popular feminism part 3

One of the most interesting ideas around the reception of Hildegard and Spears has to do with how they were both placed on the opposing spectrum of gender roles. The Madonna-Whore-Dichotomy denotes the perception that a chaste woman is a regarded as good while a whore is regarded as bad.[1] Orly Bareket argues that these ideologies maintain the patriarchy by rewarding women who behave as madonnas and punishing women who do not abide by the social constructed ideas of what being a “good woman” means.[2] The MWD reinforces sexual objectification which reinforces the idea that men are superior to women.[3] I would argue that all the sexism women experience could be boiled down to this idea. Women who follow the rules are limited by the rules which are placed on them, while women who break the rules are constantly punished (usually by attacks on the body). When we examine Hildegard and Spears, we will see Hildegard, who fell under the Madonna category, rewarded for following the rules, and Spears consistently criticized and punished for walking the line[BW1] .

            The first sexualization of Spears happened in the music video, “Hit me baby one more time.” In it she wore a Catholic school-girl outfit with a button-up shirt controversially exposing her midriff. Smit argues that at this point Spears is performing a balancing act and performing both the Madonna and the whore. The childlike nature of Spears represents the Madonna while the sexual side represents the whore. This is tension, Smit believes, that the producers were trying to highlight, which side will Spears land on?[4] Spears continued to embody this idea of forbidden but available—stripping off a tear-away tuxedo, wearing a bikini on stage, and music videos like “Toxic.”[5] In Spears’ performance of, “I’m a slave 4U” she walked on stage with a snake draped over her shoulders. Snakes are cultural symbols of evil, so in a way Spears appears to be controlling evil. It also alludes to the Biblical idea of the woman and the snake in the Garden of Eden. In it, the woman is framed as the downfall of the man as she conspires with the snake.

At first, Spears flirtation with the breaking of boundaries appears to only garner harsh critique from the public, but eventually her display of excess feminine sexuality puts her in the category of madwoman. Susan McClary describes madwomen as a manifestation of excess feminine sexuality.[6] Madwomen notoriously have the power of language but are silent.[7] This is seen throughout Spears life as her life becomes more constricted due to the actions that she takes in reaction to the pressure of the public. The most famous example of this is Spears’ alleged meltdown In 2007, for undisclosed reasons she was checked into rehab. 24 hours later she checked herself out, walked into a barbershop and shaved her head. The public interpretation of the bald head reflects the paradigm of the madwoman. Instead of interpreting it as a rejection to the control and criticism over her life and body, it is seen as a sign of ailing mental health, or disability. [8] To interpret Spears’ bald head as rejection of expectancy would have given her agency. Instead, when it is interpreted as “crazy” the exact opposite happens—her agency is eventually taken completely away from her as she is placed under a conservatorship. This is what happens to women on the “wrong” side of the MWD: they are seen as powerful, that power is seen as threat to men, and is eventually constricted. It is the work of popular feminism, as we will see later to reconcile this story.

[1] Orly Bareket et al. “The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy: Men Who Perceive Women’s Nurturance and Sexuality as Mutually Exclusive Endorse Patriarchy and Show Lower Relationship Satisfaction.” Sex Roles 79, no. 9–10 (2018): 519.

[2] Baraket et al., “The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy,” 520.

[3] Barkaet et al., “The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy,” 521.

[4] Smit, The Exile of Britney Spears, 54.

[5] Smit, The Exile of Britney Spears, 20.

[6] Susan McClary. Feminine Endings Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Feminine Endings Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 81.

[7] McClary, Feminine Endings, 85.

[8] Smit, The Exile of Britney Spears, 114.