Why are we so afraid of female desire? Read almost any classic book and you will find a less-than creative characterisation of a woman painted either as the ‘Blessed Virgin’ or whorish devil – not too much in between. These female tropes aren’t so shocking when reminded just how old some of these texts are, however, that excuse starts to run dry when the same images show up again, and again and again.
The Classic Virgin. This trope is not shocking, considering the whole ‘Mary-mother-of-Jesus’ thing. Most books throughout literature will contain almost some variant of this trope. From the emphasis placed on Miranda’s ‘purity’ in The Tempest by William Shakespeare, to the characterisation of Lucy as a model of innocence in Bram Stoker's Dracula, it’s clear the virgin trope is perseverant. Almost as persistent as the accompanying depiction of women as whores. In Dracula, Lucy is the embodiment of female virtues of chastity, purity, and innocence, which are threatened by Dracula’s innate horror and impurity. As soon as Lucy is marked by the vampire, a shift takes place, Stoker flips Lucy’s character into a voluptuous woman with an unapologetically open sexual desire. Texts such as Shakespeare’s Richard III reveal the prescriptive notions of silence and obedience that women are expected to abide by, and on a surface level, women do. These often ‘flat’ and two dimensional characters provide a clear insight into the preconceived notions of female virtue, shaped by the idealised fantasies of the often male authors. Emphasis placed on women’s roles as mothers and wives removes any discussion of female sexuality. If female desire is mentioned it’s almost certainly seen in a problematic state.
The whole ‘Madonna-Whore’ complex is a tale as old as time and still highly prevalent today, playing crucial roles in texts such as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. This idea of women as ‘whores’ is a highly unoriginal trope which is almost always contrasted against a Madonna-esque character. In Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene,’ Duessa is seen as the embodiment of falsehood and a master of manipulation and disguise, with some not so subtle references to St Johns Babylonian Whore, thrown in for good measure as well. As a parallel Spenser uses Una who is described as “...so pure and innocent, as that same lambe,” whilst also emphasising the importance of a good female muse for a male poet and his work. The image of females as whores further stifles any discussion of female desire, reinstating the belief that any form of female sexuality is inherently bad.
To give a slightly more creative spin to the whore trope, the image of women as witches is often used. ‘The Witch’ as a trope has historical roots, which are prevalent in medieval society texts and through the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Texts such as The Scarlet Letter and Macbeth highlight this highly dramatic reaction to female desire – tying witchcraft not only to the trope of the whore but also women’s intellect. Once again female sexuality is bounded into a restricted and stereotypical label, where female characters are easily distinguishable as either good or bad. This good or bad stereotype seems to be solely based upon women’s sexual agency.
That’s not to say all great literature is drawn from these stereotypical female tropes. Literature has also seen some of the biggest developments against these same ideologies, with authors and texts persistently pushing to reclaim female sexual agency. Pushing against these narrow minded representations of female sexuality is not necessarily restricted to modern writers. Yes, the numerous feminist revolutions have undoubtably reshaped and rewritten the role of female sexuality in literature but there have been numerous outliers throughout history who have been given well-earned credit as of late for their understanding and representation of female desire. With authors such as Marie de France, Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf all playing integral roles in the development of female representation.
So where does this leave us? From an outlook at the representation of women’s sexuality throughout literature, it is obvious that tropes such as the virgin-like Madonna, the whore, or the witch are prevalent. These representations play a significant factor in the lack of female desire presented in texts and the knock-on effect it has on society’s understanding of female sexuality. A finer look at literature does reveal the slow, yet steady push against these tropes, with authors such as D.H. Lawrence and his infamous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover redefining the representation of female desire. Where to next?