by Lena Chen
We Want a Lady in the Street, but a Freak in the Bed
Usher’s famous words, delivered with great talent and to wild popularity, illuminate an ongoing struggle within feminism and femininity – the sharp delineation between being a “good girl” and being a “bad girl,” known within academia as the Madonna/whore dichotomy.
The Madonna/whore dichotomy is, in essence, the separation of women into one of two labeled categories: wild, animalistic “whore” and demure, well-behaved “lady.” This practice is so widely accepted that we tend not to recognize it as problematic; however, it strips women of their inherent humanity and reduces them to two profoundly demeaning extremes.
As a result of this categorization, a number of problems arise.
According to Leora Tanenbaum, a prominent feminist writer and lecturer, “A teenage girl [or young woman] is caught in an impossible situation. She has to project a sexy image and embrace, to some extent, a ‘slutty’ identity. Otherwise, she risks being mocked as an irrelevant prude. But if her peers decide she has crossed an invisible, constantly shifting boundary and has become too ‘slutty,’ she loses all credibility.”
However, it is interesting to take into consideration UrbanDictionary’s number-one definition of slut: “a woman with the morals of a man.”
While it is likely that the definition was intended only to call to mind the fact that men are often portrayed as sexually insatiable and can be sexually promiscuous without social repercussions, it also calls to mind other masculine attributes. Men in Western society have always been the holders of the power to speak and to enact changes in their surroundings. Their roles are more active and they tend not to be afraid to take up space and to be loud and boisterous.
Women, on the other hand, are given the roles of passivity, silence, and chastity. If they break out of these roles, they become “bad girls” or “whores.”
The result of this separation – and the demonization of both extremes – creates a double standard of expectations that is inherently impossible to achieve. If a woman is soft-spoken, demure, and chaste to all appearances, she is a prude with outdated values and she loses respectability; she is restrained to the point of frigidity. On the other hand, if a woman is loud, boisterous, and promiscuous, she is a slut, unworthy of respect; she gives in to her animalistic urges.
Yet at the same time, society loves both innocence and promiscuity. We place great value on virginity, chastity, and self-restraint, but at the same time, we revel in overt sexuality and wild abandon.
This dichotomy of desires becomes problematic not only in that it divides women (and their sexuality) into two rudimentary groups and strips both groups of dignity and respect, but also in that it requires women to embody both extremes! After all, Usher and those for whom he speaks (we?) want “a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed.”
Unfortunately for Usher, we are all a little freaky and we are all a little prim. We must end the dichotomy by refusing to limit ourselves to a single identity. Usher will simply have to make do with women who are well-rounded individuals with a range of expressions and behaviors.