Alternative critical perspective: Feminist criticism

A Streetcar Named Desire lends itself quite naturally to feminist criticism. Feminism, a movement whose roots can be traced back to the middle ages, had come into its own in the twentieth century, though it was not a major force in the American South. Feminist critics, who accept the idea that gender differences are culturally determined, not inborn, interpret literature as a record of male dominance - particularly the repression by white, heterosexual, European men. The attitudes of men who impose their will on women and try to convince then of their inferiority are evident throughout this play: the way they interact with women, discuss them, look at them, talk to them, use and abuse them.

Even so, looking at A Streetcar Named Desire from a feminist perspective proves enormously complicated. This is a woman's story: Blanche, the key character, whose point of view dominates the story; is a woman; her problems are distinctly women's problems, her limitations and strategies are peculiar to powerless women. In addition, the character who is faced with deciding between the warring parties, Stella, is another kind of woman. Yet her choices are also peculiarly female choices, and her final decision is a concession to the constraints on a woman, not only in twentieth-century America, but in most of human history.

One important tenet of feminism is that gender is a social construct. If womanhood is a role defined by society rather than a natural condition, few societies have defined it more tightly than the American South. The mythology of Southern womanhood, developed most completely in the middle of the nineteenth century, elevated the white woman to a position of veneration. Nineteenth-century Southern gentility considered the Southern lady to be a nonsexual creature, helpless and fragile, unlike her black sisters. In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash described in detail the distinction between black and white women, the black woman being perceived as lusty and compliant, the white as Puritanical and lily-pure. (1) As a Southern lady, Blanche's narrowly defined social role has kept her from admitting her natural appetites and pursuing them forthrightly. She has felt obliged to lie to herself and to others.

Within the Western tradition, from early Hebrew times, the woman's sexual purity was essential. "Thou shalt not commit adultery," proclaimed God in His seventh commandment to the Israelites. Although intended for everyone, this commandment has usually applied primarily to the woman. Patriarchs and kings had many wives, but the unfaithful wife or the sexually active maiden was anathema. The prostitute or adulteress could be stoned to death for her behavior. Although Jesus admonished those intent on stoning such a sinner to look first to their own sins before casting the first stone, this fierce judgment against women guilty of sexual transgressions has continued. Increasingly, by medieval times, the "fall" for women meant sexual misbehavior - the loss of virginity outside of marriage. For man, Adam's fall had a far more impressive theological meaning - the refusal to serve God, Satanic pride.

The medieval veneration of the Virgin Mary brought this celebration of chastity to a climax. The elevation of Mary in medieval iconography and thought resulted in the subsequent elevation of European upper-class women. Out of a convoluted identification of the "lady" with Mary and the knights' lavish tributes to her beauty and purity came the cult of chivalry. Williams - like many educated Southerners - was well aware of this tradition. He often read Romantic reconstructions of this mythology, especially works like "The Lady of Shalott". He loved to play with the idea of the knight, often in the ironic mode of Don Quixote. This romanticized chivalry is the approach that Blanche requires of Mitch when she demands that he bow before he presents his flowers to her, acting as her "Rosenkavalier". ("Der Rosenkavalier" was a romantic German story set to music in an opera by Richard Strauss. The cavalier figure in the story behaves with exaggerated chivalry, setting his lady on a pedestal.) In the final confrontation with the drunken Mitch, when he knows she is not the virgin of his dreams, but the slut of his desires, she accuses him of being "uncavalier". She knows that he too recognizes her as "fallen," no longer a lady.

Blanche's Southern version of Puritanism probably contributed to her husband's suicide, and her inability to comprehend her guilt led her into promiscuity. A Southern teenage girl from her background would have almost no information about sex. She would certainly have none of the understanding required to deal with the problems facing a bisexual husband. Blanche's passionate love for Allan, her elopement with him, her hideous discovery of his affair with another man, her equally passionate disgust for his deviation, and her shock at his violent response became the central plot of her life. She lived it over and over, like a movie that ran endlessly in her head. Most of her behavior derived from this cluster of events. Her exclusive focus on young lovers, even as she grew older, indicates a fixation on the young poet-husband whose letters she carries in her trunk. 'When Stanley handles the letters, she becomes hysterical and nauseated. She is attracted to Mitch because he too has lost someone. She seems to be a prisoner of her memories.

