MakalahMakalah ini pernah dimuat di jurnal Lentera, Pusat Studi Wanita, Unesa, 2007
Budaya konsumtif tak bisa dipisahkan dari upaya produk-produk untuk merayu konsumen untuk mengkonsumsinya, dengan iming-iming bahwa produk-produk tersebut akan mampu membawa konsumen ke standard-standard ideal yang dituntut dalam masyarakat. Ironisnya, budaya ini membawa korban sosial. Novel The Bluest Eye karya Toni Morrison (1970) mengungkapkan dampak destruktif budaya konsumtif dalam mengorbankan orang-orang kulit hitam dalam upaya mereka untuk mencapai “the white beauty standard,” yakni standard kecantikan sebagaimana yang dimiliki orang-orang kulit putih. Dampak budaya konsumtif berhasil merusak kondisi sosial dan psikologis orang-orang kulit hitam, bila mereka tidak bisa mempertahankan identitas budaya mereka. Sebaliknya, upaya mempertahankan identitas sebagai “kulit hitam” akan mampu membawa mereka untuk bertahan dalam masyarakat.
Kata kunci: standard kecantikan – dampak psikologis – kehilangan identitas
“Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy.” (Morrison, 1970: 7). This is how Toni Morrison introduces the so-called ideal white world to readers of The Bluest Eye. In this novel, Morrison equates the white world with the bourgeois class−its ideology and lifestyle. Writing about the experience of African-American community living in a society dominated by white, middle-class ideology, Morrison voices the real problem of “the privatized world of suburban house and nuclear family represented by the Dick-and-Jane family (Willis, 1983: 112). With this in mind, this article attempts to explore the devastating physical and psychological effects consumer culture has on the African-American community in The Bluest Eye.
The study of culture is the study of all aspects of a society. It is the language, knowledge, laws, and customs that give that society its distinctive character and personality. In the context of consumer behavior, culture is defined as ‘the sum total of learned beliefs, values, and customs that serve to regulate the consumer behavior of members of a particular society” (Schiffman and Kanuk, 2000: 322). Values and beliefs have potentials to affect human attitudes that, in turn, influence the way a person tends to respond in a specific situation. For example, an Indonesian woman’s preference for a certain product, let’s say, Ultima cosmetics over Viva cosmetics, is influenced by her general values (perception as to what constitutes quality and the meaning of country of origin) and specific beliefs (particular perception about the quality of foreign product versus local product).
Susan Willis notes that Toni Morrison’s writings, including The Bluest Eye, attempts to maintain an Afro-American cultural heritage in the era when the relationship to the black rural South has been drawn farther over distance and generation. This is especially true, as the result of capitalism, with the coming of “a consumer society capable of homogenizing society by recouping cultural difference” (1983: 114). Through the images it promotes, consumer culture establishes a white standard of beauty that does not allow for positive African-American images. This white standard of beauty is devastating to the African-American community because conforming to this standard necessitates that African Americans divorce themselves from their cultural heritage; in order to conform to the white standard, African Americans have to cease to be black, which is not possible.
Jane Kuenz, in her article, “The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity,” argues that “economic, racial and ethnic difference is erased” by an equal ability to consume; however, what is consumed “are more or less competing versions of the same white image” (1993: 422). The African-American community’s attempt to conform to an image that in no way reflects the reality of who they are puts them in a cultural limbo; they do not want to be black and they cannot be white and so they are stuck somewhere in between. In her article, “I Shop Therefore I Am,” Susan Willis examines The Bluest Eye from a postcolonial perspective, placing the African-American community as the “other” in opposition to white cultural domination. Willis questions whether there is a possibility of decentering mass culture in order to make it black culture. She finds that all the models in mass consumer culture are white; any seemingly black models are in fact “replicants […] devoid of cultural integrity” or, in other words, superficial images built on the basis of the white standard of beauty (1989: 184).
In response to Willis’s question of whether there is a possibility of decentering mass culture, Jane Kuenz writes that it is not. Racial differences are not allowed in mass culture; there is no possibility of decentering mass culture to make it black culture because black culture is being made invisible. She argues that the mass culture industry “increasingly disallows the representation of any image not premised on consumption or the production of normative values conducive to it. These values are often rigidly tied to gender and are “race-specific to the extent that racial and ethnic differences are not allowed to be represented” (1989: 421). Kuenz sees The Bluest Eye as Morrison’s effort to rewrite the specific stories, histories, and bodies of African Americans whose positive images have been made invisible by consumer culture; it is an attempt to correct the damage being done to the African-American community. While Susan Willis tries to decenter mass culture, Kuenz decenters the African-American image.
