How are gender and/or sexuality used to explore structures of power in one of the novels on the module syllabus?
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, (Their Eyes) gender and sexuality are used to explore patriarchal power structures. Before meeting Tea Cake, Janie suffers through two oppressive marriages, leaving her desiring sexual and spiritual autonomy. However, she finds that to achieve this is through adopting the masculine characteristics of those oppressing her. Thus she weaponises masculinity to attack and rebel against the repressive masculine power structure. By doing so, she gains agency and control. Janie’s sense of self progresses at the same rate as the narrative. This is, until at the novel’s conclusion, where she is forced to completely forsake her femininity in favour of a ruthless masculinity.
Janie experiences sexuality as both an empowering and repressive force. Initially, her perception of sexuality is joyous and innocent, but becomes progressively tarnished. Janie undergoes a sexual awakening when she first sees the pollination process. When she:
was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree. […] She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.
This sexual passage bears comparison to an overt description of sexual intercourse. The “dust-bearing bee sink[ing] into the sanctum of a bloom,” (Their Eyes, p. 15) is one lover sinking into another, whilst she arches her body “to meet the love embrace.” (Their Eyes, p. 15) The body-wide orgasm is comparable to how “the ecstatic shiver of the tree [extends] from root to tiniest branch.” (Their Eyes, p. 15) This passage explores unbridled sexuality. Without any barriers to restrict it, nature is free to implement its own reproduction process. Neal A. Lester argues that “the fact that Janie discovers her sexuality from lessons of nature […] signals for Hurston a naturalness and an acceptance of women’s sexuality.” Upon witnessing nature’s unfettered sexuality, Janie comes to terms with her own sexuality. This leave her desiring sexual autonomy. She is left “seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers.” (Their Eyes, p.15) She desires to “be a pear-tree, any tree in bloom! […] She had [the] glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life, but it seemed to elude her.” (Their Eyes, p.15) Janie identifies with the natural world. She has “glossy leaves and bursting buds,” (Their Eyes, p.15) but she laments when “the singing bees” (Their Eyes, p.15) do not come. They eventually do arrive in the form of Johnny Taylor who Janie’s grandmother catches “lacerating her Janie with a kiss.” (Their Eyes, p.16) In describing the act as a laceration, it is as if Johnny has scarred Janie’s innocence with his unbridled passion. It is described as “the end of her childhood,” (Their Eyes, p.16) and her grandmother states that “youse got yo’ womanhood on yah […] Ah wants to see you married right away.” (Their Eyes, p.17) Just as Janie is beginning to explore her sexuality, her grandmother represses it by proposing marriage.
Both Janie’s mother and grandmother were victims of rape and sexual abuse. Sexuality was weaponised against them thus disempowering them. They were no longer in control of their sexualities, but rather it was dictated to them by older white men. Janie views sexuality as empowering. However, for her mother and grandmother, it is subjugating. Fearing the same fate for Janie, her grandmother is keen to marry her off for her own security. She identifies that:
de white man is de ruler of everything […] de white man throw de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uhn de world. […] Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. (Their Eyes, p.19)
Whilst black men are slaves to white men, black women are even lower on the social scale. They are slaves to the slaves, saddled with the responsibilities that men impose on them. Their gender dictates their social position and disempowers them. “De nigger woman” (Their Eyes, p.19) is dehumanised when she is compared to a mule, an animal of servitude. To protect Janie from this, her grandmother marries her to Logan Killicks. Rather than providing her with security, Janie becomes insecure and sexually repressed. Logan and Janie’s marriage fails as they share no sexual intimacy. She has no physical attraction to him. She:
hates de way his head is so long one way [and how] his belly is too big too, now, and his toe-nails look lak mule foots. And ’tain’t nothin’ in de way of him washin’ his feet every evenin’ before he comes tuh bed. (Their Eyes, p. 32)
Janie’s disrespect for Logan is emphasised by how he forces her to do manual labour. Logan thinks that Janie should help him as this is what a good wife should do. He says that “mah first-wife never bothered me ’bout no choppin’ no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man.” (Their Eyes, p. 35) Logan imposes a masculine identity onto his first wife for how she persevered in her duty. However, by doing so, his wife lost her feminine identity. She is described “lak uh man.” (Their Eyes, p. 35) This implies that she is embodying traditional masculine characteristics such as a predilection for manual labour. By fitting into Logan’s structure of power, she loses any sense of her femininity. This contrasts with Janie who resists Logan’s attempts to impose masculinity onto her. When Logan orders her to help him “move dis manure pile befo’ de sun gits hot,” (Their Eyes, p. 41) she responds with “you don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine.” (Their Eyes, p. 42) Firmly believing that her domain is not that of manual labour, Janie rebels against Logan’s attempts to indoctrinate her into his gender. Janie’s rebellion continues when she runs away from Logan. Her decision to leave him “is an assertion of her independence, her claim to patriarchal privilege that has traditionally granted men the power to flee the home.” Janie is able to escape her oppressive marriage by embracing this masculinity, rather than having it imposed upon her.
