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Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple: a Disruption to The Traditional Roles Of Different Genders

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Severing Traditional Gender Roles

The status and portrayal of women have drastically fluctuated throughout the history of cinema. Women have experienced social repression within society, the cementation of domestication, a striking empowerment of sexual prowess and allure, and the gradual equality of gender roles portrayed in films today. The widely celebrated film, The Color Purple, is set within 1910-1940. The early 1900s were arduous times for any American citizen enduring the ramifications of World War 1. African Americans, distinctly women, experienced even more strain from the arrogance perpetrated by the White upper class. The orthodox gender roles cemented women to a docile and submissive stature, serving involuntarily as the maid, chef, and “mammy” of the husbands’ household. Men personified the qualities of complete supremacy and hegemony, while inflicting physical and mental abuse onto these women. The Color Purple utilizes individual characteristics to challenge, refute, and liberate the concrete behavior and expectations of both men and women.

Specific traits and ideologies account for the depiction of hegemonic masculinity. “The meanings of emotional detachment, competitiveness, and sexual objectification all were understood and behaviorally followed. Hegemonic masculinity was maintained despite individual departures from the norm, as individual departures were suppressed in homosocial settings.” (Bird, 135) The director of The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg, personifies these qualities through Sofia rather than her husband. Women, especially those deviating from the prominent caucasian race, were restricted to a status of complete household capitulation in the early 1900s. Other family units within the film, such as Celie and Pa, and Celie and Mister, enforce the ideal of women living involuntarily under masculine control. The opening scenes consist of Pa raping his young daughter, then ruthlessly abducting her newborn child out of her arms. Celie’s unwilling toleration for her inhumane treatment enforces the strength and support resting behind the hegemonic ideology from an extremely early viewpoint. As she represents the female society as a whole, her inability to speak out or seek support would have been completely rejected by the norms of the early 1900s, so she is forced to confide within only Nettie. Celie and multiple other young women are distinguished as palpable objects, being bargained and sold into a subdivision of slavery serving solely to please their husbands, relying on a system of unequal hegemony. “… the conditions are necessary, in a given society, for the achievement and consolidation of rule. He argued that hegemony was always constituted by a combination of coercion and consent.” (Gramsci, 170) Sofia not only eludes these circumstances with forceful leadership, but enforces household expectations of her own with her quick wit, forthright forte, and fortitude. While browsing the market downtown, Sofia is approached by the Mayors wife. When she is asked and expected upon request to serve as her house maid, she retaliates with a striking “Oh hell no!” Due to her backlash, the Mayor enforces power by slapping her face and having her arrested. As a massive crowd begins to swarm and attack Sofia and her children, she never breaks spirit or caves into conformity. She stands by her moral intuition, and 9 years in jail won’t cause her to oblige as the Mayors wife’s maid without a fight. In this scene, Sofia doesn’t frankly present the defined aggressive acts of manhood, but strays from the conventional response and poise of a lower class, African American woman-especially when confronted by a character of a much higher social status, power, and race. Juxtaposing the conventional social and physical attributions associated with masculinity, Sofia retaliates with force and destruction when Harpo attempts to gain control through abuse. She encounters Celie after the brawl, explaining how her shattered background acquired her the immense courage and strength she exhibits. Harpo is visualized with a vibrant black eye, distinguishably broken nose, and a cut and inflamed lip. Her status and powerful potential deviates from the fearful yet obedient women within The Color Purple, and acts as a combatting foil to the character of Celie. While Harpo’s broken physique alone drastically lowers his status as the hegemonic ruling master, Sofia is empowered with pure strength and intensity, challenging the stereotypical roles associated with the seemingly inferior gender.