Malin LaVon Walther also examines the images being promoted by consumer culture in relation to the standard of beauty and the effects of that standard on the African-American community. Walther argues that, like Kuenz, Morrison saw consumer culture and the images it represented as racist. The white standard of beauty values idleness and separates a woman from reality. There is a “uselessness inherent in white culture’s images of female beauty” that conflicts with “the utility of black women who work” (1990: 776). While Kuenz examines the African-American image, Walther looks at the ideal white image being established through consumerism and its devastating effects on African Americans. Walther finds completion of Kuenz’s decentering of the African-American image in Toni Morrison’s redefinition of the image of beauty. In her later works, Morrison “connects [beauty] firmly to reality, the reality of the body and racial experience. She moves from claiming that black women are OK with short necks, calloused hands, and tired feet to claiming that these attributes are beautiful and more authentic than popularized standards of white female beauty” (Walther, 1990: 776). This redefining of beauty, however, does not occur until Morrison’s later works. The Bluest Eye is only the first step in Morrison’s rejection of “white-defined female beauty” (Walther, 1990: 776).
White Beauty Standard
The Bluest Eye is not just about Morrison’s rejection of the white standard of beauty; it is also about the visual and behavioral changes that consumer culture imposes on the African-American community. The novel affirms that consumer culture creates the image of beauty and that the image is white. “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured” (Morrison, 1970: 20). Images of white physical attributes and white lifestyles are presented to the African-American community through everyday commodities such as educational materials, movies, toys, billboards, and window signs. Movie stars such as Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and Clark Gable are given as examples of images that establish the racist and unrealistic white standard of beauty. Images of white girls are everywhere in commodities consumed by children: Shirley Temple is on the cup, Mary Jane is on the candy wrappers, and the baby dolls are white.
The white behavioral model is presented through education. The Dick and Jane primer found at the beginning of The Bluest Eye is the informal representation of the idealized white familial structure that is “middle-class, secure, suburban and white, replete with dog, cat, non-working mother and leisure time father” (Klotman,1979: 123). The fictional world presented in the primer is organized and recognizable and yet utopian and therefore unrealistic. In order to fit this image not only must little girls such as Pecola see themselves as middle-class, but they must also see themselves as white or, in other words, they must not see themselves at all (Kuenz, 1989: 422). Accompanying the primer is formal education in the “normal school,” which teaches black children how to behave and serve whites: “they go to land-grant colleges, normal schools, and learn how to do the white man’s work with refinement” (Morrison, 1970: 83). African Americans are being prepared to work among the whites, which means erasing their racial differences as much as possible and adopting a white standard that is both visual and behavioral, comprising both white physical features and white mannerisms.
Acceptance of the White Beauty Standard
The characters in The Bluest Eye react to the white standard in two ways; they either accept it or reject it. Those who accept the white standard are eventually destroyed while those who reject it are able to grow and survive. Geraldine, Pauline, and Pecola are just some of the characters that illustrate the devastating effects of accepting the white standard. Their physical and psychological changes are a futile attempt to achieve something that is, for them, not possible. The result is disillusionment, mental instability, and even insanity. The Breedlove family, Claudia in particular, illustrates the consequences of rejecting the white standard of beauty. Claudia is able to come to terms with her race, which allows her to survive and grow and to become a healthy adult who, as the narrator of the novel, is able to look back on her childhood and see the unhealthiness of her community that ultimately results from the unrealistic image of beauty established through consumer culture.
Consumer behavior is closely related to the makeup of self-image. A variety of different self-images have been recognized in the consumer behavior literature, in which some kinds of self-image have been depicted: actual self-image, that is, how consumers in fact see themselves), ideal self-image (how consumers would like to see themselves), social self-image (how consumers feel others see them), and ideal social self-image (how consumers would like others to see them) (Schiffman and Kanuk, 2000: 113). In The Bluest Eye, such characters as Geraldine, Pauline, and Pecola are guided by their ideal social self-image as they wish to alter their “selves.” To them, being a good consumer is essential to acceptance of the white standard; Geraldine, Pauline, and Pecola are good consumers. They buy such commodities as Lifebuoy soap, Cashmere Bouquet talc, Jergens lotion, Dixie Peach hair straightener, movies, candies with images of Mary Jane on the wrapper, clothes, and make-up. In all of these commodities is the unspoken expectation that their consumption will somehow make the consumer more “white.” Pauline and Geraldine also show preference to white children and the white lifestyle, devaluing their own black children and black lifestyle. Pauline’s devaluation of her own black child leads her daughter, Pecola, to desire white physical attributes; she wants blue eyes. Pauline and Geraldine, as representatives of the community in general, are not only devaluing themselves and their cultural heritage, they are teaching their children to do the same. Their frustration at being unable to achieve the white standard is displaced on those like Pecola, who becomes the scapegoat for the entire community. Deprived by her mother of cultural pride and grounding, Pecola is unable to defend herself as she believes what her assimilated elders tell her – that black is ugly, white is beautiful, and that to be loved she must be white.
