Critical Response Essay on 'The Color Purple'

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My first introduction to Oprah the actor was in a clouded frame of a classic Spielberg movie, where she shook and trembled, as she wailed to her heart’s distraught. Oprah the actor got to me far before Spielberg the director. (Color Purple, Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1985). I wasn’t even cognizant of Spielberg the director. What my head however, couldn’t wrap around its periphery was the story- the story that starts quite abruptly for something that’s twistedly shocking, and by the time you are slowly digesting the significant pieces of information- you are introduced to characters who seem larger than life for a narrative which seems so wrought till now. Perhaps it was Walker’s genius, Oprah’s, or perhaps the honesty of the narrative. But from that day on, Color Purple got etched into the emotional toolbox of my mind.

Color Purple (Alice Walker, Color Purple, 1982) addresses a lot of things in a lot of ways, but each address gets its full space and recognition. Perhaps this is what makes the reader find his or her address. Concern. Voice. Walker, in a very lazy and warm manner, paints these issues upon the readers. And as a reader, we slowly get engulfed with her fluidity. She talks of race, and we nod along, understanding every word she writes, some words without even writing it in its existence- the color is always purple. Never explicitly black or brown. In this tale of strong, yet human black protagonists, another twist lies in the fact that both these protagonists are women. Walker whipped this tale at a time when Chimamanda Adichie-esque authors and characters were not the norm. When female characters rising above the torment handed out to them by the male protagonists and their tribulations wasn’t how black women in literature were imagined. When the women were either exalted heroes or broken trophies. And amidst all of these exceptions lay the greatest exception- the most shocking norm breaker- the central characters were lesbians. In a swift motion, any idea of individuals functioning within the framework of society was nullified, and the individual’s choices were magnified.

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In the post-Jim Crow era, texts like these were the breather that people of color were yearning for. The women were yearning for. Black women's subjugation stands at a three-tier crossroad, and in those crossroads are various other setbacks. It’s brilliant how warmly and compassionately Walker has treated this relationship, how finely she crafted the details without making it titillating or vulgar as opposed to various ideas of lesbian relations in the 80s. To show the emancipation of women through women, that too from the same women/women who exist in the margins is a brilliant nod of disapproval to the popular ideas of the white heroic character. And to do this whilst portraying these characters as lesbians is an even greater feat. One knocks down race, other the heterogeneity and patriarchy of the society. To treat this subject compassionately, while keeping its boldness intact is another mean feat. Why should two female characters who are lesbians be under such a great deal of scrutiny?

Women’s bodies have been a very myriad ground for both exerting and asserting power and dichotomy. Their body and their love, their lovemaking have all been filtered and funneled through the male gaze in popular culture, cinema, and literature. This translates to reality where the man’s notion of a woman’s love is what is considered to be appropriate through the male understanding. (Sharon V Goodin, Visions of Violet: Hollywood Images of Lesbians in The Color Purple and Boys on the Side.” Iowa State University Digital Repository, 1995) Cinema and visual medium lap us with these images time and again. This imagery in turn becomes a tool for the propagation of the same. Hence when the narrative is handed and mastered by a woman, about a woman, describing female relationships bodies, and intimacy it changes the perception, sorry, corrects the perception of what this body can do and how the female body feels and functions. Hence, a woman writing about a lesbian relationship becomes of paramount importance. Why color purple? To quote,

---' This association [between the color violet and lesbianism] goes back to 600 sc. to the poetry of Sappho, who wrote of the violet tiaras she and her lovers wore in their hair. The fairy Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, gathers a magic purple flower to change sexual inclinations, and men and women in sixteenth-century England wore violets to indicate they had no intentions of marrying. As pansies came to signify love between men, violets (related to pansies in the Viola family) came to refer more directly to love between women.' --Andrea Weiss, Vampires and Violets (1). (Sharon V Goodin, Visions of Violet: Hollywood Images of Lesbians in The Color Purple and Boys on the Side.” Iowa State University Digital Repository, 1995).

