Probing racial dilemmas in the Bluest Eye with the spyglass of psychology

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Date: June 2010
From: Journal of African American Studies(Vol. 14, Issue 2)
Publisher: Springer
Document Type: Author abstract
Length: 6,691 words
Lexile Measure: 1510L

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The aim of this paper is to help rekindle interest in the employment of psychology as a tool for interpreting female characters' racial dilemmas found in the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Rather than questioning the already well-established methods of analyzing them, it illustrates how modern science of the human mind can offer extra dimensions of valuable insight, especially in terms of validating the behavior and thoughts of such characters. Such insight might offer new angles from which to look at them whilst showing the relevance of the issues these characters deal with to the contemporary society. Although the limits of this article prevent the full exhaustion of such proposed hybridization, it invites the consideration of a more eclectic approach, whose lack of popularity appears to be unjustified in view of potential benefits available.

Keywords Black womanhood * Bluest Eye * Psychology * Racism

Full Text: 
  "A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl,
  and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by
  the evil of fulfillment" (Morrison 1999, p. 162).

As literary works do not exist in vacuum, they function across diverse cultural, historical and social planes. The play of the text (both extratextuality and intratextuality), as postulated by Wolfganf Iser, makes it possible for literature to enter into a rich dialogue with other disciplines. Thus, our argumentative move here is to expand upon the Bluest Eye by combining literary and psychological dimensions with the emphasis on the issue of black femininity. The classical literary method of analysis will be therefore corroborated by the employment of psychology as a tool for interpreting literary works. Our objective is to demonstrate what benefits such complementation can provide. We argue that psychological theories can provide grounds for more in-depth exploration, especially in terms of validating the behavior and thoughts of literary characters. In other words, such insight might offer new angles from which to look at them whilst showing the relevance of the issues they deal with to the contemporary society. Bearing this in mind, we chose the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison due to thorny ethical and social issues it raises about the female body and race.

Khayati (1999) aptly remarks that the Bluest Eye raises these issues in impressive yarn weaving, comprising a powerful political and moral nexus. In the present analysis we argue that in many respects they are still relevant to the reality faced by black women in the increasingly multicultural West. Although certainly much progress has been made, in many respects racism still holds out in the increasingly multicultural West. Despite ostensible tolerance and emphasis on equal opportunities, more complex, insidious and destructive forms of prejudice can still be found, paving the way for the so called "new racism". The new racism is characterized by the alleged assumption of egalitarianism or overt repudiation of white superiority as in the West modern norms and employment law render ethnic, national and sexual discrimination illegal (Barker 1981; Condor et al. 2006). At the same time, however, it also gives away social distance, whereby the less fortunate ethnic minorities are blamed for their lot that is often attributed to their culture and personality traits. This is particularly marked by disclaimers, such as "I have nothing against blacks, but ..." (Van Dijk 1992, p. 87).

Not only can such a pre-emptive strategy of mitigating the charge of racism protect the individual, but it can also serve interests of one's own group--the ingroup. It may highlight its more positive attitude and improve its public image to project a less pejorative view of a minority group (Condor et al. 2006). In Western culture, which is particularly preoccupied with appearance and materialistic success (Etcoff 1999) the analysis of the Bluest Eye, threading the plot of struggle with blackness against the odds of prejudice and discrimination, appears to be germane and justified.

The novel brings to the fore the predicament of being a black female in the predominantly white America in the 1930's and 1940's, the times that were certainly characterized by much greater overt racial tensions than it is the case now. However, ethnic identity and gender dilemmas are still both anecdotally and empirically linked to a decrease in self-esteem, adaptiveness and well-being (Schafer and Herbold 1999; Birzer and Smith-Mahdi 2006). Alexander (1998) goes so far as to metaphorically compare such suffering stemming from prejudice as being a part and parcel of nature. He dares compare it metaphorically to the fourth face of God, by which he means the presence of evil that allegedly coexists with Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.

By the same token, McKittrick (2000) illustrates the great discomfort felt by the black minority in the white-dominated society frequently denying them a sense of equality and inclusion by imposing unfair and inherently subjective views of place and race that become all enmeshed. Not only does Morrison's novel deal with the complexities of the tormented black self, but it also demonstrates the destructive steps black young girls and women can take to conform to the idealized uniform image of white beauty.

