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.

Attack on YA

“Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” – Ruth Graham

The value of young adult literature was attacked by Ruth Graham on Slate where she begins her argument by saying, “As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.”Picture

I won’t lie. As an emerging writer and scholar, I have had my fair share of opinions about young adult literature. If you were to walk up to me and tell me that you thought Stephanie Meyer was the single most amazing writer that ever lived, I’d ask you for your ID. Well, because I’d assume you were too young to have one, and therefor too naive to know good literature. I remember reading all of the Twilight series as a teenager. And as an adult, I think, that was entertaining, but god, was that bad writing.

But that’s what this all comes down to, isn’t it? What is good writing? Let’s take a little look at history to begin, shall we? Edgar Allan Poe, arguably one of the best short story and horror writers to have ever lived, was once a critic himself of literature. He was ruthless against his competition. Poe worked on several literary magazines in his time and was known for his passionate opinions. He was particularly not fond of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But what does that matter now? English students are made to study both of them as a part of the all-powerful literary canon. This isn’t the only case where a now famous author – considered to be one of the messiahs of the literary canon – was once regarded as a fluke in their own generation. Often, the canon consists of writers that were not originally the “popular” stuff of the day or those writers that were forgotten or never realized. How, then, can we judge the value of literature based on its intention or its popularity? The point is, we often cannot tell what will end up becoming what students are taught in classrooms fifty years from now.

We don’t know if in a few decades young adult literature will become a whole new faction of literary study. We don’t know the possible longevity of that prospect either. But I can say that C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – a children’s book – and he is considered one of the 20th century’s best authors. And he didn’t just write children’s novels. Lewis was a brilliant scholar and philosopher.

Neil Gaiman didn’t just write Coraline. J. K. Rowling didn’t just write the Harry Potter series. Sherman Alexie didn’t just write The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Here’s the deal, folks: young adult literature is a style all its own. Yes, it is geared towards children and adolescents. Yes, publishers look for certain qualities in a novel considered to be young adult. But the value of the literature has nothing to do with the audience. The value of what we read should be better concerned with the crafting of the words on the page and the reaction of the general audience to the quality of their emotions.