Female Identity and Empowerment: Gender Roles and Relationships in The Color Purple

The Color Purple is a 1982 novel written by Alice Walker. Just one year later, the novel achieved a Pulitzer Prize for fiction (PBS). By 1985, The Color Purple debuted as a motion picture and hit the American box office. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the film introduces the world to Ceilie. She is Black, 14 years old, and living in early 1914 Georgia. Throughout the movie we learn more about Ceilie as we watch her grow, from a sad, depressed, and oppressed little girl into an empowered and independent woman. Throughout the film the audience connects with Celie on an intimate level.  This involves rape, domestic violence, racial and gender oppression. All the while, the audience is drawn by the complex view into the life and world of Black culture and the dynamics of gender just a few decades after slavery. By exploring Celie’s relationships with the women around her, Celie overcomes victimization through empowerment, sexuality, and self-discovery.

Celie is the main character and the protagonist. Furthermore, she is “doubly oppressed, that is to be subordinated as a woman and as a colonial object”, (Lundin 1). This can be seen within the first few minutes of the film. The audience is introduced to her, as she speaks her secrets to God. She is only 14 and she is being raped by her father, giving birth to two of his children. “A baby boy called ‘Adam’, he took while I was sleeping, the other one a baby girl, he took right out my arms”, (The Color Purple). Celie continues to lead a solemn and heart breaking life. Her mother dies, she is forced to marry a stranger, and eventually stripped away from the only person who loved her, a sister named Nettie. Once married, Celie is sexually molested and beaten by her husband, she calls Mr.__ (Mister).  In this way, Celie faces constant oppression, violence, and exploitation by all of the men in her life. Her first male figure took advantage of her sexually and her husband is physically violent and controlling. Both men humiliated her and are emotionally abusive. Her father and husband both describe her using harsh words such as, “ugly”, “fat”, “dumb”, “spoiled”, “poor”, and “stupid” (The Color Purple). As a result, she is forced to be subservient and submissive to her male oppressors. Scholars describe Celies experiences as, “male bullying and domination” and an “invisible woman, a character traditionally silenced” (Sedehi, Talif, wan Yahya, & Kaur 1328). Further oppressed by her domestic work and duties to cook, clean, and raise the children, she represents the condition of Black women in 1920’s America. This includes submissiveness, the life of servitude and domestication. This is observed when Celie states, “I don’t know how to fight, all I know how to do is stay alive” (The Color Purple). However, through the relationships she develops with the women around her she is able to grow into an independent and empowered woman.

When the audience meets Celie, she is suffering from depression, victimization, low self-esteem, sexism, and an identity crisis. Despite this, she is able to develop loving and empowering relationships with the women around her. These include her sister Nettie, daughter-in-law Sofia, and her husband’s mistress- Miss Shug Avery. The audience is introduced to Nettie first. From the beginning Nettie was by her sister’s side. “Contrary to her sister Nettie, who is brave and strong, Celie has always viewed herself as an ugly and weak woman and this idea is often confirmed by her father” (de Boer 18). Nettie takes the first step to empower Celie by teaching her how to read. Through reading Celie is able to learn, grow, and find a voice for herself through the use of language.

Just as importantly, Nettie is the first person to encourage Celie to stand up for herself. Nettie is able to dodge sexual abuse from their father and also from Celie’s husband Mister. “[Celie’s] inner strength is also indicated by three actions… a diversion so that Pa will not abuse her sister Nettie; her desire to take Nettie and run away; and the clandestine learning sessions with Nettie”, (Smith 8). When Nettie is forced to escape harassment from her father, she goes to live with Celie and Mister. During this time, Celie and Nettie make a game of their reading lessons. Nettie labels all the objects around the house and encourages Celie to read them. By reading and learning, Nettie is the first to give Celie the empowerment she needs to grow. It is Nettie’s strength, courage, and self-confidence that ultimately separates the sisters for decades to come. This shows Celie that no one has to take or accept abuse. Although this strength and empowerment saves Nettie from victimization, it also teaches Celie a lesson about liberation and independence of female identity.

Celie also learns empowerment from other female relationships. This includes the confidence found in the character Sofia. Sofia is the wife of Mister’s son Harpo. Sofia and Celie are close in age, however Sofia is considered deviant and wildly independent. She represents power and aggression. As a result, “it is Sofia… who sets Celie firmly on the path of building”, (Smith 9). While Sofia and Harpo are still dating Sofia ends up pregnant forcing Sofia and Harpo to marry. Although the arrangement began with wedded bliss, the relationship soon turns soar. This is because Harpo is unable to tame Sofia. Sofia does what she wants as she wants. She refuses to fall to the subservient and submissive role placed on Black female identity. Sofia does not cook for Harpo every night. She abandons her chores to take care of the children. She represents everything that Celie is not. So, when Harpo complains to Celie about Sofia’s behavior, Celie advises Harpo to “beat her” (The Color Purple).

