I’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie “The Color Purple” many times over the last two decades, since its original release in 1985. The visual interpretation of Alice Walker’s text, gave many of us an opportunity to see and publicly discuss the hidden realities of Black women’s lives.
I was thinking recently about the intimate partner violence experienced by the two characters Celie and Sofia. In particular, I thought about the similarity of experience, in that both characters had histories of family violence. The film shows us Celie’s sexual trauma, and Sofia tells Celie in a powerful scene that she has had to “fight” her father, uncles, cousins, and brothers her whole life. Fighting here not only suggests physical violence, but might also include sexual violence as well.
It would be easy to assume that Sofia was able to leave or control the violence with her husband Harpo, while Celie’s violence at the hands of Mister continues, because of a difference in the physical size of the two women or in their husbands difference in machismo. The film shows Sofia as a woman larger in stature, who fights back, is very vocal and is not easily controlled, while Celie is smaller, timid and less vocal. This surface comparison is tolerated due to our common mythical beliefs that there are certain “kinds of women” who are more likely to experience abuse. These beliefs might make us think that if a woman is big enough or loud enough, she won’t experience abuse, but this is simply not true.
I think that one of the most vital differences, though individual experiences can’t ever be compared, is that Sofia had SISTERS. Yes, Celie had her sister Nettie, but due to Mister’s isolation tactics, she was not able to access her sister’s social support. Sofia never wondered about the power and breadth of her social support; she was very aware of it. In her first meeting with Mister, she assures him that her pregnancy, nor economic reality are the reasons she is marrying Harpo. She asserts that her sister made it very clear that she and her child are always welcome. In the scene following Harpo’s physical abuse, Sofia’s sisters pack her belongings and her children into a wagon and take her away to safety. Alice Walker eventually creates a source of intimate support for Celie in Shug Avery, which offers Celie the safe space and support to remember the truth about herself, and make the courageous exit from Mister. Imagine how different things might have been for Celie if she had never been separated from Nettie. Imagine Celie with consistent high quality social support.
I am reminded now that it is less useful to us to spend time trying to identify the characteristics of potential abusers and potential victims of abuse. This checklist approach suggests that women who experience violence weren’t wise or vigilant enough to see the batterer coming and protect themselves. The truth is that all of us are capable of enacting and experiencing violence in our intimate spaces. There are no identities that protect us. It is far more beneficial to place our attention on reminding our sisters and sister-friends of the unconditional love and support we offer. It is critical that the women and children in our lives hear from us, that we trust their brilliance and ability to make wise decisions about their safety.
Imagine the vibrant communities we can create if we continuously fill each other with the truth about who we are and of the goodness we deserve.