Their Eyes Were Watching God: Gender Roles and Norms

“These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long...mules and other brutes had occupied their skins”: An analysis on Hurston's message of men dehumanizing women within Their Eyes Were Watching God

In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston through the protagonist, Janie, discusses the challenges that women have to face living in both a patriarchal and sexist society. Hurston continuously puts Janie in patriarchal relationships to show how men are constantly dominating and dehumanizing women.

Through the end of the book Janie accepted her power and was living in her truth and not society's standards. Janie conformed to societal pressures living in a patriarchal society but then accepted feminism and owned her independence to highlight women's freedom.

Through the symbols of Janie's hair and the mules, Hurston is able to convey the message that woman's femininity and power is constantly being destroyed by men. After Janie's husband, Joe, died Janie “Tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair.

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..she took careful stock of herself, then combed her hair and tied it back up again”(Hurston, 87). By Hurston describing how Janie “let down her plentiful hair” and then “tied it back” shows that Janie is still conforming to gender norms. Janie's hair being down symbolized her freedom, her independence, and her femininity. Throughout Janie's relationship with Joe, he was constantly dominating her and he didn't want her hair to be down because it would be giving Janie too much freedom.

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Janie tying her hair back up after Joe’s passing implies that even when a man isn't physically or verbally controlling women, they are mentally controlling women's femininity and power. Janie wants freedom as seen through her letting her hair down but also wants to appease men's insecurities. To add, Hurston uses the mules to show how men are constantly dehumanizing women as she described how “The brute jerked up his head, laid back his ears and rushed it into attack...goosing him in the sides to make him lose his temper...everybody was laughing at the mule-baiting but Janie”(Hurston, 56). Through the words, “rushed it into attack” and “everybody laughing but Janie” implies that men are laughing at the expense of women. By the mules which symbolized women and women's femininity being attacked and laughed at by men implies that men scoff women and are conforming to society's standards and are not accepting to women's femininity and the ideas of feminism. Janie is watching this behavior that is done by men and by Janie not laughing shows that she relates to the mules as the mules are suppressed and dominated by men just like Janie's relationships. Janie just like the mules are being controlled by the men and are getting angered by men controlling them but are just conforming to men dehumanizing her. To continue, in the introduction Come Closer To Feminism by Bell Hooks, Hurston uses Hooks ideas about feminism and ideas about male domination and patriarchy in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hooks explains how the world both males and females need to know the real definition of feminism and be educated on what a feminist actually is. Hooks also explains how men are controlling over women because of fear of women gaining power and control. Hooks writes, “Most men are disturbed by the hatred and fear of women, by male violence against women, even men who pretutpretate the violecne...but they fear letting go of their benefits”(Hooks, Come Closer To Feminism). By Hooks stating “fear letting go their benefits” shows that a patriarchal society exists to ultimately benefit men and to help men stay in power. Men dominating women don't want to see women gain benefits and power that men have. This connects backs to Their Eyes Were Watching God as Janie ties her hair up and as the men laugh at the mules which symbolize the women to imply that men’s fears and insecurities leads to a sexist and a patriarchal society. Men don't feel comfortable being violent toward women, but since it standard to control women, they part take in the act.

Hurston alluded to God and the bible to illustrate the message that greediness and dehumanizing others leads to a corrupt society. When Janie embarrassed Joe in front all of his male friends Hurston describes how “...his vanity bled like a flood...Janie robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible...the thing that Saul's daughter had done to David”(Hurston, 79). By Hurston stating the words, “robbed him” and “maleness that all men cherish” implies that men feel self conscious when women are in power. Janie by making men laugh at the expense of Joes manhood triggered Joe as he felt lost and inferior to Janie at that moment. This shows that men greed staying in power and enjoy having the benefits of living a patriarchal society. Men don't want to give up their power to women, and when men feel like their power is being taken away, they stifle any form of inferiority towards them. By Hurston also stating the words “an illusion” connects back to main idea that men will put on false acts in front of other men to impress the standards that are set in society. Men want to maintain their “power” they have, so by controlling and dominating women this proves their ability. This leads to a corrupt society as men part take in violent acts towards women which then creates a hierarchy and sets gender norms.

Women are at the bottom of the hierarchy whereas men are at the top. By Janie challenging the gender norms by making Joe feel embarrassed shows that she's slowly but not completely accepting her femininity. Hurston also alludes to God as she describes as God created a storm so that people can recognize their sins as she wrote how “ They sat in company with others in their shanties, their eyes were straining against the crude wall and their souls...they seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God”(Hurston, 160). By Hurston stating the words “crude walls and their souls”, “staring at the dark”, and “their eyes were watching God” implies that God created this storm in order to wash away all the sins and the evilness that was created in the world through sexism, hierarchies, and through patriarchy. God didn't want people looking into the dark and the crudeness that was present in their souls, so he literally washed away their wrongdoings. This implies that God wanted the people to get away from the evilness in the society which was shown through the darkness, but instead be seen as pure and good people with morals as seen though the light. God didn't want people to be nonchalant about problems in the world and to recognize these barriers that were set in this society. God wanted the people to work with one another instead of against to break down these barriers that were created. This connects back to Bell Hooks introduction, Come Closer To Feminism as Hooks explains that both men and women need to recognize the standards that were set in society in order to transform society into a feminist lifestyle as she stated how “

