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Women and Gender Roles in ”The Color Purple” and ”Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”

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‘The Color Purple,’ by Alice Walker; a novel in an epistolary form, reveals the story of a young black Georgia girl who faces adulthood believing that she has been raped by her father and that he killed both of their babies. The novel examines her struggle to find love, self-esteem, and continuing courage, despite harsh setbacks; until she eventually achieves freedom for herself. The many characters in the novel break the boundaries of traditional male or female gender roles- it is this that I shall be discussing in greater depth, drawing comparisons to my second novel, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,’ by Jeanette Winterson.

This is the story of the young protagonist; Jeanette who retells the story of her life beginning when she is seven years old and living in England with her adoptive parents. Jeanette does not know anyone aside from the other members of the church until at the age of the seven, when her mother is ordered to send Jeanette to school. As this young girl begins to age she realises that she sometimes disagrees with the teachings of her congregation-, which ultimately leads her to explore her sexuality- here, both the church and the protagonist herself question gender roles.

‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ portray males in the form of a father in a very negative way immediately. Infact, they are portrayed negatively on the first pages of both novels. “He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I never git used to it.” Immediately ‘The Color Purple’ opens with a painful sexual crime, where the man who the young protagonist calls her father, rapes her, this physical violence is Celie’s first experience and introduction to sexuality. Instantly the readers are drawn into the brutality, violence and inhumanity of this particular ‘male’ gender. The father addressed as ‘Pa,’ who is supposed to represent a protector, comforter, breadwinner and guardian- that loves and protects his family, is presented in a completely diverse manner. Whereas in “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” the protagonist touches upon the fact that the father is the breadwinner in the house, however is incapable of emotionally providing for the young Jeanette, as he is never there for her. The father works early shifts and has no drastic contribution to her life.

This is portrayed through the time the father goes to bed, “my father had already gone to bed because he worked early shifts.” Overall, immediately I come to conclude that, both fathers in both the novels are presented negatively, in different ways. Imagery of a brutal, selfish and a rapist father is created in the minds of the readers in ‘The Color purple.’ Celie’s ‘father’ has been presented in the utmost negative manner possible- through the minds of the readers he has been given the title of a rapist, worse yet- a rapist, who rapes his own daughter. Feelings of; disgust, horror, empathy and compassion circle the minds of the readers, as the belief in a ‘father’ acting so horrifically astonishes them. Everyone can relate to a father in one form or another and the thought of one actually ‘raping’ a child creates anger and disgust throughout the reading. In a similar way, it can be said that the father in “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” is also portrayed in a negative way immediately. This is simply explicit, by the way the protagonist, Jeanette, describes her fathers action. “My father liked to watch the wrestling…”

Unlike Celie’s father, who is portrayed as a brutal rapist, Jeanette’s father, in ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,’ is presented as a far more gentle and passive individual, who works in a factory and shows little interest to Jeanette. Immediately, Winterson presents the male genre as passive and ‘not’ important, as after the first chapter there is hardly any mention of the father and his activities. This is in fact a negative portrayal of male fathers, because, readers feel that when a child is young, in this case ‘Jeanette’ the child requires love and attention from both parents, they need a father that protects them, takes interest in their day to day activities and ‘guide’ them, when they are making mistakes, talking to them and asking them of their day to day troubles. However this father may not come across as a ‘brutal’ man, like Celie’s father, but he does come across as a father that simply ‘cannot’ be bothered. Therefore his portrayal becomes negative as he comes across as though he simply does not care about the existence of his own daughter, through the minds of many readers.

To further this argument, it can be supposed to a certain degree, that Celie’s father, like Jeanette’s father simply does ‘not’ care about his daughter. Readers are made to feel this, because if a father cared about his daughter, like his ‘own’ then why would he ‘rape’ her? All these questions race through the minds of the readers, whilst they read the first page of each novel. ‘ Walker, at this early stage of the novel, has immediately portrayed the ‘male’ gender to be negative, worst yet, the male gender seems to be associated with brutal rape and violence, “He start to choke me” being one form of male violence. The language used by both the protagonists at the beginning of both novels conveys the innocence that both writers attempt to get across. Celie’s innocence is conveyed through extremely limited phrases and language, with occasional ellipsis, which further the reader’s empathy towards her. This style creates sympathy as she also writes with the rhythm of speech, which ultimately creates vast hatred and disgust toward the father, who is dominating and abusing an innocent child. Similarly Winterson also creates the innocence of the child protagonist in her novel, through the fact that she believe in everything her ‘mother’ tells her, even the fact that it “rains” when clouds hit tall buildings.

