Women And Femininity As Seen In The Color Purple By Alice Walker
Women have been subject to wide varieties of subjugation and discrimination from men (and sometimes by women) since time immemorial. Though there is hope that the control men have over women will reduce in the 21st century, the hope is very limited. As seen in the recent case of Adele Lim, a Malaysia-born woman who wrote the film Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 with Peter Chiarelli, who was reportedly offered only 1/8th of the money (USD 110,000) her male counterpart was offered (USD 800,000 to USD 1,000,000) for writing the sequel by Warner Bros. Studios, thus sparking a huge debate on pay disparity, with Lim leaving the writing process, the subjugation has no signs of slowing down, with a woman of colour being discriminated by a corporation led by white men. Though this seems brutal, black women have a much harder time having to be considered equal by men in the aspects of gender, race and class, due to the ingrained feelings of considering them inferior by both white men and women, and sometimes, black men. Rosa Parks is an example of this, as she became the symbol of standing up for one’s rights by refusing to give up her seat in a bus for a white man. Thus, she stood up to her oppressor and the discriminatory laws (like the Jim Crow law) that demarcated the blacks and whites in the usage of basic facilities like water fountains, bathrooms etc. which governed the American society at the time, thus making African-Americans feel inferior to the whites and not gain equal rights. White and male privilege were issues that needed to be addressed and the need takes a centre in the present. Her act was one of the inspirations behind the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which aimed at equal rights of the blacks and whites and removal of segregation on the basis of race. The Color Purple by Alice Walker speaks of women, specifically black women and the hardships they face in the hands of men, who are much more powerful than them and more controlling. These men consider the women to be of a class or standard below them and treat them as possessions rather than humans. The oppression is very severe in the form of rape, molestation and complete disregard for the woman as a human.
The women in the novel are seen to weak at first but later, in the course of the story, it is observed that the women move from a period of being oppressed to standing up for themselves, from not having a say on what happens to them to being individuals with their own voice and identity. Just like Rosa Parks, the novel showcases the efforts of the women to rise above the oppression and get a new chance at life. Celie The main protagonist in the novel, Celie is a young, fairly uneducated, black girl who suffers both physically and mentally in the hands of the men she lives with, like her step-father who constantly rapes her and made her pregnant with her two children, while verbally and physically abusing her. “He never had a kine word to say to me”. “He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church.” and Mr. _____, a man who marries her but doesn’t give her any attention or care, rather treating her like a slave and leaving it to her to take care of his four children, who treat her with unkindness and bitter feelings “He pick up a rock and laid my head open.”, “They only six and eight and they cry. They scream. They cuse me of murder.” Her way of expressing her feelings is by writing letters and addressing them to “God”, her way of relying on someone to help her with her troubles. This is a major issue that women face: not having a confidant to express their problems to. Her faith in God gives her reassurance and hope that her hardships are heard and that she gets to live a good life, as she addresses Him as a friend rather than a supreme being. Her action of not signing her letters signifies the lack of self-worth she has, which is emphasized by the way she is treated by the men in her life as well as societal norms of mistreatment of women. In the novel, she finds friends in Shug Avery, her husband’s mistress and Sofia, her daughter-in-law much later and they help her through her problems. The song that Shug dedicates to Celie for nursing her back to health is a sign of ‘awakening’ to the young girl. All her life, she had been isolated from the good things in life: her constant pregnancies never allowed her to indulge in the pleasures of her youth like education and friends, her subsequent marriage to Mr. ______ was one of entrapment and so on.
The entry of a strong female character like Shug Avery enables Celie to understand her worth and feel ‘special’ about herself in the world that is dominated by abusive, self-centred men who aim at bringing women down through their patriarchy. The truce with her husband towards the end of the novel brought about by his realization of appreciating God’s creations in every form brings in the closure needed for her abusive relationships with all the men in her life. Through the character of Celie, one understands that the patriarchal control that is prevalent in the lives of women is a way of bringing them down and the only way it can be overcome is through women supporting each other (Shug Avery, Sofia and other female figures) and men treating women as human beings and not as mere possessions or individuals over whom they can exercise their control. Shug Avery The mistress of Celie’s husband, Shug Avery is a Blues singer. She has a bad reputation for herself due to her multiple relationships with men but she doesn’t let that define her, in spite of her selfishness and arrogance. Shug’s beauty is alluring to Celie, who dreams of her and fancies being her. “Lord, I wants to go so bad. Not to dance. Not to drink. Not to play card. Not even to hear Shug Avery sing. I just be thankful to lay eyes on her.” She indulges in Mr. _____’s sexual advances only because she thinks of Shug. Shug’s confidence and nonchalant behaviour is fascinating to Celie, who has constantly been put down by the male presence in her life. The presence of a strong female character is essential in making Celie understand the freedom and pleasures of life better. Shug Avery shows Celie how to pleasure herself by sexually inducing herself on her own. This sexual teaching is an awakening in itself as she teaches Celie that a man should not have to control her when the power over herself is with her and her alone. The sexual relationship between Shug and Celie showcases how Shug doesn’t care about what society thinks of her and thus, makes one understand that she is her own person, undeterred by societal norms and beliefs. Her character being a Blues singer (Blues being the simplest form of jazz) shows how she is simple herself (Shug is a simpler term for sugar). She uses crass words against Celie during their first meeting and is honest in her way of calling her “ugly”. Just like how jazz transforms the audience who listen to it, Shug brings in life to Celie by teaching her about freedom and having her own worth. Jazz doesn’t follow rigid rules in its performance. Similarly, Shug doesn’t have any rules for herself. She is free-spirited and changes people around her. Thus, through her unapologetic, honest self, she challenges the normative manner of men overpowering women by being independent in her life. This character proves that femininity is inclusive of a woman’s individual freedom and ideologies by indulging in activities that only men were thought to do.
