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Across Time and Space: The ‘Lesbian Continuum’ and The Color Purple

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March 15, 2024

Trigger warning: sexual assault, homophobia, gender-based violence, child abuse

My favorite part of being a Comparative Women’s Studies major has been discovering the intersections between my lived experience and  academic scholarship. Learning new language to describe my lived experience has me often exclaiming, “so this is the term that describes what I have been experiencing!” Having the opportunity to simultaneously learn about myself and interrogate gender theoretically has been liberating.There is one term in particular that has stuck with me, what scholar Adrienne Rich terms the “lesbian continuum.” 

Rich introduces the term in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” as an affront to “compulsory heterosexuality,” or the ways that heterosexuality is mandated in patriarchal societies. This leads many women to believe they are or ought to be attracted to men because it is purportedly a “natural” function of their biology. The lesbian continuum offers a perspective on lesbianism that moves beyond sexual identity and encompasses intimate, homosocial encounters between women. In recognizing the fluidity of sexual orientation and identity, Rich affirms the complexity of women’s relational experiences, opening up the possibility to interpret the creation of organizing spaces by Black women as significant sites not only in the cultivation of the Black Feminist Movement, but in a larger process of de-centering men. According to Rich, the aforementioned would be considered “lesbian” contexts due to the cultivation of liberatory spaces in response to the critique of normative heterosexuality. With this expansive view, places such as churches or kitchen tables are named as communal spaces where women of color are able to meet, foster and sustain connection, and resist patriarchy within a woman-identified context. 

Initially, I did not understand how “lesbian” could be more than a descriptor for a particular set of sexual behaviors. I had always understood lesbian as a term that describes a sexual partnership with women, rather than a gender-based alliance. In retrospect, one of the first examples of the lesbian continuum I saw in media was the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple which I saw in theater at the age of 5 (yes, I know 5 is young for many of the themes, but it is never too early for Black feminism!)  

During my first viewing of The Color Purple, one character in particular, Celie, resonated with me deeply and in the more modern remake 17 years later, I still felt connected to her. Celie, the protagonist of the novel, is a young Black girl living in Georgia in the early 20th century. Throughout her life, she experiences various abuse at the hands of the men in her life, causing her to develop low self-worth and self-esteem. However, Celie reclaims her autonomy and sense of self through other women. The shift in Celie’s identity is represented in her song towards the end of the film I’m Here, where the lyrics summarize her journey to her newfound agency and liberation, serving as a reflection on her perseverance through her life experiences. 

The imprint that the women in Celie’s life had on her newfound sense of self, fundamentally altering her view of the world and how she engages with it, brought me to reflect on the women in my life. As I thought through the forces who sustained Celie throughout her life, I also considered who my mother relied on, who my grandmother and great-grandmother relied on, and who I rely on to persevere through life. The most love and inspiration I have received has been poured into me by the women in my life. My soul sistas, my elders, my ancestors, my partners; they are like a kaleidoscope mirror; reflecting my self-image alongside fractions of their being. 

Although I came away from the film with immense gratitude for the supportive network of women I have in my life, others were fixated on something else entirely. Prior to entering the theater, I recalled seeing public outrage about an exchange between Shug Avery and Celie’s character. Shug is a popular blues singer, first introduced as a past lover of Celie’s husband, Mister. Serving as the foil to Celie, Shug catalyzed Celie’s discovery of self-worth, love and strength through their multifaceted relationship. The scene they were referring to featured a single kiss between Shug and Celie, followed by them waking up in bed together. My mother, who accompanied me to see the film, whispered quietly,  “So this is what everyone was mad about?” The story of The Color Purple in all adaptations address themes of rape, domestic violence, police brutality and child abuse, but two women loving and cherishing one another without the presence of a man is where the line is drawn? Importantly, the encounter between Shug and Celie was the only sexual encounter throughout the entire film where Celie experienced consensual and pleasurable moments of intimacy. Yes, that specific scene did depict two women intimately, but the themes of relying on community as resistance and sisterhood are key, echoing the immutable boundaries of the lesbian-continuum.

These are the themes my elders felt compelled to expose me to as a young girl, and I remain appreciative. Inspired by the stories of her elders, Alice Walker curated the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery based on the experiences of her grandmother. In 2019, Walker stated, “It is safe to say, after a frightful life serving and obeying abusive men, who raped in place of “making love,” my grandmother, like Celie, was not attracted to men.  She was, in fact, very drawn to my grandfather’s lover, a beautiful woman who was kind to her, the only grown person who ever seemed to notice how remarkable and creative she was.”  The stories of Celie and Shug Avery and the other central characters, Nettie and Sophia, illustrates the realities of Black women in the early 20th century, and how centering the women in your life can be affirming, exceeding beyond a purely sexual connection.

In my academic work, through the lens of Black Feminism, I recognized that the pleasure and liberation of women loving women (wlw) relationships are not inherently erotic, but represent the pursuit of agency and autonomy. The Color Purple emphasizes the importance of reading the work of trailblazing writers in order to discover stories that are often silenced or unheard. The range of relationships for marginalized women has been stifled historically yet, I have learned, the lesbian continuum exists, and is alive and well.