Pecola Breedlove, a victimized black girl yearning for her eyes to be blue, sees the role-model for perfection in Shirley Temple--a white child actress. Such glamorization of the idol whose race is different to the adorer can be found in both literature and psychological analysis, like in the research done by Spencer (1984) showing that African American children were convinced that it was not best to be black. This is reflected in the scene when a candy wrapper picture of "smiling white face blond hair in gentle disarray and blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort" (Morrison 1999, p. 38) embodies for Pecola the standards of perfect beauty that she aspires to. This is particularly evident in her adoration of Mary Jane as she longs for blue eyes:

  Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little
  Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face.
  Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of
  a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous.
  To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its
  sweetness is good. To eat the candy, and its sweetness is good.
  To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane.
  Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane (p. 38).

Viewed from this perspective, Pecola's striving for blue eyes bears some resemblance to Zora's admiration of white Madonna in The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) by Du Bois. Zora's self-reflective question about her own purity is intriguing indeed, especially when, unlike Pecola, she accepts her blackness and rises above the canons of white attractiveness. It is not difficult to notice that both Morrison and Du Bois are preoccupied with the issues of how to overcome and go beyond the premises of white ethnocentrism, casting doubt on the long-established concepts of race and culture. Moreover, they both provide us with insights into black psychology, arguing against any unconditional acceptance of white standards that are glamorized as superior--the acquiescence to whiteness, whose tragic consequences befall Pecola.

Her self-destructive and unrealistic expectations produce the illusion that the fulfillment of her wish would make her beautiful, bring her respect, and thus a better life. Literary critic Fick (1989) observes that there is much more to her wish than the need for a cosmetic change, suggesting that it reflects her more profound need to change the world by changing the way she beholds it. Notwithstanding the unrealistic character of such a wish, Pecola's understanding of the social judgment that is even today made on the basis of one's race appears to be sound.

There are empirical findings, for example, showing that even under the simplest of social conditions categorizing people into "we" and "them" for most trivial reasons leads to discrimination against outgroup members (Tajfel and Turner 1986). This only highlights the significance of such categorization processes made on the basis of more vivid criteria, like one's skin color as they have much more momentous consequences. Social exclusion, stigma and discrimination are just a few examples.

The impossibility of Pecola's wish undermines her self-worth, which is particularly manifest in her needs to belong and to be accepted. Bakerman (1981) brings to the fore the fact that most female characters in Morrison's novels are engaged in the quest for a sense of worth, a sense of belonging and search for their own identity. It also ties in with correlational studies confirming that the anxiety over social rejection and exclusion is intertwined with self-esteem (Baumeister and Leary 1995). An equally important point to stress is that Pecola's conviction of her own ugliness stems from the society's judgment of her being unattractive rather than from herself:

  ... long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover
  the secret of her ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored
  or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike ...
  (Morrison 1990: 34)

The intensity of her feelings of shame is profound indeed. That subjective infringement of one's self-respect, which stems from the imposed sense of inferiority, contributes to her giving in to the cultural disregard for her own race. Walther (1990) notes that internalizing the white standards of beauty leads Pecola to a state of social invisibility and worthlessness. She offers very little resistance to it and accepts such a pejorative social judgment, submitting herself to destructive humiliation. It also effectively staves off any potential anger that might otherwise challenge that contempt, leading to the state of learned helplessness.

This state of pessimism is engendered by putting negative events down to internal, stable and global factors (Seligman 1975). In other words, we have grounds to suspect that Pecola blames herself not others, for not being white, remains convinced that the social contempt for the black will not change over time and thinks that this contempt would show up in all aspects of her life. As Matus (1998) puts it: "Everywhere the message resounds in American culture that black cannot be beautiful; indeed, as the Breedloves' self-loathing demonstrates, the blacker, the less beautiful" (p. 41). Morrison's novel therefore brings to the fore the correspondence between seeing and being seen. It seems that Pecola believes that all the suffering and non-acceptance she experiences can be attributed to how she is perceived by others. Eventually, as she is only able to see through the eyes of other people, she gradually loses the capacity to make an independent assessment of herself.