Objection to the White Standard
Objection to the white standard in The Bluest Eye involves questioning the notion that black is inferior. Claudia asks herself “if [Maureen Peal] was cute – and if anything could be believed, she was – then we were not. And what did that mean?” (Morrison, 1970: 74). The conclusion she draws is that “We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser” (Morrison, 1970: 74). She does not redefine herself as beautiful, but she does not see the importance of the qualities being touted by consumer culture: “What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what?” (Morrison, 1970: 74). It is this “so what” attitude that is central to Claudia’s strength and development. She may not be able to redefine herself as beautiful, but neither is she accepting of the white standard: she destroys white dolls, she hates Shirley Temple, she wants to beat up white girls, and she enjoys a kind of black funkiness that those who have accepted the white standard such as Pauline and Geraldine despise. She maintains her connection to her cultural heritage through her mother, evidenced by her ability to interpret her mother’s love and her reflection of the blues aesthetic in her narrative voice and style (Moses, 1999: 629). This cultural grounding is what allows her to reject the white standard and gain self-awareness and self-confidence. Her growing awareness enables her to recognize the source of her hatred, since she “knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us” (Morrison, 1970: 74). While Pecola’s mental growth is abruptly halted by insanity, Claudia continues to grow and develop illustrated by the presence of her adult voice as part of the narrative structure. Unlike the community that is ashamed of Pecola’s baby, she recognizes “a need for someone to want the black boy to live-just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (Morrison, 1970:190).
The Impact of the White Standard of Beauty on the Community
Whether the individual characters reject or conform to the white standard of beauty, the community is still physically and psychologically affected. The physical affects are depicted through bodily changes that include changes in clothing, make-up, hair style, and speech. Pecola is at the center of a chain reaction that results from the acceptance of the physical attributes of the white standard. Pecola is black, displaying none of the white physical characteristics. Because she is black, she is ugly. Because she is ugly, she is invisible. Because she is invisible, she is abused. The community’s acceptance of the white standard has made them despise black funkiness, and Pecola is an erupted funk that must be wiped away. They attempt to make themselves look better by emphasizing Pecola’s ugliness: “We were so beautiful when stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous” (Morrison, 1970: 205). The devastating bodily effects of consumer culture and assimilation are depicted not just through physical changes, but through sexual invasion. Frieda’s molestation and Pecola’s rape are personal invasions that parallel the cultural invasion that is taking place on a larger scale. The three prostitutes -
and the Maginot Line – are named in such a manner that their bodies become
representations of fascist invasion (Kuenz, 1989: 421). Men in the novel, like
Cholly, are able to displace their feelings of frustration and defenselessness
caused by their inability to rebel against the white culture onto women. Cholly’s
invisibility, resulting from his loss of mother, father, community, and home,
has made him “dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt-fear, guilt,
shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent” (Morrison, 1970: 159). His
chaotic mind is shown as he rapes Pecola without knowing what he really feels.
“The sequence of his emotions was revulsion, guilt, pity, then love” (Morrison,
1970: 161). The men penetrate the women just as white culture has penetrated
African-Americans. African Americans are being culturally raped by a dominant
race; whites have forced themselves upon blacks through consumerism. J.
Brooks Bounson calls The Bluest Eye a complicated drama that explores “the chronic shame of being poor and black in white
(2000:24). The complete psychological breakdown as a result of assimilation is
evidenced by the characters’ anger, shame, trauma, chaos, vulnerability, and
insanity. The Bluest Eye is a “trauma narrative” featuring Pecola as
victimized by her own “crippled and crippling family” (Bouson, 2000: 25;
Morrison, 1993: 210). Pecola accepts the community’s opinion of her because she
has no weapons with which to fight back; she is vulnerable. Claudia’s weapon
against the white standard is her anger; “Anger is better, there is a sense of
being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely
surging” (Morrison, 1970: 50). Without anger, Pecola is left defenseless and
she is not strong enough to survive her rape intact. Her rape is the catalytic
event that precipitates her separation from reality as the witness of such a
trauma “cannot know himself or herself as a participant in a scene of horror”
(Matus, 1998: 51). Chaos in the novel is represented by the environment in
which Pecola’s traumatic event occurs. The Breedlove household, represented in
the beginning of the novel by the incoherent language third primer example, is
a site of emotional frigidity, physical abuse, alcoholism, and instability all
stemming from the acceptance of the impractical white standard.
The African-American community is in danger of losing itself to the white standard of beauty in The Bluest Eye. A rift has been caused by the acceptance of white standards and those who have allowed themselves to be assimilated have divorced themselves from their cultural heritage and no longer value themselves as African Americans. Even those who reject the standard, such as Claudia, are affected by the community’s assimilation. As a part of the community, Claudia feels guilty for what has happened to Pecola. She understands that the soil did not nurture the marigolds because “this soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear” (Morrison, 1970: 206). Apparently, the community did not nurture its black children. Claudia is lucky, she has a family that loves her and accepts her and, eventhough she eventually comes to share her elders’ views, she realizes that it is only an “adjustment without improvement” (Morrison, 1970:23). Pecola is not so lucky. Without such a family, she is left to fend for herself without the support of a community to make up for her lack. The absorption of white values causes the African-American community to succumb to racism and Pecola is instilled as the “other.” In the community’s attempt to achieve the impossible white standard of beauty they deny the reality of their bodies, making physical and behavioral attempts to conform, and in the process they sacrifice their African-American heritage. Consumer culture in The Bluest Eye results in the “othering” of African Americans even within the African-American community, which is psychologically and physically damaging to not just those who accept the white standard of beauty, but to everyone within the community.
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