Perceptions of Chloe and Halle Bailey: Madonna-Whore complex or something else?

A somewhat rambling, contemplative piece about black womanhood, sexuality and celebrity.




Long before Chloe and Halle Bailey began pursuing solo projects, they were constantly compared, either to each other or to their mentor, Beyoncé. Now that they’re in the midst of developing solo careers, the same criticisms seem to keep coming up:


‘Chloe’s newfound sexualisation detracts from her brand and music quality.’

‘Halle is the innocent, budding Disney star who is branding herself more appropriately.’

‘Halle is boring compared to Chloe and is being left in the dust because she doesn’t have the star-power/ sex appeal to keep up.’


So what exactly is going on with these assessments? Are they being compared like this because they’re sisters, women, black women in the entertainment industry, or all of the above?


Perceptions of women as reactive and comparative


The “Solangification” of Halle Bailey (a phenomenon whereby the overshadowed sister’s public reception is formed in reaction to their more prominent sister and vice versa) echoes the all-too-familiar Madonna-Whore complex.













“In psychoanalytic literature, a Madonna–Whore complex is the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship. First identified by Sigmund Freud,…this psychological complex is said to develop in men who see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes. Men with this complex desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while they cannot desire the respected partner (the Madonna). Freud wrote: "Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love." [1]


At the root of this complex is, fairly obviously, misogyny. Those who observe women through the lens of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy (either consciously or by unconscious social conditioning) characterise women as people with limited agency, whose sexual history and behaviours translate to a value judgement and who largely exist as a utility for men in some way, shape or form (regardless of their sexuality). The Whore is pleasing, cheap, entertaining, fun, disposable. The Madonna is the caretaker, martyr, home-maker, mother, silent domestic labourer.


The intersection of misogyny and anti-blackness (aka ‘misogynoir’)


When we contextualise the above characters within black womanhood specifically, we see these stereotypes take on a new life in the form of derogatory, racialised insults and oft-used media characters/ storylines.


The Jezebel

““Jezebel” is a slave construct and stereotype that paints Black women as evil and immoral. The Jezebel stereotype is “synonymous with promiscuity,” having “an insatiable sexual appetite,” and “someone who uses sex to manipulate men,” Ladson-Billings writes. She is a “conniving temptress who cannot be trusted.” Accusing Black women of these traits and calling them “Jezebels” also attempts to connect Black women to the infamous “treacherous” queen in the Bible called “Jezebel,” who is accused of having “turned the heart of her husband, King Ahab, away from the worship of the one true God and righteous living.” [2]


The Mammy

““Mammy” is a slavery construct of Black women that “distorts the notion of caregiver,”…Mammy is generally characterized, as a “grossly overweight,” “jolly,” “unattractive dark-complexioned woman,” and “asexual — living only to serve the master, mistress and their children.” She is “even neglectful of her own children and family while simultaneously overly solicitous toward whites.” The mammy image is the old Aunt Jemima, the Black woman wearing the kerchief on her head and wearing an apron perpetually smiling on a pancake box… A jolly, smiling, fiercely loyal Mammy was created so we could believe slavery was a humane institution.” [2]


Halle’s age and physical appearance prevent her from being boxed into the ‘Mammy’ trope (frequently wielded against celebrities like Lizzo), and the fact that both black women are light in complexion means that a certain amount of privilege is extended to them. That is to say, although Chloe is publicly derided as a Jezebel, a darker woman in her position might be less publicly desired and more viciously attacked.

However, the two remain weaponised against each other and are publicly treated in a way that is ultimately reflective of their identities. In the days before their solo ventures, people always seemed to declare that ‘Halle is boring compared to Chloe’. Now that the two are exploring different styles and projects, the tune has changed to ‘Chloe is vulgar compared to Disney princess Halle’ and ‘Halle is clearly the classy, effortlessly beautiful sister’.


Some have already anticipated that public attitudes will swing in favour of Chloe once Halle’s upcoming projects drop and she is subject to more scrutiny. They are not the first pair of black women to receive this treatment and they will unfortunately not be the last.


Are criticisms of Chloe’s current era technically legitimate, based on slut-shaming attitudes or a combination of the two?


