Stereotypes pitting women against other women abound in media and literature. Catfights are popular click-bait headlines on social media, and many “reality” television shows rely on drama between and among women. In this version of the world, men’s attention and approval are presented as what women should aspire to gain; but attention and approval are also limited commodities for which women must compete. But in unscripted reality, the same patriarchal culture which creates a warped view of women in media also unites women against men’s marginalization—women defy the stereotypes time and time again. Patriarchy motivates women to strengthen their bonds with other women, women’s cultural heritage and experience shape relationships. These relationships manifest in comparing Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. In twentieth century America, both Asian American and African American women struggled against the white patriarchal system, while the vestiges of their separate cultural heritages—one Confucian and one slave-like—altered the nature of their relationships with their fellow women.
The Joy Luck Club details how Chinese Confucian principles shape mother-daughter relationships created out of necessity. Confucianism’s Five Bonds dictate deference of a wife to her husband; a son to a father; and a younger brother to an elder brother. However, Confucian principles indirectly ignore women’s relationships, because women—especially daughters—were not valued. Mothers instead created a “sixth bond” to take responsibility for their daughters since the culture refused to.
Amy Tan tells parallel, intergenerational stories of mother-daughter relationships which show the underlying desire of a Chinese mother. Tan tells sixteen stories from the players of the Joy Luck Club: eight stories from the four mothers, and eight from the four daughters. Lindo Jong and Waverly Jong’s relationships with their mothers exemplify filial protection and solidarity. Lindo Jong’s mother arranges for Lindo to marry into a wealthier family in China to give her the best life possible, though with her restricted means. In turn, Lindo pushes her own daughter, Waverly, to become a renowned chess player. Each mother takes responsibility for her daughter’s success. Although context and setting change the definition of success, both mothers express the unspoken sixth bond of Confucianism. While An-Mei and Rose relate to their mothers differently from Lindo and Waverly’s, Confucian principles underlie their relationships, twisting beneath. An-mei Hsu grows up in China and watches her mother make physical sacrifices for both An-mei’s grandmother and An-mei herself. When she arrives in America, An-mei pushes her daughter, Rose, to take a stand for herself in ways she never could.
The women in The Joy Luck Club face adversity because they are women of color from strictly patriarchal cultures, but also because maleness and whiteness is privileged in American society. As lecturer Bella Adams notes, the Chinese American women in The Joy Luck Club are “triply vulnerable…as a Chinese in a Euro-American world, as a woman in a Chinese man’s world, as a Chinese woman in a white man’s world” (Adams 4-5). Their vulnerability leaves them with little cultural support. A mixture of racism and patriarchy bar them from receiving help and support from Chinese men, white men, and even white women. Instead, they must support each other to survive. The mothers, Lindo Jong and An-mei Hsu, are particularly cognizant of being a woman in a Chinese man’s world—from birth, they are taught they are secondary to men. Chinese scholar Gao Xiongya outlines “a brief sketch of a woman’s life in old China, divided into three stages: as a girl, as a wife, and as a mother” (Gao). Their culture considers the girls less valuable because they cannot retain the family name when marrying, nor care for their parents after marriage. This limits the ways in which a woman can be successful. Chinese mothers do their best to make the most of what is available for their daughters. Giving away a daughter in marriage appears not to balance with the sacrifices a mother makes for her daughter, but a mother achieves her success by ensuring her daughter’s.
