Women’s Empowerment: Their Eyes Were Watching God and Love Medicine
In the novels Their Eyes Were Watching God and Love Medicine, Hurston and Erdrich (respectively) use the characterization of the women to promote women’s empowerment and self-fulfillment. Lulu can be seen within Erdrich’s work as the stereotypical, “evil woman” who can’t find her proper place; however, through the writing devices presented by Erdrich, Lulu can also be seen as a symbol of female empowerment for her community. Somewhat like Erdrich, Hurston creates a powerful message within her characterization of Janey, which becomes the hope for a future generation of suppressed African-American women. Overall, these two authors paint a very striking picture of the power that these women possess, and of the barriers they must overcome to achieve true happiness.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie can be seen portrayed as a typical submissive African American woman. Janie is suppressed by the men within her life, who treat her as if she has no voice or opinion. This can be seen within all of her relationships including, her first marriage with Logan Killicks, an older man Janie’s grandmother forces her to marry. This can be seen as the very first barrier place in front of Janie at a very early age. As his wife she is forced to listen to this whims and wishes, but is not given the room that she personally needs to grow. Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, forces her into this cycle due to the experiences that she endured in life. Within the text it reads, “…Nanny was born into slavery and had little choice over her own destiny. Nanny has craved small comforts, like sitting idly on the porch, and wants her granddaughter to have them along with money and status, no matter what the emotional cost. What Nanny may not have considered is that Janie would have her own ideas of freedom… (Hurston).” Within this section of the text it is clear to see the extent of the barrier that Janie is facing. She not only has to overcome sexism, but also the results of racism, which influences the decisions her grandmother makes for her. It is also clear to see the damage done to Nanny by her oppressors, she craved those small comforts because she her physical needs (safety, shelter) were not being met.
On the other side of the coin we have Janie, whose needs are mostly emotional, and thus, Nanny cannot relate with her. Janie finds that her own self-fulfillment is being smothered by the men within her life, such as her second husband, Joe or Jodie Starks. Joe treats Janie as if she lives to worship him, and his “many” accomplishments. At one point he states that because he is a “big man”, she is a “big woman”; meaning that her only success can be achieved through her husband’s achievements (Hurston). Joe also refuses to let Janie express herself, and give opinions in public. This can be seen when Joe states, “… Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but muh wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s a woman and her place is in da home (Hurston).” Here the reader can see Joe literally refusing to let his wife speak her mind. This shows the dominance that Joe is trying to hold over Janie, who has now become his slave, so to speak, bound to his will.
Calling to mind the strong-willed Janie, Lulu within Erdrich’s Love Medicine also works against sexism and racism within her own story. Lulu, from the very beginning is portrayed by the novel to be a unsavory woman on the surface. She is seen in her younger days to be a troublesome Indian girl at the boarding school, where she is abused for her cultural heritage and tennacedey. She grew into a woman who was not afraid to seek what she wanted and be who she wanted. Lulu pursued whomever she wanted because she understood the vaule in love and companionship. This can be seen in the line which reads, “… No one ever understood my wild and secret ways. They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that’s not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms (Erdrich).” Lulu was truly free, though she faced barriers placed on her by society, she decided not to live by those rules. This is were Lulu and Janie differ in their barriers. Lulu is restrained by the moral standards of society, wheres Janie is held back by the men within her life; though both women do have a voice that is trying to be snuffed out. Janie’s barrier is a bit harder to overcome because she loves these (most) men, and is willing to deal with more before she breaks. Lulu is generally only held by those within her community who slander her for her personal choices, which she is able to overcome.
Lulu proves to be a very strong and determined woman with Erdrich’s, Love Medicine. She is able to overcome her struggles by staying steadfast to her beliefs and personal goals in life. The main attribute that Lulu possess is that she desires to be happy, very simply put. Her happiness outweighs any stereotype or constraint that can be placed on her, and thus, she overcomes these obstacles. One example of this can be seen in the proud manner in which she addresses her community about the slander she faces. She responds to her community by saying, “…I’ll name all of them…The fathers…I’ll point them out for you right here (Erdrich).” By addressing this matter is such a cool and collected way showed her self pride and awareness. Lulu is able to admit the mistakes she has made, however she refuses to let them tear her down. This refusal to back down can also be seen when Lulu states, “ And so when they tell you that I was heartless, a shameless man-chaser, don’t ever forget this: I loved what I saw. And yes, it is true that I’ve done all the things they say. That’s not what gets them. What aggravates them is I’ve never shed one solitary tear. I’m not sorry. That’s unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry (Erdrich).” Within this quote Lulu’s power and self pride can be seen in her unwillingness to bow to female stereotypes. Lulu sought out love and happiness and often found it in the wrong places, however, she never regretted anything because she loved so whole heartedly. Lulu can almost be seen as this aphrodite figure who promotes love and the beauty within life. She refuses to be seen as a monster, an “evil woman”, someone who is void of compassion, because in truth Lulu hold immense capacities for love, compassion, and overall empathy.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Janie overcomes her struggles in very different ways. For Janie her battles are all internal, she struggles with finding her own voice and path in life aside from her husbends. During each of her marriages, Janie struggles to stay afloat, and often drowns in the needs and wants of her men. However, with each obstacle she faces (the men in her life) she is able to evaluate who she is and what she wants. This is the first step she takes in overcoming her personal boundaries which can be seen within the text which reads, “…Janie soon began to feel the impact of awe and envy against her sensibilities. The wife of the mayor was not just another woman as she had supposed. She slept with authority and so she was part of it in the town mind. She couldn’t get but so close to most of them in spirit (Hurston).” From this section Janie can be seen starting to reevaluate her life and the position she plays within it. She understands that she is messing something, which is the first step that anyone can take on the path to fulfillment. Her next step was realizing that she didn’t want to be just, “another woman’, she wanted to be heard and seen as her own person. She now understands that she must grow individually in order to be fully satisfied in her life. However, unlike Lulu, Janie struggles to reach this goal of individualism and self awareness. Only after the death of her third husband, Tea Cake, is Janie able to begin finding herself. It seems that men have held her back for much of her life, and that she has let them do so, to some extent. The death of Tea Cake is almost like divine intervention because she is now able to guiltlessly pursue her own self interest and achievement; which she could not do before because of her blind love towards Tea Cake. She finds peace with her lost lover and peace with herself it seems as the text reads, “…The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a giant fish net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see (Hurston).” Here we can see that Janie has overcome her life struggle and has found peace and acceptance for herself. She is also able to peacefully recount Tea Cake, and remember the great love that they shared, rather than the hard times she faced. This shows extreme growth and power for Janie because she is able to forgive and forget, so to speak. In the end, Janie is able to see the good within the world which can be seen in, “..So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see (Hurston).” From this line, Janie can be seen totally at peace with herself and fully satisfied emotionally, which was what she always strived for.
Both Janie and Lulu are able to overcome their struggles and find peace for themselves and their spirituality. Janie is able to call to her soul to witness the beauty in the world, much like Lulu does. They can also be seen as leaders within their community as they strive for more than what is expected of them by men and society. This unwillingness to back down and be quiet can be seen as leading by example, meaning that like Esperanza in Cisneros’s, House on Mango Street, these woman can make a huge impact on the lives of other women in their communities. Overall, both Janie and Lulu strive to find their own voice and place in the world. Their unwillingness to blend into the stereotype of the submissive woman makes them prominent figures in women’s empowerment. In the end, both Lulu and Janie are able to find peace and self-fulfillment even in spite of the constraints placed upon them.
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