Kimberlé Crenshaw's Concept of Intersectionality in The Color Purple

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In this essay, I will attempt to conceptualize Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectionality and apply it to the Walker text, The Color Purple (1982). Employing my intersectional (Crenshaw, 1991) analysis, I will attempt to convey a textual representation of gender and sexual orientation through lesbian or bisexual women as linked to and interconnected to other forms of identity such as age, race, ethnicity and class. Firstly, I will conceptualize Crenshaw’s (1991) concept of intersectionality. Secondly, I will apply this conceptualization to Celie and Shug’s complex relationship in The Color Purple. Thirdly, I will apply Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectionality to Celie’s history of sexual abuse as an influence in shaping her gender and sexual orientation.

The term intersectionality was introduced by Crenshaw (1991) in her article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. It is rooted in critical feminist race theory and emphasizes the significance of different or various aspects of an individual’s identity such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class and nationality that interact, influence and interconnect with each other in a fluid fashion (Vrolijk, 2014). For the purpose of this essay, I will be focusing on the intersections (Crenshaw, 1991) between race, sexual orientation and gender as portrayed by Celie’s identity in The Color Purple. Furthermore, in application of Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) it becomes apparent that ‘gender’ is not a category of identity, but it is constructed in relation to other components of an individual’s identity (Vrolijk,2014).

In her article, Crenshaw (1991) argues that the interconnectedness between components of identities is often disregarded, even in feminist theory: “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices” (Crenshaw, 1991, pp.1241). The article core message is to cultivate an understanding that women of colour are subject to and suffer from continuous and multiple oppressions, because they are considered a minority (in the United States of America) in terms of race, gender and ethnicity: “The narratives of gender are based on the experience of white, middle-class women, and the narratives of race are based on the experience of Black men” (Crenshaw, 1991, pp.1271). This narrative can also be applied to non-heterosexual women and other aspects of their identity such as ethnicity and race; where a lesbian or bisexual woman will undeniably be influenced by her racial, and ethnic aspect of her identity (Vrolijk,2014). In this essay, intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) will be used as a tool to critically analyse the characters portrayed and to be able to understand and convey the diverse experiences of lesbian and bisexual women as interconnected to other aspects of their identity.

In Walker’s (1982) novel, The Color Purple, the two most important ‘functions’ of Shug’s character, in the novel is intersecting (Crenshaw, 1991) roles of gender, race and sexuality in Celie. To give her the tools to be able to question, critique and revolt against the oppressive social constructions imposed on her identity. Throughout the novel, various characters challenge the boundaries of conventional and patriarchal gender roles. This is specifically reflected by the identities and characteristics of the female characters that includes Shug’s sexual freedom and assertiveness and Sofia’s strength, that is patriarchally associated with and compared to masculinity. This depiction of blurred gender roles and traits also involves the sexual ambiguity and a rejection of the heterosexual binary, through the sexual relationship that develops between Celie and Shug.

The character of Shug is complex, as she fulfils the roles of Celie’s lover, friend, mother, confidant, sister and mentor. Shug’s various roles in making her a dynamic character who exerts her agency through moving to different cities, engaging in trysts, and occupying late-night blues clubs. Regardless of her unpredictable, nomadic nature and continual shifting roles, Shug stays Celie’s closest and constant companion throughout the course of the novel. Although Shug is the most positive and supportive character, specifically in her relationship with Celie, the novel’s first impression of Shug is negative. Initially, she is framed as a woman of loose morals and she has a reputation of dressing scantily and inappropriately, furthermore, because of her sexual convictions and conquests, she has a sexually transmitted disease. In contrast to how Shug is framed, Celie immediately admires her and her glamorous appearance. Through the image of Shug, Celie is reminded of her mother, Celie compares Shug to her mother throughout the novel. But, unlike Celie’s biological mother, who was oppressed by patriarchal gender roles and a racist society, Shug rejects gender roles and patriarchal domination of her gender and her race, she refuses to be dominated by anyone. Consequently, Shug’s confident demeanour, sexuality and resistance of male domination cause her to be labelled a promiscuous woman. Throughout the novel, Walker (1982) emphasizes that gender and sexuality are more complex constructions than conventionally made out to be. Her novel, The Color Purple, challenges this conventional simplification of gender by subverting and defying traditional gender roles and ‘normative sexual orientation’. It is apparent that Shug’s identity is formed through her various experiences and interactions with others, instead of subjecting herself to others’ perception and the imposition of an identity upon her. Through Shug’s maternal and romantic influence, Celie’s also develops an identity that takes into account her race, history, sexuality, spirituality, and ethnicity. The sexual aspect of her identity is set into motion and reconciled with her identity when Shug states that she, Celie, is “still a virgin” (Walker, 1982) because she has never had a satisfying and pleasurable sex life.

