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Doe Eyes Vs Siren Eyes: How TikTok Has Rebranded The Madonna-Whore Complex

While I technically reside on the Gen-Z side of the generational spectrum – I was a 1999 baby so my coming of age, minus maybe BBM and Instagram, would be more similar to the childhood of a younger millennial opposed to my latter Gen-Z counterparts. A Zillennial, if you will.

And, due to occupying this odd limbo experience of both a self-dubbed 90s kid and a Gen-Z, I don’t feel 100% part of the whole TikTok thing. Instead, I see myself as a voyeur documenting social phenomona – promising myself that I haven’t actually altered my attention span forever due to my newly developed craving for a video essay. 

That being said, I do still have the app and use it daily and it was actually on my daily scroll when I came across a video of a woman changing up a pair of goo goo eyes to a glare in an instant. Upon some deeper digging, I was aware that this video was part of a wider TikTok trend popping off all over the app right now. It’s where the creator in question shows off two very distinct gazes, ‘Doe eyes‘ and ‘Siren eyes’

One of the initial things I realised was that TikTokers seemed to “babify” their facial expressions for the “Doe” look. The “Doe” eyes, from my experience of checking out pretty much every video under the hashtag, is all about exuding an innocent, childlike, wide-eyed gaze whereas the “Siren” eyes sees a lot more narrow, confident and sultry stares.

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The whole thing felt pretty familiar; women being boxed into two rigid roles, sex being tied up to a woman’s self-expression, men dictating the moral status of a woman based on the cultural importance put on to their dicks… And then it clicked. I wondered, “Has TikTok just found a way to rebrand the ancient Madonna-whore complex through yet another viral challenge?” Conceptionalised by the notorious O.G. incel, Sigmund Freud, the dude behind the Electra complex, it may sound like a stretch but hear me out…

The Doe eyes mimic the Madonnas. Innocent-looking, wide-eyed, even a tad juvenile – relating to the virginal status, virtue and purity attributed to a Madonna. Then, you guessed it, the Siren eyes mimic the Whores. Sultry and seductive, reflecting the sexual, immoral and debauched characteristics largely attributed to the Whore.

With a huge influx of videos showing TikTokers demonstrating their own recreation of the trend, the difference between the two eye expressions as a wider metaphor for the two very binary dichotomies of womanhood that women get caught between. 

Option one: you’re either like Jesus’ mum Mary, or Madonna, who occupied the ultimate, yet unattainable, patriarchal fantasy of being both child-bearing yet still untouched or, option two; you’re the sexually prosimiscuous, unrespectable whore. Reductive? I reckon. Misogynist? Most definitely. 

And this isn’t the first time this socio-psychological theory has been casually referred to in pop culture. Phrases like, “she’s for the streets”, notions over what is “wifey material” and dudes wanting a girlfriend just like their mother are all remnants of that very vintage, but clearly very much alive, idea that women can either be virginal, motherly and deserving of respect due to her lack of sexuality or unworthy of humanity due to her abundance of sexuality. The whole idea of a “wifey” alone gives me Oedipus vibes, to stay on the whole Freud tract.

To summarise: the concept effectively divorces respect from sex and vice versa as women are categorised as either deserving of respect but inherently unsexual or as unrespectable but massively fuckable. 

I wasn’t necessarily surprised that the legacy of this theory devised by a coked up misogynist decades ago could still be so prevalent. But, as I did some more digging on the app, I found an avalanche of young men making videos with captions along the lines of “wait till girls find out we can’t think of them sexually when we like them” and “I can’t even sexualise her in my mind, idk bro it feels wrong for me, I just love her that’s all.”

Seems to sum up the complex pretty clearly to me. 

It seems like this Freudian narrative is still very much so alive and kicking. The rigid separation of women into one of two categories has translated into a massive testament for the inability to simultaneously view a woman as sexually desirable and respectable at the same time. 

Some almost satirical-sounding comments made me laugh a bit, “Kings, never again feel guilty for manipulating a woman. This trend just proves how much they do it to us.” Others proved petulance fairly poetically, “Oh so we’re romanticizing manipulation, cool.” I began pondering why so many men were getting so pressed about this new trend, with anger exclusively directed to the ‘manipulative’ tendencies this encourages with no critical analysis whatsoever over where it stems from. 

I get that the trend may just be exactly that, a trend, and could dissipate in a matter of weeks until the next one pops up on the scene. But, like many of TikTok’s other viral challenges – the short form video structure can be successfully used to tackle fairly dense subject matter in a matter of seconds. TikTok has a funny little way of bringing to the forefront massive sociocultural phenomena and condensing the driest theory ever into a matter of 15 jargon jam-packed seconds. 

It has subsequently given us vocabulary and phrases that perfectly sum up the sociological coding we all now know and refer to. Whether it’s ‘fleabag era’, ‘icks’, ‘pick me’s’, ‘yassification’ or anything made into an aesthetic by putting a ‘core’ at the end of it – there’s now a definitive term for just about anything. 

Instead of succumbing to the harsh categorisation, these women are now co-opting this binary to benefit them, championing their self-conscious awareness of how men exercise the Madonna-whore complex and how we, as women, can reclaim our feminine gaze and use it to our advantage. 

To be honest, I find the whole thing pretty iconic, women catching on to their ability to shapeshift as a survival strategy under the scrutiny of the male gaze by literally engineering their own radical version of the female gaze.

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