God, Sexuality And Gender In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
When the Black community was fighting for their freedom from their White masters, there were groups of women who sought to get representation as voting rights. The plight of the Black community and women in the nineteenth century was based on similar principles; both imprisoned by societal constructs formed by those who considered themselves superior. It was unfortunate at that time then, for an individual to be both Black and a woman. This woman was subjected to abuse, both emotional and physical, not only from the White masters but also, from her own people who would in many cases, take out their frustration and anger on the woman. Imagine then, the psyche of this individual, who has nowhere to turn, who cannot express herself in public or in the privacy of her home. It seemed natural for this woman to turn to God, a supreme power, who would make all the problems disappear. A power that made the woman so dependent, that she bore the abuse and rape silently, without any protest, harbouring the hope that God would make things better. The God-image however, was forced onto the Blacks. The bible that was preached to them spoke of a bearded White god with blue eyes who created the Black man only to serve and obey the White man. All memory of their native roots, culture and their own God had been lost because of the continuous oppression and displacement borne even by the generations before them. Religion and the fear of God have played an active role in solidifying societal hierarchy. It is because of this that many African American writers challenge the God-image and prompt individuals to reform their idea of God. When people stop fearing God, they start enjoying the creations of God. A world where you found God in the little things like the trees, birds and different colours represented an ideal world, free from rituals that classified individuals as superior or inferior and where one did not have to depend on a masculine figure to make miracles happen. In the book, ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, we see how Celie’s re-imagination of God gives her the courage to stand up for herself and become more confident about who she is. This transforms her as she stops being a passive figure, waiting for things to fall into place and instead starts taking charge of her own life.
It is observed that successful and strong women with loud and expressive personalities are most often those who are independent in thought, finance and behaviour. Taking examples from ‘The Color Purple’, Albert developed respect for Celie once he realised how he had taken her for granted. He had been married to her for years, unaware of how efficient she had been as a homemaker and mother. As long as Celie remained silent and submitted to all forms of abuse Albert subjected her to, she remained an object in his eyes, something unimportant, devoid of feeling as if invisible except for when he raped or abused her. When Celie stood up to him and eventually started a small business, he was forced to reconsider the preconceived notions he had formed regarding women. Throughout the book, we see how stigma associated with gender roles guide and shape the behaviour of a character. In society, gender roles are established by means of observation, taking into consideration which behaviours society will punish or reward. Harpo is the perfect example of this as he is not the typical male figure. He possesses traits that society considers feminine and attempts to prove his manhood by dominating and abusing his wife; unsuccessfully however because she is clearly much stronger than him, which is not traditionally a feminine characteristic. Harpo’s attempt to dominate his wife was because he had observed his father abuse Celie on several occasions and he believed that it was the expected thing to do. Traditional gender roles have been challenged by several African American female writers who emphasise individualism. In the end of ‘The Color Purple,’ we see a seemingly ideal world where the characters do not conform to the roles that are traditionally designated to their gender. Each character adopts behaviours that reflect their individual personalities which in most cases break away from the roles they were expected to perform.
Albert confesses that he enjoyed stitching but could not take it up as a profession because it was considered to be a feminine occupation. In the end, he joins Celie’s business and helps out by stitching shirts that match the pants made by her. Celie takes on the responsibility of her own business without any male authority figure. Sofia works as a saleswoman at Celie’s shop and attends to coloured people. Mary Agnes takes on the responsibility of being a single mother while also balancing her singing career, something that was considered almost impossible and unthinkable at the time. The roles in this ideal world are not restricted or defined by gender but are shaped by individual personality traits. Tannen in her essay, ‘There is No Unmarked Women’ talks about how commercialisation and societal notions tend to categorise and judge women regardless of what they do. Using the example of cosmetic products, she says that women have a myriad of products to choose from which makes each woman different and ‘marked’. However, the absence of makeup is seen by men as a ‘hostile rejection to please them’. Thus, women are never ‘unmarked’ as their actions or the lack of any are continuously being scrutinised. While this may be true in most cases, we cannot deny that men are also being scrutinised by social agents. Unlike women, the markers for men are not physical in nature but are determined by behavioural expectations. The society we live in does not allow men to express themselves and forces them to adopt behaviours considered ‘manly’. Often, we overlook the problems of men as they are not as visible as those of women. The gender roles in Alice Walker’s vision seem beneficial for an individual as men and women both, are free from societal restrictions in the ideal world. Both genders can undertake any activity they please without feeling any shame as to whether their family or friends would accept their choices. In the beginning of the book, Celie feels imprisoned because of her gender. She feels that she is stuck in an ‘ugly black body’ and even mentions that she feels like she is turning into a man when she sees Shug Avery’s naked body. In the ideal world, not only does Celie realise that her body does not define her capabilities; Walker also portrays how love is not restricted on the basis of gender. Alice Walker believes that loving an individual for who they are is more important than loving someone based on their gender. All characters accept Celie when she confesses that she prefers women and has no feelings for ‘frogs’, a term she coined for men.
In Walker’s vision, people are free to choose the life they want to live and the people they want to love which is independent of their gender. This world is beneficial in several aspects as importance is given to the individual and his/her thoughts, desires and belief system which is independent of but coexists with the society they are a part of. Each individual is accepted for who they are and even though some individuals had committed grave mistakes in the past, it was their actions that were viewed as bad and not their character. There is an understanding that an individual’s behaviour is a result of their environmental circumstances and upbringing but need not necessarily reflect their personality. Their behaviour may be a means of gaining acceptance from friends and family while their personality may have a different belief system. If such a world did exist, men and women would be free from conflict as there would be no differences in ego but a sense of respect for every individual. Societal structures would lose, to a great extent, their apparent superiority and people would not have to be conscious about meeting the expectations of the society. If such a world did exist, men could love other men and women could love other women without feeling outcast by society. An ideal world does not refer to a world where the wish of every individual is granted, but it is a place devoid of discrimination, oppression and stereotypes.
- Tannen, Deborah. ‘Sex, Lies and Conversations’ The Washington Post (1990)
- Tannen, Deborah. ‘There is No Unmarked Woman’ The New York Times Magazine (1993)
- Harris Trudier. ‘This Disease called Strength: Some Observations on the Compensating Construction of Black Female Character.’ (1995)
- Harris, Trudier. ‘Stereotypes, and Silence’ (1984)
- Abbandonato, Linda. ‘A View from ‘Elsewhere’: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the Heroine’s Story in The Color Purple’ (1991)
- Hurston, Zora Neale. ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (1937)
- Angelou, Maya. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ (1969)
- Walker, Alice. ‘Everyday Use’ (1973)
- Walker, Alice. ‘The Color Purple’ (1982)
- Douglass, Frederick. ‘What A Black Man Wants’ (1865)
- Morejon, Nancy. ‘Black Woman’ (2002)
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