Exposing the “Master Narrative”: Teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

The following post is second in a series on teaching paired texts in high school classrooms.  It is cross-posted at Equality 101.

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye lends itself to rich conversations with students about race, class, gender, and sexuality.  Throughout our teaching of this text, my colleagues and I have used a variety of additional texts, images, and videos that help students understand the novel from both personal and analytical perspectives. The following post provides ideas for sources to pair with the novel including teaching the term “master narrative,” discussing images of Shirley Temple and American girlhood, as well as analyzing media images and their connection to self and body image.

The Master Narrative

Of particular use in our study of the novel has been our discussion of the term “master narrative.” In a Bill Moyers interview with Morrison in March of 1990 for his television series A World of Ideas, Morrison explores her definition of this term:

Moyers: I don’t think I’ve ever met a more pathetic character in modern literature than Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye.

Morrison: She has surrendered completely to the so-called “Master Narrative,” the whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness. She got it from her family; she got it from school; she got it from the movies; she got it from everywhere.

Moyers: The Master Narrative . . . what is . . . that’s life.

Morrison: No. It’s white male life. The Master Narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else: The Master Fiction . . . history. It has a certain point of view. So when those little girls see that the most prized gift they can receive at Christmas time is this little white doll, that’s the Master Narrative speaking: this is beautiful, this is lovely, and you’re not it, so what are you going to do about it? So if you surrender to that, as Pecola did (the little girl, the “I” of the story, is a bridge: [she] is resistant, feisty, doesn’t trust any adults) . . . [Pecola] is so completely needful; she has so little and needs so much . . . she becomes the perfect victim–the total pathetic one. And for her, there’s no way back into the community or society. For her, an abused child, she can only escape into fantasy, into madness . . . which is part of what . . . the mind is always creative . . . it can think that up.

To begin our discussion of the master narrative and how it informs Morrison’s novel, we begin with passing out copies of original Dick and Jane primers.

Dick and Jane Primer

We analyze what’s represented and what’s not represented in both the illustrations and the narrative of these early children’s books.  Students quickly see the gender role expectations and stereotypes for not only Dick and Jane but also Mother and Father. They also notice the absence of people of color as well as the depiction of the white picket fence fantasy of the ideal American nuclear family, an experience that many students in our classes do not share whether because of divorce, the passing of a parent, illness, single parenthood, guardianship, etc.

We then examine the long passage in the novel where Morrison creates a pastiche of the Dick and Jane narrative as she twists and turns the language of the primers to reveal their disturbing subtext: “Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisverypretty” and so on.

Shirley Temple and American Girlhood

As we move into the first chapter, we learn about Pecola’s fascination with Shirley Temple: “She was a long time with the milk, and gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face” (19).

Conversely, Claudia’s hatred for and jealousy of the child actor for dancing with Bojangles provides us the opportunity to show a few clips from Temple’s films.  Some students know Temple’s work while some don’t, so screening a few scenes allows all students to explore why Claudia declares that Bojangles “was my friend, my uncle, my daddy . . . who ought to have been soft-shoeing it with me” (19).  After we watch the clips, we explore the implications of race, class, gender, and even age.  Some students point out that Bojangles appears to be Temple’s sidekick, a vestige of the mistress-slave power dynamic.

Once we have a shared analysis of the primers as well as the Shirley Temple and Bojangles scenes, we then invite students to engage with the text through personal writing on gender.

To begin, we return to an image with which they have some familiarity, a portrait titled Anna Dorothea Foster and Charlotte Anna Dick (1790-91) by Gilbert Stuart. The portrait depicts two girls, one of whom is busy embroidering, preparing herself for future marriage and domesticity, while the other looks on, literally waiting her turn to become a wife and mother.

Anna Dorothea Foster and Charlotte Anna Dick by Gilbert Stuart (1790-91)

Earlier this trimester, we took students to see this painting as well as other pieces in the exhibit American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We shared with students that we would return to particular paintings throughout the rest of the year, especially in connection to The Great Gatsby and The Bluest Eye.  Teachers need not think they need to take a trip to the Met for students to understand this portrait, as the image itself can be easily reproduced as a handout or shared online; the objective here is to analyze what they see in the painting. More about the exhibit at this blog.

When we show them the portrait, we ask students: “What do we learn about American girlhood from this image?”  Students are given time in class to write down their first impressions and initial analysis.  Their responses are revealing; here is a sampling of some of their thoughts:

  • Girls need to prepare for future housework
  • Girls need to make a good impression
  • Girls need to be presentable
  • Girls need to be industrious and productive
  • Girls need to sit up straight and be demure
  • Girls are restricted to certain activities
  • Girls need to be perfect
  • These girls appear privileged and white
  • These girls appear to be innocent and pure

Upon finishing this reflection, students are then asked to write down any messages whether negative or positive about their perceived or actual gender.  Students then share their messages:

Girls

Like pink

Like dolls, Barbies

Wear dresses

Pretend to be a mother

Find a husband

Be pretty

Boys

Don’t wear light colors

Play with guns/swords/weaponry

Don’t be gay

Be aggressive

Find a wife, buy a car, have an awesome job

Be protective

We then discuss how similar the messages for girls are today to their initial analysis of the Gilbert Stuart portrait. We also talk about the issues of privilege and race that they noticed in the portrait in connection to both the novel and their own personal experiences. Using the connections from that exercise, we then discuss the following passage in The Bluest Eye:

It had begun with Christmas and the gift of dolls. The big, the special, the loving gift was always a big, blue-eyed Baby Doll. From the clucking sounds of adults I knew that the doll represented what they thought was my fondest wish.  I was bemused with the thing itself, and the way it looked. What was I supposed to do with it? Pretend I was its mother? I had no interest in babies or the concept of motherhood . . . I had only one desire: to dismember it.  To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me . . . I could not love it.  But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable (20-21).

