Freud’s Madonna-whore complex: between sacred and profane

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When it comes to psychoanalysis and going deeper into the mind, Sigmund Freud is the one to have best explained it. He explored the unconscious and the relationship between ego, superego and id and the hidden sexual desires of man. Back in the early 1900s, Freud observed a psychological polarity in his male patients, later identified as the Madonna-whore complex.

What is this complex and what causes it?

Freud stated that “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire, they cannot love.” Starting from this, a man with the Madonna-whore complex will see women as either saintly Madonnas or prostitutes. He wishes for a loving, pure relationship with the former while desiring the latter in a sexual manner. However, a woman cannot be both innocent and sensual at the same time. The starting point of this complex is the inability to preserve the sexual tension within a committed relationship. That’s why the man is looking to substitute his Madonna. 

According to Freud, this appears when the affectionate and the sexual parts in male desire split. Accordingly, the woman becomes, just like art, sacred or profane. Therefore, women divide into two categories: the ones worth being admired and the ones that are just sexually attractive. A man is torn apart between the two, while respecting one and despising the other, wishing for both.

One theory is that this complex is deeply rooted in the mind. A child raised by a cold and overprotective mother is more likely to develop it. The lack of emotional nurturing from a loving mother will lead to an Oedipal kind of bond between the two. Such man will seek in his future partners his mother’s qualities. Now he is hoping to fulfill that lost maternal intimacy.

Another point of view claims that such complex developed due to the portrayal of femininity. Their portrait is either saintly or decaying in mythology and religion. 

Representations of the Madonna-whore complex in popular culture

Maybe not so obvious, but certainly present, Freud’s complex influenced many cultural manifestations throughout time.

For instance, James Joyce made use of this complex in his novel The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here, the protagonist represses his sexual desires for the girls he admires. They identify as the ivory towers, but he ends up demanding a prostitute.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo presents the duality of a woman with Kim Novak playing both a sophisticated blonde “madonna” and a sensual brunette.

This idea also appears in films such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and in more recent productions such as American Horror Story: Asylum or The Handmaid’s Tale.

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