This guest post by Nia McRae appears as part of our theme week on Representations of Female Sexual Desire
For better or worse, sexuality can be deeply influenced by social expectations. Even with the independence women have gained, it’s been reported that one of the top fantasies women have involve being dominated by a man in the bedroom. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what does it say about our biology, or social conditioning, or both? A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a classic movie based on a Tennessee Williams play, explores this question. It presents how society shapes, shelters, and shames female sexuality. Williams is well-known for writing plays that dealt with the gender-specific issues women faced, sympathizing with the way women were kept from being whole and balanced human beings.
Stanley Kowalski is probably the best remembered character Marlon Brando played in the early part of his acting career. The female gaze shows up in different forms regarding the character of Stanley Kowalski. Stan’s body is the one that is objectified. Kim Hunter’s Stella exhibits whatever the female equivalent is of “thinking with your penis,” because she’s both excited and hypnotized by his ruggedness and looks. Blanche, played by Vivien Leigh, isn’t unaware of his physical charms either. When Blanche first meets Stan, the camera operates as Blanche’s eyes, admiring the way muscle-bound Stan looks in his tight, sweat-stained clothing. It is unmistakably not love at first sight but lust at first sight, which is surprising because a woman being depicted as having the same carnal desires as a man was unheard of in the 1950s.[caption id="attachment_11395" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Blanche and Stanley: lust at first sight[/caption]
Marlon Brando’s performance is the main aspect that gets talked about (understandably so), but the way female desires are acknowledged is impressive too. Movies during Hollywood’s Golden Age usually catered to the stereotype of only men being sexual creatures. Women were only shown as using sex to receive gifts or money or marriage, never enjoying sex for the sake of sexual gratification. Marilyn Monroe is a great example of this. She is considered one of the most famous sex symbols of all time but as was expected of women in her time, she was always shown as the object of desire and never the person desiring. In movies, her characters were typically ogling material things a man had, never the man himself. Of course, maybe if her leading man was Marlon Brando, it would have been different.[caption id="attachment_11396" align="aligncenter" width="240"] A topless Marlon Brando as Stanley[/caption]
Before the audience can become too transfixed by Stan’s looks, the movie wisely demonstrates that what works as a lustful fantasy may backfire in real life. Stan doesn’t keep his wildness contained like Stella prefers which leads to devastating consequences by the end of the movie (I’ll revisit this later). At a card game with his friends, he smacks his wife on the butt and she chastises him. She tells Blanche afterwards that she doesn’t like when he does that in front of company, implying that she only approves of spanking when they are alone. It can be deduced that, like a lot of women, Stella wants “a gentleman in the streets and a caveman in the bedroom.” In an example of life imitating art, Marlon Brando explained in an interview once that many of his paramours requested he be “Stanley” during intercourse.
The problem with Stan is that he isn’t playing the part of a caveman simply to titillate his wife. He really is a caveman; he’s emotionally stunted, he’s insecure. and he’s short-tempered.[caption id="attachment_11397" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Stanley loses his temper. Stella and Blanche cower.[/caption]
He’s everything patriarchy tells him a “real man” is supposed to be and Stella is both seduced and repulsed by it. Whenever he goes too far, she runs away but she always returns back to him. It can be argued that the wife keeps running back to Stan because she is blinded by love. But realistically, love involves respect, which she doesn’t have for him. Stan seems to be viewed by his wife as only good for two things: love-making and money-making. She laughs at his attempts at being smart. For example, when Stan tried to explain to her what a “Napoleonic Code” is, she responds like someone who is humoring a baby’s nonsensical ramblings.
Along with her sister, Blanche can be condescending to Stan too. Her condescension is more obvious than Stella’s and in one scene, Stan blows up at Blanche for talking down to him. This type of dynamic is usually gender-flipped. Stan is the male equivalent of the bimbo archetype; he’s eye candy that the sisters enjoy looking at and possibly sleeping with and not much else. He’s not too bright but that doesn’t matter because the wife clearly didn’t marry him for his mind. She’s the one with the brains, which is evidenced again in one scene where she explains to him what rhinestones are. She’s married to a man who doesn’t respect her and who, honestly, she doesn’t respect either. Their marriage seems to be based on carnal feelings only. So, the more accurate description of what Stella feels for Stan is lust.
