Social upheaval was prominent in the early to mid 1900s, especially in regards to men and women’s roles in society. Women played a crucial role in the workforce during the World War II era, while their male counterparts were off at war. They were increasingly employed to fill the jobs that were previously taken by men.
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However, this was short lived because once the men returned from war, women were forced back to their roles as housewives. While women were expected to perform housework and take care of the children, men were the financial support and backbone of the family. In his play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams portrays women as victims of a patriarchal society that is centered around the concept of masculinity and emphasizes the struggle women had to face in which they were treated as men’s inferiors through physical and emotional abuse. Williams portrayal of gender roles in the mid twentieth century is evident through Stanley’s dominant personality, Stella’s subservience to Stanley, and Blanche’s affirmation of her own worth.
A Streetcar Named Desire has two main male characters, both of which are drastically different from one another. Stanley, the egocentric macho man that finds pleasure in his independence, gambling, and sexual desires, is portrayed by Williams as violent and domineering. Mitch on the other hand is seen as a gentleman, someone who is kind and sensitive, and hopes to one day meet a woman he can bring home to his mother. However, the way in which he speaks about himself and his appearance, is evidence that he is also subject to the male stereotype. The way in which Williams has the male characters interact with the females makes it obvious they are being represented as the dominant sex. In the very first scene of the play, Stanley heaves a package of meat up to Stella, who is at their house, on his way to go bowling, proving that he is the breadwinner and family provider. Stella calls after him and says:
STELLA: Stanley! Where are you going?
STELLA: Can I come watch?
STANLEY: Come on. [He goes out.] (Williams 4-5)
Not only does this prove the stereotype of the domineering male that Stanley is depicted as, but it also shows the submissiveness and loyalty Stella has towards him, which was expected during this time period. Throughout the play, Stanley goes from being initially seen as the embodiment of a working-class husband, to a violent, alpha male, who likes to prove his dominance. This is evident when Stella tells Stanley “Your face and your fingers are disgustingly greasy. Go and wash up and then help me clear the table” to which Stanley angrily throws his plate and replies “That’s how I’ll clear the table! [He seizes her arm] Don’t ever talk that way to me!” (Williams 131). This reflects Stanley’s aggressive nature, as well as the physical abuse he inflicts upon Stella. In an analysis on gender roles in the mid 1900’s, Bailey Zukovich discusses the link between masculinity and violence. She states that “Violence and abuse makes these men feel as though they are dominant, as their gender role prescribes that they should be.”
Furthermore, she adds “Trying to over-fulfill one’s manliness because of the fear of not being manly enough often times leads to violence” (Zukovich). These thoughts are most certainly evident in A Streetcar Named Desire considering that any threat to Stanley’s masculinity results in violence. Although Mitch, the sensitive gentleman that focuses more on traditional values of love and affection, seems like a better depiction of what a man’s values should align with, Stanley better represents the ideal of American masculinity during the 1940s, which is evident through his aggressive and brute nature towards Stella.
Stella’s obedience and submission to Stanley throughout the play represents women’s lack of authority during the time period, as well as their expectancy to keep men happy and satisfied. In essence, Stella seems content to be with Stanley. She willingly cooks and cleans for him, and fulfills his sexual desires. However, her lack of authority in her relationship, and the emotional and physical pain Stanley inflicts upon her, is a constant reminder to Stella that she will always be vulnerable and inferior. When her sister Blanche arrives, she has no problem telling Stella how she feels about Stanley. Blanche describes him as an animal, saying “He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one!” She then goes on to criticize Stella’s loyalty towards him, saying “And you – you here – waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you!” (Williams 83).
At the end of the scene, Stanley returns home to which Stella embraces him, making sure to do so in front of Blanche. In this scene, it is clear that through fulfilling her matriarchal role in society, Stella has completely lost herself trying to maintain her relationship with Stanley. It seems as though the happy facade Stella exemplifies towards Stanley hides the fact that she feels trapped in her relationship. Williams makes sure to portray the gender inequality happening in society as well as emphasizing the needs that humans strive to obtain, whether it be sexual or emotional.
In her book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz highlights the unhappiness that couples experienced in their relationships during the mid twentieth century. She states “National polls found that 20 percent of all couples considered their marriages unhappy, and another 20 percent reported only ‘medium happiness’” (Coontz 36). Coontz also makes sure to emphasize the fact that issues such as incest, abuse, and rape were prevalent behind closed doors and it was “Not until the 1970s, heartened by a supportive women’s movement, were many women able to speak out about the sexual abuse they had suffered” (35). It seems as though men had more pride in their image of a “perfect family” rather than actually fulfilling the needs to maintain one. These themes are increasingly apparent in each scene of A Streetcar Named Desire.
It is safe to say that the arrival of Blanche throws off the whole dynamic, if that’s what you want to call it, of the Kowalski household. When Blanche met Stanley for the first time, she tried hard to get him to like her, even though she could clearly see his violent and domineering nature. Blanches affirmation of her own worth is a theme that is shown throughout the progression of the play, and plays a huge role in how her character succumbs to the influence of the gender roles that were imposed on women. Blanche lacks emotional and financial security, and often seeks it through others. Her need to feel young and beautiful is consistently evident throughout the play. In the opening scene, when Blanche and Stella reunite, Blanche tells her sister “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!” (Williams 11). Throughout the entire play, we see Blanche trying to mask her physical insecurities by only allowing herself to be seen in dim or dark lighting. Along with masking her appearance, Blanche constantly searches for validation through others, even though she knows she’s living in an illusion. In scene two, Blanche says to Stanley “I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion” (Williams 41). Blanche’s innocent charm and self-image are both an illusion she gives off in order to feel better about herself. She knows she is full of it, but still continues to live in a fantasy world, seeking affirmation from the people around her.
By giving her character a lack of self-image and a sense of illusion, Williams constructed Blanche to be a victim of society’s expectations of women. During this time, and still occurring today, women have certain expectations they are to uphold in order remain feminine, and these expectations usually come at a cost to the women’s mental health. Women are constantly forced to compare themselves to others and question their worth and appearance, and it is clear that Williams is shedding light on these expectations through the character of Blanche. On the other hand, Blanche also struggles with accepting her sexual desires and tendencies. She has a hard time dealing with these desires and is often unable to restrain herself. When she is called out about her past, she is seen trying to defend her actions and appears emotional, even embarrassed. This is another byproduct of society’s expectations of women. Men were allowed to be open and ostentatious about their sexual encounters, whereas women were not expected to discuss them outside of their own husbands satisfaction. However, Blanche’s independence and sexual freedom, even though she often feels ashamed of it, is Williams way of portraying women in a different light and challenging society’s norms. Blanche’s nonconformity to social norms is more admirable to viewers as opposed to Stella’s lack of control over her own identity.
By portraying the women in A Streetcar Named Desire as victims of a society that is largely centered around the concept of masculinity, Tennessee Williams is giving the audience a chance to conceptualize and acknowledge the idea of gender stereotyping. Through the character of Stanley Kowalski, he reveals to the audience the abusive and domineering nature not spoken of outside of the household. Through the character of Stella Kowalski, he reiterates that abuse and enlightens his audience to acknowledge the roles that women are forced to obtain, emphasizing the toll it takes on them. Finally, through the character of Blanche DuBois, he challenges his viewers to perceive women in a different light. The various social conflicts that were presented throughout the play gave relevance and meaning to the audience as well as questioned the social expectations society sets on women.
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