Performing Genders in a Streetcar Named Desire
Performing Genders in a Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, considered as one of his most famous works, exposes the relationships between Stella and her sister, Blanche, who has come to visit her. Her arrival reveals the tensions in Stanley and Stella’s couple. Blanche quickly discovers that her sister’s life is not at all the life she believed it to be, and that her sister lives with a violent man, Stanley. But Stanley is not the only one who tries to hide his true identity. Indeed, Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans is not innocent. She tries to escape her bad reputation and comes with her deepest secrets. In this play, the protagonists perform a role to affirm their gender and hide their real true nature. This staging also aims at dramatizing the action of the play. Stella’s husband, Stanley, is the prefect representation of the violent and macho man.
He does everything to be seen as a powerful man when citing Huey Long he tells Stella that ”every Man is a King! And I am the king around here” (Williams, 77). As Koprince notes: Like most batterers, Stanley believes in male superiority… [He] especially believes in male dominance within the institution of marriage. He is completely in charge of the Kowalski household, calling all the shots and expecting his wife’s acquiescence. (51) Stanley establishes a conjugal life in which his wife is not allowed to say what she wants as he growls: ”don’t ever talk that way to me!” (77). However, Stanley is not only arrogant when he speaks to his wife, he also mistreats her. During the Poker Night, he first ”crosses to the small white radio and snatches it off the table. With a shouted oath, he tosses the instrument out of the window” and then ”charges Stella” (35). Stanley thus intimidates his wife and decreases her as Dutton analyses:
Physical assault may be accompanied by verbal abuse, psychological abuse… This constellation of destructive actions more fully represents a continuum of coercive control and, some would argue, therefore constitutes the proper subject matter for a psychology of interpersonal violence. (6)
In reality the way Stanley acts allows him to acquire power and control under Stella. She behaves exactly how Stanley wants her to react that is as
a battered and dominated woman: He [Stanley] didn’t know what he was doing… He was as good as lamb when I [Stella] came back and he’s really very, very ashamed of himself. (41) According to Stanley, showing his feelings to his wife would be intolerable and is not the behavior a man has to adopt. Nevertheless, his violent behavior and the role that he performs convey the feelings he has for Stella. Indeed, he is afraid that his wife can leave him: Stanley: Stella! My baby doll’s left me!
Eunice? I want my baby! Eunice! I’ll keep on ringin’ I talk with my baby! (37) Stanley: Stell-lahhhhh! (37)
By saying ”Eunice, I want my girl to come down with me!” (38), Stanley gets belligerent again and proves that primitive instincts animate him. Blanche, talking to his sister, highlights that Stanley ”acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits!” (47). She also asserts that ”there’s even something – subhuman- something not quite to the stage of humanity” (47) which implies that her brother-in-law performs the male role to the extreme. Besides, this extreme is reached when Stanley rapes Blanche telling her: ”we’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” (97). Thus this act reminds Blanche of her past of prostitute and reveals what Blanche tried to hide through her staging. Blanche performs the role of the fragile and the romantic woman in order to hide her deepest secrets.
Through Stella’s eyes, Blanche appears as a sensitive woman (69) and has always to be complimented. She thus recommends Stanley to ”admire [Blanche’s] dress and [to] tell [Blanche] she’s looking wonderful” (17). In this connection, Blanche also highlights that ”[she] need[s] kindness” (39). Moreover Blanche’s sensibility is highlighted by her romanticism. She tells Mitch that she has ”old-fashioned ideals” (63) and calls him ”[her] Rosenkavalier” (57). Related to this idea, Cortade asserts: Blanche DuBois s’accroche aux derniers vestiges de romantisme qui appartiennent à une autre époque. (209) [Blanche DuBois stay emotionally attached to the relics of romanticism which belong to another time, my translation]. In a sense, Blanche’s romantic ideals allow her to play the role of a modern Emma Bovary.
In the manner of Flaubert’s character, Blanche entertains hopes of escaping from reality through love. Blanche idealizes love and describing the love she had for her husband, Allan, she says that ”it was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me” (66). But like Emma Bovary who lost her lover Rodolphe and fell into depression, Blanche loses Allan and this loss overwhelms her completely. She thus behaves as a desperate woman and loses her mind.
By qualifying Blanche as ”a refined and particular type of girl”, Stanley unmasks her and reveals the reason why Blanche has to perform. Indeed Blanche stages in order to hide her past of prostitute. Stanley explains to Stella that ”[Blanche] moved to the Flamingo! A second-class hotel which has the advantage of not interfering in the private social life of the personalities there” (71). He also adds that ”[men in Laurel] got wised up after two or three dates with [Blanche] and then they quit, and she goes on to another, the same old lines, same old act, same old hooey” (71). Besides Blanche is conscious of her act and qualifies herself as ”a big spider” (87). Nevertheless, her behavior hides some deeper injuries. As she analyzes ”[she was] hunting for some protection” and this ”was all [she] seemed able to fill [her] empty heart with” (87). In this connection, Blanche is a desperate woman who ”always depended on the kindness of strangers” (107).
In conclusion, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire depicts characters that perform in order to hide their true nature. By saying that ”Poker should not be play in a house with women” (36), Mitch proceeds to a separation of genders revealing Blanche’s and Stanley’s staging. Indeed, both of them perform the roles of the violent man and the fragile woman. Stella’s husband appears as a choleric man and frightens his wife and his sister-in-low, Blanche. Blanche’s staging allows her to escape reality and she is able to overshadow her past. Indeed her past makes her fragile and facing the reality would be too hard to face. Stanley and Blanche also share the same fear. Indeed, they are afraid to be abandoned. Whereas Stanley depends on Stella’s presence, Blanche needs the kindness of strangers. Although they hate each other, they share several common points. Indeed both of them know that the other hide a secret.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. London: Penguin Modern Classics,  2004. 218 p.
Cortade, Ludovic. Le cinéma de l’immobilité. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2008. 308 p.
Dutton, Donald G. The domestic assault of Women: Psychological and Criminal Justice Perspectives. Canada: University of Washington Press, 2001, 337 p.
Koprince, Susan. ”Domestic violence in a Streetcar Named Desire” Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: A Streetcar Named Desire – New Edition, Ed. Harold Bloom, New York, 2009: 49-60.
Subject: Tennessee Williams,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 26 October 2016
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