In contrast, Claudia MacTeer and her sister Frieda are not ashamed of their blackness and resist the temptation to fall for the standards of white beauty. They are also the only figures anticipating the safe delivery of Pecola' baby and believing in its beautiful blackness. Such attitude pays homage to the flexibility of the human mind that can adapt to the hostile environment despite the odds and is not as fixed at childhood as Freud's psychoanalysis predicts it is. Thus, to some extent at least, it challenges the validity of psychoanalytical judgments.

The sisters' defiance might also be made sense of in light of the cognitive dissonance theory by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). This theory sheds light on the feeling of mental discomfort originating in holding discordant thoughts, making one come up with new ideas with a view to reducing the degree of that discord. Here it means that the sisters learn to question the legitimacy of prejudice as they make sense of the conflict between self-acceptance and the society's intolerance of their looks. At the same time, however, it must be mentioned that this explanation appears plausible only if one recognizes the importance of the inculcated defiance against the imposed white aesthetics (Moses 1999). The parental influence in this process should not be underestimated when exploring the inoculating guidance the two sisters were offered.

This is clear, for instance, in their mother's encouragement to nurture and respect black cultural values so as not to succumb to the myth of the idealized image of white attractiveness. It also highlights the premium put on shared experience, oral tradition and mutual support that are all vital in Afrocultural social orientation (Boykin et al. 1997). The importance of these values was not underestimated by Fanon (1952) who argued that cherishing them might preserve the native cultural originality and decrease the feelings of dependency on the dominant white culture. Although his psychoanalytical comparison of such dependency to the cultural subjugation of women may be less accurate today with more female than male students entering university and with more and more black people celebrating their heritage, the influence of Fanon's message cannot be underrated in the changes that we can observe today.

However, the relevance of cultural values in strengthening social support networks has changed rather little. African American girls adhering to Africentric cultural values were found to be more likely to have a higher self-esteem, experiencing more social support and greater life satisfaction (Constantine et al. 2006). A recent interview study (Terhune 2008), for instance, illustrates how badly needed such values are by black American women struggling with the question of both cultural and social alienation in a predominantly white community.

Claudia, who narrates the story both from the perspective of a child and an adult looking back, in particular is perplexed by this question as she attempts to fathom why black Americans are in awe of white patterns of aesthetics and adore little white dolls. This becomes apparent when she fiddles with the white doll, which might also be interpreted in terms of safely displaced irritable aggression (Berkowitz 1989) that is turned into active search for the answer to that question and creative problem solving (Bordessa 2006). Hence, Claudia comments:

  I fingered the face, wondering at the single-stroke eyebrows;
  picked at the pearly teeth stuck like two piano keys between
  red bowline lips. Traced the turned-up nose, poked the glassy
  blue eyeballs, twisted the yellow hair. I could not love it. But
  I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was
  lovable. (Morrison 1990: 14)

Only with time does she recognize that the source of the unjust power disadvantaging blacks does not come from white girls as they are merely recipients of that power sustained by unfair hierarchy that is condoned by the rest of society. Earlier on, however, that anger provides protection for her developing identity, endowing her with a sense of control. This coping style (Somerfield and McCrae 2000) can indeed act as an effective tool for both buffering stress and keeping the self-esteem high, thus enabling her to respect her blackness.

Although the preference for a particular race is influenced by social factors, like those described by Morrison, cross-cultural research (Perrett et al. 1994) found that people's perceptions of what is attractive are culturally convergent and even infants are found to look longer at the same photographs that adults assess as handsome (Langlois et al. 1990). Narrow cheekbones, pert noses, high eyebrows and small chins are found to be hallmarks of appealing femininity, whereas large eyes, prominent cheekbones and large chins are regarded as most attractive in men (Cunningham 1986).