With the help of Shug, Celie becomes comfortable to explore her sexuality by discovering and appreciating her body in a pleasurable, shameless, innocent and inquisitive manner. This becomes a significant part of the formation of her sexual identity, as she has been denied sexuality as part of her identity through sexual abuse and denied herself sexuality to form part of her identity. This is because she has never enjoyed her sexuality, because of her body’s objectification and sexual abuse. Shug helps her come to terms with and enjoy her body on her own terms. Furthermore, Celie attempts to reconcile her sexuality and sexual orientation with her identity by admitting that she feels sexually attracted to and aroused by Shug Avery as opposed to her feelings when sleeping with Albert. ‘Only time I feels something stirring down there is when I think bout Shug. And that like running to the end of the road and it turn back on itself.’ (Walker, 1982. Chapter 30) The making sense of her sexuality and sexual behaviour is further emphasized when Shug shows up at Celie and Albert’s house when Celie immediately became preoccupied and self-conscious of her appearance. She shares intimacies with Shug that she does not share with anyone else. These intimacies deepen when Shug and Celie consummate their first sexual encounter while their husbands are away. In addition to sharing a bed, Celie also shares her grief and secret, by tearfully confessing to Shug that her father impregnated her. This leads Shug to tell Celie that she loves her, her comfort quickly turns physical, and the two women allow their friendship to become sensual.

Throughout the novel, Walker (1982) depicts female friendships as a means for women to form identities cultivate a sense of community, share the pain, empower and support each other. These friendships and identities formed through womanhood allow women to resist patriarchal and racial oppression and dominance. Female relationships take many forms such as the fulfilling of the maternal, sisterly, mentor, pupil, sexual or platonic friendship role. Significantly, Celie’s sexual relationship, familial ties and friendship to Shug bring about Celie’s gradual formation of identity, agency and her attainment of self. This becomes apparent in Celie’s sixtieth letter, after she finds out that Albert intercepted and kept Nettie’s letters. Celie is overcome with murderous anger towards Albert, but Shug interferes and embodies the role of a maternal or sisterly figure who protects Celie from acting on her rage and damaging herself. It should be noted, that although Celie and Shug’s relationship becomes sisterly and more familial after this instance, the intimate and sexual dynamic of their relationship does not disappear, on the contrary, this strengthens their friendship and their bond as lovers. Through Celie’s relationship with Shug, Walker (1982) demonstrates that sexuality is a complex phenomenon. Where Celie and Shug engage in a sexual relationship, but they simultaneously embody a romantic, sisterly, maternal, friendly bond.

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Furthermore, Shug demonstrates to Celie the renewing and empowering capacity of womanly bonds by making her aware of the importance of identity construction through ethnicity and race. Shug also opens Celie’s eyes to alternative perspectives on religion and its connection to gender, race and ethnicity. She empowers Celie by urging her to believe in an unconventional, non-patriarchal version of God. This change is marked by Celie telling Shug that she has stopped writing to God. In response, Shug attempts to introduce Celie to a new understanding of God. She urges Celie to develop a view of God that does not involve the patriarchal, racist notion of a white, male God who is unreliable and oppressive. Shug suggests Celie should view God as an ungendered, unracialized figure with whom she can connect more closely with, instead of being mad at God for his injustice and indifference. Shug encourages her not to reject and renounce God altogether, even though her image of God takes the form of the conventional archetypal of the archetypal old, bearded white man. Furthermore, portrays her creative perception of God as present in everything and everyone as a fluid, disembodied and ungendered being. Shug’s perception forms part of an argument for resisting oppression by reimagining the oppressor, rather than fearing and rejecting them. Through this Shug demonstrates to Celie that she does not need to reject men altogether, because of her abusive past. Thus, instead of dismissing or rejecting men and God, Shug alters the imbalanced power dynamic by reimagining patriarchy.

Celie’s history of sexual abuse influenced the formation of her identity. She constantly faced patriarchal oppression from fourteen years old, from the men in her life. Through her letters to God she gives insight into the hardships and oppression she faces as a young black woman in her everyday life. From a young age, Celie loses all privacy and agency she has over her body. She is repeatedly raped by her father, Alphonso, who is her stepfather, who impregnates her twice and is cruelly separated from her children. Besides sexually abusing her, Alphonso also violently beats her and forces her to marry Albert. Initially, Celie reacts to her abuse in a passive, normative manner, although she never accepts it, ‘He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don’t never get used to it.’ (Walker, 1982, Chapter 1) She suppressed her voice by retreating into her mind when subjected to abuse. She is marginalized by retreating into a passive silence that functions as her coping mechanism against her abuser. This passive reaction is repeated in her abusive, joyless marriage to Albert.

