Mutually empathetic relationships are crucial components of happy and fulfilling lives. To give and receive love is so important, but that can often be clouded by personal insecurities exacerbated by outside pressure. In the American social order, masculinity has been toxically constructed with the goal of oppressing and breaking down non-masculine ideals as a means of holding men above others. Heterosexual relations feature plenty of space for men to project their toxicity upon women, thereby establishing an avenue of hate or otherwise hurtful emotional communication alongside healthier, empathetic love languages. Toni Morrison and SZA each depict a style of coping with or responding to relationships in which love and harm go hand in hand. Through analysis of two critically-acclaimed works in the Black-female canon — Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, and SZA’s album CTRL — I’ll compare strategies of resolving dissonance within nuanced yet violent relationships.
Part of what makes each of these works so impressive is the immediacy with which the artists state their intentions and conclusions. In the opening pages of Jazz and in the first song of CTRL, Morrison and SZA expose the arc of complex relationships without giving the consumer time to process their intricacies. This strategy is unsettling, upfront, and preparational due to its representation of the emotional difficulty in responding to partner violence.
On page one, Morrison introduces readers to Violet and Joe Trace’s lost-love relationship through describing Violet’s reaction to Joe’s affair with a younger woman: “Violet went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face [the security] threw her to the floor and out of the church… she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.’” Introducing their relationship through Violet’s reaction to Joe’s infidelity, Morrison defies the common conception that intimate relationships are founded in the “good,” be it love or romance, establishing that this one is based in “bad,” things like violence and betrayal. In her novel Love, Morrison often portrays problematic relationships as “bad-good” relationships, as if the “bad” is but a symptom of an otherwise good relationship. Morrison reverses that notion, positioning Violet and Joe Trace as a “good-bad” pairing. This nuance is key to understanding Jazz; it often seems like Morrison loves nothing more than warping what, on the surface, could be a perfectly loving relationship.
Morrison’s displacement of the sequentiality of time in this novel is important to interrogate, as the chronological advancement of the narrative doesn’t go hand in hand with the sequentiality of its chapters. However, the fact that she introduces us to Violet and Joe in such a shocking manner suggests that Morrison wants readers to see the relationship as based in shock and violence, rather than goodness and empathy.
Violet and Joe’s relationship is difficult to decipher because they didn’t have much time before a third party was introduced. Whether it was Joe’s mistress Dorcas or the shining City, the pair’s relationship often depended on a third factor rather than on their love for each other. It was only in their first days knowing each other in Virginia that their relationship seemed pure. “Hadn’t he fallen practically in her lap? Hadn’t he stayed?” That first night carries weight going forward — it’s one of very few times in the novel when the pair enjoys each other’s company without the several third factors mentioned above.
Once they arrive in the City, things start to disintegrate: “She was no match for a City seeping music that begged and challenged each and every day.” Their move to the City has a distracting impact on their relationship, and it appears they can never return to what they once had: “Later, and little by little, feelings, like sea trash expelled on a beach strange and recognizable, stark and murky, returned.” Typically masculine invulnerability from Joe contributes to this painful image of their relationship — seldom in the book does he open up and speak honestly about himself and his actions. It’s a complicated situation for Violet to manage, and her main avenue of coping appears to be a newfound friendship with Alice Manfred, Dorcas’s aunt. It’s as if there were so few ways for women to handle relationship trauma that all Violet could do was visit the source of hurt to find some sense of peace of mind. Yet, it appears to work; what started as hostility between Violet and Alice turns into legitimate friendship, as they’re able to air out their past and relate to each other in ways they can’t with others. This is just one of many nuanced relationships in the novel; Morrison relishes in the fact that no relationship is absolutely empathetic — that would be disingenuous.
