By Timothy Aaron-Styles c2009, 2011
Quite frankly, “Waiting To Exhale” (1995), Terry McMillian’s best-selling novel-turned-blockbuster movie was neither absolutely a “Black male bashing film” nor necessarily “pro-Black woman.” Actually, it was both pro-patriarchal and anti-womanist/feminist cinema at its best.
Extra – narratively (i.e. the film as entity existing outside the story), the film was directed by Forest Whittaker, a male, thereby automatically establishing the male POV as the axis from which the cinematic narrative is created, interpreted, developed and projected. The male POV = the patriarchal gaze.
The selection of a male as director essentially does two things: 1) re-interprets and transposes/transforms the female-created script into a male constructed celluloid interpretation and 2) positions and re-frames the female characters as objects of the masculine gaze. Not that a “bio-physiological, heterosexual male” could not femininely gaze and interpret. On the contrary, he could and can. However, such was not the case with WTE.
While Mr. Whittaker is a more than proficient director – there is no intention here to critique his technical or aesthetic competency, aptitude or approach. Instead, we intend to explore WTE as a social, political and cultural cinema commodity: how this film, as unified phenomenon (extra-narrative, narrative and intra-narrative) subconsciously and consciously, reflects, while simultaneously influencing, not only African-American society, but Western and global society, as well.
The film, the screenplay and the novel are three separate and distinct entities with, in my opinion, the celluloid expression being the most deserving of examination and analysis because it is the all comprehensive tangible expression – the definitive manifestation – of the written word(s) of book and screenplay. The motion picture is “le point culminant du mot” (the culmination of the word) where individual folks – who may have each read the book, and who have single beliefs and distinct value systems based on individual experiences – collectively gather and spectate for one communal encounter and experience.
The film, as the communal cinematic experience, is the one that we all hold true because there it is, declared, right before our individual eyes and collective gaze, on the screen – and seeing is believing is the acceptable notion and principle according to most. The sense of sight is the fundamental and primary faculty in revealing and substantiating the latent, the intuitive, even the mystical. And herein lies the reason why the power of the film supersedes that of the screenplay or the novel.
The potency of the image surpasses the power of the word in the human world where humans believe what they see more readily and compellingly than what they read. WTE, the motion picture, became what it became and is what it is, because the director breathed his breath of life into it thereby making it his creation. His product. His manifesto. A film made in his patri-image.
In spite of Terry McMillian’s lexis that form and fashion the novel and the screenplay, Forest Whittaker’s film is nearer and closer to our individual and collective psyches—both as expressions of our subconscious and as influential factors on our conscious selves. Before moving on to the NARRATIVE aspects of the film, two more points about its extra-narrative characteristics.
One. If we were to quantitatively consider the gender composition of those responsible for the production of WTE (i.e. above-the-line and below-the-line staff and crew), which gender do you suppose would be in the majority? What if we were to discover that those responsible for the film’s production were more male in number than female? What if we found that, quantitatively, more men than women contributed their masculine energy and perspective(s) to the making of this “woman’s film?”
Two. If Euzan Palcy, Ayoka Chenzira, Neema Barnette, Julie Dash, Darnelle Martin or Leslie Harris had directed the film, how would it have been envisioned differently? Could Terry William’s screenplay have been interpreted and rendered more authentically or organically by a woman director? Now – the film’s narrative…
The summation of my reading of WTE and its “message” is simply this: the happiness and wholeness of women depends upon having men in their lives.
From the very beginning of the film, the male gaze is established as primary and dominant while both the position of the woman, and her femininity, are established as subordinate, objectified and subjectified (i.e. she is defined as object of the male desire and, thereby, positioned as the subject of male domination). Her identity, and the process of defining her gender, are constructed upon and around masculine criteria.
The women see, define and comprehend themselves as “other” and not “self.” They see, define and comprehend themselves how “others” see and define them. Their feminine self-definition is constructed upon the perception and power of the masculine gaze.
One of the cinematic devices used to introduce, solidify and re-enforce the presence, primacy and dominance of the patriarchy and gender containment is the Narrator’s Voice in the form of the Radio DJ, at the beginning of the film, who not only introduces the story, but provides running commentary. His is the voice of the omnipresent patriarch—always present and not having to necessarily be seen.