With the advice of Mister and Celie, Harpo starts to beat Sofia. However, Sofia always fights back and does not stand down to Harpo. She becomes angry with Celie, because Sofia knows that Celie told Harpo to beat her. While in the fields, Sofia approaches Celie stating: “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy, I had to fight my brothers, I had to fight my uncles- a girl-child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. I love Harpo, God knows I do but I’ll kill him dead if I let him beat me” (The Color Purple). Through this acknowledgement, Celie learns about the empowerment of women and gender identity. Sofia represents the confidence and aggressiveness that Celie wants within herself. Sofia fights Harpo back and refuses to live the life of oppression and submission. Like Nettie, Celie witnesses Sofia leave Harpo for the sake of inner peace, power, and happiness. Sofia is a dominate woman who is aware of her self-worth and value. As a result, “Sofia is the first women to model active resistance in a way that captures Celie’s attention. Sofia possess a physical presence… also a strong inner resolve” (Smith 9).

Both Nettie and Sofia play a significant role in Celie’s life. They introduce her to empowerment, assertiveness, and independence. They are not game to the gender roles placed on them, assumptions, and expectations. These women make decisions for themselves, without the influence of male dominance like power and control. The women provide guidance and a path of liberation. However, it is Shug Avery that teaches Celie to be empowered by her sexuality and sexual identity. “Shug plays many roles in the film -lover-sister-teacher-confidante” (de Boer 24). Shug Avery is Mister’s mistress and represents sexualization, promiscuity, and sexual stereotypes placed on women. She is an entertainer and singer who finds power through her sexual identity. For this reason, Celie is captivated by her. At first, Celie only knows Shug as, “the woman in the pictures” (The Color Purple). In these pictures Shug is wearing scant clothing and posing provocatively. When Shug falls ill and comes to the house, Celie goes out of her way to ensure that Shug is comfortable. Celie cooks and cleans for Shug but remains in the shadows. When they finally meet, Celie approaches Shug while she is taking a bath and begins to brush her hair. The encounter becomes intimate as Shug reveals her hardships and the two become fast friends.

With his mistress around, Mister is much nicer to Celie. Mister has Shug to take care of his sexual needs. He even allows Celie to go to the juke-joint with him to watch Shug sing. At the juke-joint Celie is introduced to a whole new life. She observes blunt sexuality and identity, enjoyment of self-expression, and a new social atmosphere. After a night of drinking at the junk-joint Shug talks to Celie about sex. During these conversations Shug slowly begins to sexually empower her. “Shug realizes that Celie does not have any sexual feelings when she sleeps with Mister. Moreover, she perceives that Celie does not know her own body; therefor, Shug decides to make Celie familiar with her body”, (Sedehi, Talif, wan Yahya, & Kaur 1328). During the sexual encounter Shug teachers her how to pleasure herself and be pleasured. Shug tells Celie to look at her vagina in the mirror. This encourages her to learn about her sexual identity through self-exploration. Celie learns that sex is not associated with violation and submission. Sex also includes power and self-discovery. This self-discovery is what eventually leads Celie to self-transformation. “The two create a connection used in physical pleasure that enables Celie to reclaim many of the feminine love relationships that Alphonso [Pa] and Mr.___ denied her” (Bealer 32).

Most importantly, Celie is able to enter a path to reclaim herself and her identity. This only occurred with access to a network of support from women through female relationships. With each relationship Celie was empowered through the individual. First Celie was taught the will to fight against her oppressors by her sister Nettie. Once Nettie left, Sofia empowered Celie with aggressiveness and self-value. When Sofia left Harpo, Celie clung to Shug who taught her sexual identity and sexual empowerment. All of these relationships happened in isolation of each other. However, when Celie has access to two or all three of these resources of support, Celie develops the courage, value, and independence. Towards the end of the movie, Shug find’s a letter from Nettie. This letter changed Celie forever, pushing her towards her self-discovery. This is because, “the novel conceptually affirms the power of erotic pleasure to enable loving relationships by making Celie’s emotional reconnection with Nettie… textually dependent upon her reclamation of her sexuality”, (Bealer 34). This suggests that Celie reestablished her relationship with her sister only because of Celie’s sexual relationship with Shug. However, it can also be argued that Celie was empowered by having a relationship with Shug and Nettie simultaneously. This can be seen as womanly love or familial love. Researchers cite that, “familial love in the novel as so powerful that… it enables Celie to boldly resist and ultimately defy the unholy trinity of masculine domination that has subjugated her”, (Bealer 36). When this happens, Celie have both Nettie and Shug available for a resource of support. Nettie began to revitalize Celie with a new cultural identity and a relationship with Africa. Nettie’s letters, further empowered Celie to leave Mister. It encourages her to redefine herself and her role as a sister, a mother, a lover, and a friend.