Joe Starks attempts to impose his idealised version of femininity onto Janie. He tries to turn her into a subordinate wife by repressing her sexuality through the symbol of the hair-rag and by alienating her from her community. Joe Starks weaponises Janie’s gender and sexuality against her. He is aware of her beauty and is hyper-conscious of how other men desire her. He is paradoxically proud and worried about this. After Joe builds the town store and charges Janie with managing it, he becomes controlling about her appearance. He demands that she always tie her hair up in a hair-rag which “irked her endlessly. […] Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. […] Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. […] She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others.” (Their Eyes, p. 73) Janie is only allowed to be beautiful for Joe and nobody else. Despite this, instead of entirely hiding Janie away, Joe orders her to manage the store. Although he is jealous of other men charming her, he still places her in a visible spot to flaunt her beauty. He reduces Janie to a trophy wife that he can use to demonstrate his masculinity and thus assert his power. John Lowe argues that Joe Starks, even more so than Logan Killicks “wants a proverbial “nice girl” for public view.” Joe’s masculinity and power will increase if he is seen with a beautiful, obedient wife. He keeps Janie confined to the store and excludes her from social events. This isolates her from the community. For example, when a grandiose funeral for the mule is held, Joe forbids Janie from attending. He is adamant that Janie “ain’t goin’ off in all dat mess uh commoness.” (Their Eyes, p. 80) Joe becomes ever more like a white male slave-master by controlling Janie’s movement and behaviour. He tries to suppress Janie’s sexuality by making her a slave to his desires and needs. Having suffered years of abuse, Janie chides that “when you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” (Their Eyes, p. 106) Janie castrates Joe’s masculinity by insulting his manhood in front of his friends. “Not only has Janie dared to play a male game, she has “capped” Joe forever with this ultimate insult, and […] has effectively emasculated him.” In this role reversal, Janie weaponises sexuality to humiliate Joe. Instead of swallowing his abuse, she “dared to play a male game” and ended up winning. Janie’s adoption of masculinity further empowers her in the masculine power structure. As with Logan, she adopts masculine characteristics to resist Joe’s attempts to impose an idealised femininity onto her.
When Janie first meets Tea Cake, she has become so confident in her freedom that she is unwilling to relinquish it. Whereas Logan Killicks and Joe Sparks tried to force Janie to be something that she was not, Tea Cake assists her in developing her feminine identity. He sees her as an equal and wants her to work alongside him. Unlike Logan or Joe, Tea Cake offers Janie the option of saying no. This freedom of choice empowers her. When Tea Cake tries to defend himself after being accused of cheating, Janie “cut him short with a blow.” (Their Eyes, p. 184) This represents her growing power. Through suffering years of domestic abuse under Joe Starks, she employs these same tactics on Tea Cake. However, their confrontation devolves into angry sex:
they wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; til their clothes had been torn away; til he hurled her to the floor and […] kissed her until she arched her body to meet him. (Their Eyes, p. 184)
The raw animalistic imagery describing two lovers consumed by their passion is a stark contrast to Janie’s virtually asexual marriages with Logan and Joe. It is also a far-cry from the innocent description of the pollination process. This charts how far Janie has developed and how she has had to forsake her femininity to survive in a patriarchal world.
Tea Cake later beats Janie in a jealous rage. He does not do this “because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. […] He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.” (Their Eyes, p. 196) He beats Janie to affirm his masculinity, which is validated by his community. Tea Cake’s actions “aroused a sort of envy in both men and women.” (Their Eyes, p. 196) A definite masculinity is attached to this form of violence, as it expresses the power and control that a man has over his wife. Whilst throughout the novel, Janie has been departing from her femininity, at the novel’s conclusion, she is forced to abandon it. After Tea Cake becomes rabid and is about to shoot Janie in a jealous rage, she shoots him first. She recognises that “the fiend in him must kill and Janie was the only thing living he saw.” (Their Eyes, p. 246) She only shoots Tea Cake as “she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap.” (Their Eyes, p. 246) To protect herself she has to sacrifice her femininity and fully embody a masculine persona. However, this masculinity comes at the terrible cost of the death of Tea Cake and Janie’s femininity. To survive, she has to become ruthlessly pragmatic. For Janie to truly embrace this masculine persona, she has to let go of everything that she holds dear.
Janie transforms from an innocent feminine girl desiring sexual autonomy to a hardened and jaded woman who has become scarred by two oppressive marriages. To succeed in the masculine power structure, she finds it necessary to weaponise masculinity to gain agency and control. Not only does she weaponise it, but she also embraces it to the extent that it replaces her own feminine identity. However, this is the only way that she can succeed. For her to reach her desire of sexual autonomy, Janie finds that she has to sacrifice her femininity. In the masculine power structure she hopes to succeed in, there is no room for feminine sentimentality and emotion.
Word Count: 2200
‘I confirm that this piece of work contains no plagiarised material and that I have read and understood the section on Plagiarism in the School Style Guide.’
Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes Were Watching God (London: Virago Press, 1986)
Lester, Neal A., Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God: A student casebook to issues, sources and historical documents (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999)
Lowe, John, ‘Hurston, Humor and the Harlem Renaissance,’ in The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined ed. by Victor A. Kramer (New York: AMS Press, 1987), pp. 283-315
 Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (London: Virago Press, 1986) pp. 14-15. All subsequent references are from this edition and will be given in quotations after parenthesis in the text.
This essay was written for my Landscapes of American Modernisms module. This module focused on American texts written at the start of the twentieth century. We also studied a lot of texts from the Harlem Renaissance too. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was one of them.