Sofia is Celie’s step-son Harpo’s wife. Unlike Celie, Sofia is not keen on having her identity be just of a dutiful wife who listens to every word of her husband and acts accordingly. She is adamant that she be treated with respect and equality. When Harpo tries to assert his husbandly control over her, she whacks him with a piece of wood from the stove. “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” This statement is important as it highlights the central problem faced by the women of the novel. The need to belittle women in order to showcase the power of men is a toxic trait that is prevalent in the men in the novel as well as in the present-day scenario. She fights for her equity and objects to Harpo’s attempts of beating her to submission, which was suggested to him by Celie herself as that is what she has experienced all her life. Sofia’s challenging of the norm is a totally different approach to what Celie used to do with her life. The system of black women being the servants/submitting to the whites was vehemently opposed by Sofia. Thus, the feminist idea of treating men and women equally, with equal rights and opportunities, and not to consider one gender as lesser than the other is shown through Sofia and her resilience to be her own identity. Squeak Harpo’s second wife, Squeak is encouraged by the women around her like Shug and Celie to pursue a career in music and be a singer, thus making great use of her talent. But, unlike Sofia, Squeak is very timid, submissive and resigned to her fate. She is easily controlled by her husband, only for her to leave him to follow her singing career. This is usually what women face. They wish to be their own people, having control over themselves. But, due to societal structures and norms created BY MEN, they don’t have a say in what happens to them. So, strong female characters are crucial for her to get the support she needed so that she could pursue what she wanted. Thus, women supporting other women gives a whole new meaning to femininity. Standing up for other women gives women the strength and confidence needed to be true to themselves as the assurance is more than enough for fulfilling what they wish to. Nettie Celie’s younger sister, Nettie is very timid and follows the escapist mindset of leaving the situation she is in and finding solace somewhere else, like how she escaped from their childhood home and thereby, escaped from her father’s sexual and physical abuse and came to Mr. ______’s home, where Celie lived after marriage, and later, going to the Reverend’s house where she raised Celie’s biological children.
The escapist fantasy is present in every woman who undergoes abuse in their household. Nettie is the only one in the family who received a proper education. Thus, being educated enabled her to take care of her niece and nephew as well as lead a life of privilege, in complete contrast to Celie. She got to travel to places like New York and Africa, and serve as a missionary to the Olinka people there. Nettie had determination to leave her life of suffering and receive a life where she is not sexually abused, unlike Celie who decided to go according to the lives assigned to her by the men she lived with. Most women are like Celie; they tend to be resigned to their fate and not make a change. Women like Nettie are slowly being formed in society, with them taking control of their lives and going towards the path of their lives where they are not treated badly. Thus, Nettie was the sister who took the step to leave a life of abuse and make a better life for herself. Conclusion Thus, through the novel, we are able to understand that the women are able to help each other out through their lives and actions. Each one taught each other the skill of being their own person and that the non-adherence to social structures and rules need not mean that they are bad people, but that they are able to live a life for themselves, without any external control from the patriarchal society. This novel is important to the 21st century too because the women of today go through similar hardships and challenges. Talking about women and femininity is key to understanding and combating the issues faced by women. By teaching young women about how they should have control over themselves rather than let anyone take their independence and freedom away because they are a ‘more powerful’ and ‘stronger’ gender, they can make their lives much safer and more opportunistic.
- Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. The Star Online. “Crazy Rich Asians Director Jon M. Chu on Side of Malaysia-Born Writer in Fee Fight with Studio.” The Star Online, 11 Sept. 2019, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/09/11/crazy-rich-asians-director-jon-m-chu-on-side-of-malaysia-born-writer-in-fee-fight-with-studio.
- LitCharts. “The Color Purple Characters.” LitCharts, https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-color-purple/characters.
- Pasi, Julia Sylvia. Celebrating Black American Women’s Lives: An Analysis of Alice Walker’s Selected Texts. http://ir.nust.na/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10628/552/Pasi.
- Celebrating black American women’s lives….pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y. Jacobs, Tom. “Research Suggests Black Women Are More Likely to Be Objectified and Dehumanized.” Pacific Standard, 11 Sept. 2018, https://psmag.com/social-justice/black-women-are-more-likely-to-be-objectified-and-dehumanized.
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