What happens to Lindo Jong exemplifies how women live in a male-focused world: Lindo’s mother arranges for her to marry into a wealthier family at the age of two. Mothers found husbands for their daughters with the aid of a matchmaker. When Lindo’s future mother-in-law, Huang Taitai, meets her for the first time, the matchmaker emphasizes that Lindo is “a strong horse. She will grow up to be a hard worker who serves you well in your old age” (Tan, Joy 50). For Chinese women, strength entailed son-bearing. Since bearing sons and caring for her husband’s parents established a wife’s value, the matchmaker’s praise is significant. Additionally, because Huang Taitai’s family lives farther up the valley—whence they can literally look down upon Lindo’s family—Lindo’s mother wants to ensure that her daughter will move up to their station. When a flood forces Lindo’s family to leave their home, her father decides to leave Lindo behind with Huang Taitai’s family, whose home was spared from the flood. While her father does not want the extra burden, Lindo’s mother likely has different motivations for leaving Lindo behind. Mothers wielded domestic power, and Lindo’s mother wants to secure for Lindo a better life. Lindo’s mother treats her cruelly—not because “she didn’t love [Lindo, but] so [that she] wouldn’t wish for something that was no longer hers” (Tan, Joy 51). Lindo’s mother recognizes that it will be harder for Lindo to leave if she dotes on her, and she wants Lindo to easily move on to a better life. In turn, Lindo accepts her mother’s treatment and fulfills her duties as a daughter and wife. This behavior follows the Confucian model of symbiotic power and respect, though Confucian theory does not formalize the mother-daughter relationship. Even despite later abuse from her husband and Huang Taitai, Lindo respects her mother’s efforts by remaining a dutiful wife. But she eventually manipulates the cultural expectations of her marriage vows to escape by making Huang Taitai end the marriage. Thus, Lindo avoids the shame that fleeing would bring upon her family. Lindo respects her mother’s wishes and emphasizes a deep mother-daughter relationship model.
Although Confucianism dominates Lindo’s experience in China, her American-born daughter, Waverly, does not share her Chinese cultural traditions—from familial duties to Confucian values. Lindo recognizes the vast opportunities for success available to Waverly in America. When Waverly shows skill at chess, Lindo pushes her to practice daily to become a child chess prodigy. Waverly gains national recognition for her skill; Lindo “proudly walk[ed] with [Waverly], visiting many shops, [but] buying very little” because a great joy for a Chinese mother is a daughter’s success (Tan, Joy 99). Lindo knows that Waverly climbs higher than she ever could in China, and Lindo believes that she must do what her mother did for her: ensure her daughter’s unassailable success. She gives Waverly “her chang, a small tablet of red jade which held the sun’s fire. ‘Is luck,’ she whisper[s]” (Tan, Joy 96). The chang originally belonged to Lindo’s mother, who gave it to Lindo with the promise of luck before she married into Huang Taitai’s family. Lindo carries it with her to America, harboring that luck until she passes it on to her daughter. The gift of the chang follows the unofficial Confucian mandate that a mother give the best to her daughter. The mandate changed form because the different setting required a different kind of luck; but regardless of form, Lindo gives Waverly the chang on this mandate. The chang manifests the connection between mother and daughter, and its transference allows a mother to vicariously feel her daughter’s achievements. In symbolically placing a mother’s essence around her daughter’s neck, a mother connects intimately with her daughter’s successes.
But regardless of her Chinese Confucian heritage, Waverly sees a different kind of opportunity in America: the chance for individualism outside of the Confucian family model. She hones her chess skills, not to respect the opportunities her mother fights to create, but to gain satisfaction in winning where others lose. Though, an important wrinkle is Waverly’s match receiving the most media coverage, one against a nameless white man wearing “a dark, malodorous suit…with a great white kerchief” (Tan, Joy 98). He stands in for the white male hegemony, and bolsters two of the vulnerabilities Chinese women face in America. Even if she wants to cast aside her identity markers, Waverly cannot escape being a Chinese American woman. Her opponent’s “malodorous” suit juxtaposes with the white kerchief to emphasize the man’s whiteness. Because he is nameless and without physical description save his suit, he becomes her faceless opponent, the embodiment which disadvantages her and privileges whiteness and maleness over Chinese American women. The match also allows Waverly to be humanized, despite being previously dehumanized because of her race and gender. This contrast gives her some autonomy and power while subverting the power of the shade which has long attacked her.
