Appropriating Indigenous Culture through Body Modification

By Marian Phillips

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s and Gender History department at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include LGBT History, Horror, Gay Liberation Movements, and 18th Century Literature.

We’ve all seen the image of a young white woman in a traditional Native American headdress prancing around Coachella. Every year, the image grows increasingly distasteful and racist. Despite the internet’s call for festival goers to abandon this appropriation of a culture that is not theirs, they have not. Recently, it was brought to my attention that a cast member of the television show Love Island (2015-), Chris Taylor, has a tattoo of a woman in a Native American headdress. Understandably so, Native American groups have criticized the permanent piece that features symbols of Indigenous cultures that this man does not identify with. 

The Native American Rights Fund group stated that the piece is not only inappropriate and offensive, it is damaging to their community. The popular culture website, Heart, interviewed the group to comment on the situation. They resonded with, ““The use of these images was often rooted in an extensive history of abuse, discrimination, and conquest. The growing body of research around the use of these images shows that they have a harmful impact on our youth, and the youth of non-native people as well.” [1] This made my wheels turn. I am a heavily tattooed individual who has been deeply invested in the body modification community for nearly ten years. The conversation on the negative impact of permanently displaying a symbol of someone else’s culture, identity, or trauma is constantly happening and being argued over. 

For instance, in the early 2010s, the popularity of tattoos of dream catchers or Native American headdresses was at an all time high. One google search of either will show you an overabundance of these images, almost always on individuals that do not identify with or belong to the tribes these images are derived from. Even worse, it is not uncommon for a tattoo featuring any Native American imagery to be a gross amalgamation of multiple tribes, completely disregarding the importance of a specific symbol to a specific tribe’s identity. When a white person takes a symbol that does not belong to them and permanently places it on their body, it is another form of cultural appropriation and conquest. 

The ownership of Native cultures has been torn from them through the violent processes of colonization. Murder, rape, and the forced removal of Native peoples from their land was how white colonizers stole their culture (via Native bodies). To speak of Native cultural symbols as belonging to Native people, is to acknowledge the continual act of reclaiming their culture from white colonizers. There is no single Native American culture; however, all of them have experienced the violence of colonization. Therefore, when white people tattoo their bodies with unspecified indigenous cultural symbols, such as the dream catcher, the body modification represents white colonial power, not respect for Native culture.

While there is a strong debate within the tattoo community over appreciation versus appropriation, we must turn to the model of the Coachella incidents of white women wearing headdresses. These festival goers did not take into account the deeply symbolic meaning of the headdress, the purposes of eagle feathers, and who receives the honor of wearing it. Therefore, they appropriated Native American culture and heritage. This is just the same when one considers tattooing this symbol on their body permanently. Yes, some people may do their research and gain some semblance of knowledge on it, but ultimately, they have no ownership over these symbols. When non-Native people put a Native American headdress or dreamcatcher on their body, they are staking a claim of ownership, which is inherently disrespectful towards Native people.   

This piece does not serve the intention of trash-talking someone who already has these symbols tattooed on them or tattoo artists that specialize in them either. Rather, I would like to assert that we reconsider what we place on our bodies, what it actually means, what it can perpetuate, and our position when we actively participate in damaging a Native American community by asserting that we can own their cultural symbols. 


Notes

[1] Alice Dear, “Native American Group Slams Love Island Star Chris Taylor’s ‘Offensive’ Tattoos,” Heart, Heart, 12 July 2019, http://www.heart.co.uk/showbiz/tv-movies/love-island/chris-taylor-native-american-tattoo/.

Architects of Horror: Alice Guy-Blaché, Ida Lupino and Paula Maxa

By Marian Phillips

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s History.

When I was thinking about what I was going to write about during the month of October, I considered everything I knew about women and feminism mixed with the horrific, absurd, and surreal. I thought about women I have written about previously (Diablo Cody, Karyn Kusama, and Millicent Patrick), flipped through my horror anthologies, and then I asked myself, “What about the women architects that helped build the genre?” I was drawn to three of my personal favorites that worked with and made space for women in the genre: Paula Maxa, Ida Lupino, and Alice Guy-Blaché. Sadly, they are not alive today, but their impact on the 19th and 20th century has deeply influenced contemporary horror films and literature, making it what it is today. 