His auditory patriarchal presence is complementary, and balances Whittaker’s visual manifestation of the patriarchal perspective and dominance. In case we forget – in the event that seeing (through the eyes of Whittaker) isn’t believing, hearing (the DJ) will remind us: this is a man’s film. Men are the center, the focal point, of the lives of Savannah, Robin, Gloria and Bernadine. This is a man’s (cinematic) world!
The opening introductions to Savannah, Robin and Bernadine visually and symbolically parallel as they all gaze into mirrors, examining themselves – making themselves up. Transforming and changing themselves. Covering and masquerading their true identities. Not for themselves, mind you – but for their respective men. The Other(s). When we first see them (from the director’s POV), the characters are in the process of making themselves beautiful to appeal and be acceptable to the masculine, patriarchal “Other.”
What these women observe in the mirror is not what they, as women, really desire to see, but what men would and do like, and prefer, to regard. They do not behold themselves in their natural states of beauty because they gaze not upon themselves with their own eyes but with and through the eyes of men. Their self-definitions are, in fact, the definitions of the “other” and these women are willing participants in their own objectification, subjugation and containment. They see themselves as men view them – as beautiful objects of desire to be cosmetically made up because their natural beauty is nor sufficient.
The character of Bernadine (who is an academically trained professional with an MBA) doesn’t really wish to attend the function that she and her husband are preparing for. Instead, she is attending only to please him. She is accompanying him as his trophy. Bernadine’s patriarchal containment, is as “devoted wife and self-sacrificing mother, “and the suppression of her own desires and her own happiness (which becomes apparent as the film progresses) are so deeply dysfunctional and so evidently counter – productive. So self-destructive.
We are introduced to Savannah (a television producer) as she relocates to Phoenix – not as a career move, but because her choices of men in Denver are nil. This intelligent, educated, beautiful, and financially self-sufficient Black woman’s crucial career decisions are based on a patriarchal motivated super objective: the quest for a man. Savannah’s gender containment Is as “the professional woman who has it all but who needs a man to make her whole and complete.” Crudely expressed, her search really is about the better penis
Then there is Robin (an Insurance Broker?) whose gender containment is as “gullible sex object who knows only how to express her feelings with her body.” Her sexuality – her very womaness – is defined by men and her interaction and intercourse (while socially so, primarily sexually) with them. As she looks into her mirror, she contemplates the kind of man she likes wondering why she picks the wrong man to “FALL IN LOVE WITH.” She delights in the fact that she doesn’t actually “fall in love with them” but their “pretty” looks and “big sticks.” Alas, the common and constant dilemma for men and women alike: the continual equating of sex and love.
Then there is Gloria – The Hairdresser – who, while exactly like her BFF’s in their man/penis/relationship – centricism, is slightly dissimilar than her peers and is the one principal female character who has the most redeeming qualities and characteristics.
In our introduction to Gloria, she gazes not at a muddled self-reflection in the mirror but instead she peers out through a window and sees clearly. There is no reflected image but, instead, there is the natural sky. Gloria views endless possibility. We first meet Gloria as she exists in a/her natural state resembling the iconic Aunt Jemima Black female stereotype. And while this resemblance to the historically negative cultural icon is apparent, we will discover that the basis of Gloria’s transformation and “redemption” actually exists within, and as part of, the stereotypical characteristics of this African-American mammy representation.
However distinct she might be in other personal aspects, Gloria’s similarity to, and her common bond with, the other female characters – in addition to her being a Black woman – is in the fact that she, too, is preoccupied with her gender opposite. Her happiness is equally contingent upon (both the present and the absent) man in her life.
Gloria’s immediate male concern is her young son, Tariq, whom she feels should be physically there with her – in her presence – at that exact moment. Her maternal instincts, while admirable, cause her to also desire a masculine presence for immediate satisfaction and contentment. Additionally, Gloria eagerly looks forward to the visit of her son’s father, hoping that she might be able to recapture at least one moment of happiness based on past memories and bygone experiences.
Or is it just good sex that she really desires? Alas, once again – the quest for the better and perfect penis! If not in another city then in the annals of relations of yesteryear. Like her peers, she is yet another woman in quest of a surreal Black man that exists in the innermost corridors of her own imaginings.
