Gender Stereotyping in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Posted by M ws On Monday, July 16, 2012 0 comments
I love the works of Tennessee Williams, especially A Streetcar Named Desire. According to Wikipedia:

Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983) was an American writer who worked principally as a playwright in the American theater. He also wrote short stories, novels, poetry, essays, screenplays and a volume of memoirs. His professional career lasted from the mid 1930s until his death in 1983, and saw the creation of many plays that are regarded as classics of the American stage. Williams adapted much of his best known work for the cinema.

Williams received virtually all of the top theatrical awards for his works of drama, including several New York Drama Critics' Circle awards, a Tony Award for best play for The Rose Tattoo (1951) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). In 1980 he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter and is today acknowledged as one of the most accomplished playwrights in the history of English speaking theater.

Theater scholar Charlotte Canning, of the University of Texas at Austin where Williams' archives are located, has said, "There is no more influential 20th-century American playwright than Tennessee Williams... He inspired future generations of writers as diverse as Tony Kushner, David Mamet and John Waters, and his plays remain among the most produced in the world." More HERE.

For a few months, I was mentoring two old friends' son in English Literature. He is an intelligent boy and I have featured his narrative pieces in my blog here and also here. In reality, I have not taught anyone as smart as Ian since 2005 so I have been reading his essays that he emailed to me when he was preparing for the A-levels. The whole family has migrated to Australia and he will be leaving in a couple of months to study law. And yes, I do miss the exchange we shared, even reading and marking his essays. This afternoon, I thought of sharing with you this particular essay. Initially, he could not get it and actually submitted three drafts, the first being the outline followed by the first attempt and then after my comments and suggestions, he improved his answer and here it is...(This is the raw version written in early December last year without any editing by yours truly. By May, he was writing much better than this!.) 

To what extent does Tennessee Williams use gender stereotyping in Streetcar Named Desire?
Written by Ian Khor

In the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Tennessee Williams uses a range of different characters in the play to bring out the theme of gender stereotyping. The main women portrayed in this light in the play are Stella and Blanche DuBois. There are also other minor women characters in the play that all support then theme of gender stereotyping such as the Mexican Flower Seller, Eunice, the Negro Woman, Nurse and the Prostitute. In particular, the main protagonist of the play Blanche DuBois was portrayed in a pitiful light and the audience will be able to see gender stereotyping through her and Stella through her actions and speech. The themes connected to these characters and gender stereotyping are the inability to separate reality from fantasy, fear of death, sensual desire and dependence on men.

By portraying the main character Blanche as a fragile person, Williams reinforces the gender stereotype that women are often the victims of unfortunate fate. Throughout the play, she has been on the bitter end of life’s miseries. Firstly, she had lost her home Belle Reeve, ‘The loss-the loss/ Belle Reeve? Lost, is it? No! / Yes, Stella’ and had lost all of her relatives due to disease, ‘And old Cousin Jessie’s right after Margaret’s, hers! Why the Grim Reaper had put his tent on our doorstep!’. She had also lost her husband as he had committed suicide, ‘The boy – the boy died’. Although being less obvious, the supporting character of Stella also falls under the same category as Blanche, being depicted as a lesser being compared to the opposite sex. The description of the stage directions in Scene Three by Williams seems to depict Stella as the prey and Stanley as the predator as he had abused her physically, ‘(She backs out of sight. He advances and disappears. There is the sound of a blow. Stella cries out. Blanche screams and runs into the kitchen. The men rush forward and there is grappling and cursing. Something is overturned with a crash)’ The rhythm found in the stage directions is fast and smooth, also showing the speed of the actual actions to be performed on stage by the actors. Again, this shows Stanley’s abusive nature towards Stella, the man hurting the woman, linking to the theme of gender disparity in the play.

Through the way the male characters interact with both Blanche and Stella, Williams also shows the males in the play being the more aggressive, vocal and dominant sex. Aggressive as it is linked to Stanley’s conduct of Stella and him being the dominant partner in the relationship. Stanley treats Stella without care for her physical health, as shown during his abuse of her during the Poker Night in Scene Three, and also mentally abuses her which was shown during his outburst during Blanche’s birthday dinner. In Scene One, Blanche showed her mental weakness though her conversation with Stella. This is a result of fate being very harsh on her in the play. Through Stanley’s conduct with both Blanche and Stella, Williams presents them as the suffering and mentally weaker sex compared to the males, which are represented by Stanley. The main act in the play that epitome the theme of gender disparity would be the rape of Blanche by Stanley in Scene Ten whilst Stella was giving birth to his own son.

Blanche’s conduct with both the imaginary Shep Huntleigh and Mitch shows the theme of the dependence of women on men, linking with gender disparity in A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche wanted Stella to leave Stanley after she had seen her physically abused in Scene Three. The first person Blanche turns to for help is the oil millionaire Shep Huntleigh, who never makes an appearance on the stage. She claims that Shep, ‘…could do it, he could certainly do it!’ in Scene Four which Tennessee portrays Blanche’s desperation to make a new life for herself but depending on a male figure in her life to make sure of her happiness. Blanche also looked for a new life in New Orleans through the character of Mitch which she quoted, ‘I want to rest! I want to breath quietly again! Yes- I want Mitch…very badly! Just think! If it happens! I can leave here and not be anyone’s problem…’Blanche again evokes the character of Shep Huntleigh in Scene Ten conversing with Stanley, using him to protect herself from Stanley, ‘Who did you say it was from?/ An old beau of mine/ The one that gave you the white fox pieces!/ Mr Shep Huntleigh…’ Stella has the same dependence on men as Blanche does in which Tennessee displays her weakness through Stella’s relationship with Stanley. Stella claimed to Blanche in Scene Four, ‘… but I am not in anything I have a desire to get out of’ and, ‘But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem unimportant’. Stella also shows a weakness to be influenced past her own natural character to turn into something desirable for Stanley, as shown in the stage directions in Scene Three that, ‘ They stare at each other, Then, they come together with low, animal moans…’

