Demanding a Loving Goddess: The Color Purple

I watched The Color Purple a couple times in the last few days although I watched it as a teen when it was released in 1985 it made me angry, really angry, as a radical feminist. Black women are doubly victimized in this movie. That double whammy is what got me thinking that I had to write.

I am really fucking angry for two reasons. The first is that third wave post-modern feminism would have me believe that I can’t talk about violence against black women because I’m appropriating their individual experience. Second, in this culture of fear of ‘appropriation’ it means that less women can talk about men’s violence against us. It essentially forces women to disconnect from each other.  It’s a side effect of the term ‘intersectionality.’

As a disabled, middle aged, Jew I’m told that I can’t possibly understand a poor, black, woman like Celie, the main character, when Walker’s entire crux of the book is about a world of chaos and disjointedness evolving into one of connectedness.

As one of my readers, a woman of colour, told me: we need more women to speak up against male violence done to us. Essentially she reminded me that while she is black and I am white, we’re BOTH women. The reassurance that I should address misogyny, whether it comes from a black or white man, was important.

celie and nettie being separated by mister

‘Mister’ violently banishing Nettie forever from her sister Celie

I wrote a scathing article about an misogynist man a bit ago, who happens to be black, who posts over on AVFM. I think that statement is critical: who happens to be black.

While writing that article I double and triple checked every word. I was walking on egg shells because I didn’t want to offend my black sisters or get called a racist in the sense that I was ‘co-opting’ experience. Honestly, I was more afraid of offending some 19 year old white 3rd wave feminist who just read about intersectionality in gender studies and was gonna come over here and give me problems. That’s the bitter truth.

The Color Purple features Celie and Nettie,  two young sisters with an incestuous father who impregnates Celie twice. Both Celie’s infants are adopted/sold off after they’re born leaving her heartbroken and without. The only person that loves Celie is her sister Nettie who is banished from seeing Celie by Celie’s new husband who they call ‘Mister.’ The title of ‘mister’ can be any man because all the men collude in patriarchy.

Throughout this movie black men emulate ‘successful’ white men by enslaving black women and children. Celie was sold off like a farm animal to a black man, not a white man, where she cooked, cleaned, mothered children not her own, and spread her legs dutifully all while being beaten. She’s was also forced to care for her husband’s girlfriend Shug Avery, a sultry singer, who comes to live with them.

celie and shug

Celie and Shug become close and have a lesbian encounter.

Shug is the antithesis of Celie. She’s the woman who decided to suck up to patriarchy by being a red-hot bar singer, tempting men with her skimpy red dresses and her shimmy shake. She gets the benefits of being a whore to all men, giving them what they want. Her father, a preacher, refuses to talk to her and we clearly see that Shug is desperate for male attention. She may have a freedom that Celie cannot conceive but even still she’s bound up in agony over a man.

Shug and Celie find common ground in their abuse by men. Celie comforts Shug and Shug reciprocates this love in a lesbian encounter that reaffirms the power of connected women.

‘Mister’s’ children are all cared for by Celie and they are just as bad as their father. In one scene where Mister yells at Celie to come give him a shave you see his only son Harpo swinging on a chair opposite. It’s a reminder even boy children are masters over grown women.

The movie doesn’t stray from the narrative of black man as patriarchal masters of women except one time. Sophie, Harpo’s adult wife, is at a gas station with her children while the mayor’s white wife is slobbering kisses on them and telling them how ‘clean’ they are. The mayor’s wife asks Sophie if she wants to be her maid and Sophie responds ‘heeellll no.’ The white mayor intervenes and Sophie clocks him in the head. The white people in the town circle Sophie poking and prodding her, calling her a nigger. When the Sheriff arrives Sophie screams for him to help her. She doesn’t realize he’s not on her side until he hits her in the head with the butt end of his gun.

Sophie gets 8 years in jail and when released is forced to be the Mayor’s wife’s maid.

