A Streetcar Named Desire, sympathy, scorn, and sex.

I recently watched the 1951 movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Just a few minutes into watching the movie on my laptop, a friend mentioned to me that she’d seen it for a class.

“I remember that,” she said. “It was a messed up movie. We were supposed to like the girl but she was so whiny and annoying that we all were rooting for the guy by the end.”

Having seen the movie, this information makes me deeply, deeply sad.

For those who haven’t seen it, here’s how SparkNotes describes Blanche (the “whiny girl”) and Stanley (“the guy):

Blanche DuBois:

When the play begins, Blanche is already a fallen woman in society’s eyes. Her family fortune and estate are gone, she lost her young husband to suicide years earlier, and she is a social pariah due to her indiscrete sexual behavior. She also has a bad drinking problem, which she covers up poorly. Behind her veneer of social snobbery and sexual propriety, Blanche is an insecure, dislocated individual. She is an aging Southern belle who lives in a state of perpetual panic about her fading beauty. Her manner is dainty and frail, and she sports a wardrobe of showy but cheap evening clothes. Stanley quickly sees through Blanche’s act and seeks out information about her past.

In the Kowalski household, Blanche pretends to be a woman who has never known indignity. Her false propriety is not simply snobbery, however; it constitutes a calculated attempt to make herself appear attractive to new male suitors. Blanche depends on male sexual admiration for her sense of self-esteem, which means that she has often succumbed to passion. By marrying, Blanche hopes to escape poverty and the bad reputation that haunts her. But because the chivalric Southern gentleman savior and caretaker (represented by Shep Huntleigh) she hopes will rescue her is extinct, Blanche is left with no realistic possibility of future happiness. As Blanche sees it, Mitch is her only chance for contentment, even though he is far from her ideal.

Stanley’s relentless persecution of Blanche foils her pursuit of Mitch as well as her attempts to shield herself from the harsh truth of her situation. The play chronicles the subsequent crumbling of Blanche’s self-image and sanity. Stanley himself takes the final stabs at Blanche, destroying the remainder of her sexual and mental esteem by raping her and then committing her to an insane asylum. In the end, Blanche blindly allows herself to be led away by a kind doctor, ignoring her sister’s cries. This final image is the sad culmination of Blanche’s vanity and total dependence upon men for happiness.

Stanley Kowalski:

Audience members may well see Stanley as an egalitarian hero at the play’s start. He is loyal to his friends and passionate to his wife. Stanley possesses an animalistic physical vigor that is evident in his love of work, of fighting, and of sex. His family is from Poland, and several times he expresses his outrage at being called “Polack” and other derogatory names. When Blanche calls him a “Polack,” he makes her look old-fashioned and ignorant by asserting that he was born in America, is an American, and can only be called “Polish.” