The Color Purple by Alice Walker brings to light the types of oppression that women fight and, in addition, confronts this struggle within the politics and social dynamics of black society, family life, and slavery. In Walker’s novel, it is the different ways that Celie, Shug, Nettie, and Sofia are dominated by their male counterparts through psychological manipulation, physical aggression and violence, and sexual assault that starkly shows the opposing experiences of men and women. It creates a mirror for reality and illuminates many of the forms of oppression that transcend race. These types of domination become umbrellas for the different forms of oppresion that each character deals with throughout the course of the novel. Oppression in the form of sexism, racism, abuse, loneliness and isolation, body shame and sexual assault, denial of education, and using psychological manipulation to justify cruelty and violence. The Color Purple becomes a voice for the ways that racial discrimination compounds the harm of sexism when it takes place within a society that already denies your worth, and your humanity.
One form of domination faced by Celie is rape by both her stepfather and Mr. Albert. It is this continuous and repeated domination that leads to one form of her oppression which is self-loathing and a personal dislike of her own body. From this context, she does not explore her sexuality and does not believe that she deserves to experience sex as a tool of lovemaking. She is not allowed to be a sexual human being. It becomes a way for her to disappear and engage in self erasure because she aknowledges that “most of the time [I] pretend I’m not there”. Women in the US today experience erasure of identity from a hyper-sexualized society that sees us as sexual objects and commodities. The industry of porn, the sex trade and prostitution all create a culture that further pressure women to change and “fix” themselves in order to be appealing. The social pressures of women to be physically likeable are problematic because they largely arise from the sexual delusions, and hallucinations of men. Another reason they are problematic is that the equivalent social pressure on men does not exist. It is socially acceptable for a man to have a “beer belly” eventhough abdominal adiposity endangers his health and puts him at increased risk for a heart attack, but the minute that a woman is perceived as fat she is socially ridiculed and ostracized. On the other hand, men are encouraged socially to workout, and be muscular while women are told that muscularity is not feminine, that if they have a more muscular body they can’t, in a sense, be who they are. Society thinks they should maybe not work out as much.
The extent of this oppression transcends continents and cultures. For example, when Nettie writes to Celie from Africa of her time living with the Olinka, Nettie writes that “the Olinka people do not believe girls should be educated” (Walker, 155). A mother articulates this belief by saying, “A girl is nothing to herself, only to her husband can she become something” (Walker, 155), but it becomes clear that this woman is merely repeating the sexist indoctrination that she was taught growing up and that she believes about herself. Eventually, it is clear that when Nettie writes “the Olinka don’t believe girls should be educated” what she actually means is “the Olinka [men] don’t believe girls should be educated”. Furthermore, this is evidenced by the concept that the women appreciate and aknowledge the emotion and intimacy of love making and that they desire this connection, but that the men do not. This is the difference between the mentality of the oppressed and that of the oppressor. The oppressor takes and takes, and takes for granted that they are able to keep taking, but the oppressed are kept in a perpetual state of denial. A state where their desires are unaknowledged and unfulfilled in the belief that they are the reason for their own abuse and mistreatment. Celie says “Mr._ used to beat me because I wasn’t Shug”- which in essence places the blame on Celie for being unable to be anybody but who she is and that who she is isn’t wanted and isn’t good enough.
Forms of domination in Walker’s novel are distinct, but they are not separate. One form of domination assists the others in making it that much more difficult to escape, to learn different messages and habbits, and to become independent and empowered from the cycle of abuse. For example, psychological manipulation is another form of domination that Celie and the other women face throughout the novel from Celie’s belief that her sister has died and her belief that she exists alone. It turns out that this is a cruel form of psychological manipulation imposed on her by Mr. Albert through hiding the letters that Nettie writes to her. This serves to isolate her from the one person who expresses love and appreciation for Celie. Instead of addressing a physical person in her letters for example, Celie addresses them to God as if to say, “I am alone here on Earth, and there is no one that will listen to what I have to say.”
Celie is told by her stepfather, Mr. Albert and others that she is ugly and stupid repeatedly throughout the novel and these are insults that she has come to believe about herself, that affect her sense of self worth, and her behavior throughout the course of the story. On the one hand, the reader knows that Celie was raped and impregnated by her stepfather and is the victim of incest, but on the other hand, the reader feels the helplessness that Celie feels against her situation, when reading how the men not only subjugate them sexually, but also justify their cruelty by ruining a woman’s own belief that she deserve respect, dignity, and physical safety. All that is gone for these women who have been shown repeatedly by men, the people that society respects, do not respect them. The reader can see that Celie has been prevented from going to school to get an education, and has an insufficient amount of knowledge about her own anatomy, the history of women, black women, racism, and slavery to appreciate her own life until she is given that information by Nettie, who does love her, and then her situation, her self worth, and her empowerment begin to develop and change.