She concludes the novel on that note. Morrison describes Violet and Joe’s relationship as “an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack.” This implies their relationship will be imbued with abuse and harm, but the final page of the novel reads as a beautifully composed love note, unspecified as to who it’s dedicated:
Despite the beauty of its sentiment, this declaration is hard to take at face value in the context of a record of abuse. That’s Morrison’s goal; to throw doubt in the wings of love, implying that a relationship that is truly loving will always have its issues.
SZA likely agrees with that complicated sentiment, but takes a different path than Morrison to get there; she centers herself as the subject and personally performs a tug-of-war between the knowledge that she’s individually gorgeous and strong and the desire to grow and trust her lover in the face of the insecurity he makes her feel. Whether it’s psychological or physical, one of the album’s themes is this feeling of insecurity handed to her by harmful lovers.
On “Supermodel,” the album’s opening track, SZA sings about how she needs someone to believe in her, and that as a result of her partner’s lack of care for her as well as his infidelity, she’s “been secretly banging your homeboy.” It’s as if going behind his back and sleeping with his friend is the only way she can communicate the pain he inflicts The track’s chorus ends with the statement “But I need you,” which shows that love still exists in this near-broken relationship.
Sexual liberation is a constant theme for SZA, and it seems to come from stopping the continuous dredge of men in her life who only seek sex and are unwilling to care for her or build up her confidence. Including “Supermodel,” she directly addresses this on five tracks, including “Doves in the Wind,” “Anything,” “Normal Girl,” and “Love Galore”: “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?” The knowledge that many men are unwilling or unable to provide emotional stability is a critical understanding for a young woman seeking love. This is a serious critique of the way masculinity harms relationships that should be full of love and empathy.
“The Weekend” serves as the centerpiece to the album. It was celebrated widely when it was released, earning spots on many “best of” lists in 2017. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, she said, “I think it’s like taking the power back. Women just are supposed to cry and feel weird. Enjoy your life, focus on what’s important to you. It’s about being comfortable with yourself.” This is a crucial point, especially as it was received by many as “defeatist” or otherwise disheartened due to the slow tempo and minor key of the song. The song’s minor key and slow tempo exude sadness, but upon closer examination of her lyrics and interviews, the song is so powerful because it acknowledges the validity of sleeping with multiple people at the same time and the validity of being unashamed about it. The song flouts misogynistic societal ideals that women shouldn’t be with many men, and that if they do, they should just “cry and feel weird,” as she said on the Breakfast Club.
I found this new perspective about “The Weekend” particularly insightful, especially considering the manner in which Violet copes with the harm done by Joe in Morrison’s Jazz. It seems as though Violet’s main avenue of mental health work is her friendship with Alice; their shared trauma and hurt brings them together, and they have some pleasant conversations despite the dark clouds hanging above their relationship. It takes until the end of the book for Violet to seem happy again, and there is almost no discussion of sex outside of her relationship with Joe. This could be a creative choice or due to the way sex and gender dynamics changed over the 25 years between Jazz and CTRL. Regardless, this is a significant difference between how Toni Morrison and SZA represent dealing with harmful relationships.
On the last few songs of CTRL, SZA continues the sentiment of empowerment, extending it past the noncommittal sexual relationships on “The Weekend” and bringing it to empathetic relationships as a whole, including the relationship she has with herself. This empowerment goes back to the album’s title, a nod to feeling in control of her life and relationships. Too often, she lets others control her headspace, and now, she’s only focusing on things she can dictate. On “Pretty Little Birds,” she sings “I wanna fly with you / But my wings don’t spread like they used to.” She’s still seeking intimate relationships but has come to understand that she can’t extend herself emotionally the way she used to. You gotta meet her halfway.
Toni Morrison and SZA are each so important in the Black female canon because of their steadfast confidence and willingness to establish boundaries when men are not respecting them. Their message is so crucial because it can affect the discourse surrounding intimate relationships. Hopefully, the more people hear and take heed of these artists’ words, the more people will develop a more critical view of their own relationships, necessary if we are to live in a society focused on equity, love, and fairness.