Sophie eventually returns to live with Harpo and her children but she is broken, greyed and sits mumbling to herself. What’s interesting here is that Sophie wasn’t enslaved by her husband Harpo. They had a turbulent but loving marriage which resolves itself at the end. Walker wants us to remember that eventually a black woman will be enslaved and broken, whether by men in her own family or a white male stranger.

Celie gets her sister Nettie and her two children back from Africa where they lived with Missionaries. The reunion at the end of the movie is feminist candy. The women all move into Celie’s new home. Mister is stripped of his power.

The Color Purple is touted as a feminist movie. It’s never too late for a woman to wake up and while it’s heartbreaking to see so many years wasted on a man there is hope in your 40’s.

I sincerely hope that feminists, and radical feminists are the 4th wave as my regular reader V points out, can see that we have more things in common than not. This is not an attempt to steal black women’s experience but an attempt at correcting the unintended consequences caused by ‘intersectionality.’

There is no appropriation when we’re talking about woman hatred. It wears the same face in every patriarchal culture. My hope is that we start seeing women as a class again and not a mismatched collage of individuals who can’t frame male violence properly out of fear. Should we be afraid to name misogyny? Can we not be daughters of the same mother goddess?

When women, no matter the color, come together and bond we kick patriarchy in the teeth.

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9 thoughts on “Demanding a Loving Goddess: The Color Purple

  1. Hi! Long time lurker, first time commenter!

    It’s kind of funny to me that you should be worried about being accused of appropriation here. IIRC, Steven Speilberg was worried about the same thing when he was asked to direct the film!

    • The post modern feminist would have women surviving an individual man’s abuse happening to an individual woman. IOW, they don’t see misogyny as a woman-as-class issue. Framing it as individual issues and using the term ‘intersectionality’ makes women disjointed because the misogyny a black woman experiences is just an individual experience that no other woman can understand, simply because she’s black and the woman recognizing and wanting to join with her is not. I think it’s one of those concepts that needs to be ixnayed because it does more harm than good.

      • Ok, I see the problem, HMQ, but would like to hear more. All I know is a common-sense definition of the term and you can’t expect common sense where pomos are concerned. I thought it was something to do with allying, with marginalized groups coming together at certain points of common oppression and working together on those particular issues, while continuing to work separately and even conflict on other issues where there’s no intersection.

        So it works to fracture and separate a class like women into smaller weaker classes?

        BTW I have never been able to read A Color Purple, just take it in indirectly via reviews and comment. I can’t stand reading dramatic depictions of brutality and cruelty. Just reading your summary has kept me up all night, thinking about what in hell women can do. My thoughts are beginning to focus on the institution of sexual relationships where the couple separates from the rest of society, exposing the woman, as a root cause. Mostly we call that marriage, but cohabiting is more accurate.

        It’s very eerie. But I mentioned I’m attending a conference this weekend. Well, Alice Walker is a keynote speaker.

  2. I’ve never tried to read the book – in fact, violent imagery in books sticks in my mind and is often more traumatizing than seeing the same things portrayed in movies – but, I’ve seen the movie a few times and I’ve always found some of it very difficult to watch. The rape scenes are pretty bad, but the violent abuse and maiming of Sophie when she dares to stand up for herself – that’s the most difficult part for me.

    The other parts of the movie are really wonderful, though. The relationship of Shug and her father and her way of dealing with patriarchal oppression on all sides is something I can relate to very well. (When the movie, “Footloose,” first came out, I couldn’t watch it – years later, I can, and I really like it. But, I could relate far too well to the girl in that movies, Kevin Bacon’s girlfriend, whose father was a wacko preacher and the terrible repression in this town where everything happy and joyous is a sin before God Almighty. The Shug character is a lot like the preacher’s daughter in “Footloose.”)

    I’m tearing up just thinking about the ending, when the finally stick it to Mister and escape his clutches and Celie gets her children back. I definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to able to watch this movie.