Walker, at this early stage of the novel, has immediately portrayed the ‘male’ gender to be negative, worst yet, the male gender seems to be associated with brutal rape and violence, “He start to choke me” being one form of male violence. Whereas, also in a negative form, the Jeanette’s father too Is portrayed as negative in the sense that he has no participation in the life of his own daughter, not even for her well being, as no emotion is come across in Winterson’s description of her father, only the fact that he enjoys watching wresting on he day off, rather than talking to his daughter, some readers may feel that this particular father is negative, due to the fact that he neglects his daughter, even on the few days he has off from work. Father figures are presented negative by both authors, who are incapable of taking up the ‘father, disciplinary figure’ in their own households. They seem to have ‘forgotten’ their traditional gender role, as a ‘father.’

‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,’ portrays the male characters to be almost comical, or to only be included in the novel to be mocked at. The first indication of this is, immediately at the opening of the novel, “My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle…” An air of comedy is created, which is cleverly aimed towards the male character. The male, in this case the father figure, has been portrayed as an image of comedy, undermined by the female character in the house, which is the ‘mother.’ From the first extract in the book, Winterson has presented the male gender to be a symbol of mockery, they seem to have been portrayed as ‘women dominated’- from which some readers may draw conclusions and interpret the novel as being a ‘feminist novel. This is exactly similar between the relationship of Mr__ and Shug Avery in ‘The Color Purple.’ Mr__ is presented as a symbol of mockery as, to many readers as a metaphor of a dog. He follows every order of Shug Avery’s when she visits for the first time.

In the film, ‘The Color Purple,’ (Albert) Mr ___ is portrayed as running up and down the stairs following every command of hers, he is cooking for her and he even stops smoking for her. Mr__ becomes a dog for Shug Avery, which is seen by several viewers as hilarious, as he too has ‘raped’ Celie, even though she is his very own wife, but now is at the command and under the power of another female character, who has ordered him to stop smoking. Therefore, both authors have very cleverly mocked the male gender to be over powered by the female gender. The representation of Shug Avery’s gender, by Walker, portrays to the readers that infact; many women can ‘control’ men and make a laughing stock out from them, in the same way Jeanette’s mother empowers her father, by being able to wrestle and not just simply watch it, finally, many readers may even create an image of the mother wresting the father, this is extremely comical, as both the men are mocked at by the characters and the readers.

To further this argument, after discovering that Jeanette is seven, Pastor Finch (a visiting minister to Jeanette’s church) unleashes a fiery sermon about the dangers of being seven to Jeanette. – ‘How cursed.’ The seriousness of his sermon to the congregation, compared to Jeanette’s innocence of age renders him ridiculous. Winterson has therefore enforced the readers to view this ‘male’ character as ‘comical’ and only serves the purpose to entertain the readers, with no particular importance. The fact that his name suggests that he is resembles a songbird that simply repeats the tunes taught to him, further ridicules him. To some readers, Winterson has deliberately given this male character the name of a ‘weak’ bird, to present to the readers the fact that ‘men’ are weak and frail, they too have their weak points, to a point it can be interpreted in a view that men in reality are birds, trapped in masculine figures. Similarly, it is Harpo in ‘The Color Purple’ who is portrayed as the comical character, who cries in the arms of Celie, ‘…Cry like they mama just die.

Harpo come to, shaking.’ The image of a grown ‘man’ crying creates humour in the minds of the readers, as the representation of a ‘male’ living in a completely patriarchal dominated society is seen to be crying, to a ‘woman’- who is viewed as second class, and a symbol for male pleasure. The name ‘Harpo’ itself also adds comedy to the gender, as ‘Harpo’ can be compared to a ‘Harp’ which releases gentle, warm and beautiful tones, which can be dominated by larger instruments, such as the marching of a drum, which can be portrayed through ‘Sofia’- his wife. Walker had presented Harpo as being comical as she wants to overturn the stereotypical gender roles, which Harpo’s actions portray. Harpo enjoys cooking and housework, kisses his children and marries an independent woman (Sofia). Readers get a sense of the ‘twentieth century male’ – which is completely ‘normal’ for this day and age- but not at the time the novel has been set. Walker has presented.

