"Waiting to Exhale" or 'Breath(ing) Again": A Search for Identity, Empowerment, and Love in the 1990's

By Harris, Tina M.; Hill, Patricia S. | Women and Language, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

"Waiting to Exhale" or 'Breath(ing) Again": A Search for Identity, Empowerment, and Love in the 1990's


Harris, Tina M., Hill, Patricia S., Women and Language


As a function of most societies, there is an inherent need for human contact. Whether it be a parent-child, husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, or close-friend relationship, relational intimacy or closeness is an integral part of life. While these needs are fulfilled through interpersonal interactions, men and women are socialized to prioritize need fulfillment in contrasting ways. Historically, men are conditioned to be breadwinners or providers (economic responsibility) for their families and expected to maintain power within romantic relationships. Women, on the other hand, are expected to focus mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, and social energies on their primary relationships through the roles of daughter, mother, wife, lover, and friend. These dichotomous relational goals create dialectical tensions when role expectations are challenged. Particularly, tensions may occur when one or both partners have contradictory gender role expectations of responsibilities in a romantic relationship and external life goals, such as professional aspirations.

Gender role expectations are learned through a myriad of venues, including family, friends, society, and the media. In the media in particular, television programming, music, and movie industries contribute to this socialization process. Societal members are covertly and overtly conditioned to adopt social constructions of gender role expectations, "ideal" beauty, and normative behaviors that may otherwise not be learned. Consequently, these internalized beliefs in conflict with one's life experiences may adversely effect the interpersonal relationships one develops.

Presently, there is limited qualitative research that explores the relationship between gender role expectations and the media's role in perpetuating or dispelling them. The present exploratory study addresses the dearth of research investigating this relationship by examining the movie Waiting to Exhale. based on Terry McMillan's novel of the same name, the film Waiting to Exhale more specifically aims to address the African American woman's experience with the dialectical tension between personal and professional life. While redefining herself, each character challenges female gender role expectations held by society, men, and the African American community. The characters in the book and movie are African American, yet the movie is inclusive of women's experiences across racial and cultural backgrounds within Western culture. The movie allows similarities to bring culturally different women together, yet provides a cinematic platform through which the voices and experiences from an African American woman's standpoint can be heard and shared. Exhale simultaneously challenges long-held stereotypes of African American women perpetuated in the U. S. and by Hollywood cinematic endeavors, while achieving fair representation through the lens of an African American female author and African American director.

In the following sections, role expectations as shaped from Western culture and racial gender role stereotypes are described, followed by a discussion of media representations of African American women and a proposal for a cinematic paradigm shift in racial and gender portrayals of African American women in cinema. A rationale is then provided regarding Black feminist thought as the framework shaping this study and the methodology used to reach the researchers' objectives. Finally, the emergent themes that evolved from in-depth interviews with single, professional African American women about their perceptions of the movie Waiting to Exhale are described and compared to their lived experiences.

Gender Role Expectations

Throughout the course of life, males and females are socialized to accept and ascribe to certain gender roles. Gender roles are described as "cultural constructs that emerge in particular social and historical contexts to organize human life. These constructs impose physiological sex artificial dichotomies in personality and activity that deny both males and females opportunity to fully develop their human potential" (Hunt & Hunt, 1987). …

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