Although Waverly wins against her nameless opponent, she claims her victory for herself rather than her culture. American media reinforce her attitude, painting her as an outlier who succeeded despite her background. The trope of the exceptional person of color allows American culture to admit to someone’s success without recognizing people of color’s ability and humanity. The way the media frame her win further separates Waverly from her culture. This reception fuels Waverly’s burgeoning individualism and occludes her understanding of her mother’s pride in her success. This disconnect breaks the symbiosis of the mother-daughter relationship. Waverly is embarrassed when her mother brags about her achievements, and asks her mother, “Why do you have to use me to show off? If you want to show off, then why don’t you learn to play chess” (Tan, Joy 99)? Questioning shows how little Waverly understands: she believes her achievements are her own and hers alone to take pride in. Her adherence to American individualism tells her that the hours of practice account for her success. She believes the voice which guides her to make victorious moves comes from within, though the voice only appears after she receives the chang. The fundamental misunderstanding between Lindo and Waverly makes it difficult for them to communicate with and understand each other. Waverly fails to understand her mother’s great pride in her achievements. Conversely, because of Lindo’s experiences in China, she has trouble accepting that her daughter cannot recognize what she wants for her. However, Waverly’s individualism does not alter how Lindo fulfills her role in the relationship, whether Waverly wants to acknowledge it or not. Ultimately, Lindo openly invites Waverly—should she choose so—to fulfil her filial duties.
In a much more gruesome portrayal of Chinese motherhood, An-mei Hsu witnesses her mother sacrifice—twice to save first An-mei’s grandmother, then An-mei herself. Her family disowns her mother after a man, who already had a wife and other concubines, forced her to become his concubine. But she returns to her family when she hears that her mother grows ill. Late at night, An-mei watches her mother “cut a piece of meat from her arm…She cook[s] magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother one last time” (Tan 48). An-mei’s mother is nearly powerless: most of her possessions are her husband’s, and she can no longer claim her family’s possessions. She has only her body, which she uses to try to heal her mother. The chang that passes from Lindo’s mother, to Lindo, to Waverly wield significance and power like that of a woman’s body. While their bodies are not harmed in sacrifice, the chang becomes a vessel for the power of their bodies, ultimately giving Waverly the means to defeat her opponents in chess. For her and An-mei’s mother, the loss is physical; for Lindo and her mother, it is spiritual. But all four women recognize their bodies as a source of power which harness and use to help their loved ones.
Although An-mei’s mother’s sacrifice fails, she has no other means of helping those she loves. So, she once again uses her body to give An-mei a parting gift. She commits suicide but times her death so that, per superstition, her ghost would return on the first day of the new year to plague her husband forever if he refused to raise An-mei as his honored child. An-Mei’s mother also passes down her only inheritance to An-mei: the strength and magic in her body. Thinking back to the last time An-mei sees her mother, she recalls:
"I knew she could see me and what she had finally done. So I shut her eyes with my fingers and told her with my heart: I can see the truth, too. I am strong, too…On that day, I showed Second Wife the fake pearl necklace she had given me and crushed it under my foot…And on that day, I learned to shout." (Tan 240)
Like Lindo, An-mei recognizes her mother’s sacrifices. She knows that her mother had little agency compared to Second Wife, who dominated the household, and that she could not charm her husband into caving to her desires, like Fifth Wife could. Given the circumstances, An-mei’s mother did all that she could to protect her daughter.
In turn, An-mei tries to do the same for her daughter, Rose, with means available in American culture. Rose can speak up, which An-mei encourages her to do—especially in the face of Rose’s crumbling marriage. An-mei says to her, “‘I am not telling you to save your marriage…I only say you should speak up’” (Tan 193). An-mei recognizes that Rose can pursue more opportunities in America than in China. To help Rose, An-mei tries to pass on the lesson that her mother gave to her, which is to speak up with her voice. The tradition of a mother counseling to the next generation also appears in Lindo and Waverly’s relationship in Lindo’s gift of the chang. Like the strength and voice that An-mei inherits from her mother, Waverly inherits the essences of Lindo and Lindo’s mother via the chang. In both stories, the significance of the gift lies in how a mother infuses her life’s spiritual power into a single act or object. These mothers believe that is the greatest gift they can give their daughters, epitomizing the Confucian tradition that shapes Chinese American mother-daughter relationships.