Her son Tariq represents both himself, and his biological father, as Gloria desires and yearns for her other – defined, gendered – contained role as wife – mother -homemaker expressed and symbolized by her physical preparation of the dinner plates. Her relationship with Tariq is metaphorically incestuous as she yearns for the love and attention of Tariq and his father. She craves her ex-husband’s love through his son. She seeks her place in the world – her validity – in her desire to fulfill their masculine/male needs.
There are some interesting Freudian/psycho – analytical implications within and behind Gloria’s story. Acts of social, gender and familial betrayal and castration are dealt with when Gloria walks in on Tariq as oral sex is being performed on him by a young white girl. This, of course, upsets Gloria causing her moments after to indiscriminately blurt out the “same sex” preference of Tariq’s dad to Tariq.
The first act of betrayal and castration is in that specific sexual act being performed by the white girl. This sexual act, based on the exercise of power (as executed by the white girl) and the relinquishing of power (Tariq’s submission to the white girl which represents the acts of both socio-political castration and the possibility of genetic castration) betrays Gloria in two ways: the fact that it is a white girl, (much like Bernadine’s situation), and the fact that it “threatens” to severe the relationship between Gloria and her son (matri-castration).
The second act of betrayal and castration is committed when the declaration of Tariq’s father’s sexual preference causes Tariq to feel betrayed, by both his mother and father, which causes the severance of his paternal relationship (i.e. familial and social castration). An historical, political and cultural aside that is quite relevant: within the African-American experience, the father’s homosexual choice has long been perceived as an act of sexual, socio-political and genetic castration in, and of, itself. This is why the mother and son, although engaged in a strained relationship themselves, can share in their disappointment and “condemnation” of the patriarch – his act subverts and betrays the Black family and his traditional role that maintains the institution – no matter that he is absent father. His absence is an accepted dysfunctional norm while his homosexuality is historically not.
His sexual preference further causes Gloria to lose her feminine identity and compass. And, in a strange way, enlarges the power of the patriarchy over Gloria’s life. Now, the man whom determines her happiness, contentment and gratification, as a woman, is now her competitor for the “big stick.” What is a woman to do?
The character of Gloria provides both an interesting interpretation, and re-interpretation, of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Where she is both Jocasta (the mother-wife) and Oedipus (the man/king slayer).
As the former, she is the woman in waiting whose own fate is out of control. Her fate is determined by the actions of men. As the latter, she is the slayer of a man. – the “king” of the family, Tariq’s father. It is she that has slain and emasculated the “man-king” through non-fulfillment. It is she who shatters the image of “the king,” in the eyes of his son, the inheritor of his patriarchal power and patrilineal status, when she reveals the “man-king’s” sexual penchant which is, within the African-American social context both a perversion and subversion. Here it can be read that Gloria also fulfills the role of the psychoanalytical castrator of man.
Now back to Savannah. It seems that no matter how beautiful, no matter how successful, a woman’s “wholeness” can only BE confirmed and validated through the presence or actions of a man. Savannah is actually relocating in search of a man. She is going so because of her desire to both, find a new man in the new place where she is traveling and because of her desire to escape a former male lover in the old place from which she flees: “From whence she escapes her sadness/There was a man/To whence she flees for prospective happiness/ There awaits a man…” Why?
This question is answered by Savannah’s mother who signifies the (dysfunctional?) socio-cultural tradition, and the perpetuation of such traditions that sexually objectify and contain the woman. Traditions that promulgate female submission to patriarchy, patrifocality and patrilinealism. Not necessarily female subjugation in the strictest political or economic sense, mind you (Savannah doesn’t need a man for financial reasons as she is quite successful, recognized and influential), but moreso in the social, spiritual, ethical, psychological and emotional sense(s).
Her well-meaning mother actually encourages her to indulge in adultery – to disrespect another woman, a “sister” and her family, by having an affair with that woman’s/sister’s husband. Her well-meaning mother not only advocates that her daughter an unethical and immoral act, but she also encourages Savannah to subjugate herself to the whims and desires of a man by being his mistress. His concubine. His “thing” on the side. His object of carnal desire and sexual fulfillment. Her well-intentioned mother, who wants “happiness” and “fulfillment” for her daughter, suggests that Savannah accept the patriarchal-determined status as the “other woman” that has been established and historically continued for her and those like her for centuries.
