the media perpetuates a sexually appealing standard for women to fulfill. Hugh Hefner advocated for supposed liberal feminism when mainstream society emphasized bachelorhood and promiscuity in opposition to the 1950s suburban dream. Nearly 70 years later, the Madonna-Whore complex continues to dictate internal misogyny: a spectrum of debauchery and chastity with no in-between. 

Photos C/O Mia Sandhu

By: Rya Buckley  

Mia Sandhu’s paper cut outs depict images of women partially or entirely nude, amidst backgrounds of leaves or behind curtains. She began working on these figures four years ago as a way of working through her own ideas about women’s sexuality.

Sandhu is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in Toronto. Her work has been exhibited in Toronto, Kingston, Halifax and Hamilton. She is a member of The Assembly gallery here in Hamilton, has done an artist residency at the Cotton Factory and also exhibited her work at Hamilton Artists Inc.

Last November, Sandhu exhibited her collection Soft Kaur at The Assembly, which featured playful figures who are comfortable with their sexuality. The name of the exhibition, which alludes to both to the softness and fierceness of women, incorporates the half Punjabi artist’s cultural background into her work.

It's the idea [of] a female warrior spirit and the idea of equality that exists… Singh and Kaur are these given names and it was designed to eliminate status and… [create] men and women as equal. And I liked the play on this idea of soft female spirit slash warrior spirit [and] also the sexual undertone,” Sandhu explained.

There are other motifs in Sandhu’s work that suggest a dialogue between Sandhu’s culture and her evolving ideas on sexuality. A lover of Indian fabrics, silks and tapestries, Sandhu includes these aesthetic features in her work through the exotic plants in the environment her figures reside in. With the evolution of her work, she now references more domesticated plants that humans have formed a relationship with.

The silhouettes that are seen in Soft Kaur are also the result of Sandhu’s art’s progression. Her earlier work featured brown-bodied figures because Sandhu felt it more appropriate to use brown bodies in a work related to her upbringing and culture. Over time Sandhu employed more silhouettes in order to represent any woman, regardless of race.

The silhouettes do not broadcast as a uniform but as a canvas onto which women can project their own sexuality and ideas about sexuality. Sandhu is a believer in the fact that no one should decide for a woman how she should be represented sexually in society.

“I want women to be safe and I want them to feel safe and feel free and strong and empowered… [W]e're autonomous [and] each of us should choose for ourselves how we want to be represented sexually or in any other way because we're individuals. Hopefully we're not represented with any sort of attachment to shame. We should just be proud of who we are,” Sandhu said.

Facilitating space for women to speak about their ideas on sexuality was one of Sandhu’s aims behind this body of work. She finds it interesting to observe how her audiences connect with and interpret her art. By enabling dialogue, she finds that women can begin to realize the experiences that they share.

Exhibiting at The Assembly also gave Sandhu a location to speak with others about her work and to receive feedback. One thing that she appreciates about the Hamilton art scene is the sincerity of the participants who she feels are open to talking about important issues and are creating art that is driven by content.

While there is no linear narrative to Sandhu’s work, the content is obviously evolving as Sandhu’s own views develop. One of the motifs whose symbolism has changed over the years is the cloak that Sandhu’s figures have covering and revealing their bodies.

“[The cloak] represents shame, it represents personal space and it represents a number of other things as well… But it's like they're choosing how much of themselves that they're revealing and then as the work evolves, it's like the… cloak… stops being on them directly and starts being like in their space around them and they're allowing you in, or not letting you in,” explained Sandhu.

Through her work, Sandhu is also choosing to what extent she decides to let her audiences in. She is working on a new set of drawings and will continue to explore women’s sexuality and empowerment in the future. Her artwork is her diary, the paper cut outs and pencils replacing the thousands of elusive words that would be required to speak on the complicated ideas that she depicts.


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