The Construction of Black Women’s Sexuality from Novel to Film Adaptation

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

When novels are adapted into films, scenes and dialogue are left out to appeal to a specific audience and/or to construct thoughts and ideas on the context within the film itself. The novel The Color Purple, written by Alice Walker, and the accompanying film, directed by Steven Spielberg, falls into the same filtering as most novel to film adaptations so often do. The novel’s key elements are still present in the film, but there are many concepts and ideas that remain unclear, or entirely absent. It appears that it was not a question of time constraints, but more so the director making it appeal to an audience that wanted black women’s sexuality to remain in the metaphorical closet. The question at hand is, why does Spielberg decide to leave out such detrimental framings of character development from the novel? Furthermore, why did he choose to exclude the acknowledgements of black women’s sexuality within the film, while they were of great importance in the novel? By leaving out these ideas and key concepts from within the novel, Spielberg’s film silences black women.

Published in 1982, Walker structures the novel as a coming of age-esque story and finding one’s self. Celie, the protagonist, experiences an array of traumatic events throughout her life, from sexual assault to physical abuse. Ultimately, she perseveres and overcomes it in the end, but there are hardships along the way. Walker offers the reader insight into Celie’s life and search for self-discovery through her involvement with various characters throughout the novel, which are not present in the film. Through her relationship with Shug Avery, Celie gains the power to stand up for herself; she becomes more experienced and comfortable with her sexuality, as well as recognizing that her voice deserves to be heard.

Walker depicts Celie’s sexuality in such a deeply poetic and thoughtful manner that Spielberg’s film completely disregards. There is no question that Celie is in fact a lesbian, the author’s blatant expressions of Celie’s distastes for men – in part due to the ways men commit violent acts towards her – reveals a clear understanding of her lesbianism. Yet when watching the film adaptation of this novel, there is little to no presence of Celie’s sexual preferences or her romantic feelings for Shug, her lover. In fact, there are many instances where Spielberg omits Shug’s presence in the film that are crucial in the novel. In a scene where Shug is singing at Harpo’s, she dedicates a song she has written to Celie. Instead of the intimate look into Celie’s eyes at the moment this occurs, we see a more of a platonic, almost familial love. While in the novel, Walker describes this moment as Shug’s public display of her affections for Celie.

Just as crucial, the expression and awakening of Celie’s self-awareness within the novel is excluded from the film and perpetuates the taboo of black female sexuality. Readers of the novel see Celie’s self-awareness blossoming from her relationship with Shug, for it awakens her understanding for actual intimate feelings for a person rather than obligatory sexual relations. The lack of their intimate relationship creates a narrative within the film that Shug and Celie’s relationship is solely platonic until we are presented with Shug’s intimate kiss with Celie, and even then it could still be seen as platonic instead of what its true intentions were.

Spielberg’s exclusion of the primary aspects of their relationship in the film creates an entirely new understanding of what the text itself means to an audience. It speaks to the ideas that a black woman’s sexuality or voice in general should not be present in the media, even when this film is an adapted from a novel that held these ideologies to such a high regard and are structurally integral to the storyline. We are seeing a white man, Spielberg, dictating and restricting the way that black women interact within the film; in turn, prioritizing Celie’s silence over her voice.

Steven Spielberg’s film The Color Purple must be viewed as a separate entity from Alice Walker’s novel. Her intent was not to show a heterosexual black woman struggling to get through her day to day life and the friends she met on the way. Rather, Walker frames the novel to focus on the importance of self-realization based in Celie’s experiences. She provides the reader with a differentiation from the normative narrative of heterosexual black womanhood, and offers her audience a necessary glimpse into the variation of experiences in sexuality and love. Spielberg’s film is heteronormative and violent, leaving out crucial storylines, experiences, and ideologies that Walker’s novel offers. As such, I ask of you, the reader of this post, to read Walker’s thought provoking, influential, devastating, and important novel The Color Purple if you have not done so already.

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