While Chinese American female relationships focus on mothers and daughters, African American female relationships manifest in intergenerational, sisterly bonds. Like the women in The Joy Luck Club, Celie, Shug, and Nettie also face triple discrimination and vulnerability in The Color Purple. Pan-African Studies professor Melina Abdullah recognizes that “[t]he targeted oppression of African American mothers took shape under slavery and came in the forms of rape, ‘breeding,’ and natal alienation” (58). White slave masters, usually men, saw female slaves as a source of sexual pleasure, labor, and a means to produce more slaves. Mother passed down their status through a legal doctrine known as partus sequitur ventrem (Clymer 44); the intentional separation of a slave woman from her children made traditional mothering more difficult. This legacy continued in the decades after slavery was abolished. The legacy also caused discrimination against African American women for not only being black in a Eurocentric America, but also being women in a culture that still felt the vestiges of African patriarchy. Again, in a different culture, the triple vulnerability occurs. Like the Chinese American women in The Joy Luck Club, Celie, Nettie, and Shug cannot turn to white men, women or, in this case, black men for support. They must instead help each other, and work with the means they have. Like the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, they use the power they must protect other women who are more vulnerable than them.
The generational divergence in experience that creates tension in Chinese American female relationships, however, does not exist for Celie, Nettie, and Shug. Despite their age differences, they treat each other as coevals and peers. To them, generation is not strictly genealogical, but rather a paradigm adopted by women living through similar experiences. The women live sometime in the early twentieth century in the American South, though Walker never specifies a time and location. By doing so, Walker focuses on what pushes Celie, Nettie, and Shug to care for each other as sisters, and—since their mothers are absent—protect each other as motherly figures. Social science lecturer Melanie Mauthner comments that “[m]otherly sistering is not usually embraced from choice. On the contrary, it tends to result from circumstances beyond girls’ and women’s control” (76). When they are children, Celie and Nettie’s mother dies, and Shug’s mother disowns her. Celie and Nettie face sexual abuse from their father, Pa, and all three women unite in solidarity against Mr. ___’s abusive behavior. With the system against them and no mother to protect them, the three women unite and exert the little power they possess to protect those who have even less.
Pa sexually abuses Celie when she is only fourteen years old, and she refuses to let Pa abuse her younger sister, Nettie. After their mother’s death, Celie notices that Pa “still be looking at Nettie, but I always git in his light. Now I tell her to Marry Mr. ___. I don’t tell her why” (Walker, Color 4). Celie holds almost no power within her family: Pa denies her an education and repeatedly molests her, threatening that she should tell nobody but God about what he is doing to her. She feels helpless, and starts writing letters to God—the only one to whom she feels she can turn. Celie cannot seek out the white townsfolk for help because she is an African American, and the threats from her father, a black man, bar her from finding help within the African American community. Despite her disenfranchisement and isolation, she uses her body to obscure Pa’s view of Nettie—a powerful move, because she denies Pa’s attempts to objectify her through his abuse and reverts power to her. In doing so, she protects Nettie by trying to get her far away from Pa. She abhors that Mr. ___ is old enough to have several children, but Celie does not want Nettie to go through sexual assault at Pa’s hands.
However, Celie does not tell Nettie why she wants her to marry Mr. ___ for the same reason that Lindo’s mother treats her cruelly: to ease the girls into leaving. Both works present a motherly figure who desires to protect the innocence of the more vulnerable. Lindo’s mother wants to temper the emotional distress her daughter will experience when Lindo leaves the family. While treating her poorly is dubious, the logic is justifiably cynical. Lindo’s mother knows that separation is inevitable, so she wants to prevent Lindo from painfully “wish[ing] for something that was no longer hers” (Tan 51). Similarly, Celie knows that Nettie will try to fight for her, just as she did when Pa refused to let Celie go to school. Celie wants to prevent the harm she knows will befall Nettie if she tries to fight. She also wants to protect Nettie from the psychological horror of knowing what their father has done. Again, though contrary to Celie’s interests, the paradigm that Celie knows makes her actions a desperate way that she can protect her sister.