However, after the encouragement of empowered women such as Kate and eventually Shug, Celie is able to challenge Albert rather than submit to his abuses. Celie gains a sense of self because of her reimagining of God and opposes Albert. Celie’s development to form her own identity and exert agency builds up to a climax when she releases her pent-up rage and confronts Albert about his continuous abuse. After which Shug announces that she and Celie are moving to Tennessee. In an attempt to assert his patriarchal dominance, Albert verbally lashes out at Celie, highlighting the crux of Celie’s initial identity, “Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all”, to which Celie, a reformed and changed woman reacts, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.’ (Walker, 1982, pp. 206) This is significant in the formation of Celie’s new identity, just as Shug reclaims Celie’s sexual identity by ‘renaming’ her a virgin, Celie reverses Alberts abuse to reclaim her identity and exert agency. This reclamation of identity gender, racial and ethnic is mirrored by her eventual success in and after Tennessee. Where Celie spends her time designing and sewing tailored pants and eventually turns her hobby into a successful business. After finding success, Celie and Albert reconcile and begin to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Celie, now independent financially, spiritually, and emotionally, is no longer bothered by Albert’s past abuses and Shug’s passing flings with younger men. She is a strong independent woman who is confident in all aspects of her reconciled aspects of her identity, namely her race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

According to Isik (2017), Celie’s social position is indicative of her gender, sexuality, race, and class; as the novel accentuates the hardships and struggles the women of colour in the novel have to go through. Celie considered poor, deprived of an education because of her stepfather; and she is also victim to his sexual desire. As Crenshaw (1991) states, “Many women of color, for example, are burdened by poverty, child care responsibilities, and the lack of job skills. These burden[‘s are] largely [considered to be] the consequence of gender and class oppression” (Crenshaw, 1991). Due to Celie’s economic position, and getting pulled out of school to raise her brothers and sisters, she is denied an opportunity to complete school, attain and education and exert agency through employment to alleviate her circumstances. Throughout her life, she is systematically made dependant of her male abusers, namely Albert and Alphonso. It is only after exerting agency by moving to Tennessee, forming a new identity and starting a successful business, that Celie attains independence from her oppressors. It is also significant to note that even though Alphonso and Albert are dually portrayed as both the victims of racial oppression and gender norms, they are also oppressors. This emphasizes Walker’s (1982) complex message that frequently individuals perpetrate violence because they are victims of sexism, racism, or paternalism. This is highlighted through Albert’s tyrant like father’s treatment of him that mirrors Albert’s violent tendencies and maltreatment of his own family. But Celie, Albert and Alphonso’s victim, is further oppressed and marginalized, because she’s a racialized woman. In her initial relationships with men, she has no control over her identity and social position; she is forced into subordinance because of her race, class and gender.

Throughout Celie’s youth, she was made an object by patriarchal forces, constantly subjected to abuse and demeaned through insults labelling her ugly. She decides to survive her abuse by internalizing and marginalizing herself, projecting the image of the subservient, passive, silent and invisible female and becoming a vessel for a patriarchal projected identity of a female and female gender roles. Celie’s letters to God are her only outlet and means of self-expression. Significantly, her perspective of God is a distant figure, who she doubts cares about her, or her concerns. Thus, Celie does little to fight back against her stepfather, Alphonso, and Later, her husband, Albert. It is only when Shug introduces an alternative, empowering view of God, that Celie starts to resist patriarchal oppression. Celie’s abuse forms her initial subservient, passive identity that is dictated by the patriarchal ideal of female identity. Her constant abuse and objectification of her body spurs a fear and dislike of men and shapes her sexual orientation and preference. ‘I don’t even look at mens. That’s the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them.’ (Walker, 1982, Chapter 5) Celie admits, early in the novel, that she feels much more comfortable with women than she does with men. It is only when she attains her individual femininity and identity that she reconciles with men, specifically her abuser, Albert.

In the novel’s conclusion Walker (1982) demonstrates a merging and mixing of conventional gender roles. Shug, through her relationship with Celie, welcomes, adopts and reciprocates aspects of Celie’s gentle nature and care. Where Celie, in turn, is influenced by Shug’s sexual freedom, agency and assertiveness, she follows Shug’s suggestion to become the owner of her own business, that is a conventional male role, normalized by patriarchy. Additionally, Albert’s character becomes somewhat feminized, by patriarchal standards, as he learns to sew and to be a good listener. Through The Color Purple, it becomes clear that Walker (1982) frames fixed and imposed gender roles as impractical and meaningless.

In conclusion, the female characters in Walker’s (1982) The Color Purple, specifically Celie, alludes to the Feminist and Intersectional (Crenshaw, 1991) idea of resisting the oppressor through reconciling and exploring all aspects of One’s identity. Celie, with the help of Shug and other female characters, explores various aspects of her identity such as her race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality that was initially denied by patriarchal and racist constructions. The novel proposes a new way to break cycles of sexism and violence, specifically through the core message that reinforces Crenshaw’s (1991) understanding that women of colour are subject to and suffer from continuous and multiple oppressions and by acknowledging the intersections (Crenshaw, 1991) and links between all aspects of identity that influence and interconnect with each other in a fluid fashion.

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