Some would say that according to Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions and mythologies, since the supposed dawning of humanity. According to common and popular religious exoteric interpretations, woman’s purpose is to serve man and man alone. Apparently, Savannah’s mother is one of those proponents – a participant in her own gender subjugation and oppression.
And the beautiful, successful, ambitious Savannah – this Black woman of the 90s – has learned her lessons well. She has become the bearer and carrier of the same old dysfunctional pathological shit as evidenced in the club scene where she enters and sits at the table where her “sistahs” (and their men) are congregated, positioning herself as a piece of meat on the market. Flirting. More than willing to “take” some sistah’s man if she has to. A perfect piece of meat in search of the perfect piece of meat. Well, if not perfect then – just a piece. Deep.
Now, back to Robin the sexpot, in quest of her deeper or higher self through sexual intercourse. Or is she, like Savannah, simply and merely hunting for some good old-fashioned decent, satisfying sex?
Personally I read Robin as a loving, decent, caring sensitive Black woman searching for real, true and meaningful love – in all the places where she cant and wont find it.
Poor, mislead woman – representing most of the human species (?) – iin quest of true love, affection and acceptance believing that sex is the golden road leading to personal wholeness and fulfillment. Whether she represents most human beings or not, Robin is definitely representative of all those loving, decent, caring sensitive women who are misunderstood and/or exploited by insensitive and self-satisfying men who aren’t perceptive or caring enough to feel her longing for something deeper than just penis penetration.
Within this in mind, however, it doesn’t change the fact that Robin is a one dimensional character/person who seems only to be in search of a good, hard screw. She seems too gullible – too ditzy. Air headed. She symbolizes the quintessential patriarchal representation of the woman (as sex object) who has nothing else to offer but her body and her vagina.
In the first lovemaking scene between her and Michael, she has the added responsibility of empowering him by instructing him on what to do, how to do it and ultimately how to please her. He has no clue how to do it otherwise. She is sexualizing him, initiating “man-as-Virgin” as if she was his mother and it is her responsibility. Here she is fulfilling the patriarchal role as female nurturer and teacher.
Although she is bestower of power, self-consciousness and masculinity, Robin is still subordinated – still the object of penetration. The object of desire and submission. The object to be conquested. Behold the missionary position as physical and sexual validation of the patriarchy. And to further strengthen and validate this physical containment of Robin/woman as sex object to be desired, subjugated and enjoyed – she verbally expresses it to herself.
When Michael first asks her what she wants, she has no answer. Then her asks her what she needs. Still no response, Then he inquire of her fantasies. No reply from Robin. Then comes (no pun intended) THE patriarchal – loaded question: WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM A MAN? And from Robin’s mouth, and Biblically proceeding from her heart, she utters the P.C. (i.e. patriarchally correct) rejoinder: “Everything.” The things she lists afterwards position her (again, no pun intended) perfectly as the housewife.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, African – American historian and author, said:
“If you control a person’s thinking, you do not have to worry about their reaction. When you determine what a person shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what the person will do. If you make a person feel inferior, you do not have to compel that person to accept an inferior status, they will seek it.
If you make a person think that he/she is a justly outcast, you do not have to order that person to the back door, that person will go without being told, and if there is no back door, the very nature of that person will demand that they build one.”
Robin’s very own thoughts – her very own consciousness – and actions contribute to the subjugation and containment of her very own self, based on her gender identity and her womaness – within the patriarchy.
Later, in another scene, another lover Troy, teases Robin and asks whether it will become necessary for him to take out his penis in order to “tame her”? Although in jest, there is a mammoth shred of truth in his wit. What better way for a man to subdue a woman than with his almighty penis? What better way for a man to get a woman to cooperate than with/through a “good screw”? What better way to assert his superiority and her inferiority than the reminder of the innate inadequacies of not having “one of these?”
Isn’t it the common male notion that no matter how educated or successful a woman is – a man can “screw” here into submission and second-class citizenship? Into her place? Isn’t it the common male notion that any lesbian can be “properly screwed” back into proper womaness and femininity? Into her “rightful” sense of identity according to patriarchal definitions and order?