Although Celie is a teenager, she assumes a protective, maternal role because of Pa’s behavior. This exemplifies Mauthner’s comment on situational urgency in motherly sistering. When Nettie leaves, Celie gives her the only thing she has: “the name of Reverend Mr. ___. I tell her to ast for his wife. That maybe she would help. She the only woman I even seen with money” (Walker, Color 18). Once again, Celie has little to give, but still gives her sister the best available opportunity. Though Pa and Mr. ___ abuse Celie and limit her education and worldview, she knows that money means escape and independence. This echoes the rare opportunity for slaves to buy their freedom if they had the money. Celie’s words imbue money and the actions that buy her sister freedom with power, further denying Pa and Mr. ___’ from dominating Celie.
Even as Celie mothers Nettie, they maintain a sisterly relationship. After Nettie leaves Celie and Mr. ___, she writes letters to Celie with “Dear Celie” (Walker, Color 126); this is the first letter in the book not written by Celie, all of which she addressed, “Dear God.” The parallel structure suggests that, because she is the only one in whom Nettie could confide, Celie is Nettie’s God. She protects Nettie, and shapes how Nettie lives: as a missionary in Africa with the Reverend Mr. ___, his wife, Samuel, and Corrine. While there, Nettie discovers that Pa is their stepfather. After Nettie shares the discovery with her, Celie addresses her letters “Dear Nettie” (Walker, Color 178). They mutually turn away from the white, patriarchal God they were taught to believe in, which signifies their rebellion against all three vulnerabilities. Celie decides to confide in Nettie through her letters and rejects Pa’s old threat: “You better not never tell nobody but God” (Walker, Color 1). Because Pa represents the tradition of African patriarchy, Celie’s defiance reclaims some autonomy for women. By also rejecting a white God, Celie and Nettie reject Eurocentric American Christianity. Replacing the white, male image with two black women threatens the historical dominance of white men over black women. In the absence of white permission, they assume a previously denied position of power.
Although Celie acts sisterly and motherly to Nettie, she also needs protection, which Shug Avery provides. Shug is Mr. ___’s former mistress, who returns after Pa gives Celie to Mr. ___ to marry. Celie idolizes Shug for years before meeting her, regarding her as the embodiment of beauty and freedom. Celie imagines that Shug: “be dress to kill, whirling and laughing” (Walker, Color 6). Celie sees in Shug a powerful female figure who provides hope that there is an existence beyond the constant rape and abuse from Pa and Mr. ___. However, when Celie and Shug meet, the expected power dynamic reverses: Shug is enfeebled and on the brink of death, her glamour and power withering. Consequently, Celie assumes takes care of her. Celie “work on [Shug] like a doll…or like mama…That feel just right, [Shug] say. That feel like mama used to do” (Walker, Color 53). Celie’s actions loosen the border between mother and daughter, emphasizing the importance of sisterly relationships for African American women. For Celie, the generational line blurs because she lacks either mother or daughter: her mother died years before, and Pa separates her from her daughter, Olivia. Shug instead stands in for both. Celie becomes a motherly figure to Shug, nursing her back to health. Their mutual support of each other helps them fulfil the motherly aspect of sisterhood.
However, once Shug regains her physical health, she becomes the primary motherly figure between them. Shug discovers that Mr. ___ beats Celie, she “kiss[es] [Celie] on the fleshy part of [her] shoulder and stand up. I won’t leave, she say, until I know Albert won’t even think about beating you” (Walker, Color 75). She uses Mr. ___’s first name, Albert, to display the power she holds over him, more than what Celie does. Knowing one’s name affords a modicum of power over them, allowing another person to hold them accountable. Like Celie does for Nettie, Shug uses her power to protect the powerless. Her act also parallels Chinese mothers’ exertion of their power in the Confucian family hierarchy to protect their powerless daughters. While Lindo’s mother is weak as a woman, she uses her limited means—working with a matchmaker, preparing her daughter for marriage—to ensure a better life for Lindo.