In 1896, a 23-year-old Alice Guy-Blaché was recognized as the first woman director in history. While her films are not always considered outright horrific for an early 19th century audience, 21st century audiences consider them disturbing. Over the course of her career, Guy-Blaché directed approximately 1,000 films. One of these works includes the first woman directed film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum in 1913. Guy-Blaché is no stranger to firsts. As such a prolific figure in film and horror, she has influenced some of the greats, including Alfred Hitchcock ad Sergei Eisenstein. She has received countless awards posthumously and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2013. 

Alice Guy-Blaché

London, England born director, Ida Lupino was one of the only women directors in Hollywood, California during the 1950s. In 1953, she became known as one of the queens of B-movies with her film The Hitchhiker. The psychological horror film was the first done by a woman director. She showed her audiences that jump-scares weren’t necessary to incite fear; it could be achieved through the slow process of building psychological tension and emotion. Her most noteworthy achievement – besides this remarkable first – was her episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Masks.” Lupino is the only woman that directed episodes for the iconic horror and sci-fi series. Undoubtedly, she paved the way for many more women to take on directorial positions in the genre. 

4/23/1943- Ida Lupino in surrealist portrait.

Unlike Guy-Blaché and Lupino, the most assassinated woman in history, Paula Maxa performed in horror productions. Having been murdered on stage over 10,000 times, historians note her as the original “scream queen.” She performed at the gore specialized French theatre, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, from 1917 to the 1930s. Every night she was on stage, Maxa was either steamrolled, stabbed, disemboweled, slashed, or some other form of murderous activity. These performances had no deep meaning or critique on society, culture, or politics, but Maxa and her ability to die a unique death every night constructed the most utilized character in horror, the scream queen.

These women may have never been in direct contact with one another, or even enjoyed the media that each of them produced, but they built the pathways for each other and for future women in the horror genre. Guy-Blaché crafted film after film to incite fear and wonder from her audiences that ultimately influenced some of the greatest minds in the genre. Lupino showed the world that women could direct horror just as good as men, if not better. Maxa died 10,000 times so Janet Leigh (today’s most famous scream queen) could scream when Norman Bates peeled back the shower curtain. Their influence is long lasting and their presence in the field paved the way for more great women of horror, such as Shirley Jackson, Karyn Kusama, Leigh Janiak, Millicent Patrick, Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Janet Leigh), and countless others. 

Jennifer’s Body (2009): Sexuality and Social Relevance in Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama’s Cult Classic Horror Film

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year graduate student studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Her interests include LGBT+ History, Media and Film Studies, and the use of music and movements.


Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for Jennifer’s Body (2009).


Ten years ago, in the fall of 2009, I was thirteen years old. I was hanging out at the mall, waiting for the moment that I could enter the movie theatre and see the film I’d been obsessing over for the entirety of the summer – Jennifer’s Body. Surrounded by fellow mallrats, I was wearing the “I Eat Boys” shirt I purchased from Hot Topic, and a messenger bag filled with dollar store candy. I was ready. As we all know, the film didn’t quite garner the success it deserved upon release. Now, ten years later, Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama are finally receiving praise for creating a brutally honest depiction of bisexuality and what it means to be a woman growing up in a patriarchal society. 

The film follows best friends Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) as they face the hell that being a teenage girl is, figuratively and literally. Friends since the days of sandboxes and playing house, the two exhibit a bond that cannot be broken by high school popularity and even demonic possession. Jennifer plays the beautiful cheerleader, and Needy, the unpopular and awkward teen. In the first moments of the film, the audience finds Jennifer begging Needy to attend a concert for indie band Low Shoulder. The scene quickly escalates, and ends with the two escaping a music hall engulfed in flames. Once they’ve made it out, the band offers to take the two to safety. Needy begs Jennifer not to go with them. Ignoring her best friend’s pleas, she enters the sinister van.

The next time we see Jennifer is in the van. Now that they have her alone, the lead singer asks if she is a virgin, to which she responds “yes” with the hopes that having little to no sexual experience will save her from the unknown. What she doesn’t expect, but becomes swiftly informed of, is that they need a virginal body to sacrifice to the devil in exchange for fame. As she begs and pleads with them not to kill her, the men begin to sing Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” in a taunting manner as they slash and stab her. What they don’t know is that Jennifer Check is no virgin. The sacrifice that they enacted results in the demonic possession of her body. 

This scene is disturbing to say the least, but it is also familiar. Not in the sense that being a literal blood sacrifice is common, but her total loss of control and bodily autonomy at the hands of men that wish to grow into a place of power feels all too familiar. The sacrifice of Jennifer speaks to personal and publicized stories of assault by the hands of privileged white men that hold high positions of power politically and socially – for example, the case of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh. Cody presented her audience with a story that begins with trauma, is fueled by heartbreak, and ends with revenge wrapped up in demonic possession and teen drama. 