But, instead, Troy psychologically conquests Robin by using his mother (analogous to Savannah’s mother as symbol of the woman’s own historical and cultural participation in, and propagation of, sexual/gender subjugation and containment of her own self) and hands her the phone (as phallic symbol). She acquiesces, declaring: “No man has ever asked me to meet his mother before.”
In Robin’s conclusion, her pregnancy is either symbol of liberation or of her being put into her patriarchal place.
Her having a baby, and expelling all the men from her life, especially the “father” of the child could represent her as a self-realized woman – one who now knows that the source of her power for happiness and fulfillment is innately within. In her natural “womanness.” Something that no man can experience – a personal “woman space” where every man springs forth from but can never return to no matter how hard he tries. No matter how many of those spaces he tries to conquest.
Or maybe her pregnancy serves as reminder that even in her apparent act of liberation by expulsion – her sexuality, the basis of her identity – is still defined by the other. Even though she expels men from her life, she must still accept and contend with the ultimate evidence of a man’s presences and existence i.e. his child. The baby will probably look like the daddy. The daddy will probably demand to be in the baby’s life.
And, more than likely, child support will come into play because of the mother’s instigation – or maybe even the father’s. All extra – narrative speculation however very valid. Although heroic and admirable, Robin’s act of e(WO)mancipation (the male expulsion) is negated by her pregnancy.
In the final analysis, it appears that the newly liberated and independent Robin becomes a “mother” within patriarchal context and confines. The patriarchal status quo remains intact. It seems that women just can’t escape the tentacles of patriarchy – not in WTE, anyway.
Speaking of the omnipresent presence of patriarchy and its ubiquitous tentacles, in the church scene, the camera tilts down the church steeple (phallic symbol) and the fathers (pastors, deacons) of the church stand outside greeting everyone as they walk by – even our four heroines. Then, in the next scene, we see Bernadine awaiting her ex-husband, as the gospel song plays in the background serving as the thread between the two seemingly distinct scenes. But they are not distinct as both scenes/shots state the obvious: the role of the church in the preservation and perpetuation of the patriarchy.
So the mothers are representations of the histo-cultural representations of the patriarchy and the church in all its institutional icons are pro-patriarchy. Is there anything else? Yes – there is…
Bernadine’s ultimate freedom and liberation is based on the judicial outcome of her divorce proceedings and settlement. At first it appears that her ability to move her life forward will be determined by her soon to be ex-hubby. Although she rightfully deserves most, if not all, of his possessions, her level of comfort and future quality of life will be determined by what the court (as symbol of society) considers his.
The presiding judge is an elderly white man (the epitome of American-Western patriarchy) who serves as symbol of the judicial/legal supporter of patriarchy. His final decision is the one that will either validate or negate Bernadine’s economic and social status.
In the end, we see that regardless of the divorce settlement, Bernadine never quite recovers emotionally or psychologically from the lost of her man – her family, her self-esteem, to a white woman, nonetheless. The other “Other.” She never achieves wholeness nor was she ever whole in the first place as her participation and presence in her marriage was always one of self-subjugation, self-negation and self–suppression. She always put her husband and children before herself. The patriarchal roles as wife and mother were her raison d’etre as the song sung by Mary J. Blige as score and soundtrack attests:
“I was your lover and your secretary/Working everyday of the week…
I would stop breathing if you told me too/But you busy lovin’ someone else…Eleven years of sacrifice /And you could leave me the drop of dime…”
For the sake of maintaining her patriarchal position as supporter and caretaker, Bernadine negated and/or self- sacrificed her wholeness – her own being, probably thinking – as most women socialized within the dominant and pervasive patriarchal milieu, that sacrifice and commitment are synonymous with self-negation and self-subjugation.
Believing that she was doing what a devoted woman and loving wife is supposed to do – love her man even at her own expense. Bernadine represents the patriarchally – socialized woman who believes that self-negation is identical to marital and religious fidelity.
The soul piercing, omnipresent patriarchal gaze, and its power to position and control are so profoundly potent that, much like Robin’s pregnancy, when Bernadine performs her most liberating act, she, too, does so still based on patriarchal definitions and contexts. Internally motivated to act as an object of desire, Bernadine reminds all women that no matter how invisible, the all-seeing male eye is universal and continually gazes from a position of power and authority.