On the other hand, Williams has said that he considers Blanche liberated: for a woman from a small Southern town to have lived so independent a life during the middle years of this century was courageous indeed. Still, this was not a life of which she was proud. Her central hunger at this stage in her life is for a good husband, even one as dull and clumsy as Mitch. His deep concern for his mother, which makes him appear a sissy in the masculine mind, makes him sweet and appealing to Blanche - a gentle man. She discourages his aggressive masculinity whenever it rears its ugly head, forcing him into the role of the adoring suitor. She knows that it is only during the courtship that the woman has the advantage, which she reinforces by withholding sexual favors and demanding rituals of respect. Blanche understands the rules of the courtship game.

She and Stella both realize that the traditional woman has few choices: she must be the good daughter, sheltered and virginal; the good wife, protected and faithful; or the good mother, loving and wise. If she is forced by circumstances to work, she must undertake womanly tasks - teaching the young or nursing the old. It was not really appropriate for a gentlewoman to labor outside the home, but some accommodation became essential when women increasingly found themselves without male providers. Even within the home, the lady was not expected to do the heavy labor. Her ideal role was to be a pampered doll, waited on by servants, cherished by husband and children.

Both Blanche and Stella seek the security of marriage, but both find marriage has its own problems for the wife. Both sisters married for love, but both chose unsuitable husbands. Blanche's disappointment in Allan's ambiguous sexual identify may have led Stella to select an aggressively heterosexual man of the wrong social class. (Williams often portrays the "good boy" in the Southern home to be sissified, the crude "bad boy" to be the manly alternative - as in The Seven Descents of Myrtle.) Stella has her own problems with marriage to Stanley which are only beginning to appear in the play. She does not, at this point, acknowledge that she is in "something I want to get out of" - as she puts it in their confrontation. If she is to hold her husband, she must adapt to his clumsy manners and insulting gestures, accept his violence, enjoy his cycles of brutality and penitence, believe his improbable denials, accept his protection and his ascendancy. In return, she will have her home and her children.

Some feminist critics have attacked Tennessee Williams for portraying these women as victims and losers. They are especially appalled at Stella's easy acceptance of spousal abuse. This is not a fair criticism: Williams was not interested in a political agenda. He wrote most of his plays long before the modern wave of feminism had defined its position on such issues. Williams was not prescribing behavior for his female characters. He was describing the behavior he had witnessed. Women all too often remain in abusive relationships, curiously attracted to their persecutor in a painfully passive response. In other cases, like his own mother's, the woman might be forced by economic circumstances to endure years of either physical or psychological abuse. When she had an alternative - that is, money - she did rid herself of Cornelius.

As a gay man, Tennessee Williams felt he was particularly sensitive to the status of women - powerless and defined as "other." He himself was on occasion the victim of sexual abuse. He knew how frightening it could be. In fact, Blanche is often seen as the spokesperson for Williams himself. (He occasionally referred to himself as Blanche and acknowledged that his sexual orientation made him sensitive to women's concerns.) She is frequently described as a homosexual in drag, therefore attracted to Stanley for somewhat more ambiguous reasons. The play does have some coded gay messages, but this language is not aimed at the general audience, who see Blanche as fully female.