Stella is living in a bodice-ripper fantasy gone awry. There’s a part in the movie where, after a night of seemingly amazing make-up sex with Stan, Stella regales Blanche about her and Stan’s wedding night, explaining that he broke all the light bulbs and how that “excited” her. Blanche tries her best to talk sense into her, reminding her of the importance of valuing civilization and gentleness over barbarism. Just when it seems like Blanche is getting through to her, in walks Stan with something that is framed as more powerful than reason–animal magnetism. The camera works as Stella’s eyes, admiring how he looks in grease-stained tank top, sweaty from his mechanic work. Stella ogles him and jumps into his arms as if to suggest she’s ready for another round of make-up sex.
But even if Stan is treated like a sex toy, he’s not willing to be quiet like one. He’s boisterous, rude, entitled, and disrespectful to both Blanche and Stella. Much like a child who is willing to either scream or cry to get his way, Stan is not above resorting to theatrics to win her favor which is evidenced in the iconic scene where Stan drops to his knees, tears his shirt open and screams “STELLA!” which is followed by her walking sensually down the stairs and embracing him.[caption id="attachment_11399" align="aligncenter" width="293"] Stanley and Stella sensually embrace[/caption]
While it’s great that female sexuality is being presented, it can be argued that this movie is doing the time-honored tradition of only presenting female sexuality in order to condemn it. Does this movie want us to use Stella as a lesson on why it’s wrong for women to embrace themselves as sexual creatures?
I think the answer can be found in the scene where Karl Malden’s character, Mitch, finds out that Blanche has a past. He slut-shames her, likening her to damaged goods even though, up until now, he had been depicted as a nice and understanding guy. But even though Malden shames her, Blanche is never framed as the bad guy. It’s easy to sympathize with her character as someone who wasn’t given the proper tools in life to handle tough situations. Her sexuality isn’t the enemy, it’s her naiveté that is. A Streetcar Named Desire makes an important point about the importance of teaching your daughters to be self-sufficient. It is hinted at that the sisters grew up sheltered and privileged, causing them to be immature and emotionally undeveloped. Once her husband committed suicide, Blanche looked for love in all the wrong places. And in a society that teaches women to be fantasies, Blanche unquestioningly avoided being true to herself.
Stella, on the other hand, rebelled in an unhealthy way. She embraced the cruelties of life in the form of Stan. Neither sister found balance because men and women weren’t conditioned to be whole people. When Stan criticizes Blanche, Stella defends her and explains she’s fragile and broken from mean people being so harsh to her. This scene gives us further insight into Blanche. She enjoys creating a fictional world rather than facing the harshness of reality. As many middle to upper class white women historically were, she was babied and it kept her from learning how to be a stable adult. By the end, adding to the theme of barbarity smothering gentleness, Blanche is raped by Stanley, which utterly destroys any mental stability she had left.
Stanley did it because he resented Blanche thinking she was smarter and better than him. Finding out about her soiled past made him feel entitled to harming her. After all, traditionally, an unmarried woman who is impure is worthless. The sexual assault is his twisted way of reclaiming manhood by destroying her spirit–this confirms he is patriarchy personified. Blanche’s ending line is one of the most often quoted: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Part of Blanche’s tragedy is that she was too dependent on other people taking care of her. She was never allowed to grow and take care of herself. That’s why I don’t think the movie is condemning female sexuality but more so showing female sexuality as a reality in the lives of two sisters whose sheltered upbringing and gendered socialization influenced them both to make questionable life choices.
Maybe if she lived in today’s America, Blanche could have learned to be self-reliant and to engage in sexual activity for gratification rather than self-esteem. Unfortunately, slut-shaming would still be a reality but at least she could be empowered enough to better handle it and stand up for herself. And maybe if raised differently in a more enlightened era, Stella could live out her bodice-ripper fantasy with a man who behaved properly outside the bedroom. The men suffer too. Stanley’s insecurity is driven by being the product of an unhealthy definition of masculinity. By the end of the movie, it’s obvious that Mitch still cares for Blanche but his sexist ideas about female purity stifles his chance with her. Maybe if he lived in a more enlightened era, his knee-jerk reaction to Blanche’s past promiscuity wouldn’t have been so rash and backwards.
Overall, Streetcar is showing the downfalls of letting lust eclipse your reason while doing the rare thing of showcasing female sexuality in the context of a society that dismissed and condemned it. Tennessee Williams was a gay man who is noted for having a great deal of empathy toward women. He also knew the frustration of living in a time period that demanded his sexuality be repressed (except in his case it wasn’t due to his gender but due to his sexual orientation). That’s why A Streetcar Named Desire shouldn’t be dismissed as another cautionary tale that warns women not to embrace desires. On the contrary, this is a story that condemns society for keeping women from being stable, whole, and sexual human beings.