Study Guide

"A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?" Characters in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down

By Alice Walker

"A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?" Characters

Susan Marie

Not in the Job Description

Susan Marie is a professor who's having a bit of a run-in with her colleague, Lucy. At issue is the fact that Lucy was meant to choose her favorite feminist to dress up as for a college ball...and she chose Scarlett O'Hara.

Why is this a problem for Susan Marie? Let's break it down:

• Scarlett is a fictional character. She can't be a feminist.
• Scarlett is a slave owner. She can't be a feminist.
• Scarlett believes that Prissy, her "personal servant," just loves being a slave and is absolutely content to be beaten by Scarlett. She, therefore, can't be a feminist.

Ultimately, Susan Marie is disturbed most by that last issue. Gone With the Wind may be considered an iconic book, but it also promotes the stereotype of the contented slave—something that Susan Marie and her students just spent the entire semester working hard to debunk.

The Stereotype That Just Won't Die

Susan Marie brings sadomasochism into the argument because of its use of "master-slave" imagery and role-playing. S&M, according to Susan Marie, promotes the idea that to be a slave is super—and that women just love being chained and beaten.

As Susan Marie forcefully reminds Lucy, women—especially Black women—do not like this. Never did, never will. She also says that she's not going to kick Lucy to the curb. She has bigger plans for their relationship: "And so, Lucy, you and I will be friends again because I will talk you out of caring about heroines whose real source of power, as well as the literal shape and condition of their bodies, comes from the people they oppress" (Letter.24).

And that's that. In this very important case, Susan Marie won't take no for an answer.

Lucy

We never get to see Lucy's response to her colleague, Susan Marie, who has written a very pointed letter about Lucy's inappropriate costume choice for a ball at their college. Susan Marie extends the olive branch to Lucy at the very end of that letter:

And so, Lucy, you and I will be friends again because I will talk you out of caring about heroines whose real source of power, as well as the literal shape and condition of their bodies, comes from the people they oppress. (Letter.24)

Susan Marie is not backing down or trying to give ground to Lucy here. She's expecting Lucy to take a good, hard look at herself and make a serious change. Does she do it? We'll never know, but this is some seriously persuasive writing.

Susan Marie's Students

Susan Marie's students sound, for the most part, like the most delightful group of women ever to grace a college classroom:

It was an extraordinary class, Lucy! With women of all colors, all ages, all shapes and sizes and all conditions. There were lesbians, straights, curveds, celibates, prostitutes, mothers, confuseds, and sundry brilliants of all persuasions! A wonderful class! (Letter.10)

They work hard, they do a lot of work on their own prejudices and assumptions—and they triumph. There's only one real kink in the works, and that comes toward the end of the semester. There's a white lesbian student who just can't see the problem with S&M communities engaging in "master-slave" relationships.

But her awesome students support the point Susan Marie has been trying to convey all semester:

A black student said to the S&M sympathizer: I feel abused. I feel my privacy as a black woman has been invaded. Whoever saw that television program can now look at me standing on the corner waiting for a bus and not see me at all, but see instead a slave […]. (Letter.22)

It's a bittersweet moment for Susan Marie, who is infuriated that these images still exist (and that people still support them), but she's also pleased that her students have learned to speak up about this kind of oppression.

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