Whether “he” actually governs and determines every move and decision, however, is actually I the hands of the woman – the liberated one that is. The fact that the all-seeing eyes is deemed “male” supports his gender superiority therefore the patriarchally – socialized woman is not going to subvert the system but will re-enforce and substantiate it – even at her own degradation, exploitation and containment.
The women are all gathered in a club where most – with the exception of Bernadine – are in melancholy moods. Of all the subjects the three intelligent women could be discussing, what else would they be conversing about? Men, of course.
Surely it is no coincidence that the music playing in the club is “Head” by The-artist-formerly-known-as-Prince.
“Head” is analogous term/phrase for he actual act of a woman performing oral sex on a man and is considered to be the most authoritative sexual act that a woman can engage in with/on a man as it positions her in the most powerful and controlling of all postures. In this position, the man is totally submissive and at the mercy of the woman. In this posture, all power to please and bestow pleasure belongs to the woman.
Interestingly though, the song juxtaposes the powerlessness of these four women – castrated woman – and their inability to engage in any type of power play in their lives or in the club at that moment. While other women in the club are engaging in power plays through dance or socializing with men, these four are with themselves – outsides and observers – talking about men. The song reminds them that “they don’t have one” to carry or enjoy.
However, Bernadine is half-way there as she, at least, is shaking and moving her body, while gazing around in search of some type of action to assert her position as object of desire – as a recently divorced piece of meat, piece of meat now on the market for conquest.
The physically and attitudinally reinvented Bernadine – new hairstyle and attitude to match – decides to assertively pursue a man as she makes a move toward self-empowerment and rediscovery. The man she approaches happens to be taken already – married. Sound familiar? It’s Savannah’s same old story of self-gratification and adultery. At any cost. In this aggressive act of self-defining freedom, Bernadine is willing to become – does become – the patriarchal “other woman” whose only raison d’etre is as the object of sexual desire and pleasure for the man. The mistress meat.
It could be suggested, even asserted, that her aggressive and assertive act towards the married man as “object of desire” positions her as the holder of the gaze and thereby subverting the patriarchal code which defines and positions the woman as object to be desired and conquered. However, the man she pursues is hitched and Bernadine is the outsider. The intruder. She is the bewitching mythological Eve (or Lillith?), using her sexuality as weapon – her femininity as instrument – to tempt and seduce the chaste Adam to engage in an immoral and unethical act or two. Bernadine’s decision and course of action render her the willing sexualized object wanting to be (sexually) subjected.
Even in her quest for self-identity and wholeness – at the point of potential independence in and with her life – Bernadine arrives back at the point of her martial self/subjugation: containment in a male interpreted and pre-determined world. In the night club scene, not only does she render herself as sexualized objects but she becomes the purveyor of the self same act that her ex-husband perpetrated against her. She becomes the adulterer. She becomes the “other” in two ways: the “other” woman, yes – but more sadly– she becomes her husband or at least – just like him. She has become what she despises. The ultimate measure of a system’s power to socialize is the assimilation and/or acculturation of the “other.”
And finally, there is Gloria who, paradoxically, while helping to perpetuate gender patriarchy’s existence and supremacy also serves a the heroine and symbol of the working class, down-to-earth, simplistic folk and their way of life.
As stated earlier, Gloria is also a participant in self-subjugation as evidenced is her relationship with her son and his physically absent father. The re-enforcement of her self- oppression is further witnessed and perpetuated when she comes into contact with the Gregory Hines character. From their initial interaction, she positions herself as object to be desired, pursued and, hopefully, captured.
When Gloria first approaches the brawny, handsome character portrayed by Hines the physical positioning of the two is quite representational and informative. He is up high on the back of the moving truck, which causes her to look up to him. During their introductory conversation, while her eyes constantly gaze at his groin area his constantly size her up.
She desires the phallus for pleasure and completion; he wishes her body for pleasure and conquest. Both sexual gazes, in addition to what Gloria says, implies and even thinks, as she walks away, reinforces her position as object of desire and sexual gratification. SIGH. Once again, the female gazing upon herself “patri-eyes” – defining her own feminine worth and womanly value based on the male “other.”
