In the African American community, racism, class oppression, and sexism are inextricable. This implies that they are bound together and therefore, feminism within the community seeks to fight against these three forces. Alice Walker was among the key symbolic figures and proponents of feminism within the African American community. The A&P story is a comical narration of three checking clerks who seem to have uncontrollable sexual interest on three girls who walk into the store to shop. It shows the sexual power of women over men as the clerks, who are still in their young age except McMahon, seem to appraise the women sexually. The story demonstrates women empowerment from the point of view of black feminism, through the reaction of the three girls. However, they are faced with oppression for their choice to express themselves in the way they dressed. The society either condemns them for being indecent or the men end up having a sexist view of them. All these are forms of oppression that they have to go through. Unwritten principles put a strain on women as they seek to independently express themselves.
The story was written at a period when oppression against women was the norm. Women still lacked a sense of independence and it took the male characters to establish their place in the society. The imaginations that run through Sammy’s head are a clear indication of the lack of empowerment that women had. Just as the girls start shopping, Sammy is quoted imagining in his head that “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)” This statement is a clear indication of the ignorance displayed by men when perceiving women. It is an indication that in a man’s mind, back then, women were not quite rational. He also seems not to have any interest in understanding women as he makes huge assumptions about how they think. The statement also has a strong implication that the three girls did not know what they were doing and as a result, they should have felt embarrassed of their actions. What Sammy fails to realize is that the girls are strong humans who are confident of their actions and do not need to feel embarrassed by the reaction they get from people.
There is a clear distinction between the female mind and the female body in the story. The story is however biased against the female mind and focuses more on the female body. There is a desperate need for the male characters in the story to understand the female mind. Feminism is demonstrated in the story both from a negative and a positive side. The beginning statement is sufficient enough to sum up a feminist view of the story. The main character, Sammy, explicitly shows the common denominator of the modern and youthful men. He describes unattractive women and girls in a very disrespectful and negative manner. The first customer that checks out at his spot just as the three girls walked in in bathing suits gets annoyed with him because he kept on drooling at the girls instead of focusing on checking her out.
Similarly, his view of attractive women is nothing short of offensive. He describes the three girls in ways that tells they are simply a sex object to him. The first girl, the chunky one, has a back side that really caught his attention, and he even went further to describe the lady’s bum in a very suggestive manner. “Those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit” (Updike 1026). According to Sammy, the main character, only a certain type of women should expose a lot of meat while other women should have their bodies covered. To him, it is okay for only attractive women to dress in their swim suits and walk into a grocery store, but, it is inappropriate for women with “six children and varicose veins on their legs” to expose their meat.
This kind of reaction to the girls can be slightly understandable if it involved teenagers and men in their early twenties. However, the story shows that this reaction is also a common denominator even to older men as demonstrated by old McMahon. He was unable to control himself as the girls walked away from his counter. He was seen staring at their backs while patting his mouth and sizing up their joints.
The three girls seem to have a profound effect to transform the clerks especially the main character, Sammy. They make these clerks to act in some angry, greedy, and piggish way. The men seem unable to control themselves while staring at the girls. They make comments and gestures that allude to their lack of self-control. The only sane masculine character in the story is Lengel who makes an honest attempts to protect the three girls from the desires of the men while at the same time, he seems to refer to social norms as a way to have the young girls help the men control their desires.
In contrast, the leading femalecharacter in the story represents the feminist thinking and direction. Sammy even calls her Queenie, to imply her sense of independence, control, and confidence. She displays attitudes and characteristics that would make her at par with her male counterparts. She seems quite confident and she is not affected by the way people react to her or the opinion of everyone. Her confidence also gets to intimidate others. This is displayed when all the other customers decided to avoid the scene and move over to Stockesie’s counter. The intimidation is also seen by the way the other two girls walk around her. They seem clueless, not knowing what they want and always relying on Queenie for direction. The ultimate power is shown, when the girls become completely oblivious to the unsuspected little heroism showed by Sammy. He acted in their defense, thinking that they would at least notice and probably walk out together in appreciation for his heroic act. However, with Sammy’s sexist, and oppressive mindset, the women never bothered or wanted anything to do with him.
Despite the comic nature of the narration, the story shows a side of women that most proponents of feminism would criticize. In the mind of the main character, women are simply an object but the main female character displays a different, confident, and independent nature typical of feminists. Therefore, despite the fact that the story shows the extent in which the society trails in respecting women, the three girls are used to show the empowerment of women in the society.