The ‘female’ gender in, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,’ is presented by Winterson to be the dominant force. This is clearly portrayed through the ‘mother.’ The mother takes over the ‘male’ responsibilities throughout the household, which include painting and DIY. Here, there is a complete role reversal between the father and the mother, who takes upon the male gender roles. She seems to be the dominant figure in the house, ‘…my mother liked to wrestle.’ Winterson, immediately presents the ‘women’- in this case the mother in a dominant position compared to the men, which is the father, who is almost put into a comical position with a discreet undertone of male mockery. She ‘liked to wrestle,’ informs readers how the mother takes on the masculine role in the house and is strong minded, which is re-enforced by her ‘precise’ likes and dislikes… ‘The Devil, Next Door, Sex (in its many forms) and slugs.’ Winterson portrays the mother as strong-minded, whereas the father is passive and seems to conform to the rules of the house, (set by the mother), making the male gender weak. Similarly, ‘Sofia,’ in ‘The Color Purple’ is also presented as a strong-minded character and fiercely independent woman who befriends Celie and marries Harpo, Celie’s stepson. Sofia refuses to submit to whites, men, or anyone else who tries to dominate her.

Walker has presented this female character to have also played the roles of men in certain circumstances, for example, when Harpo first introduces Sofia to Albert (Celie’s husband). Both Sofia and Harpo are, ‘marching, hand in hand, like going to war. She (Sofia) in front a little.” The fact that Sofia is leading the couple, shows the sign that she is the one in control of the relationship and that she will not be oppressed by a man in any circumstance. The image created of a ‘woman’ marching along the road, ‘in front’ of a man is that of an extremely strong-minded independent woman, which Walker wants to portray to the readers. However, many readers may portray this ‘marching’ as rather comical.

Harpo, who should ideally be leading the woman in this ‘patriarchal society’, is doing the complete opposite; he is being led. This creates ‘animal imagery’ as well as ‘war imagery’ in the minds of the readers as Harpo can be presented as a ‘dog’ following its leader, who in this case is a woman, which is similar to the actions of his father, who follows all of Shug Avery’s commands. This militant imagery of Sofia and the juxtaposing of Harpo’s actions add a sense of comedy to the chapter. Both authors, have reversed the roles of the traditional wife to their advantages, and have shown how women can also be the dominant forces in the lives of their husbands and that women don’t have to necessarily have to be oppressed and over powered by their husbands.

Gender roles are specifically highlighted in ‘Oranges Are Not The only Fruit’ – (Judges), where Pastor Spratt highlights the sexist history of the church, ‘The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St Paul, and allowing women power in the church.’ Winterson has clearly demonstrated the sexist assertions of the Pastor that Jeanette’s confusion arose, because she acted beyond her ‘gender’ limitations. The pastor’s position arises from a strongly sexist belief that women are biologically inferior to men. To get this message across; Winterson has presented the male character of the Pastor to be ‘sexist’ and ‘stereotypical.’ She seems to highlight the point that such a sexist notion seems ridiculous, as Jeanette appears to be the only rational member of the church, who is balancing conflicts while also preaching the gospel. Therefore, Winterson has portrayed the Pastor, a male character, to also be comical, as what he is claiming is not the truth, but in fact a true view of his sexist views towards women.

Winterson has presented Pastor Spratt, also with a gentle birds name, who is equally as ridiculous as Pastor finch, similar to Harpo. Which draws to conclude that both the male characters in the novel are presented by Winterson to be pathetic, comical and inserted into the book to portray male ridicule and irrational thinking, this can be used by many feminists to argue the ‘sexist notion’ within churches, which is male dominated. Also challenging the idea that women are biologically inferior, ‘Judges’ has been used by Winterson to portray and challenge the idea that men and women have set biological roles, existing in a biological binary. This is cleverly illustrated through Jeanette’s mother, when she says, ‘aping a man’ suggesting that one gay in a relationship should be a woman. Gender is portrayed as being ‘socially constructed.’ – which means that, it is society that has attached labels to groups of people and therefore it is society that decide whether situations are right or wrong, in this case, society has labelled a gay couple as unacceptable, therefore that rule must be followed. Truth in sexuality is not defined, as it is socially unacceptable.