In recent years, many have come to realize that the film was well ahead of its time on social commentary, and its rise in popularity has sustained a steady increase since 2017. Fans of the film have marked it as a symbol of bisexuality, featuring lesbian overtones between Jennifer and Needy. The film itself is a larger statement on women’s sexuality, but the relationship between the two friends is a love story and it permeates throughout the entire film. When we first enter the film, we see them looking at each other with complete adoration as the lyrics for I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You by the band Black Kids plays in the background – “You are the girl, that I’ve been dreaming of / Ever since I was a little girl.”  The love between Jennifer and Needy isn’t simply sandbox love, and Cody never intended it to be read as just that either. 

Cody’s film starts, climaxes, and ends with the two women as the primary focus. Kusama and Cody created a unique and honest depiction of a lesbian relationship; one filled with longing, resentment, joy, and love. It’s one that we don’t see in mainstream films that identify as marketed towards an LGBT+ audience. Despite this, Jennifer’s Body was unable to escape the male gaze and poorly executed marketing team that manipulated the trailers to appease an audience of teenage boys. Back when I was thirteen and walked into the theatre, most audience members were indeed men. I remember hearing my classmates talk about how incredibly hot the “girls kissing on the bed” scene was and how Megan Fox was the epitome of sex. To this day, I get a little aggravated by these remarks when I look back on it. It’s so obvious that the director and screenwriter did not want this to be the takeaway.

Jennifer’s Body is a movie about a teenage girl that was brutally taken advantage of by men for their benefit. It follows the relationship of two friends that are actually deeply in love with one another. The ending showcases the revenge that Jennifer wanted and the love that Needy felt for her, even when she killed Chip. I refuse to spoil the ending for any of you, so what I will do is suggest that once you finish reading this post, go online and rent the film, watch for the details, and appreciate what Cody and Kusama gave to their audience in 2009; how deeply it reflects what we see today in politics, society, and culture and how important it is for teenagers to see accurate depictions of bisexuality to combat against its erasure.

Stranger Things, Erica Sinclair, and the Representation of Black Women in the Science Fiction Genre

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence College in Women’s History. Her interests include popular culture, LGBT+ history, and the history of movements through music. 


Spoiler alert: This blog contains spoilers from season three of Stranger Things. 


On October 27, 2017, the highly anticipated second season of the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix original series, Stranger Things, premiered. Coated in mid-1980s nostalgia and four puffs (no more, no less) of Farrah Fawcett hairspray, audience members crowded around their iPhones, tablets, laptops, and television sets to consume the strange events that would unfold. Prior to its release, comedians and fans questioned where Lucas Sinclair’s, one of the only main characters of color, family was. Surely, he wouldn’t be the only person of color in Indiana, right? Ergo, season two episode two, titled “Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak.” The Duffers introduced us to his parents, Mr. (Bradford Haynes and Arnell Powell) and Mrs. Sinclair (Tara Wescott and Karen Ceesay), and his younger sister, Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson). For the first time, women of color appear in the series. 

Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair Photo Courtesy of The Mary Sue

Once season two came to a close, audience members and fan theorists took to the internet to exclaim that they needed more of Erica Sinclair in season three. No longer a background character in the third installment, Erica becomes a key player in battling the Mind Flayer, tracking down the Russia lab, and navigating dangerous terrain. Premiering on July 4, 2019, every episode features the tactful, witty, and bold young woman. A multidimensional character, she defies stereotypes of nerds and nerd culture, asserts her worth, and demands the respect that the other characters don’t always give her. Within and outside of this Science Fiction universe, Erica Sinclair speaks to an audience of young Black women and girls that take on the white patriarchy that seeks to undermine their worth and importance. 

Looking at the history of black women in SciFi, Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Uhura, a bridge officer, on Star Trek in 1966. She was the first Black woman cast in a supporting role, and it spoke to the young Black people that tuned into the program that hadn’t seen themselves represented in popular culture. While she wanted to leave the program to become a Broadway actress, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked for her to reconsider, as the show had become a staple in his own home. Nichols ultimately remained on Star Trek, knowing that she was changing the way that young Black men and women viewed themselves based on her prominent role that subverted Hollywood stereotypes. Similar to Lieutenant Uhura, Erica Sinclair subverts the notion that Black women must fall into stereotypical roles and that the role of hero belongs to white faces. Without her, the Upside Down wouldn’t have closed in Hawkins, as she knew exactly how to guide each character to where they needed to be, and they wouldn’t have been able to break into the Russian lab. In short, Hawkins would be no more. 