Certainly, his women characters are among some of the finest ever portrayed. They are also among the most complex and anti-stereotypical. Blanche is both a villain and a victim, the cause of her husband's suicide and the suffering widow as a result of it. She seeks her forgiveness and her penance in sexual pursuits that reverse her earlier aversion to sexuality outside of a prescribed code of conduct. She pretends that she wants to save Stella from her cave-age mate, but she appears interested in taking over either Stella's husband or her life. She unconsciously invites the violence that destroys her, appearing as a masochist who seeks out her matching sadist to precipitate the final violence. She is a "truth teller" who tries to avoid her own truth, judging others in superficial ways, while trying to escape their reciprocal judgment. She refuses Mitch's sexual advances, but is willing to accept the role of mistress to "Shep," her mythical lover, and she allows herself license to service multitudes of young soldiers at the "Tarantula Arms." While pretending to be feminine and weak, she is really sharp and predatory, even a pedophile. Everything that feminists despise in the construct of the Southern Lady is somehow undercut in this ultimate example of that image. As a critique of hypocrisy demanded of women, she should be a favorite of the movement.

A particularly complex problem for feminists is the issue of rape - the ultimate outrage. In this invasion of the female body, the woman is uniquely vulnerable to masculine attack, frequently for purposes of domination, not for sexual release. The rape victim is most often portrayed as the maiden in distress, though the feminist most often admires the strong woman, who fights for her own rights, kicking the aggressor in the crotch. In the case of Blanche, she has flirted with Stanley, engaged him in verbal combat, and challenged his authority. He confronts her in his role of the alpha male facing the attacker of the herd. It is less lust than power that motivates him. in her, he sees a foe. Furthermore, she is no gentle maiden facing this beast. She smashes a bottle, threatens to twist it in his face. She is, as he realizes, a "tiger," a worthy adversary. This explains Williams' difficulties in writing the ending of the play. He knew that the censors would want Blanche destroyed, but he was tempted to let her have a triumphal departure. This is certainly not the attitude of a man who belittles women. On the other hand, it plays into the ultimate insulting defense used frequently in courts of law, that the rape victim "asked for it." In the case of Blanche and Stanley, she incited the outrage, he needed the victory. Both have their share of guilt.

Williams' sympathy, by and large, lies with the women. Furthermore, unlike traditional writers of romantic fiction, he is not fixated on nubile young virgins. His interesting women tend to be older, experienced, and subtle. From classical literature on, the older woman could be the mother figure or the shrew. It is primarily among modern women writers that the middle-aged woman can serve as the heroine. The sexual woman, in confrontations with the younger hero, was traditionally the "devouring mother," the Medusa image. In Williams, the young men are not heroes; they are rarely even central characters. Nor are the older women simply monsters. He knew too many "witches" over the years who had been hardened into that role, seeming vicious to the less experienced. Life turns old women into ogres.

In addition, instead of seeing marriage as the end of a woman's life, he sees it as the beginning. When Stella and Stanley marry, they do not automatically live happily ever after. He is no Prince Charming. We know that, even if Blanche and Mitch should marry, they will not live a life of bliss. Mitch cannot live up to Blanche's dream of the ideal lover any more than she can live up to his dream of the perfect little woman. Stanley and Mitch are realistic portrayals of men who try to force their women into neat categories. Williams knows that a woman like Stella would choose to stay with a brutal husband, once she has children, rather than risk the poverty and bleakness of life as a single mother. Only a blind romantic would expect her to make the grand gesture at the end of the play. Williams' recognition of this essential pragmatism in playing the cards one is dealt demonstrates his sensitivity to women's issues.

It is not surprising that a man raised by an unhappy mother, always at odds with her husband, would see marriage as less than idyllic. Having watched his sister struggle to become the kind of Southern belle that his mother expected, he knew how cruel this definition of roles could be. Although he felt no romantic attachment to women, Williams was close to various women all through his life - his grandmother, his agent, actresses and friends. He studied them, captured their phrasing, their gestures, their ideas. He knew that they had to occupy a frightening territory, where they pretended they were younger, prettier, more innocent, and less savvy than they actually were. He saw them working through the strategies of the weak and the excluded. He loved and admired many women for their courage and their integrity.

Endnotes

1   W. J. Cash. The Mind of the South, New York: Vintage Books, 1960, pp. 87-89.