Moreover, both men and women were found to be attracted to baby-face features as they evoke feelings of benevolence and tenderness (Zebrowitz 2005). In the West such traits are associated with popularity, well-being and assertiveness (Feingold 1992), all of which are also evaluated as essential components of material success. The research in this stream also debunks some of the culturally imposed monopoly on attractiveness held by whites and underscores the much greater significance of individual characteristics regardless of one's race. Thus it also vindicates Claudia and Frieda's respect for black aesthetics.

This, however, does not mean that physical appeal and even similar background offer automatic protection from bigotry. This is well illustrated when Pecola goes to Mr. Yacobowski's shop and is confronted with "the total absence of human recognition--the glazed separateness." (Morrison 1999, p. 36):

  She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to
  lodge. And something more. The total absence of human
  recognition--the glazed separateness. She does not know what keeps
  his glance suspended. Perhaps because he is grown, or a man, and
  shea little girl. But she has seen interest, disgust, even anger in
  grown male eyes. Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge;
  somewhere in the bottom lid of distaste. She has seen it lurking
  in the eyes of all white people. The distaste must be for her, her
  blackness. (p. 6)

Paradoxically, the common sense would suggest that Mr. Yacobowski, being himself an immigrant, should be able to overcome such blatant prejudice. His behavior, however cruel it may be viewed, should not be labeled as unusual, though. There are studies (Major et al. 2002), for instance, showing that some disadvantaged out-group members who manage to achieve a relative status as a minority can indeed take radical steps to appear more like the privileged ingroup. In other words, by looking down on those of their own kind who are worse off, they attempt to lessen their own stigmatized outgroup distinctiveness. Such behavior might be also elucidated in light of the social reflection theory (Allport 1954), which in essence means that the contact with other ethnic groups increases one's recognition of status imbalance and leads to greater preference for the advantaged.

This phenomenon is well illustrated by another character, Geraldine, who adapts to the standards of a glamorous white family, setting herself apart from her African roots by giving her son a lesson in the social hierarchy. She makes effort to instill in her son, Louis, that there is a profound difference between colored people and niggers: "Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud ..." (Morrison 1990, p. 67). She also takes action to make him physically stand out from the latter group by systematically cutting his hair to hide any indication of woolness and lotioning his face to reduce its blackness. Her efforts appear to be clearly aimed at protecting her son from his racially disadvantaged status based on the unfair relations of power that Lundgren (1992) describes as still bearing heavily on personal advancement and quality of life.

Nonetheless, Louis yearns to play with other black boys and wants to "smell their wild blackness, rolling in dirt with them" (p. 68), which testifies to his childlike unfamiliarity with prejudice and unawareness of its profound repercussions. Having been advised by his mother of the above difference, his lack of direct experience and ignorance of the social status that goes along with it, makes his child-like self control succumb to his feelings rather than the knowledge his mother tries to impart. This is not unnatural as emotional needs are proven to heavily influence and not infrequently hold sway over cognitive needs (Frijda 1986), all the more if the mind is still developing and adult self-control (Baumeister et al. 2000) is years away.

Constantly forbidden to play with them, he decides to take his discontentment out on Pecola and sets his sights on picking on her when she visits his home. Contrary to the common sense, however, it does not mean that his frustration alone brings about aggression. Frustration only produces readiness to aggress (Berkowitz 1989), which is mostly realized only if a particular object or person is perceived as available and relatively helpless (Rogers and Prentice-Dunn 1981). Even this alone is often not enough to trigger violence as its target often needs to be first derogated so as to make the infliction of pain easier (Glass 1964). Does it mean that such hostile "blowing off steam" would calm Louis down and reduce the likelihood of his bullying Pecola again as the hydraulic theory of aggression by Freud predicts the release of built-up tension?

Behavioral research suggests that his animosity would be actually likely to intensify, as having a violent swipe is found to increase the readiness for future hostility (Grenn et al. 1975). Some signs of such animosity can already be found in the same scene when Louis throws a helpless cat against the window, accusing Pecola of having killed it. In almost the same scene the cat with "its blue eyes closed, leaving only an empty, black and helpless face" (Morrison 1990, p. 71) reflects a powerful metaphor, "suggesting the cultural vacuum in which blacks who aspire to white norms may eventually find themselves" (Peach 2000, p. 41).