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, Photo Courtesy of Paste

Erica Sinclair and Lieutenant Uhura are only two of the countless examples of Black women utilizing the genre of Science Fiction to challenge the stereotypes that they are commonly written into. As the genre is predominantly white and male, authors Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkins, and Nora K. Jemisin use their platform with the genre storytelling of SciFi to provide their audience with empowering characters of color. Their novels showcase the importance of representation in all formats; whether television, movies, and/or written formats. Butler uses her authorial power to craft stories about Black women who face a challenge shrouded in historical accuracy of the dangerous white heteropatriarchy, navigate it, and come out on the other end to challenge these structures that are placed upon Black women in history and contemporarily. She is one of the most, if not the most, influential Black woman author of Science Fiction and Afrofuturist literature in the 20th and 21st century. 

Her works have been adapted into a variety of formats in theatre and in graphic novels in order to reach a broader audience. Undoubtedly, there is a growing interest in Afrofuturist popular culture, with the release of Black Panther (2018) and Sorry to Bother You (2018). It speaks to the importance of representation of Black men and women in the Science Fiction genre, especially in works that are not considered “indie” and enter mainstream popularity. The SciFi genre broadly promises a world where any and all things are possible, and characters like Erica Sinclair, Lieutenant Uhura, T’Challa, and Okoye are showcasing that exact ideology to young Black men and women. They subvert racist stereotypes and their presence in popular culture empowers their audience. Science Fiction, through these characters and by representing Black men and women, has the ability to challenge injustices and provide commentary on society, culture, and politics, even if it appears detached from the 21st century – 1980s Hawkins, Indiana. 

For more on Afrofuturism, please listen to The Afrofuturist Podcast.

 

The Mattachine Society: Henry “Harry” Hay and Harold “Hal” Call

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College.

A year ago, when I began my Master’s research on homosexuality during the 1950s in America, I was certain that there was an abundance of research on the topic. I didn’t think there was anything more to discover that John D’Emilio, David Allyn, Estelle Freedman, Allan Bérubé, and Margot Canaday hadn’t already found. They cover such an immense breadth of information that covers the homophile movement, McCarthyism, red-baiting and queer-baiting, riots, Lewd Vagrancy laws, and sexology reports.  As I flipped through page after page of archived materials at the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections, I noticed that there is an integral piece of the history of the Mattachine Society and the homophile movement that has gone understudied or completely ignored.

For the purposes of this post I am writing today, I will not pose my question onto the audience (you, the reader) until I have finalized the thesis in a year from now. Today, I present to you a few members of the Mattachine Society that assisted in the early beginnings of the gay rights movement and key figures in the thesis I am crafting. Posts that will follow throughout the month of June that I intend to cover include the Daughters of Bilitis, riots (including Stonewall and Cooper Do-nuts), and historical figures of the LGBT+ community.

The Mattachine Foundation (1950-1953), later becoming the Mattachine Society in 1953, formed in the mind of its founder, Harry Hay, in 1948. While historians debate the exact year the organization formed, most conclude that it was 1950, but Hay conceived of the idea two years prior. Henry “Harry” Hay was born to a well-to-do family on April 17, 1912 in Worthing, Sussex England. As a child, his family moved to California. Heavily influenced by Marxism and communism, Hay joined the Community Party USA in his adult years while living in Los Angeles. When the party discovered that he was gay, they told him to either resist his urges or to leave the party, so he left.

Henry “Harry” Hay image from https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/harry-hay/

Determined to find an organization that would welcome him for being both gay and a communist, Hay decided to take matters into his own hands and formed the Mattachine Foundation. The organization welcomed homosexual men and women regardless of race, creed, class, gender, and political affiliation. Despite Hay realizing his dream through the Mattachine, Harold “Hal” Call took over its leadership in 1953. There are mixed accounts on why Hay stepped down as leader; some speculate it was a disagreement the two had, others say that Call was a more conservative member and didn’t believe Hay’s communist beliefs could benefit or assist in the growth of the Mattachine.

