Identity and Oppression: The Role of a Capitalist Patriarchy in the Formation of the Black Feminine Psyche
Self-determination is a birthright that Black women have famously fought for and been denied. Black feminist creatives have done the work to challenge this narrative and replace it with their own. American writers, Audre Lorde and Trisha R. Thomas, engage in a compelling argument for black feminine autonomy attained through a rejection of social constructs, which Lorde calls ‘external directives’ (Lorde 58). The experiences portrayed in the film, Nappily Ever After, mirror Lorde’s argument that, ‘external directives’ are antithetical to human needs and individuality. This media analysis serves to examine the ways in which Lorde’s refutations of patriarchal and capitalist domination in the development of an erotic identity agree with and depart from Violet’s own journey towards a more liberated self-identification.
Understanding the principal subjects is important before diving into the analysis. Sourced from class readings, Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power*”, is an essay pulled from her 1984 book, Sister Outsider. The piece attempts to reclaim and redefine the meaning of the word ‘erotic’ from a pornographic misinterpretation, to a source of feminine energy (Lorde 54). Eluding an elementary reading, Lorde’s redefinition unpacks the transactional nature of human relations and suppression of true feeling.
The external source examined in this essay is a new addition to Netflix’s movie collection. Nappily Ever After is a romantic comedy adapted from Trisha Thomas’ similarly titled novel series. Casting African-American cinema sweetheart, Sanaa Lathan, to play the role of Violet Jones (renamed from the original Venus Johnston), the film tackles familiar narratives of romance and identity and, reimagines black femininity as a conflicting abstract: one of disillusionment and triumph.
Starting the analysis by drawing a parallel between the opening and closing scenes of the film, main character Violet comes full circle in her understanding of self. Her transformation into self-awareness is connected through the symbolic power of water as a uniting element. The opening scene depicts a 10-year-old Violet Jones at a pool party. She is presumably one of the few, if not only, black children at the pool, an experience isolating in and of itself. Still an adventuresome 10-year-old with freshly pressed hair and, not fully realized in the suppression of her identity, she jumps defiantly into the pool and is met with ridicule by her white peers and her mother when her hair becomes a fist (al-Mansour). This scene is imbued with many race-specific experiences. Most apparent to an academic analysis, is Violet’s mother enforcing a rule of black patriarchal oppression through her instruction of respectability politics and an early development of double-consciousness (Higginbotham) (Bois).
The outset of the film depicts a return to childlike joy. Violet jumps into a pool at her engagement party, unconcerned with her soon to be ex-fiancé, or any of the other expectations held of her (al-Mansour). In the water, she is born again, unbothered by definitions of who she should be to contradict the reality of who she is. Her journey back into this mind space represents the rediscovery of a deeply rooted sense of freedom.
Viewers watch as Violet departs from and returns to happiness under her own terms. After identifying this parallel, it becomes important to provide some analysis for the bits in the middle. Namely, the ways in which an internalization of patriarchal forces works to keep her true identity suppressed and defined by others.
One can see how young black women like Violet descend into these identity crises. The policing of oneself is something young black children inherit through familial and social reprimanding and carry into adulthood. Lorde speaks on this unfortunate inheritance developed from the school of patriarchal constraint, which is further influenced by white supremacist ideation. She elaborates on the ways in which the suppression of black women's erotic nature keeps them ‘docile’, ‘obedient’, and ‘externally defined’ (Lorde 58). Violet Jones’ opening monologue in the film agrees with these external directives by detailing the nature of her childhood experience, through the scope of her relationship to her mother, “Like most black mothers, mine was consumed by the presentation of her child. I was a reflection of her as a mother. It was an ever-present source of anxiety, to prove that I was just as well-groomed as any white child (Nappily Ever After).” Here, it is important to recognize that while Lorde is correct about the erotic suppression of black women, her timeline is flawed. Her essay suggests erotic energy emerges out of sexual experiences developed during womanhood (Lorde 58). Despite this reading, in Nappily Ever After, it becomes apparent that freedom of expression is often suppressed early in life and may re-emerge later. Predating adulthood, an erotic-adjacent spirit flows rather freely; for surely the erotic is kindred to the carefree manner exhibited by children. This scene recognizes that the young can experience a similar “capacity for joy (Lorde 56).” Through this lens, Violet’s mother becomes symbolic of the criticisms young black women face when they attempt to freely identify themselves. For little black girls, time allotment for carefree living depreciate rather quickly. Society does not afford black children the construct of childhood in the same ways and lengths as their white counterparts. Thus, forcing young black girls to grow up faster than their peers and, under a unique set of oppressive circumstances, complicated by both race and gender (Crenshaw). Bundled in a cocoon where ideas of self-love and self-exploration become synonymous with malignancy, the development of the black butterfly remains incomplete. Violet’s character becomes an example of what false consciousness brought on by patriarchal forces do in the identity formation of black women. The film prompts a conversation about the ways in which the daily challenges of black womanhood are complicated by forces of external censorship, which in turn inflict deep wounds on the black feminine psyche.