As Pecola along with Geraldine, Pauline and Maureen strive to conform to the established white concepts of femininity, they learn to disdain their own blackness and this in turn results in their self-loathing and distortion of the self. Peach (2000) writes:

  The authentic black self is buried so deep in some of the characters
  that their perception of themselves amounts to self-hatred. This
  self-loathing is strongest in those characters who are farthest
  from their communities; for what they hate most is being different
  since difference brings abuse and cruelty. The self-hatred is often
  focused on the body as the most obvious indicator of race; hair and
  color ... (p. 36)

Black self-loathing, however, is not only all about the dislike of the skin color. It can also result in shame of anything that is associated with the African culture, like reluctance to partake in and cherish one's tradition, language, clothes or music (Carlson and Ridder 1994). This might also take the form of internalizing the white supremacism so that one's own beliefs, attitudes and values are based on the general social judgment and stereotypes. Although small children can use the stereotyped label and its connotation without knowing the labeled group, as they grow older they realize what group is meant by the label and their negative feeling is crystallized into a negative stance, thus leading to disrespect for that group. Consequently, groups that are low in prestige and influence are most likely to be looked down upon (Potter and Wetherell 1987).

This process can be further complemented by social-cognitive developmental theories of prejudice (Gottfried and Phyllis 1977), whereby children are influenced first by their own feelings and proclivities and only later do they develop perceptions of others in relation to themselves. Nevertheless, the skin color appears to be hardly ever irrelevant to oneself. At this early stage it is perceptions (external features) rather than cognitions (inner qualities) that prevail and children identify themselves according to whom they resemble. It is only when their cognitive skills develop further that they are able then to grasp that one's ethnicity is determined by ancestry rather than any freedom of choice.

Needless to say, such grasping alone holds little potential for eliminating prejudice and having seen its ugly head rear some individuals are ready to take radical steps to blend in with the privileged group. This is exemplified by Pecola's mother, Pauline, who embraces the Euro-American values, but not being able to look like Jean Harlow, she finds refuge in a world of white family household where she becomes a servant. There she finds what she perceives as beauty, harmony and order, but ironically this in turn separates her from her own family and the already weak daughter-mother bond is strained yet again.

During Pecola's visit to that "white house", she accidentally splashes juice on the floor which makes her mother angry and consequently frightens the little white girl her mother looks after. Pauline's response is to scold her own daughter while consoling the other girl. To make things worse, even after Pecola is raped by her father, Cholly, and lies almost unconsciously on the floor, Pauline does not trust, nor believes what happened to her daughter. Alexander (1998) suggests that such maternal denial may stem from Pauline's rigid religious conceptions of good and evil, preventing her from recognizing that a man like Cholly could be a blend of both. His hypothesis ties in with studies (Wai and Young 2004) that highlight a strong negative correlation between deep religious faithfulness and cognitive complexity, which is the capacity for advanced thought processing. It is noteworthy that here the maternal denial affects cognition (not accepting the facts), emotion (not being distraught), morality (denying any wickedness) and passiveness (failing to respond).

It might seem that such a traumatic event, like family rape, must have been too harrowing to ignore. The human mind, however, is quite adept at turning a blind eye to the information that is too inconceivable and frightening to pay attention to (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). Rather than processing it consciously, it is all too easy to ignore it by putting it away in a kind of "black hole of the mind" (Cohen 2002, p. 9). Thus, the meaning of the situation must fit into the existing expectations so that any slightest hint at their disconfirmation needs to be ignored, distorted or reinterpreted as insignificant.

In a similar fashion, human memory can reconstruct the past so as to fit the present expectations. The conclusions drawn from research on memory suggest that recollections of one event can be changed profoundly by other subsequent events and their interpretation may also depend on other factors, like the mood or evaluation of some other events (McDonald and Hirt 1997). This process may function as a stress-coping mechanism, easing adaptation to the new, like the aftermath of rape. This can be easily spotted in Claudia's narrative:

  We remembered the knuckled eyes of schoolchildren under the gaze
  of Meringue Pie and the eyes of these same children when they
  looked at Pecola. Or maybe we didn't remember, we just knew. We
  had defended ourselves since memory against everything and
  everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all
  gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong,
  devious and arrogant. (Morrison 1990: 150)

Such self-reproach by Claudia conveys the implicit message that Pecola's eventual insanity was, at least partly, brought about by her tragic inability to cope with her experiences, leading her to give in to the culturally imposed standards of acceptance and concepts of beauty.