Williams portrays the theme of sex and reality vs fantasy being the main reasons as to the males being the higher standing sex compared to the female. Blanche’s imagination of a Shep Huntleigh swooping down on New Orleans to rescue her from the brutal animal Stanley is used by Williams to display Blanche’s weakness and her dependence on men in order to make sure her life is lived out to the fullest. Blanche’s relationship with Mitch is meant to be portrayed by Williams as how Blanche wanted her ideal man to be like, which would be like Allen her young deceased husband. Williams again shows Blanche as living in a fantasy world, where she believes that obtaining a husband as close to Allen as possible will put her life back into order. Stella is also shown having a sexual relationship with Stanley is her way of being dependent of men to have a good life. Stella was also seen in the Scene Three stage directions as being turned into an animal just like Stanley sue to their constant interaction. The relationship between Stanley and Stella is used by Williams to again display the women’s weakness to sex in the play and that dependence on men for a happy life is intricately linked to a sexual relationship, thus it will not be a full and real relationship between a man and a woman. Only the man would benefit from such an arrangement.

Through a range of imagery, Williams evokes the idea of gender disparity as they have been used to portray Blanche’s slow descent into insanity. The imagery of light has been used throughout the play, especially when Blanche avoids appearing in direct, bright light in front of Mitch. The light bulb in the Kowalski apartment is covered by a Chinese lantern. Blanche’s reluctance to be under the light means that her grasp on reality in also nearing its end, foreshadowing her complete mental breakdown in Scene Eleven. In Scene Six, Blanche tells Mitch that being in love with her late husband, Allen Grey, was like having the world being lit in bright, vivid light. Since Allen’s suicide, she said that the bright light has been missing. Bright light therefore represents Blanche’s youthful sexual innocence, while poor light represents her sexual maturity and disillusionment. Williams represents this image as being the twisted soul of Blanche and of her sexual immortality changing her character from a high standing socialite to a prostitute in search of happiness.

Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche bathes herself. Her sexual experiences made her a changed woman, but the bathing soothes her. Williams invokes this imagery to symbolize Blanche’s efforts to wash herself of her promiscuous past. Yet, just as she cannot erase her past, her bathing is never done. This shows Blanche’s inability to let go what has already been done and represents her weakness of mind in the play.

Blanche consuming alcohol is shown as being destructive and anti-social. Blanche always tries to keep her drinking a secret, as shown in Scene One when she filched Stanley’s liquor once she just arrived in New Orleans. She drinks in order to withdraw from the harsh reality of her life. Her state of drunken stupor enables her to take a flight of imagination, such as concocting a getaway with Shep Huntleigh. Again, this shows Blanche’s fantasy ridden mind and that her dependence on men is taken to new heights through her drinking problems showing the gender disparity in the play.

The tune of the Varsouviana polka is inherent throughout the play and connected to Blanche’s state of reality and mind. The polka music is played when Blanche reminisces on Allen’s death. The first time we hear this music is in Scene One, when Stanley meets Blanche and asks her about her husband. Its second appearance occurs when Blanche tells Mitch the story of Allen Grey. From this point on, the polka plays increasingly often, and it always drives Blanche to distraction. She tells Mitch it ends only after she hears the sound of a gunshot in her head. The polka and the moment it evokes represent Blanche’s loss of innocence. The suicide of the young husband Blanche loved dearly was the event that triggered her mental decline. Since then, Blanche hears the Varsouviana whenever she panics and loses her grip on reality. Blanche’s slow slip from reality to fantasy is portrayed through the polka music and again shows a mental deficiency compared to the male gender in the play.

Although Blanche and Stella DuBois are used mostly by Williams to bring the message of gender inequality, a host of minor female characters play an ample supporting role to these two protagonists. Eunice is Stella’s closest friend in New Orleans and she too exhibits her own deficiency of being dependent on men, as she is dependent on her own husband Steve. Eunice represents for Stella her own low class, carnal life that Stella has chosen for herself. Like Stella, Eunice accepts her husband’s affections despite his physical abuse of her. At the end of the play, when Stella hesitates to stay with Stanley at Blanche’s expense, Eunice forbids Stella to question her decision and tells her she has no choice but to disbelieve Blanche. Williams uses Eunice to again show that not only Blanche and Stella are experiencing gender disparity, but this theme is inherent for all of the women connected in the play.

In Scene Ten, there was a prostitute that appeared on stage which represented Blanche’s situation in the play. The image of the prostitute being chased by a male drunkard moments before Stanley rapes Blanche evokes Blanche’s own predicament in the hands of Stanley. However, it is possible Williams uses this image as a main picture to represent the views of women in the eyes of men in A Streetcar Named Desire as only tools of sexual desire and nothing past that status.

In conclusion, the predicaments of Blanche and Stella aren’t the only indications of gender differences in Streetcar. Being the two main protagonist in the play, Blanche and Stella represented the traditional views on women in the modern city of New Orleans as being just used for sexual desire by men. Plus, both women show a fanatical dependence on this sexual desire and fantasies are afloat for both these characters thinking it to be the right way to happiness through dependence on men. Other female characters support this theme, and Williams uses all of this to expound on the gender disparity displayed in the play A Streetcar Named Desire.

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