Nonetheless, Call took over in 1953 and changed its name to the Mattachine Society. Born in Grundy County, Missouri in September 1917, Call enlisted in the military as a private in 1941, and went on to receive a purple heart for his service. Upon returning to US in 1945, he moved to California and joined the homophile organization he would later become leader of. His dreams for the Mattachine were realized when, in 1955, he co-founded Pan Graphic Press, which would go on to publish The Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and other homophile publications. His goal was to ensure that the organization would and could grow throughout the nation, while assisting other homophile groups in their growth. They viewed each other as brothers and sisters of the gay liberation movement of the 1950s.

Harold “Hal” Call image from https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/episode-13-hal-call/

Call and Hay are only two of the countless members of the Mattachine that are key figures in the early beginnings of gay liberation; both considered fathers of the early homophile movement. The Mattachine would go on participate in legal proceedings, hold annual meetings in major cities, and help gay men and women across the United States. Under Call’s leadership, it appeared that nothing could stop the steady growth of the organization. Starting in 1955, chapters began in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. Some were short lived, while others have continued to thrive to this very day. Come 1961, the national organization of the Mattachine in San Francisco disbanded; thereafter, the society became a regional body.

Despite the disbanding of the first chapter of the Mattachine, the homophile movement continued to grow and change as most do. Today, the D.C. chapter seeks to keep the history of the Mattachine alive and well by digitizing the documents they have archived and offering resources to anyone who may need them. You can find them here: https://mattachinesocietywashingtondc.org/ . Now that we are a full week into Pride, I hope that this post finds you all at a moment of joy and celebration among friends, family, and/or loved ones. For more information on the Mattachine Society’s history, I highly recommend the Making Gay History podcast; links for specific episodes are found under the images of Hay and Call.

Shout for Abortion

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.


Content warning: Abortion.


Over the past few months, Americans have witnessed bill after bill proposed to restrict abortion access in multiple states. At this current juncture, these states include Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, and Alabama. State senators have taken it upon themselves to decide what every individual that is capable of becoming pregnant can and should do with their body; carry an unwanted, dangerous, and/or traumatic pregnancy to term. They have proposed that a bill, one that we know commonly as the “heartbeat bill,” pass so that an individual cannot receive an abortion at six weeks. As New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Twitter, that means missing a period by two weeks. Subsequently, the news that we do not have autonomy over our own bodies has cast an ominous cloud above all of our heads.

           In the midst of the terror I felt, and continue to feel, I went to a punk show. Half hoping to scream my lungs out to songs about Plan B and dance until my legs couldn’t hold me up any longer, I found myself in a room full of people feeling just as I felt: angry and frustrated at the world. The first band that played astounded me. The lead singer of Control Top, in all of their unapologetic glory, screamed for abortion access, and the crowd yelled with her in positive affirmations that we all felt the same; unapologetically pro-choice. If you’re anything like me, feelings of isolation tend to permeate when news that feels too deeply personal becomes so outwardly political. It may feel as though you can’t express your dismay to close friends or family that may not share your beliefs. Even if you turn to Twitter to vent, you inevitably run into another dude-bro hiding behind a keyboard that thinks he can tell you how to take care of your reproductive health.

           If you’re at all like me, you know how important these little moments of screaming for what you want so badly to have freedom to access are potentially stripped from you and others. I have spent a great deal writing about feminist punk throughout my first year as a Master’s student. While my entire life has been grounded in participating in the subculture, I often forget what drew me to it in the first place; May 17, 2019 reminded me why that was. Once the headliner, Tacocat, arrived on stage, I could feel the air growing vibrant in anticipation. Emily Nokes, the lead singer, is an activist and advocate for abortion rights for everyone. She assisted in the compilation of the recently published text “Shout Your Abortion,” a book about being unapologetically pro-choice.

           In the middle of their performance, Nokes stopped to have a short conversation on reproductive rights. “Abortion effects everything, in a good way, it saves lives. It’s fucking cool,” she announced to the crowd, followed by a round of applause and shouting in agreement. The band advocates for their spaces to be all inclusive, accepting, and positive. There has never been a moment, in the multiple times I have had the pleasure of seeing them, that they haven’t withheld their activism as punk musicians and activists.

           I have seen many, many punk shows in my life. No other band – with a few exceptions – have been so unapologetically for the well-being of others. The spaces that Nokes and her fellow bandmates create for their audience is almost otherworldly; something you won’t find anywhere else. They provide you with a deep feeling of comfort. You go into the show knowing that if something were to happen to question your safety, they would be there for you. The bands that played that night were so aware of the feelings that the crowd felt, they made sure we all knew that they were here for us, they feel what we are feeling, and will continue to spread their message. Abortion access now, unapologetically and forever.

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 at Sarah Lawrence College.

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.