Having establishing a new relationship with her sister, Celie is able to build on what she has learned from Sophia and Shug. Celie learns that Nettie is alive and she has Celie’s children. Reading the letters Celie is reconnected with Nettie, her most important and significant female relationship. Nettie is her biological sister which signifies the female relationships of loyalty, commitment, and friendship. With Shug’s help, Celie is able to redirect her submissive resolve from rage, to calm. Shug saves both Celie and Mister when Celie tries to kill Mister with a razor.  “Shug literally and figuratively takes the razor out of Celies hand and… replaces the razor with a sewing needle”, (Smith 11). This not only helps Celie to redirect her anger but also gives her the independence she needs to leave Mister. While this happens, Sofia reenter’s the picture. Except for now her aggressive attitude has turned passive. Sofia’s wild and independent spirit was beat out of her by the Mayor, his wife, and the town Sherriff. Where Sofia is weak Celie is strong. Celie shows Sofia compassion. Celie is able to uplift and empower Sofia through her oppression of becoming a house servant. Scholars suggest this as well, “besides Nettie and Shug, Sophia also plays an important role in the composition; she has always been a strong and brave woman… now she is fragile and sick”, (de Boer 20) However, when Celie, Shug, Sofia and the secret of Nettie’s letters are in the same room, Celie is overcome with independence, power, maturity, and growth.

All the important women in Celie’s life appear together in one room for Easter dinner. Sophia now represents Celie’s former self. She is suffering, sad, and sick. Celie shows love and compassion for Sophia where others do not. Celie identifies with Sophia’s experience with violence. As a result, Celie takes on Sophia’s previous persona of strength and power. With Sofia across from her and Shug next to her Celie gathers the strength to say she is leaving. Celie reveals what she knows about the letters. However, when Mister begins to put her down with insults and verbal abuse she snaps. “She threatens him with a beating from the combined physical for of Nettie and her restored child; Celie has finally acquired the strength, confidence, and support she needs to treaten Mr.___ with the beating Sofia recommended during their conversations about his abuse”, (Beasler 36). By acknowledging the abuse observed by both Celie and Sophia, this suggests that Sophia’s circumstances further encourage Celie to leave and live. With friends to offer emotional and physical support, Celie is empowered. They are present when she faces her oppressor. She threatens him, curses him, and then internalizes the verbal abuse into something positive. In this way, “the women Celie gathers around her enable her to value herself as a person worthy of happiness, facilitate knowledge of her past and present biological famiy and give her material and emotional support to leave Mr.___” (Beasley 37).



 Works Cited

  1. Bealer, Tracy. “Making Hurston’s Heroine Her Own: Love and Womanist Resistance in the Color Purple.” Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Ed. Kheven LeGrone and Michael Meyer. New York: Rodopi B.V, 2009. 23-42. Retrieved from: https://imperfectmusings.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/the-colour-purple.pdf
  1. De Boer, Raphael. “Representations of Women in the Movies the Color Purple and Monster: Questions about Sexuality and Identity.” Literature of English Language; Thesis Dissertation. University Federal De Santa Catarina Para, 1 Mar. 2008. Web Retrieved from: https://repositorio.ufsc.br/bitstream/handle/123456789/91365/252768.pdf?sequence=1
  1. Lundin, Inglea. “Double Oppression in the Color Purple and Wide Sargasso Sea. A Comparison between the Main Characters Celie and Antionette/Bertha.” Humanities and Social Sciences English Literature. Gavle University College, 2008. Web. <http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:228950/FULLTEXT01.pdf&gt;.
  1. Sedehi, Kamelia, Rosli Talif, Wan Roselezam Wan Yahya, and Hardev Kaur. “The Color Purple and Women’s Time.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research 5.6 (2014): 1328-333. Web. <http://ojs.academypublisher.com/index.php/jltr/article/viewFile/jltr050613281333/10255&gt;
  1. Smith, Brenda. “We Need a Hero: African American Female Bidungsromane and Celie’s Journey to Heroic Female Selfhood in Alice Walker’s the Color Purple.” Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Ed. Kheven LeGrone and Michael Meyer. New York: Rodopi B.V, 2009. 3-22. Print. Retrieved from: https://imperfectmusings.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/the-colour-purple.pdf

About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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