Breadth of Triple Oppression
The novel also provides insight into the essence and breadth of triple oppression, a theory that states a connection exists between various types of oppression, specifically classism, racism, and sexism, whether obvious or implied, and how these attributes, female body, hair, and dress, and in this case, specifically hair styling, serves as a catalyst and symbol of change (Lynn, 2014). Hurston utilizes the element of Janie’s differing hairstyles to depict African American culture and create a platform for the African American female’s voice. Janie’s development from oppressed and powerless to achieving strength and confidence in identity through discovery of voice is apparent throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God. Not only does Janie utilize her ethnicity apparent in her physical appearance, particularly hair, as an origin of power, but Janie also uses her newfound confidence to overcome the boundaries with which early 1900 American society endeavors to silence.
Symbolism of a Headscarf
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie fights the oppression she faces in relation to her hair and she comes to recognize this attribute as a source and reflection of her female identity as an African American woman. In Eatonville, Janie’s hair is recognized by her community as a beautiful source of long, abounding radiance. In contrasting opinion, Joe Sparks, Janie’s jealous husband, becomes envious of her beauty and forces her to cover her hair with a headscarf. In order to understand the oppression Janie encounters and the significance of her trials to gain freedom by way of positive self-concept of hair, it is necessary to gain a brief understanding of the historical and cultural significance of female African hair, specifically the headscarf. Traditionally, the African American female headscarf holds a unique position in the history of African dress both for its longevity and its potent significations (Siamonga, 2015).
The headscarf originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves a similar function for both African and African American women. Upon arriving in the colonies, African slaves adapted their hair to American culture via headscarves in order to protect their scalps from the sun and heat. In the sense of style, the African American female’s headscarf depicts the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and world view (Siamonga, 2015). However, in the United States, the headscarf seized a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. Headscarves evolved from the common practice of black females keeping their heads continually covered and became pervasive in slave culture as a symbol of the oppression they faced (Siamonga, 2015). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the oppression of African hair from the time of slavery to the contemporary age is a social trauma.
Symbol of White and Black Oppression
When considering the headscarf as a symbol of white oppression over blacks through the servitude and anguish of slavery, Joe’s demand that Janie must tie up her alluring hair in a headscarf takes on a multitude of different meanings. Although Janie lives decades after slavery was emancipated, Joe oppresses her with the restriction black slave women were forced to adopt because of slavery, which alters the dynamic of oppression from white over black to black over black, along with husband over wife, or male over female. Joe’s domination over Janie is a form of punishment for her beauty because he becomes jealous when other men begin to take notice of her hair. Before their marriage, Joe encourages Janie to flaunt her gorgeous locks, “Kiss me and shake yo’ head. When you do dat, yo’ plentiful hair breaks lak day” (Hurston, 30). But as marriage sets in, Joe turns his focus to protecting their union from the multiple single men in their community. As Janie and Joe continue to grow apart, Janie begins to hide her most intimate and personal feelings, “She found that she had a host of thoughts never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about.
Things packed up and put away in parts of her where he could never find them” (Hurston, 72). Janie’s conscious separation of the self can be seen as a form of self-preservation. The man who once promised Janie the world and what it feels like to be treated as a true lady is now a possessive dictator who forces Janie to hide her flowing main. But the townspeople cannot understand why Joe demands Janie hide her hair and consequently, her hair earns the admiration of those around her. Although Joe’s instinct to protect his wife from harm, in this instance, other men, is natural, his inability to express his emotions and his unwarranted punishment of wearing a headscarf results in misappropriation of his love for her. This escalating abuse gives way to the death of her love for Joe while also becoming a symbol of oppression.
Self-Concept of Body Image
Part of the developing self-concept of body image, or realization thereof, is affected by or reflected in the individual’s use of the body, including sexuality, specifically found in Janie’s hair. Although Janie’s allure is celebrated throughout the novel, her body and sexuality are oppressed by both Logan Killicks and Joe Starks. Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, is years older than herself and she struggles to find an attraction towards him, which makes the notion of sexual consummation of the marriage highly improbable. In addition, Logan complains of Janie’s “stingy” behavior toward him, which implies her lack of attention to his needs both sexual and non-sexual (Hurston, 26). In Janie’s second marriage to Joe, the more he controls her body, particularly her hair, the more her sexuality diminishes. Joe restricts Janie’s hair by demanding she wear a headscarf and he regulates her to the domestic sphere of the house and the occupational territory of the store, both places where his observant eyes do not need to look far to check on her. Joe’s jealousy stems from his own insecurities about his age and the masculine power Janie’s hair holds is too much for him to bear. Janie’s first two marriages stand in stark contrast to her union with Tea Cake, who celebrates and accepts her beauty, worth, and body. In this sense, Janie’s hair can be representative of a phallic symbol. When Janie is restricted to the confines of unfulfilling relationships, her hair is bound by a headscarf but when she forms a relationship with Tea Cake her hair is let loose as is her sexuality.
Unlike Logan and Joe, Tea Cake is determined to give Janie pleasure, affirm her beauty, and appreciate her gorgeous hair. But at this time Janie is still struggling to trust Tea Cake and in reaction to his intimate affection she retracts and stands “… up at once, collecting her hair” (Hurston, 104). By gathering her hair, Janie temporarily closes herself off from Tea Cake in an effort to protect herself from more harm because of her past experiences with men and the age gap between herself and Tea Cake. However, Janie eventually learns to trust Tea Cake, and throughout their adventures she slowly achieves total liberation. Janie is free to be herself and act upon her desires. Furthermore, Tea Cake teaches Janie the beauty of sexual intimacy and pleasure. This newfound freedom Janie finds within their relationship, prepares her to move on with life and retake the place she once left as an oppressed woman after Tea Cake’s death.