On Beauty, Sexual Violence, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
Kanako Nishi: "Morrison neither consoled me as a victim, nor condemned me as the perpetrator."
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
The uniform at the high school I went to was a sailor suit.
At some point, the sailor suit—originally deck wear for seamen—became fashionable for women to wear too, and for some reason when it reached Japan, it became established as the school uniform for female students. Nowadays, the outfit is probably most often associated with Japanese schoolgirls (high school girls in particular) or with cosplayers. Actually, with the spread of cosplay culture around the world, I hear that “sailor fuku” is now understood like the word “otaku.”
When I was a kid, there was a Japanese idol girl group that was explosively popular. They were called Onyanko Club, and they were the precursor to today’s “big family” idol groups like AKB48. In fact, the same guy produced them both and is still in the business—he handles their song lyrics.
In 1985, Onyanko Club’s debut single became a hit, selling 500,000 copies. The song’s title was “Don’t Make Me Take Off My Sailor Uniform.”
Don’t make me take off my sailor uniform
It’s wrong to do it here, just be patient
Don’t make me take off my sailor uniform
It’s bad and it’s wrong to just do it here
I was eight years old at the time. But I recognized the significance of the song’s lyrics. They were describing the obvious sexual objectification of the sailor uniform. And that wasn’t all. The last verse finishes off with these words:
I’m a little scared about staying out tomorrow night
But it’s boring to be a virgin
Before I become an old maid
I’ll give you…my heart
Only young girls were allowed to wear sailor uniforms. The outfit epitomized their sexual allure—moreover, it embodied the value placed on girls’ sexual immaturity.
I was wearing a sailor uniform when I first encountered Toni Morrison’s work. It was the winter of 1994. I was seventeen.
After school, I would take the train in the opposite direction from my home in Osaka. I would head all the way downtown. At the time, I felt—like many seventeen-year-olds—powerless and very lonely, like I was on my own in the world.
At a bookshop I had wandered into, I came across The Bluest Eye, translated into Japanese by Yoshiko Okoso. Instinctively drawn to the book’s beautiful design, I flipped it open to the following words:
“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”
That sentence riveted my heart. Or rather, it wasn’t my heart—someplace deep within my body that I wasn’t even aware of was completely riveted. I could tell, immediately, that this was the beginning of a tragic story. I brought the book straight to the register. Considering my allowance at the time, it was an extravagance, but I didn’t hesitate.
They say that Morrison’s novels are difficult to understand. This was of course true for me at seventeen, but I devoured The Bluest Eye. Again, this was in Japanese translation, and you would think that, having spoken Japanese my whole life, the words would be familiar to me. And yet, I had never encountered such strong and beautiful sentences. These were the same words that I had always known and regularly used, but Morrison’s pen transformed them into prose the likes of which I had never encountered. Her sentences astonished me, there on the page in simple black text. So vivid, so resonant, so evocative—now this was a novel.
I had always loved movies and music. I was fascinated by their power, the way a single scene or a single note could transport me to another place. But The Bluest Eye took me further away than any film or song had. Still, however far away that place, the fact of the matter is that it was somewhere inside of me. I knew nothing about America in 1941. I was a Japanese girl, born in 1977. Nevertheless, what I felt was, This is my story.
The white baby doll that the narrator Claudia destroys—I wondered why everyone else was so fond of the doll, with its blue eyes and white skin and blonde hair? And why couldn’t she show such affection to herself? Why did Pecola want “the bluest eyes”? And why, then, did she have to be damaged in such a hideous way?
Claudia and Pecola were me. But not just them. Claudia’s mother, who scolded her severely for taking apart the baby doll; Pecola’s mother, who erected a castle of white beauty around the family she worked for; the girls’ classmate Maureen Peal, who called them ugly—they were me too. And the shopkeeper who refused to acknowledge Pecola’s presence; the black boys who took pleasure in teasing Pecola; even Cholly Breedlove, who raped his own daughter—they were all, unmistakably, me.
When I started high school, I had wanted to wear a sailor uniform.
The big pale blue collar with white stripes and matching ribbon tie. I was happy about wearing it. First, because I thought it was pretty, and surely also because I thought it would make me look prettier than I was. Just like many other young girls, I lacked confidence in myself. The standards of beauty that I saw out in the world were myriad—I took inventory of them, picking up on the things I was deficient in, and grieved for myself. I believed that people were loved according to how perfectly they fulfilled the criteria on this list.
I was not content with simply wearing a sailor uniform. I brushed my hair assiduously, somehow managing to make my unruly hair straight. I determined with meticulous precision the skirt length that would make my legs look the most slender. I washed my body with perfumed soap, and I applied lip balm with just a hint of color. Despite all this, I was still very immature. It never occurred to me to wear any makeup. I was on the swim team so my skin darkened in the sun. And every day with my friends, I would laugh with my mouth open so wide you could practically see down my throat. I wanted to be a pretty girl, but I definitely didn’t want to be a grownup woman. I was unprepared for that.
It happened that winter. Not long before I encountered Toni Morrison, I was sexually assaulted.
My world went silent for a time. Everything around me seemed distorted. It sounds like a cliché, but I felt as though I was inside of a thick glass jar. Every day, strange things would either make me weep or want to scream. Nonetheless, I went to school the same as usual, I told no one about it. Not my friends, not my family.