There are seemingly valid criticisms about the idea that Chloe’s artistry is genuinely suffering as a product of much-needed energy being diverted to her sex-kitten branding.












Even if this evaluation is accurate, it can also be argued that new artists aren’t perfect; it’s unrealistic and perhaps unfair to imagine that they know, from the outset, how to juggle and balance these things. Another issue being brought to light is that people have different conceptions of what it means to slut-shame. Are people slut-shaming Chloe by voicing that they think her sexuality seems artificial and laboured? Is this a non-gendered criticism of corniness that people might just as easily make about a young male artist finding his performance style? People seemed to have similar things to say about Justin Bieber’s 2015 Calvin Klein shoot.












What is the difference between sexuality, sexualisation and objectification in the context of celebrity and performance?


It would seem intuitively accurate to say that: sexuality is a natural and healthy part of most people, sexualisation is drawing particular attention to those parts of a person to do with their sexuality or desirability and that objectification is reducing a multi-faceted person only to their utility as a sex-object for others. These boundaries aren’t as stark and clear-cut as they might seem on a cursory level. Things become even more murky when we account for the nature of celebrity and what it means to market a human being as a brand. Is sexualisation a matter of personal development and exploration when the person in question is considered public domain?


Clearly, the limited scope and length of this mini-essay doesn’t allow for these questions to be answered definitively. The purpose of this piece is to distribute some food for thought, more than anything else.


However, a question worth asking is: Even if Chloe’s sexual behaviour is “forced”, what does that even mean? Nobody, including cis women, is born wearing high heels, tight mini dresses, makeup and a thong. These are choices people regularly make, depending on how they feel like performing their gender that day. These choices may arise as a product of social conditioning, rather than true freedom of expression, but should we not extend grace based on this understanding and common experience to people in the Bailey sisters’ position? Is Chloe just performing a kind of hyper-femininity in the same way that countless people across the world do, but in front of an audience? Who amongst us can honestly raise a hand and say that they don’t care about being perceived as desirable and that they don't participate in desirability politics ever? (Particularly when they were in their early twenties, as Chloe and Halle both are.)


















Closing thoughts and questions.


Chloe’s image used to be somewhat different but audience observations and engagement over how ‘thick’ and vixen-esque she is seemed to sharply change her branding. Maybe this was a coincidence. Maybe the progression of her career had already been planned with her input and freely-given consent. Maybe the powers that be influenced this shift.

Perhaps the mechanism itself doesn’t much matter if, on the ground, the product and messaging is the same. It’s fair to say that branding like Chloe’s makes it harder for shapely black women to reject objectification, escape the Jezebel stereotype and to fight against internalising the view that their value is derived solely from their desirability, however, practical analysis can't end here.


It could be argued that the heavily sexual marketing and performance itself isnt inherently bad or harmful. The issue, instead, is that this tends to be the only representation people see of young black women in the music industry. Missy Elliott has been consistently praised and pointed out as exceptional for not sexualising her image despite rapping about sex. The absence of this versatility is harmful, to be sure, especially to young black women seeing only parts of themselves reflected in mainstream media (the parts that are often most abused and shamed).


So how do we assign responsibility? Do we look solely to label owners to diversify their marketing strategies? Do we look to signed artists to turn down opportunities in the interest of being role-models to the fans that keep them wealthy and ‘relevant’?

Selling sex wouldn’t be such a reliably lucrative strategy and coercive force over new artists with little leverage if it weren’t so in-demand. What of the people who call Halle boring and scour the internet for videos of asses clapping and titties bouncing, whilst imploring the women in their lives to avoid being uncouth or ‘easy’?

Perhaps we, as consumers, need to look inwards and boycott that which we deem genuinely harmful whilst expressing our views in a more considered manner.

Maybe ‘Protect Black Women’ should be a lived policy of compassion and listening, rather than a t-shirt slogan.




Sources

[1]https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna–whore_complex

[2]https://baptistnews.com/article/jezebel-is-one-of-three-common-racial-slurs-against-all-black-women-and-girls/#.YjB31S3fWfA


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