The second scene in this media analysis pertains to a critical juncture in Violet’s story. The turning point, where she realizes it is her time to strike back, climaxes at her job. In this scene, Violet, a successful advertising agent, pitches a creative, non-traditional beer commercial to her boss. The commercial features a reversal of roles, in which women are not only enjoying a sports game but, become annoyed when men in their area become too talkative. The women then pacify the rowdy men by purchasing said beer. After an eloquent presentation and, kudos from a female superior, an overconfident, white male co-worker pitches a predictable commercial for the same product with half the flare. Violet’s boss, then hands the deal to the white male coworker after brief deliberation. Realizing that her talents were unappreciated, she quit, stating that she “think(s) it’s time to step outside the box (Nappily Ever After).”
Most apparent in this scene, is the privilege granted to white men (and all men, more generally) wherein, mediocrity is acceptable and often rewarded. Violet, here, is expected to accept this interaction and retain a veneer of strength. Lorde’s understanding of strength in this context, outlines it as an ‘illusory’ tool used by hegemonic forces to keep individuals complicit in their own oppression (Lorde 53). The types of hegemony demonstrated in Nappily Ever After and “Uses of the Erotic”, such as patriarchy and capitalism, work best when they seem like the natural conclusion to the evolution of human life.
Much like the “invisible hand”, driving modern capitalist societies, Violet’s identity development is guided by an unobservable force (Smith). A force that aims to reproduce certain social goods like docile femininity, often at the expense of the autonomy of the individual. By that same token, Lorde attempts to combat misrepresentations of the erotic as a transactional experience, where one party gains and the other suffers a net loss. By quitting her job, Violet’s character reinforces Lorde’s anti-capitalist positionality, and moves from a “travesty of necessities” to a “necessity for reassessing the quality of all the aspects of our lives” (Lorde 55). Violet literally steps outside of the box, violating traditional notions of how to be a good working woman;who takes only what is offered, never asking for more. Drawing on parallels from socio-historical events, such as Shirley Chisolm's attempt at the Presidency in 1972, one can see how black women are told to not act of their own accord. Instead, they are told to wait for white women, or black men, to break the barrier and ride their coattails into a more progressive future. These types of narratives serve a sexist, racist agenda aimed at crippling the determined ability of black women to take agency over their own lived experiences.
Consequently, after an examination of the way the themes from, “Uses of the Erotic,” pair with the external source, there are still lingering questions on the matter of black women’s agency to be true to themselves, within the context of an oppressive system. Expanding this conversation to a globalized sense of black womanhood, one can begin to imagine ways to complicate this argument. Simply put, in what ways do oppressive forces such as, patriarchy and capitalism, hinder healthy identity formation in black women on a more global scale? Surely this query could manifest in a variety of ways. However, with the historical legacies of colonialism prevalent in most of the global south, one can begin to imagine the ways in which Lorde’s notion of sexual and spiritual freedom are dwarfed by cases of economic disparities, health inequity, and other glaring social inequalities (Lorde 56).
Bois, W.E.B. Du. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, 1903.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. Racial Equity Tools, n.d. Document. 2 April 2018. <https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mapping-margins.pdf>.
Cultural Criticism & Transformation. Dir. Sut Jhally. Perf. bell hooks. Prod. Sut Jhally. 1997. Stream.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church. 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. Online Document.
Lorde, Audre. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power*." Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Random House, 1984. 53-59. Document.
Nappily Ever After. Dir. Haifaa al-Mansour. Perf. Sanaa Lathan. Netflix, 2018. Stream. 2018.
Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of a Nation. 1776.
Thomas, Trisha R. Nappily Ever After: A Novel. 2000: Crown Publishing Group, 2001. Hard Copy.