Even Claudia is socialized to "love" Shirley Temple, although she acknowledges that: "the change was adjustment without improvement" (p. 16). This admission suggests that the 'love' has more to do with public compliance than her private acceptance of such beauty standards that many a black woman look up to. This is corroborated by the final words uttered by Claudia:

  And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we
  were not free, merely licensed ... We switched habits to simulate
  maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing the new
  pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the World. (Morrison
  1990 163)

Such examples of self-blame led to arguments (Kella 2000) pointing out the great extent to which black communities are subjected to racism, revealing divisions within black communities themselves. Werrlein (2005) explains that the apparently lonely suffering does not affect just one individual, but it also degenerates families and communities. A bitter accusation of the black community trying to comply with the revered ideals of white attractiveness can be discerned here. Claudia concludes:

  All of our waste which we dumped on [Pecola] and which she absorbed.
  And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.
  All of us--all who knew her--felt so wholesome after we cleaned
  ourselves onher. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her
  ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her
  pain made us glow with health ... Even her waking dreams we used--to
  silence our own nightmares... 'and yawned into fantasy of our
  strength ... She, however stepped over into madness, a madness which
  protected her from us ... (Morrison 1990: 163).

The metaphorical meaning of such madness should not be underestimated here. It might, for example, be interpreted as reflecting the phenomenon of passing for white (Bennett 2001) that usually takes the form of shunning one's African origin and culture, thus raising serious identity dilemmas. In Pecola's case it clearly evolves into pathology. Her talking to her imaginary friend that others cannot see gives away visual and auditory hallucinations that usually accompany severe psychosis. Her belief in having blue eyes shows delusional thinking and her worry about someone who might have even bluer eyes is a symptom of high paranoid anxiety.

Davis (1982) suggests that psychic violence, like that experienced by Pecola, can be much more destructive than physical brutality. Her hypothesis finds support in mental health research (Kring et al. 2006) linking such a profound loss of contact with "reality" to social deprivation, discrimination and aftermath of child abuse that Pecola often had to deal with on her own. In other words, it looks that most likely it was not a single factor that brought about her condition as currently it is understood to be triggered by multiple interacting factors. Consequently, one can conclude that it was not her racial dilemma or incestuous rape alone that pushed her over the edge of sanity, although they most likely exacerbated her severe psychosocial stress, which was probably the main reason. Modern mental health research would indicate that her downfall would have been less likely if she had received more comfort from her family or friends--the elements that can comprise powerful networks of social support against great distress, serving as the source of strength in times of trials and tribulations (Taylor et al. 2001).

The need for that strength is evident in the mental health issues that have been found to be compounded by an interlinked web of discrimination and social or material deprivation that blacks are exposed to (Baldwin 1984). Gillan (2002) identifies the source of such predicaments as originating in the unnatural man-made class boundaries that bear heavily on citizenship, gender, race and even history. This turns out to only feed the vicious circle of academic failure (Feagin 1992), poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction (Belcher et al. 2000), to name just a few plights that blacks suffer in a disproportionate way. It does not mean, however, that Pecola would necessarily have to be condemned to full blown psychosis for the rest of her life, like some readers of the Bluest Eye might be led to believe. There is a possibility that she might spontaneously recover normal functioning or that at least some of her symptoms might ease (Jauch and Carpenter 1988).