I did not think of myself as a genuine victim.
Because I should have known the effect that those clothes would have. Because even at the age of eight, I had already been aware of the sexual nuances of “Don’t Make Me Take Off My Sailor Uniform,” and I should have known that nothing in the culture had changed since then—nothing had been done to overwrite the outfit’s allure. And because, despite knowing all this, I had still wanted to wear the sailor uniform.
“No, it’s different. I only wanted to wear the sailor uniform because I thought it was pretty.”
That excuse was not going to pass muster. I had pitched myself into the sexual marketplace. Go ahead—appraise me, please.
Of course, now I understand that such thinking was absolutely, totally wrong. The things I had internalized were likely too complicated and powerful for me to understand, let alone control.
Standards of beauty designated by the outside world, blind belief that those criteria were absolute, my worth as a young girl, being sexually objectified, and objectified specifically because of my sexual immaturity. What’s more, I had even co-opted the male gaze that judged us as sexual objects.
This was the moment when I encountered The Bluest Eye.
I was in every part of this story. I was the victim, and I was also the perpetrator. I was the one wounded, but I had also caused the injury. I was among the minority upon whom a potent value system had been imposed, and I was also part of the majority that imposed such powerful perceptions.
Something flowed from my eyes, from my body. Everything peeled away, then collapsed in on itself. My seventeen-year-old being was laid bare. Exposed and defenseless, I was my pure self. At that moment, for the first time—as myself alone and no one else—I strained my ears to listen and my eyes to see, everything in the world. And this is what I thought:
In The Bluest Eye, this most brutal of stories, Morrison blames no one. She does not neglect any of her characters’ lives—not a single one of them functions merely as a pawn to move the story along. Each character is fully realized. They all have hardship, and they all have happiness. Astoundingly, even during the scene where Cholly rapes Pecola, Morrison manages to reflect a moment of beauty. Though of course, on the other side of that beauty lies a singular horror beyond description.In The Bluest Eye, this most brutal of stories, Morrison blames no one.
What I mean to say is that Morrison neither consoled me as a victim, nor condemned me as the perpetrator. There was no longer any sadness, or shame, or self-reproach, or anger left in my body. Instead, the one thing that remained was the intensely strong and clear feeling she had given me.
Someone like that, a writer like that, can only be thought of as extraordinary.
To me (and, needless to say, to the entire world), Toni Morrison was that extraordinary writer.
After I graduated from high school, the appearance of “buru-sera shops” caused a stir in Japanese society (or perhaps these had already existed when I was in high school, but I wasn’t aware of them until after I graduated).
“Buru” is short for bloomers. These are the black shorts that female students wear—or rather, are made to wear—over our underwear during gym class. With their elasticized cuffs, the bloomers expose our thighs and cause our underwear to stick out suggestively. They’re scanty enough that in wintertime we’d get goose bumps.
And “sera” is short for sailor uniform. In other words, buru-sera shops sell bloomers and sailor uniforms. But not to female students. These shops cater to a (mostly male) clientele that buys these items for sexual arousal. Bloomers and sailor uniforms command a high price—higher still if they appear used. It wasn’t long before things escalated, and shops that sold high school girls’ saliva and urine appeared, and even shops selling their used sanitary napkins.
By that time, of course, I had already taken off my sailor uniform. No one had made me take it off, I had done so of my own free will. I got rid of my uniform, I didn’t sell it. I wore my hair in an Afro or in dreadlocks, I painted my nails black and wore lots of eye makeup, I wore only black underwear, I got tattoos, and I started wearing baggy men’s clothing.
These days, I suppose that would be considered cultural appropriation. I was ignorant. I wanted power, strength. It would take a bit longer for me to claim my beauty as an Asian—and even longer, as a woman in my own right. It didn’t happen until I was able to tell someone about what happened to me.
Buru-sera shops may still exist. And even if the stores are gone, surely that ilk has not disappeared. They’ve gone online, growing more extreme and more ingenious. I hear that most schools no longer require bloomers, but sailor uniforms are still around. And the despicable behavior associated with them shows no sign of abating.
I was surprised by how upset I was when I heard that Toni Morrison had passed away last year. It felt precarious to imagine facing any challenges in a world without her.
But this precariousness was different from that of my seventeen-year-old self. Completely different. Because now I carried within me the “Why?” that Morrison had bestowed upon me. No matter what happened, I would always cling to that question.
Even now, I am still weak. I may be older, but there are still times when I feel as powerless and lonely as my seventeen-year-old self. Although I no longer simply accept that powerlessness and loneliness. Instead I ask, Why am I powerless? Why am I lonely? Or I take it further, What leads me to think I’m powerless? What makes me think I’m lonely? Thinking this way itself serves as the beginning of resistance.
The sexual exploitation of young girls and the enforced toxic masculinity of young boys (and of course, each of those in reverse), persistent value systems and the cruel way those who don’t fit in are treated, grownups who pride themselves on being strong and those who reject weakness—all manner of dubious things.
I want to keep wondering. To continue asking why. Not so that I can present reassuring answers or facile solutions. I want to write books that pose these questions. In a world without Toni, I hope to live on by asking “Why?”