Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye explores why in a pluralistic society, under the pretense of being tolerant, we still prefer “whiteness” in our magazines and on our TV screens.
Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist, wrote and published her first book, The Bluest Eye, in the year 1970. In Morrison’s novel, she investigates what happens to a young, black girl living under the “white gaze” of 1940s America. The novel tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants to have blue eyes because she views herself as ugly. It’s a female Bildungsroman, telling her story as she grows up, black and female, in a racially discriminatory America. In the novel, Morrison unabashedly challenges western standards of beauty and demonstrates that the concept is socially constructed. Morrison’s novel was inspired by one of her black classmates who wished for blue eyes, much like Pecola. She thus wrote the novel to explore the roots and effects of racial self-loathing, wondering, “Who told her [classmate]? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?” Thus, Morrison’s novel is an attempt to “peck away at the gaze that condemned her”.
Morrison goes on to offer a decisive critique on the homogenising effect of the white aesthetic so prevalent in most of our cultures in the world. She rejects the beauty of the white consumer culture because it separates women “from reality”. Women of colour start internalising the crippling notions of beauty that this white culture propagates. This perpetuation of the dominant culture’s aesthetics and tastes, their standards of beauty and fairness, have always and still continue to contribute to racial tensions. The novel, in its endeavour to question the yardsticks of socially constructed notions of beauty, makes the reader confront his or her own reality.
Not only is the novel beautifully written, Morrison’s prose being so vivid, she is also able to implicate the reader in the destruction of this little girl and her dream to be “beautiful”. Morrison’s contempt for the racial bias in popular American culture, and her rejection of a white-defined form of female beauty are reflected well in her first novel. Pecola’s mother, Pauline, also internalises the damaging racial self-loathing because such has been the coloniser’s influence over the “weaker” masses. The coloniser goes on to “invisibalise” the “other”.
One’s visibility thus gets knotted with one’s beauty. In The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s self, her presence as a subject, remains unrecognised by those who have absorbed the white standards of visual attractiveness. In the tragic swamp of alienation, Pecola’s only saviour, her blue eyes, are ironically also symbolic of the colonial instrument of oppression. What strikes one as being crucial here is the homogenising effect that white culture creates. Much of it is interestingly manufactured as a product of western capitalism. Rampant consumerism, movies’ and media’s role are to be blamed for the skewed notions of reality which people of all colours embrace. Thomas Fick argues in his essay, entitled “Toni Morrison’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’: Movies, Consumption, and Platonic Realism in The Bluest Eye” (2000), that, “Movies are the centrally destructive force in [The Bluest Eye] not only because of the values they present but because of the way they present them: as flawless archetypes above and outside the shadowy world of everyday life.”
Despite the increasing presence of black celebrities, the white aesthetic still strongly defines beauty and worth in today’s racist culture. Many of the contemporary black celebrities, such as Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Vanessa Williams, and others, are whitewashed to appeal to white audiences, thereby denying the black body. Famous black women are often anglicised on the covers of magazines: their hair and skin lightened and curls straightened. “Just as English has become the lingua franca of the world, so the white, blondified, small-nosed, pert-breasted, long-legged body is coming to stand in for the great variety of human bodies that there are,” comments Susie Orbach, a British psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, writer, and social critic.
Media conglomerates thus fabricate lies. Advertisers clutch on to insecurity as a selling tool, instead of embracing empowerment. The many fairness cream advertisements and products, advertisements for silkier and shinier hair, hairless bodies, skinny bodies, and many other campaigns hold testimony to this. It is the coloniser’s body which echoes on our television screens, which we consciously choose to watch.
What The Bluest Eye as a piece of literature does is to subvert the “white gaze”. What we, as self-aware citizens in this world of majoritarianism, must do is to resist and disrupt the gaze. Morrison, time and again, does it with her words. As Adrienne Rich once said, “This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need to talk to you.”
Feature Image Credits: Teen Ink
Ankita Dhar Karmakar