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Multiple characteristics of obedience coincide with the conventional status of women, and any features highlighting the allure of femininity are strictly rejected. Sexuality, lust, and desire are not only looked down upon in a time of laborious service, but are utilized and animated in a patriarchal society through Shug Avery. Acting as a version of the classic femme fatale, Shug captures the enchantment of Mister through her voice and beauty, and drives his eventual downfall. She twists the gender roles herself, positioning him in Celie’s status of work as she manipulates and maintains complete control. Mister is originally portrayed as a rigid figure of dominance and never breaks character, until Shug’s abrupt arrival. He is repeatedly cruel and demanding to Celie, while solidifying his apparent views and opinions towards all women; their purpose being to serve the pleasure of men at any and all costs. Mister immediately falls into Shug’s grandeur and elegance, unconsciously fulfilling her every whim. She is one of the only women occupying a status outside of the realm of service, and exercises her rights and freedom to a full extent through Mister. He stumbles miserably through the kitchen in a sad attempt to fix her a meal, burning and cutting his hands on every household utility item. He brings her a burnt disaster of a breakfast, which she catapults onto the walls with disgust. When Shug retaliates with such power and force over a minuscule meal, Mister emits fear and shame for the first time, contrasting his devout dominating figure of the commanding male. Shug is also notorious for seducing the male dominated audience of Harpo’s Juke Joint with her glamour and opulent voice. Physically, she excels Celie and other women on a level of wealth and fashion. Shug is dressed in lavish jewels, high heeled shoes, vibrant makeup, and elegant peacock feathers. Compared to the ragged trends of standard housemaids, her glamour elicits a legitimate statement of burlesque and prestige. Within a crowd of drunken, rowdy men, she steals the spotlight with her sexy physique, driving this unusual yet irresistible form of attraction. Her universal attraction causes Mister’s lust and crave to escalate even more, ensuring her dominance on a much deeper scale. Shug Avery flaunts her assets to a society of male supremacy, while carefully employing them to her advantage, challenging and shaping the mold of femininity.

The drastically morphed gender roles of women compliment the unconventional qualities displayed through Harpo. Masculinity is defined as “…a set of conventional signifying practices through which the identity ‘man’ is established and upheld in interaction.” (Schrock, Schwalbe, 109) Harpo is labeled as eccentric, domestic, and feminine; juxtaposing the authoritative status as the supreme husband and father. Upon the first meeting of Sofia and Mister, Harpo remains completely compliant to Sofia’s confident demands. She is pictured as both physically and mentally resilient, towering far over Harpo’s meek physique. When Mister snaps a strict order at Harpo to stay put and to not walk her out, Sofia challenges his authority with “Harpo you’d better get over here right now!” He becomes stuck between the two clashing forces, residing and shaking in place. A conventional woman of the time, let alone a woman hoping to be married into the family, wouldn’t dare to dispute the firm orders of a man, regardless of any circumstance. Her extremely blatant first impression showcases her austere confidence and groundbreaking durability. While Sofia voluntarily endures physical labor to maintain their farm and juke joint, Harpo enjoys and prefers to cook meals, clean the house, and look after their children. All other male characters embody the position of domination, and strictly follow the ideal that domestic features and actions are reserved specifically to women. Because he has experienced and been taught this ideology since childhood, his marriage with Sofia and relationships within the community suffer. Sofia never allows her emotions to gain control or to be seen as vulnerably weak. In opposition, Harpo passionately confesses his feelings, affection, and love for her to Celie, vividly depicting his feminine stance within the film.

The Color Purple breaks the solidified boundaries of gender on multiple levels. Spielberg brilliantly empowers manhood acts through a strong and resilient woman, challenging the status and position of the dominating household figure. The ideology of feminine sexuality and allure being perceived as intolerable and unacceptable is not only brightly disputed by the act and persona of Shug Avery, but is manipulated to her advantage in a patriarchal society. Harpo exemplifies his eccentric and feminine qualities, straying from the traditional masculine role, yet maintains an extremely satisfying and enjoyable life. Spielberg steps over the dividing line of male and female, masculinity and femininity, to address the age old refute while tying in references that can still be widely viewed in everyday life. The Color Purple presents a realm of identities and ideologies within the concept of gender to explore, offering a unique view to the ambiguous principle.


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