The Representation of Femininity and Class in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress
Traditional qualities of a feminine women usually include a beautiful physique, a gentle, nurturing nature, and a degree of sexual reservation. Throughout literature and film, women that embrace typical ideas of femininity are also portrayed as members of the upper class and the elite, while women who are less feminine and beautiful are represented as lower class or even uneducated and poor. One may not typically consider views of femininity and class as correlating ideals, yet they are often portrayed as such in contemporary art and literature. In Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), there exists a dichotomy between two ideas of femininity embodied in a single female in order to show how different portrayals of femininity are associated with class and status.
In the novel, the character Daphne Monet at times embraces and at times rejects traditional ideals of femininity. The reader is introduced to the character as a white woman with a possible French heritage. When the protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is hired for a job which leads him to search for Daphne, he expects to find a soft, delicate woman who has gotten herself mixed up with the wrong crowd. The two eventually meet and form a connection. She is mysterious and seductive, serving to boost Easy’s ego with her need to be rescued. He dreamily describes her with eyes that “were just a little closer than most women’s eyes; it made her seem vulnerable, made me feel that I wanted to put my arms around her- to protect her” (89). As long as Daphne plays the character of a timid and vulnerable girl in need of rescuing, she keeps her power. Her sexual appeal and inability to remove herself from troubling situations becomes so attractive to Easy that he forgets he is supposed to see her as a job and not as a sexual conquest. As a white woman who associates with politicians, gangsters, and businessmen, Daphne is a member of a higher class than Easy. Easy desires to be associated with her, and though he prides himself on being a loner, he seems to be falling in love with Daphne, and becomes willing to risk his life for her.
As Easy gets to know her, however, he discovers that many of her traits reject typical ideas of femininity. This is represented in her promiscuous sexuality, that she speaks frankly in a way many women would not, and she is even vulgar enough as to urinate in front of him. All of these incidences suggest that Daphne is not who she seems to be, and Easy soon learns that she is actually a black woman who has been passing in an upper class white society. When Easy confronts Daphne she explains to him, “I am not Daphne. My given name is Ruby Hanks and I was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I’m different than you because I’m two people. I’m here and I’m me” (203). After she describes how she contains such a dichotomy within herself, Easy no longer wants to be with her, or to even associate with her. He realizes that he was not saving Daphne in a heroic way; she was just using him. The mystery she was once shrouded in is gone, and Easy finds himself even more disassociated with his surroundings and alone than he was at the beginning of the novel.
Once Easy learns that Daphne is Ruby, a black woman who is only disguising herself as a white woman, the notion of her belonging to a higher class is gone. Instead she is on the same class level, if not lower, than Easy himself. While she might have acquired more money than Easy through her escapades with gangsters and rich men, Easy sees her lies as something to be ashamed of, not a testament to her ability to harness her femininity in an empowering way. Though he also tries, with difficulty, to rise above his class, Easy seems to have some notion that he was honest about this, while Daphne used her femininity to rise above her class in a dishonest way. The two part ways, and the reader is left with the sense that this departure is a close on their relationship.
Through the dichotomies of two representations of femininity that Daphne and Ruby simultaneously embody, Mosley seems to offer an explanation on how femininity are associated with class. While Daphne Monet pretended to be exceedingly feminine and high class, this ideal ended up being fleeting. Once Daphne was discovered for who she really is, her high class standing disappeared. As Ruby, she falls short of a feminine ideal and sinks into the recesses of lower class urbanity.
Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Norton, 1990. Print.
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