    It, also, has things in common with “Season of the Witch,” except the male violence is less sustained. There’s the one disturbing incident – which IS all by itself disturbing – and that’s why I told you about how the actors did the scene. It’s important to remember that they really are just actors acting parts and no one was seriously hurt. The Color Purple is just so intensely real, the characters all seem drawn straight from real life. Because it is so well done, it’s hard to remember that it’s just a movie, just actors on a stage.

    Like V., says, we cannot leave the particular problems associated with being a non-white woman out of our discussion about feminism. Yet, women and girls – all women and girls – are one class. We are members of the largest underclass on earth. This is a common problem and it doesn’t matter what our oppressors look like or where they came from – they are all of one large class, MEN, with multiple sub-classes within a hierarchical structure.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I think race, overall, is far less of an obstacle to friendship and even very much closer personal relationships to women than it is to men – unless the women are heavily conditioned by the patriarchy. One reason for our ability to bridge race, nationality and other social gaps that men do not so easily bridge is that we ALL have a common experience of oppression as women.

    I can get together with women from here to the other side of the globe and when we talk about our lives, our personal struggles and the difficulties we have as women because of men, it’s all the same. We have this common ground. It’s why when I was working in the clubs, we all bonded with each other instantaneously.

  3. I forgot to say what a good analysis of this film you’ve done, HMQ. There are lots of messages about patriarchy and the hierarchy of oppression in this movie that I did not notice before. I haven’t seen it in a while – and now everything looks so different to me. I need to watch it, again, when I’m ready to really analyze it.

    One thing I remember that stands out to me at this moment is the scene where a guy is complaining about his uppity wife (maybe it’s Sophie he’s complaining about) and Celie, who is usually very quiet, says – still very timidly, “Beat her.”

    That sticks with me because it reminds me of my own complicity in the past, in my own state of ignorance, confusion and subjugation, in my own oppression. I feel ashamed about this – and I’m not a person who feels shame. That mechanism in me was broken a long time ago by men. But, I do feel ashamed for things like referring to other women as “bitches” in the past before I realized the gravity of doing so.

    I wonder how Celie felt when she was liberated from Mister and in the face of what happened to Sophie. Do you think she felt ashamed? I would say, yes. But, it wasn’t her fault. This is the order of things as she knew it. It’s what men did to her when she said, thought or did something they didn’t like. This is what enslavement by males in their violent system does to all of us. And, I think Celie should forgive herself. I don’t think she should forgive her oppressors. She should never forgive Mister. But, I think we all have to forgive ourselves for being instruments of our own oppression through ignorance.

    I guess that short line stands out to me so much because I can relate to it so well.

  4. Here’s a clip from after that scene – and it was, in fact, Harpo, Celie’s son. She is passing down patriarchal oppression – all she knows – to her own children. (Can I relate to this? Yes. Unintentionally, my mother did this to me. I have a couple of illustrative stories. She didn’t mean to do it. She thought she was telling me right because it’s what she knew.)

    In this clip, we see Sophie setting Celie straight. The acting in this film amazes me by the way. I think the first time I saw it I was just so totally blown away by Oprah and Whoopie that I couldn’t think of anything else. My favorite Whoopie role is the one where she plays a psychic in “Ghost”. She and her three sisters are what really *made* that movie. Contrast that comedic role to what you see in Celie’s eyes in the scene below: You see fear and maybe shame. And, who knew Oprah could act at all and then to see her deliver these lines so believably – to say what we, as women, feel about the dangers of living under the same roof with men, of having to fight every day of our lives – it still blows my mind all these years later.

  5. In the spirit of this post I’d like to recommend a beautiful and talented woman poet who is becoming well known in the U.S. Her name is Dominique Christina (http://www.dominiquechristina.com/) and I heard her at a conference this weekend. She recited two poems, one about the Birmingham bombing in which four little girls were killed, and the other about Emmett Till. I’m proud of women’s culture.

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