Celie’s Button and the Perversion of Homosexual Desire in The Color Purple

To say that Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is not a homosexual suggests that her love and sexual liberation is invalid. A fellow student in one of my classes recently stated that he believed that Celie is a victim of homosocial desire rather than identifying her as a homosexual.

I had already planned on presenting to my classmates the idea that Celie was homosexual. It just seemed so obvious as I read. I was curious how they would react. Although homosexuality is tolerated amongst my peers, there is still discomfort when they must face it.

My professor, Dr. Tiffany M. B. Anderson, was aligned with my own personal analysis of Celie’s sexuality, as she had never before heard anyone disagree. But the majority of my class seemed opposed. They preferred the less challenging argument of homosocial desire. Because at a basic level, it makes sense.

Homosocial is a relatively new term to the literary community, and it refers to the relationships between men in classical literature. There are times, such as in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when characters appear to be much more affectionate and loyal toward the same sex. To a modern mind, this appears as homosexuality. Clearly these two men are gay if they are this affectionate toward one another. And anyone who reads Shakespeare knows that you really have to read between the lines to understand his innuendo. In 1985, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularized the term with her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. She presented the literary community with a solid explanation of these unusual relationships between men to the modern reader. Homosocial by itself simply means social interactions between people of the same sex. Homosocial desire as a complete term signifies the desire for the power and comradery of the same sex.

Now, before I go on to say that the homosocial argument is invalid, I’d like to explain why it can actually work. Celie is a submissive woman. She is abused by men and victimized by women. She is incapable of gaining her own control or power as a human being let alone as a woman. The presentation of Shug Avery provides Celie with a model of feminine power and how to achieve it. Shug is also the object of her sexual desire. But the power that Shug holds over men and other people in general is intoxicating to Celie. It allows her to become a sexual being rather than a victim of male desire. In this sense, Celie has homosocial desire for Shug Avery. There is no denying that.

However, I’d like to define what homosexuality is. The concept is foreign territory and tends to elude those faced with it. If you are not homosexual, you may not have a very solid foundation of what it means. Let’s just be honest, it is confusing. But the term homosexual just means people of the same sex. That’s it. That’s all homo (person) and sexual (of, relating to, or involving sex – most often just meaning biological reproductive capabilities that define gender). The term has come to define the romantic desire for and sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex. More accurately, Celie is a lesbian.

I’d love to agree that Walker presents us with a simple case of homosocial desire. It would be easy to create this as an argument. It would be easy to agree with, if it weren’t for the textual evidence that Celie is a lesbian – or at least has lesbian tendencies. This evidence includes her biological/natural desire for Shug. She feels a tingling that a woman might feel for a man when she first realizes her own bodily desire. But in addition to that, Celie is jealous of Shug’s love for Mr. And in addition to even that, Celie loves Shug. She has emotional desire for a woman. All of these contribute to the message that Celie is a lesbian. Now, does that mean she is solely a lesbian? No. But there is further evidence. She continues to have sex with Mr., this time altered by Shug’s interference, where she and Mr. attempt to have more pleasurable sex, and Celie doesn’t enjoy it. The evidence that Walker gives us points to a single conclusion. Celie is a homosexual.

Yes, she has homosocial desires. I would argue that these align more with her relationship to Sofia than her relationship to Shug. But in terms of Celie’s desire for Shug, it clearly crosses over the line of social to sexual. As Sedgwick asks us not to pervert the classical relationships between men by simply categorizing them as homosexual, I ask that we not pervert Celie’s lesbianism by simply saying that her desire is only homosocial.

Published by

Alexandra Stanislaw

Alexandra Stanislaw is the Editor-In-Chief and founder of Devise Literary. She is also an Assistant Editor for Hotel Amerika. Her work appears in Crab Fat Magazine ("The Good Friend" and "Tampa Raised You Up"), Ragazine, and Chicago Review of Books.

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