What you see in the name of the novel and consequently the story, are lesbian subtexts and symbols. Walker while preserving the subtext is also explicit in her description of the relation. Walker was bisexual. And openly so. Same-sex relationships have been frowned upon in the modernist past. More so in the times that have been marked by the influence of colonizers. However, even in this demarcation, it is the lesbian relationships that have been seen as even more morally corrupt since the patriarchal fabric of our dear bigoted society comes cracking down harder where there are women and agency and a subsequent strong voice present. When these two women of color, Shug and Celie engage in a relationship that is gay, without the two of them ever saying so, they are exerting an agency which Walker wants to pointedly show to us. This agency is their voice. Their relationship, this gay relationship is also what empowers them. Shug helps Celie discover herself. Love herself, by being loved by Shug. This same-sex relationship is also what brings Celie closer to her sexuality and this is with the help of a woman. Her sexuality which lay closed to her, which to her till then had just been a brute show of force. Celie found her surprising right to have sex and pleasure herself. Something, that for a very long time popular culture and media may have chosen to look away from until and unless it didn’t fit the box of perfect. A classic case of how this expression of urges and acceptance of the same has been clipped, right in the context of the story is the way Spielberg chose to portray the intimate side of Shug and Celie’s relationship in the movie. He reduced their entire chemistry to a single kiss. Years later, Spielberg apologized for the same. 'There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were very finely detailed in Alice's book, that I didn't feel we could get a [PG-13] rating,' Spielberg tells EW's Anthony Breznican. And I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie because I did soften those. I took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that.' “(Jeremy Kinser, Steven Spielberg Says He Softened Lesbian Sex in The Color Purple.” ADVOCATE, 5 Dec. 2011). Years later Spielberg is still criticised for this.

The question that pops up is what was so intimidating about the details of Walker’s story that Spielberg felt shy about portraying? A lot of movies in the 80s had bold scenes, “erotic” scenes some that exposed women in a greater manner. Then why did Walker’s female protagonist, unsettle our sensibility and Spielberg’s too? The answer lies in the question itself. The fact that they were two women onscreen and not a man making love to his woman is what unsettled our moral fabric. The fact that two women characters were charting the territory of sex and its sensibilities with consent, and not a man and woman, or a man commanding the scene is what made us sit up and realize that perhaps that’s what bold means. For these voices of margins from two kinds- one from women, the other from race, and lastly from lesbians, seen as unfavorably in the hierarchy of sexual order and a heterosexual world, to command consent and power at equal ease paints a promising but unseen picture of black gay women. The visibility of black gay women is missing in the mainstream. And this isn’t just the visibility of the names of the characters but their complete acceptance.

When we choose to desexualise the characters or look at them with minimal sexuality that too is taking away from their acceptance and visibility. The lesbian relationship in Color Purple, blooms post Celie’s traumatic sexual experiences with the men in her life, and hence here it is interesting to note how the same-sex relationship is both the savior and in a lot of ways the better alternative and in a very ironical manner the better moral force of intimacy. The relationship is also the emancipation of the characters. Lesbianism isn’t the only juncture of the book or narrative but it is an important one. One simply cannot reduce the tale to just human suffering. No. because it is also about human growth. One that is complimented by a woman’s complete acceptance of herself.

Lesbianism in the color purple is also tied to how well female bonding strengthens women. How the concept of sisterhood helps women grow along with each other. It also presented itself as another option, an option of sexuality and intimacy to women of color who didn’t know of the same, because the society’s hierarchy didn’t want to fit that bill.

It's been a long time since Color Purple and we are yet to see a work of literature so strong and so moving in the context of gay women of color. So fierce in its treatment of women and their bonds. So compassionate. We saw a Carol, in 2016, but a Color Purple, with its two black, young female protagonists, who are gay in their world, body, and mind are yet to traverse to our pages and screens again.

Until then, we soothe our conscience with Walker’s words.

Works Cited

    1. Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019.
    2. Color Purple, Directed by Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, 1985.
    3. Goodin, Sharon V. “Visions of Violet: Hollywood Images of Lesbians in The Color Purple and Boys on the Side.” Iowa State University Digital Repository, 1995.
    4. Kinser, Jeremy. “Steven Spielberg Says He Softened Lesbian Sex in The Color Purple.” ADVOCATE,, 5 Dec. 2011.
    5. White, Armond. “The Color Purple: Hollywood's Greatest Gay Film Turns 30.” OUT, Out Magazine, 2 May 2018.


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