Women & men

I think this is why there are so few whites in Their Eyes Were Watching God, in fact. The real issue isn't white abuse of blacks, at least for Janie. Raised with white children, such that she didn't even realize initially she was black, and living in an all-black town as she did, for her whites were almost beside the point. The true point of contention is the painful lack of agency black women have, when both white men and black consider black women their property, and where even white women can, in jealous fits of rage, turn against their black sisters to blame the victim.

There are several instances of this male/female double standard in Hurston's book. Janie herself is both the daughter and granddaughter of raped women. Indeed, in the broadest sense abuse of black women is portrayed as something that just happens, and as a woman there isn't really anything you can do about it. Rape, living in fear of white violence, flight from intended murder or slavery, domestic violence — all appear to be just something you lived with, for most black women of the time.

A more direct example of the gender-based double standard is given when Tea Cake, Janie's third husband, steals $200 from her and vanishes without warning for almost 24 hours. Janie has good reason to be frightened and furious, and to attempt to beat Tea Cake on his return. Not only did she think she'd been shamefully jilted, but he'd taken all her available money for a bus ticket back home. Tea Cake, however, keeps her from hitting him during her furious tirade, and soothes her with sex and promises of getting the money back for her through gambling.

That he does keep his promise does little to alleviate her initial tearful terror, however — and that he returns with knife wounds does nothing to sooth her either. Later and more painfully, when it is Tea Cake who (without basis) fears abandonment, he beats Janie so as to leave visible bruises, in order to publicly establish his ownership of Janie. She cries but doesn't fight back — she just forgives him. Worse, he is publicly admired as a "good" husband for how he "handled" Janie — despite her having done nothing to give him any basis for his fears!

This is, unfortunately, the best-case scenario of how Janie can relate to a man — Tea Cake is the only man she actually loves, who actually sees her as a person rather than as a beautiful ornament. Indeed, even he sees her as a testament to his virility, even as he also does his best to love her. Other men are insincere, verbally abusive, conniving, possessive, or completely oblivious to her as a person rather than simply as a pretty wife, useful piece of property, or income source.

That's pretty much how men relate to Janie. To perceive the double standard, we should now look at how Janie relates to women as well — for example, her best friend or her grandmother.

Janie's best friend is the person to whom the story is narrated, and is one of only three women who have much to say in the story. Curiously, while she defends Janie against the other jealous townsfolk, it's clear Janie so abruptly left the town to be with Tea Cake that she didn't even warn her best friend.

Further, apparently Janie never communicated with her best friend in the past two years of her absence, and closes her narrative by telling her friend to inform the other townsfolk of what happened only if she wished to — Janie doesn't really care either way. I found that an odd form of friendship, but then I can't say what I'd be like in Janie's shoes.

So perhaps Janie has a better relationship with her grandmother, Nanny? As we find out in the story, her grandmother was raped repeatedly as a slave by her white master, threatened with death by the plantation owner's furiously jealous wife for having a "white" baby, and fled to raise her child in safety. When the girl-child was 17 she was kidnaped, beaten, and raped repeatedly for a day by the schoolteacher, who then abandoned his victim and fled the territory.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Janie's grandmother consequently believes the best way for a black woman to stay safe is to marry a well-to-do man as soon as possible, so as to be well-kept, and so as to not be "fair game" for any passing man.

Thinking about this later, Janie admits to herself she "hated" the now-deceased Nanny for doing what she thought was best and marrying Janie off in a loveless but well-provided-for marriage. Janie feels nothing but love for the deceased Tea Cake, however, despite his occasional poor use of her.

Why the double standard for the behavior of men and women? At least her grandmother had both some personal evidence for her beliefs, and no self-benefiting motives — and yet it is only Tea Cake whom Janie forgives. Sadly, as an integrated member of her culture, Janie can't even see there's a double standard present, let alone that it harms her to abet and live by it.

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