To end patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we need to be clear that we are all participants perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and our hearts, until we let go of sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action”(Hooks, Come Closer To Feminism). By Hooks stating how we need to “change our minds and our hearts” and replace it with “feminist thought and action” shows that our society in order to bring upon change needs to recognize the wrongdoings that is fueling sexism and patriarchy. In order to bring justices and freedom in an unjust world we need to think equal of one another instead of acting superior towards one another. This connects back to Hurston's theme that greed and dehumanizing others leads to a corrupt society because if sexes act haughty against one another, our world will continue to live in a patriarchal society. Just like how God washed away all the sins from the people and made them realize their wrongdoings, we need to recognize the mistakes we are making as well to modify our world.

Hurston juxtaposes Janie conforming to patrichary love to her accepting her femininity, independence, and freedom to convey the message that women need to live in their own truth. Janie describes her letting go of her past as “her shadow behind fell black and headlong down the stairs...the wind through the open windows had broomed out all the fetid feelings of absence and nothingness...combing road-dust out of her hair”(Hurston, 192). By Hurston explaining how her “shadow behind fell black” and Janie “combing road-dust out her hair” shows that Janie is accepting herself and is learning how to fully love herself as she lets go of the past. Janie is no longer conforming to men and learned that she doesn't need men in her life to be happy, and that she only needs herself as she is strong and independent. By Hurston juxtaposes Janie's changes shows that more women need to accept their femininity and value themselves without the presence of men. When Janie combed the dust out her hair it implied new beginnings for Janie and Janie accepting her freedom. Janie is also hopeful of her future and new beginning as she “pulled in her horizon...pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder.”(Hurston, 193). By Hurston stating the words “pulled in her horizon” and “draped it over her shoulder” implies that Janie is accepting change. The horizon which symbolized her freedom, she's pulled it in and embraced it. This shows that Janie is no longer obeying society's standards of what women are supposed to be like, as she is welcoming and appreciating her liberty. Janie had the weight around her shoulder of being a black women living in both a sexist and patriarchal society. Janie accepted her femininity as this let her be free and enjoy her life. This connects back to the theme that more women need to live in their own truth and accept themselves for who they are. When women accept their femininity, this brings upon change for themselves and other women. Women in order to be fully happy need value their strength and independence to live in peace. This connects back to Hooks introduction, Come Closer To Feminism, as Hooks stated that when she started rebelling against society standards, that's when she started fully living in peace. Hooks stated, “ When I began to resist male domination, to rebel against patriarchal thinking…I would find meaning in my life and a place for myself...I needed feminism to give me a foundation of equality and justice to stand on”(Hooks, Come Closer To Feminism). By Hooks stating the words “rebel against patriarchal thinking” and “meaning in my life” shows that feminism changes people's viewpoints of the world. Feminism allows people to ascend and to modify their lives by bringing in meaning. This connects back to Janie near the end of the chapter as in the beginning she didn't accept her femininity, but she accepted patriarchy, but Hurston juxtaposed her changes to the end of the chapter as she accepted her femininity. This implies that once women rebel against men's patriarchal ways of thinking, this will allow them to love themselves fully and live in peace and fulfillment.

In conclusion, Janie conformed to societal pressures living in a patriarchal society, but then accepted feminism and owned her independence to highlight women's freedom and independence. This connects back to today's world because women are still facing injustices and discrimination in politics and in everyday life. For example women are paid less money than men working in the same job and having the same amount of knowledge. There is a big wage gap between men and women which just like in Their Eyes Were Watching God creates a hierarchy. Also, there are still inequalities between men and women as seen through sports. Men's sports are more idolized than women's sports. Women aren't idolized in sports such as football as there is no professional league that allows women to play football. Women's basketball isn't viewed highly of as much as men's basketball. This implies that women still face discrimination as we are not seen as equal compared to men. Women have to work 10x harder than men to prove ourselves and to find value and freedom in society. This shows that if both men and women see these inequalities and accept feminism and feminist thinking, we would have a more just society. This also connects back to my hook “These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long...mules and other brutes had occupied their skins”: An analysis on Hurston's message of men dehumanizing women within Their Eyes Were Watching God This quotes shows that men are constantly dehumanizing and controlling women. Men aren't seeing how they are dominating women in everyday life scenarios as it has become a standard in society to view men at the top and women on the bottom of the hierarchy. Men want to maintain their privileges of having a patriarchal society as they fear women being in control and being in power. Men need to come to term with their insecurities and fear and learn feminist ways of thinking in order to end the patriarchy that was created. Men need to stop dehumanizing women and treating us as though we are less than but as equal in order to create a feminist society.

Works Cited

  1. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
  2. Hooks, Bell. Come Closer To Feminism: Passionate Politics. Pluto Press, 2000.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Their Eyes Were Watching God: Gender Roles and Norms. (2024, Feb 06). Retrieved from

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