African American sisterhood also focuses heavily on mothering and protection. In The Color Purple, Walker fabricates the Olinka tribe which represents slaves’ ancestors. In Africa, Olinkan mothers emphasize protecting less powerful women, a legacy which continues in Celie, Shug, and Nettie’s relationships. Nettie travels with Samuel and Corrine on a mission trip to convert the Olinka to Christianity; initially, how the tribe’s women behave dismays Nettie. Olinkan women do not protect their daughters against the patriarchy in the tribe. Instead, they perpetuate it by trying to marry their daughters to the highest-ranking man possible. They believe that a “girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something” (Walker, Color 155).
Like with a girl’s value in Confucian China, Olinkan women’s relationships to men—specifically to husbands—define them. Although strict mandates do not bind the family hierarchy like in Confucianism, the family is still patriarchal. Women are vulnerable because of patriarchal African society, but also because of the missionaries’ intent to urge the tribe to abandon their values. For them, a double rather than a triple threat exists, which still forces mothers to fight for their daughters. Since women gain value through their husbands, mothers try to find a man with high status because “[t]hat is as high as they can think” (Walker, Color 157). Mothers even scar their daughters and genitally mutilate them to increase their desirability to Olinkan men. Catherine is one of those mothers, whom Nettie acquaints while working as a missionary. Catherine forces her daughter, Tashi, to undergo scarification because she fears that Tashi is becoming too educated and westernized. Catherine believes that this will ruin her daughter’s chances with Olinkan men, who believe that women should remain uneducated. The Olinkan traditions also parallel Chinese foot-binding traditions, which crippled women at an early age. Since men found these traditions beautiful, women suffered for the sake of perceived desirability to find a wealthy husband.
These practices may seem cruel and backwards, but in these cultural contexts mothers knew these as ways to help their daughters. Walker reasons similarly in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. She describes a slave woman “who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use” (Walker, Search 239). Walker argues that slave women’s art cannot be held to the same standards as contemporaneous art created by white men. These differences lie in race and socioeconomic class, which create barriers for slave women and prevent them from gaining a Western-style artistic education. However, their art remains valid and maintains beauty despite its underprivileged creator. Western standards of art privilege a race and financial ability, making “great” art indicative of forms, techniques, and subjects antithetical to what non-white people created. But by deviating from such standards, one validates other art forms, techniques, and subjects. Similarly, Nettie and the other missionaries find the Olinkan practice of scarification and genital mutilation backwards and horrible, but the motivations for these practices are understandable if one resists thinking ethnocentrically. As standards for art prevent consideration of alternative art forms, ethnocentric values preclude understanding why others behave in ways perceived as immoral. Relinquishing certain artistic standards does not open the floodgates for all art to be called “great,” just as relinquishing ethnocentrism does not condone other cultures’ traditions. This is in favor of dismissing other traditions as backwards and unworthy of thought. For Olinkan mothers, physical harm done to one’s daughter is the price to pay to ensure her better future; the temporary physical pain is worth it once her daughter has status through her husband. These actions translate into the desire to help and protect the powerless—a sentiment which manifests in how Celie, Shug, and Nettie protect each other.
Although the patriarchal systems in both books challenge women and make them vulnerable, the female characters ally and forge relationships with one another to offer support and protection. Their shared cultural histories affect how their relationships manifest. Women unite differently in different parts of the world—from the rigid Chinese Confucian hierarchy to the Olinkan privileged patriarchy. These different traditions prioritize mother-daughter relationships among Chinese American women, while African American women band together motherly/sisterly relationships. But the double or triple vulnerabilities women of color in America face contribute to racial and cultural oppression. They navigate a white, western, male-dominated society, in which these vulnerabilities cause actions which allow readers to think about the experiences and cultural contexts of others.