There are multiple key elements in this short story. A key theme in “True Trash” is the exploration of the Madonna/Whore complex. Each of the characters in the story suffer the same binary. The waitresses read trashy magazines that make a morality tale of the “bad woman” falling for the “bad man”. In the magazine, sex is described only with an ellipses: “dot dot dot”. The girls fantasize about letting go and yielding to their sexual desires, and suppress that, ridicule it by laughing.
The Madonna/Whore binary is deconstructed in the story. With Ronette, Atwood creates a prototypical Whore character and explores the complexities of the role. Ronette does not have a voice of her own, she is seen through the eyes of Donny and Joanne only. Neither can truly understand her or accept her and the role she plays. Ronette is set up as the whore, the “tartiest”, the “most forbidden”. She is described as cheap, easy. The boys objectify her, reduce her to body parts (as when they look at her through the binoculars, or when they attempt to peer down her shirt when she waits on their table). Darce trash talks her behind her back and by the end of the story, he doesn’t even remember her. Ronette is set up as the classic whore character, doomed to fall. But Ronette is hard to understand, she doesn’t quite fit into the classic binary. She is not given a nickname, a symbol of intimacy and familiarity. She decides to keep her illegitimate baby, eschewing the stigma. She is freely sexual. She asks why the other girls are laughing when they read the magazine, because she has no need to suppress her sexuality with ridicule.
Joanne is the contrast to Ronette, the prototypical Madonna. She refuses to kiss Perry on the island. She romanticizes her absent boyfriend, attempting to sleep with his letter under her pillow. Joanne is the good girl, the faithful girlfriend, but she also reads the trashy magazine and wishes to be able to be like Ronette. Joanne is unclear about her position in the Madonna/Whore binary, doing what others tell her is right, but also feels trapped by it, resents it. At the end of the story, Joanne represents the binary perfectly, saying “sex lurked dangerously[…].On the other hand there had been marriage, which meant wifely checkered aprons, play-pens, a sugary safety.” At the end of the story, Joanne claims things have changed, the story could not have happened now, implying a dissolution of the binary. The fact that the character still struggle to define Ronette seems to indicate it has not dissolved, only shifted slightly.
Donny is similarly trapped by this binary. He pretends to feel lust for Ronette and the other girls, though he does not. He feels pressured to objectify the girls, and that leads to conflict for him. When he overhears Darce objectifying Ronette, he retaliates by destroying the binoculars. By doing this, he is removing some aspect of the male gaze from Ronette. No longer will the boys be able to spy on the waitresses and objectify them that way. Yet, Donny himself reduces Ronette to a slut, to the character of the whore.
Neither Joanne nor Donny know how Ronette’s story ended. She remains complex and illusive. Through Ronette’s character, Atwood deconstructs the familiar Madonna/Whore binary, leaving the reader in contemplation of the role of sex and intimacy in society, both now and in the past.