Images in the Media

From here, we ask students to begin exploring their own definitions of beauty in relation to race, class, ethnicity and gender.

To begin, we ask them to bring in images of girls and boys, women and men that they believe taught them early messages about beauty.  This year, students brought in a variety of images from Pocahantas to Queen Latifah, from Superman to Michael Jordan.

For both sets of images, I ask students to reflect on how and why they think the images they selected for boys/men and girls/women taught them their early notions of beauty. I then ask them whether they can generate a critique of the messages they internalized as children.

Disney's Pocahantas (1995)

For example, three students, one boy and two girls, brought in an image of Disney’s Pocahantas as their representation of beauty. All three students agreed that a major reason why they liked this image was because Pocahantas was peaceful and loved nature.

I then asked all three students as well as their classmates to provide a critique of Pocahantas as they now see her as young adults.  Some students pointed out that Pocahantas seemed hyper-sexualized in her rather tight and cleavage-revealing dress. I agreed, and added that this kind of imagery also perpetuated a common image of women of color in the media as exotic and sexual.  Another student pointed out that the Native American history depicted in the animated film was probably distorted for commercial reasons rather than honored for what really happened.

The boy who brought in the image of Pocahantas said: “All of the Disney movies portray white women and girls.  Pocahantas was the first Disney movie I saw that portrayed women who were other than white.  It was the first female Disney character I could connect with.”

After students share their critiques of and reflections on these early messages of beauty, I share the following video with them that I found through the body image blog Adios Barbie. I ask students to think about how spoken word artist Rafael Casal also provides a critique of media images and their destructive influence on both women and men, girls and boys. As students watch the video, they write down the ways in which Casal provides this critique through his performance “Barbie and Ken 101”:

After watching and discussing the video, students then reflect on and share the ways in which their own racial and/or ethnic group informs the way they understand self and body image.  Once they share these reflections, we watch Kiri Davis’s 2005 video “A Girl Like Me.”

We then read the following passage from The Bluest Eye:

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.  Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’ . . . Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes (46).

After viewing and reading both texts, students made the following connections between both texts.  One African American boy wrote:

So many African American women in our society feel they are ugly, and that beauty rests in the souls of white people. In a video by Kiri Davis, 15 out of 21 black children believed that white was beautiful and just, while the black dolls were ugly and bad.  Pecola herself actually confirms this test when she begins to pray for blue eyes.

An Asian American girl wrote:

The video and the passage are similar because both the girls in the video and Pecola are aware of the idea that ‘lighter is better’ . . . being more white, Pecola believes, will create happiness.

Examining these paradigms and messages that students have internalized over their own lifetimes as well as through other sources provides them various opportunities to see how idealized and unhealthy notions of beauty are still with us today.

As one African American male student noted:

Even today we find people . . . with the same issues that were found 70 years ago.  People today often think that thin, white models are beautiful . . . but I also feel that people need to say that all [races and ethnicities] are beautiful.

For videos on Morrison addressing The Bluest Eye, see her 2008 TIME interview and her 2008 HBO “The Black List” interview.

9 thoughts on “Exposing the “Master Narrative”: Teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

  1. Pingback: Literary Link Love « The Feminist Texican [Reads]

  2. This sounds like an amazing lesson plan, and may I say I really appreciate your efforts to expand feminist pedagogy to secondary education. I am currently getting an MA in Japanese Literature, and I have always wanted to teach literature but have doubted if I should do so on a secondary level or university level. Reading your blog has shown me that it is possible (and should perhaps be almost obligatory) to introduce close, contextualized readings of texts even on the secondary level. Thank you!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I definitely think that teaching students to conduct close readings of texts is essential to strong reading comprehension as well as intellectual appreciation of the text. Providing students with these additional satellite texts such as related sources (the children’s primers in this case), art, and media provide a richer context for both analysis and personal connection.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have used it to create a blog post connecting how Pecola Breedlove represents the thousands if not millions of gay men and women who desperately wish to be heterosexual. Who pray for their sexual orientation to change.

    • Thank you for this comment; I’m glad you wrote your post connecting queer identity with the master narrative. For readers who are interested in the Anti-Intellect Blog post on Pecola Breedlove, the master narrative, and queer identity, here it is: http://bit.ly/bo1saR

  4. does this mean that racism is still alive and well? if 80-90% of the images of women depicted as beautiful are white, should’nt we reject hollywood and other media outlets just as viciously as we rejected the racist south of the civil rights era? shouldn’t we reject the promoters of false images such as beyonce (long blond hair) and snoop dog (referring to women as b?tches and hoez)? in the final analysis, how different is the african american mother who demonstrates (perm) a false universal image of beauty to her 3 year-old daughter from the racist producer/writer who rejects that same child by refusing to produce positive images of her in movies, magazines, and other media mediums? hmmmmm

    • Racism is definitely still alive though it’s certainly not well. You are absolutely right that we need to have a critical analysis of media images regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality. Many of the images we see today of women of color reinforce the same racist attitudes regarding us as “exotic,” “sexually voracious,” “animal,” etc. In addition, the images of the sex industry have become the norm in all of our media from selling music to selling fashion to selling cars to selling food. We need to have a much more engaged and thoughtful way of having young people analyze these images with a critical eye. Movements such as SPARK are helping young women especially become critical media commentators, bloggers, and analysts. Bringing my students to the SPARK Summit last year was essential in engaging them directly in the conversation and having them be a part of the change.

  5. Pingback: when being “black” isn’t enough | 40daysFortyNights

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