As Gloria strolls away, she wonders verbally to her self, if he is looking at her in an admiring manner. But not at her overall, mind you. She wonders if he is admiring her ass in particular. She glances back at him to confirm that he is, in fact, gazing at her ass.
And what does she do? She jiggles her Hottentot derriere even more – just for his delight – to entice him, to impress him, to taunt him. In that one act, which could arguably be read that she is actually utilizing her assets (no pun intended) as an instrument of power – Gloria, in fact, props the patriarchy in all its cultural, social and historical sexism.
Gloria’s gaze becomes his gaze when she confirms that he sees her that way she sees herself—as a piece of meat being offered up for his admiration and taking.
Nonetheless, there is a redeeming quality of Gloria that is refreshing and hopeful for the masses of African men and women for while she is a handicap and impediment to the cause of female emancipation and liberation from the patriarchy and/or the system’s complete abolition or subversion, Gloria speaks to the importance of simplicity and old fashion ways as a means to a happy and successful relationship (with Hines’ character).
Of all four of the women, Gloria is the only one to achieve and realize a successful relationship with a man. She is the only one of three who was “working class” and not “professional.” She was the only one of the four that, I presume, did not hold the coveted university degree. Gloria and the Hines character represents the unpretentious, working class folks – old fashioned and traditional.
Gloria’s twofold identity and DuBoisian double consciousness – her dual symbolism – is signified in her offering of food to the new neighbor and man on the block. What better way to a man’s heart than through his stomach? Also, isn’t the offering of food the cordial, hospitable and traditional act to commit when a new neighbor comes in? The offerings of provisions serve as both symbol of Gloria’s willingness to function within the patriarchal parameters (i.e. as homemaker) and as traditional act of hospitality and extended family.
It is interesting and revealing that Gloria is the only on of the four to achieve and realize a successful relationship. Equally interesting and illuminating is the fact that their relationship becomes arrested – immobile – around the issue of Gloria’s unwillingness and/or inability to let her son go, which almost causes her to lose her relationship with the Hines character.
Hines finally convinces Gloria that she needs to release her son Tariq so that she can begin to develop wholesome relationships with both Hines AND Tariq. Once she does let Tariq go, everything begins to work out fine.
Her act of letting Tariq go is so emancipatory and healing. It is this act of letting go that allows the Gloria character to free herself from the patriarchal shackles of dependency and containment and into a relationship with based on equality, mutual respect and cooperation. Theirs becomes a relationship based – not on lust and sex, but on shared concern and sharing. Hines’ secure and self-confident character helps Gloria move into a state and space of wholeness for his sake – yes, but for hers, as well. His agenda is not motivated by dominance or subjugation, but instead love and respect.
The character of Gloria is the only female that grows, if not into then towards, feminine emancipation and gender wholeness – individually and dyadically (i.e. within a relationship). She is the only one able to at least loosen the patriarchal bonds – finding happiness within and then find some semblance of contentment with a man – based on things mutual and reciprocal and not on his criteria and definitions. Things equally male and female.
While “Waiting To Exhale” was by no means a “voice” of or for woman’s liberation or the legitimate deconstruction of the patriarchal gaze, the redeeming qualities of Loretta Devine’s Gloria and her relationship with Hines, did ultimately prevail as a roadmap – not only for women on the quest for at least a semblance of liberation from/within the throes of patriarchy but equally so for those male and females desirous of happy and meaningful relationships.
The way to happiness and mutual fulfillment in a relationship lies beneath and within the iconic, oftimes culturally offensive, Aunt Jemima style bandanna worn by Gloria at the beginning of the film.
The way is in the Akan proverbial expression, “Sankofa” which means, “Return to the past and fetch it!” The phrase “Se wo were fi na wo sankofa a yenkyi” speaks to the importance of the wisdom one exhibits when they seek to learn from the past valuable lessons in order to positive build the future.
The means is in the old days and the old ways – those simplistic traditions based on uncomplicated definitions and expressions of love that helped a people to preserve and perpetuate their collective survival. A man and a woman willing and committed to be together based on mutual respect, mutual concern and the mutual surrendering of the self – all for the well being and survival of (the) kin especially those children born and yet to be born. In and from Gloria’s exhalation, there came life and freedom.
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