Readers can relate to this, as only recently have gay couples been given equal rights as heterosexual couples, even now in some parts of the world, being gay is seen as unacceptable and a sin. Stereotypical gender views are also furthered in ‘The Color purple,’ as women have typical roles enforced onto them by their fathers and husbands. Celie, from the age of fourteen had to take upon the role of a mother, looking after her siblings after the death of the mother and taking upon herself the household chores of a woman, ‘By the time I git the tray ready the food be cold. By the time I get all the children ready for school it be dinner time.’ Walker has clearly re enforced the gender role division in this novel and portrayed the protagonist to be following typical stereotypical roles, enforced upon her by her dominating father, Alphonso.

To further this stereotypical female role, Harpo also re enforces the male stereotype portrayed by the women, when he approaches Albert (Mr___) for advice on how to make ‘Sofia mind.’ Here, however there is a completely alternative role reversal by Celie. Who tells him to ‘Beat her.’ Here the protagonist, who is oppressed by the man she was forced to marry is advising her stepson to ‘beat’ Sofia. This advice, should have been given by Albert, but instead it is coming from Celie, which immediately portrays Celie as becoming more single minded, independent and opinionated. Celie has now been presented as a character in the novel that is breaking the boundaries of traditional male or female gender roles. Therefore, she is becoming dominant and taking upon the role of the male gender, she is advising what Albert should be advising his son.

The character of Elsie Norris, in ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,’ is regarded as being a ‘friend’ of Jeanette. Elsie has supported Jeanette during all phases of her life, even after it is clear that Jeanette is a lesbian, she comes across as being the kindest character in the book. The friendship between Elsie and Jeanette grows when Jeanette is sick in the hospital. Perhaps since Jeanette’s mother neglected her, Elsie took pains to visit the hospital every single day. Elsie is a respected and an enthusiastic member of the church, but she is quite different from the congregation. She is a character who knows her true self. Therefore, she represents what Jeanette will spend the novel trying to become a realised being. It is Elsie that suggests Jeanette to go off and make her own way in the world and that her identity is not necessarily wrong. Elsie is presented to be an assertive role model towards the protagonist, who has her own mind and her own way of doing things, she doesn’t listen to others, which can be portrayed to some readers to an extent where it can be claimed that Elsie is role reversing the male gender.

She is guiding a child to do what she feels is right, which traditionally and stereotypically is the role of men. However, many may argue that, Jeanette has grown up in a matriarchal society; therefore Elsie has every right to guide her. Jeanette doesn’t know any men to be guided by, apart from her father, who plays no importance to her life. Shug Avery in ‘The Color Purple,’ who at first impression comes across as negative, with a reputation as a woman of dubious morals with a “nasty woman disease.” However Celie, immediately views something more. The glamorous appearance and beautifully perfect features remind Celie of her ‘mama.’ Shug Avery refuses to allow herself to be dominated by males, unlike her own mother, who was oppressed by the traditional gender roles.

As the role between Shug Avery and Celie develops. Shug fills the roles of mother, confidant, lover, sister, teacher, and friend. Shug Avery has been presented by Walker to be a great character, full of energy and excitement, who is unruly and independent, everything that Celie has wanted to be. Most of all, Shug is free, from men and the patriarchal society, in which she is trapped. Shug Avery’s has been presented, by Walker to have the gender of both a man and a woman, as she freely explores her sexuality and does not allow anyone to hold her under oppression or captivity. Her character represents the role model and the freedom that Celie and many women like her long for at this time. Therefore it is Elsie and Shug Avery’s strong beliefs that lead the protagonists to fight their own battles, mentally, as well as physically, which comes through the form of sexual exploration.

To conclude with, I learnt that both the protagonists are attempting to free themselves form the traditional stereotypical roles set for them by the society in which they live. However, they can only do so, once they have crossed the obstacles set for them by certain members in society. I have also learn that the theme of sister-hood is important, as when women come together, they build each others confidence, such as in ‘The Color Purple.’ Also the male portrayal in both novels has been that of a negative one, men have been mocked upon and frown upon in both novels and consequently concluding with the fact that men are not important in society, which raises the question, whether both novels are feminist in their views. Role models play an important part in both novels, as they are the source of empowerment for the struggle of the protagonist. The social construction of gender roles plays an immensely major part in the lives of the protagonists in which they arise victorious through many difficult situations.

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