Women have always held an inferior position in the eyes of society, but within the context of Walker’s novel there are levels to the oppression of women. For example, white women in the novel participate in the oppression and racial subjugation of black women. Two completely different experiences of being women within the context of the common struggle against sexism because one was racially oppressed by the other and further marginalized. One distinct aspect of Walker’s novel, is how Celie, Shug, Sofia, and Nettie work together, and remain loyal to one another whereas the men are more out for themselves. Nettie talks about how the wives of an Olinka man form relationships and work together in a way that makes him nervous and uneasy (Walker, 166).
In relation to the struggle women face against sexism today, I want to touch upon the fact that racism has not gone anywhere. To live in a society that does not aknowledge the racial divide in favor of “racial blindness” is to be ignorant of the work that still needs to be done to fight racial oppression. The racial oppression of women of color is oppression of all women and affects the human rights and dignity of all women in a negative way. It preserves the ignorant idea that some women are superior to other women, and that some women are more deserving of human rights than other women. That is what racism does and it must end.
All women deserve the right to vote, to get an education, to have self determination and control over their own bodies and reproductive choices, the right to seek legal council and the access to do so, economic equality and opportunity, as well as freedom from violence psychologically, sexually, and physically at work, at home, as school, and in all public spaces.
Alice Walker’s book is a call to action because she makes it clear that many people have come to see history as something that happened and that cannot be changed. I reject this thinking. In our modern lives we have come to normalize violene and gender based oppression in movies, video games, relationships, our war based economy, and society that makes profit from causing the death of other people and the destruction of other countries, governments, and cultures around the world. This is an act against women’s rights because women are disproportionately affected by war. According to the UN, “women and girls suffer disproportionately during and after war” (UN, 2003) which means that in order to truly counteract the sexist narrative, we must be able to look at the broken system in our current culture and speak out against it. One of the ways that women and girls suffer more during times of war “is through sexual violence and exploitation” (UN, 2003) which has been seen in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Central and South America.
The military was and still remains a male-centric and male dominated part of US society. The military industrial complex feeds sexism and did not produce one female 4-star general until 2008 when Ann Elizabeth Dunwood became the first female four-star general in US history. The male dominated military industrial complex has come to be associate with “national security” not global terrorism and violence. In order to truly see how entrenched sexism is within modern US life it is important to confront the military industrial complex’ role in this perpetuated narrative. In recent years, there has been more exposure of the rampant sexual assault culture within the US military industrial complex and it is not surprising when you get a group of men who are trained to use violent methods to assert force and domination over another country, that these same men would use sexual violence and force against women.
In order to improve sexism and gender based violence against women, we must create a world in which men are not taught to control, dominate, and be aggressive toward women. We must stop equating these traits with what it means to be a man. We must create a world that tells women you can be genuine, honest, trustworthy, fiesty, determined, perseverent, creative, curious, compensated for the work you do, inquisitive, critical, analytical, kind, compassionate, diligent, resourceful, and responsibile as opposed to nice. Nice implies that in order to be nice you must first be likeable and in order to be likeable you must first think about the other person and what it is they like. In essence, it is a modern day form of self erasure. It doesn’t tell girls and women “just be yourself” or “you are good enough exactly as you are”. In essence, these are the same mental challenges that kept Celie oppressed and disempowered; her belief that she was ungly, unintelligent, not worthy of love and safety, a sexual being, and human- were imposed on her by men who had been told, in order to be a husband they must physical violate and beat women into submission, he must change her into someone who will simply obey his commands, and he must erase who she is as a part of humanity, in a sense he must spiritually murder her and keep her body around to use as a sexual object, punching bag, recepticle for verbal insults, and frustrations, a container for his own personal shame.
Feminism is the belief in gender equality, and in the fight for women’s rights as human rights.
In a broken system such as the one in the United State that diminishes democracy, that relies on war for profit, that pollutes and abuses Mother Earth, that denies climate change, that creates the largest income inequality in history, that insulates corporations with legal immunity, that has a mass incarceration issue, that privatizes the social good programs like healthcare and education and utilities that belong to people as rights, that treats human rights and privelages- it is women that face a disproportionate amount of oppression and suffering. It is the commonalities between the experience of women throughout history and those of today that make books like The Color Purple so important to the understanding of the damage and harm that comes from oppresion. It is books like The Color Purple that serve as reminders to women and men to continue to articulate what unites us, what oppresses us, and to use feminism as a tool to free ourselves and those we love from harm. Education, sisterhood, friendship, and space are the ways that Walker demonstrate Celie’s arch from a degraded victim to an empowered and independent survivor.
Jubair, Ahmed Karyosh. “Feministic Issues In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” International Journal of Advanced Research , vol. 6, no. 4, 28 Apr. 2018, pp. 1–7., https://www.journalijar.com/article/23015/feministic–issues-in-alice-walkers-the-colour-purple/.
UN Security Council. Women Suffer Disproportionately During and After War. 29 Oct. 2003, https://www.un.org/press/en/2003/sc7908.doc.htm.