The current Western obsession with appearance and materialism might sometimes prompt other cultures to toy with the idea of putting a question mark over its sanity. In this respect the critique of society the Bluest Eye offers is still germane today, and so is its message of human dignity together with justification of defiance against social inequalities (Dittmar 1990). Doubtless, the concept of beauty is far from insignificant in our society and is usually defined in terms of white physical features conjuring up an image of a slim, light-skinned woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. Needless to say, it is hard for white women to live up to such a standard, let alone the dark-skinned. Furthermore, the notion of beauty and the inherent status of the body often function as a yardstick of one's own identity, thus constituting the symbol of success in the contemporary Western culture (Kubisz 2000). It is also a concept linked to politics that is often embedded in imperialism; Peach (2000) points out:

  That which was [is] 'white' (or Anglo, male, Christian, wealthy)
  was [is] extolled and infused with connotations of benevolence
  and superiority, while that which was [is] not white (or not Anglo,
  female, non-Christian, poor) was [is] debased and associated with
  malevolence and inferiority. (p. 33)

On the one hand, these days the racial prejudice is not as valid as it used to be in the not-so-distant past. BBC news presenters, for instance, are often of different races. As stores are supplied with black, Latino and Asian Barbies, the concept of white beauty as the ultimate embodiment of perfection is not as robust as it was in the past. Black American children grow up more pleased with black dolls than they used to in the 1940's (Porter and Washington 1979). Illustrious institutions and universities realize the stigma they would face if the race was, at least officially, one of the recruitment criteria. On the other hand, it cannot be taken for granted that that the perceived relation between skin color and beauty, as understood in the West, has lost its full significance in the contemporary world.

Experts in advertising claim that placing an African American woman on the cover of a magazine still decreases its general desirability. This can be corroborated by research exploring some of the high-selling magazines, like Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Vogue. The study revealed that out of 205 white models only ten were African American. It is also worth noting that in 1996 alone Afro-American women spent three times more per capita than white women on various kinds of cosmetics (Etcoff 1999). Such pressure is also kept alive by contemporary culture, although the recent trend of looking up to Michelle Obama as a fashion expert is encouraging in breaking the old preconceptions. Not only can her achievements be seen in terms of rebuffing negative stereotypes about black education, but also in terms of reasserting the right of women in general to play an active and professional role in our modern society, the factors which Fanon (1952) championed as building blocks of the black middle class. Thus she can be proud as both a black and an American, defying the idea of double consciousness that would entail looking at herself through the eyes of others with contempt and pity (Du Bois 1903). Setting the example of successfully integrating the two concepts, which Moore might refer to as a single-minded consciousness (2005), the inspiration she is likely to provide seems to be too great to be underestimated.

The proverb says that beauty is only skin deep and therefore cannot account for the true characteristics of a person. Although most people know it, few are aware of the great extent to which the halo effect makes physical attractiveness or skin color automatically activate the association of personality characteristics, like kindness, creativity and intelligence (Anderson and Seidikides 1991). Consequently, when all such positive (or negative traits, like meanness and aggressiveness in case of those deemed as unattractive) go together, it is often realized through the self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal 1994). In other words, expectations are made about what another person is like, which influence how the individual is treated and which cause that individual to behave in accordance with the initial expectations.

Raising the awareness of identity dilemmas suffered by the disadvantaged appears to be vital for any society to be fairer and more meritocratic. Such positive action might be taken by the joint collaboration of literary scholars and psychologists. It is recognized, however, that the current climate of general non-cooperation and suspicion is not conducive to this endeavor to be very fruitful, at least not initially. The differences between the two groups, which come from contrasts ranging in approaches to epistemology, ontology or even jargon their dissimilar and complex theories are described in, might indeed seem to be too off-putting for both sides.

Nevertheless, the two disciplines do not have to be mutually exclusive as they might be viewed as offering distinct angles to look at similar phenomena. The specialized language might be also broken down into more comprehensible parts without losing meaningful details. Psychology research findings fleshed out by vivid literary context might seem more graphic and convincing to policy makers working on positive changes. In a similar fashion, the deeper understanding of literary character's experiences or their relevance today can be enhanced more if it harks back to the contemporary study of the human mind, just as it was presented in the above analysis of some, but obviously not all, tribulations suffered by black female characters in the Bluest Eye.

Published online: 30 June 2009

[c] Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009


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DOI 10.1007/s12111-009-9100-y

A. Zebialowicz

Department of English and Creative Writing, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK


M. Palasinski (*)

Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YF, UK


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A361554426