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The Virginal Good Girl and the Whore

Images of Women Throughout History and How They Affect Gender Equality

Throughout history, popular culture in its many forms, from myths, visual art, film and television, has been a means through which society is able to create, circulate and reinforce its ideals and values. The circulated ideals and values are generated by the dominant perspective of society, which has historically been male, and are often directed towards managing the behaviour of women. One of the most prominently circulated values is the binary of women as either a whore or a virgin. Historically, the virgin is a celebrated figure; loyal, demure, religious, and subservient to man, while the whore is damned, looked down upon by society, with her sexuality as her weapon and resistant to the dominance of the man. In the face of these ideals, women challenged the binary of the virgin and whore, and have strived to achieve equality between men and women. Contemporarily arguments have been made that as a society we have achieved gender equality: Women are able to work in fields that are perceived to masculine fields, men are able to take parental leave to spend time with newborn children. Even in the face of gendered advancements, it can be argued that as a society, we are still far from true gender equality as there is still not equality within gender. The binary of the virgin and the whore still persists, and is actively circulated by popular culture, much the same as it was throughout history, and because of this women are judged and valued based on how society perceives them, and are not valued equally.

In ancient Greece, the ideals and means of valuing women were circulated by popular culture in the form of myths and their mythological history, and this included creating, circulating, and enforcing the binary of the virgin and the whore. In ancient Greece, the story The Odyssey demonstrates both the virgin, or the good woman, and the whore, or the bad woman, in the forms of Penelope and Circe. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is seen as the virginal good woman, loyal to her husband in his absence, virtuous, and obedient. Comparatively, Circe is the whore, the bad woman, using her sexuality and femininity to seduce and trap Odysseus and keep him from his loyal wife, which can be seen as disrupting the proper functioning of society. The image of Penelope as the loyal and obedient wife, and Circe as the seductive and entrapping woman, reinforces the binary of the virgin and the whore, and is circulated through its position as a piece of mythological history, which also enforces the binary through the authority of history.

During the renaissance, the value of women was conveyed through art, from portraiture to decorating wedding cassoni. Portraiture was seen as a means of conveying the value of a woman: families (the fathers typically) would commissions portraits of their daughters to market them to potential suitors. Piety and purity, key features of the virginal woman, were incredibly sellable features, alluding to the woman’s potential as a faithful wife. These portraits were seen as portraying the woman to the viewer (society or the potential suitor) as a combination of the real and the idealized, or what a woman should be as defined by society. Wedding cassoni, chests given to the by the wife’s family on their wedding night, were commonly decorated with images that alluded to the role of the woman in the marriage. The Odyssey cassone, done in 1475, depicts Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and is read as demonstrating the role of women in marriage: loyal, faithful, obedient and domestic, the characteristics of the virginal good woman. When looking at the art of the renaissance art depicting women as “the whore” are not common, and it can be speculated that this is because that society did not want women to “learn” whorish behaviour, and insinuating that the only good woman is the virginal woman seen in art.

Didactic imagery was a common art form seen in homes during the Victorian era and was created with the intentions of being a teaching tool. The images were created largely with the intention to teach women the behaviour that society expected of them, and how they would be rewarded for conforming and punished for breaking societal taboos. George Elgar Hicks 1863 painting, Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood can be seen as an example of didactic imagery, meant to teach women that their role in society is as the faithful, loyal, concerned wife. Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast from 1851 is a didactic image meant to demonstrate the consequences of not emulating society’s desired behaviour of the virginal good girl. The girl in the image is being cast out of the home by her father for having had a baby out of wedlock, and shaming the family with her behaviour. The image shows quite literally what happens if you act as a whore, and not virginal, and how society will value you as a woman.

Contemporarily, during the 20th and 21st century, the ways in which the stereotypes of the virgin and the whore has largely expanded, a part of all forms of popular culture, from movies and television to advertisements. The stereotypes of the virgin and whore are explicitly illustrated in contemporary media, with the virgin dressed conservatively, behaving demurely, and continually seen as proper. The whore, comparatively, is almost always shown as overtly sexual, scantily dressed, entrapping men, and disrupting society. During her TEDx Talk, “The Slut, the Spinster, the Perfect Woman,” Martha Mosse, a feminist performance artist, discussed the stereotypes of the slut, the spinster, and the perfect woman. Mosse discusses the effects of labelling women based on stereotypes has on women's self worth, leading them to often feel as if they are failures if they do not achieve the higher valued label, the perfect woman (Mosse). Mosse also explains how the slut or whore stereotype are damaging to women who emulate the behaviours they see in media they are mocked. Women are mocked, ridiculed, or physically or emotionally abused (Mosse), punished by the society that circulated the images they attempted to replicate, for not being virginal.

The 2011 documentary Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro, draws an interesting point discussing how society pits women against one another which can act to strengthen the binary of the virgin and the whore (Newsom and Acquaro, Miss Representation). By pitting women against one another society creates a hierarchy of value, with the virginal women being of a higher value and the whores being undervalued as women. This competition between women creates a divide within the gender, which is further enforced by the continued circulation of images depicting the conflicting stereotypes through popular culture, creating a cycle of circulating and enforcing societal stereotypes.

Society itself creates the image of women if wishes to circulate by deciding which ideals will be valued and which will be penalized, and depicts these values in such a way that the values themselves appear universal and authoritative, from ancient Greece to the 21st century. By illustrating their values as a societal authority, it becomes difficult to challenge the circulated perceptions as any challenge could be read as unlawful. Most often the the challenging and reconstruction of the stereotypes occurs contemporarily. The stereotypes are reimagined to challenge the perceived dominant ideas of society, in this case the idea that a virginal, obedient, subservient woman has a greater value than a woman who us independent and open about her sexuality. The reconstruction and reimagining of stereotypes becomes possible when it is recognized what the images are attempting to convey as the values of society. It is through the recognition that these values of women are fabricated by the whims of society, that the fallacy of the hierarchy of value of women's behaviour becomes clear.

From ancient Greece to the 21st century, popular culture has been a medium through which the stereotypes of the virgin and the whore have been circulated. The longevity of the circulation of the binary’s hierarchy of value demonstrates that while there has been many advances made on the front of gender equality, it has not yet been fully actualized. The binary creates a divide between women, and for there to be true gender equality women must be valued equally as women, with differing behaviours and standards, no matter the conformity or lack there of to societal values they emulate. Once all women are valued as women, it may be possible to achieve actual gender equality where all human beings are afforded equal values and rights, no matter their gender.



Works Cited:

Miss Representation. Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro, Girls Club Entertainment, 2011.

“The slut, the spinster and the perfect woman: Martha Mosse at TEDxCoventGardenWomen.” Youtube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 18 January 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=H7Gn2a0GnAc

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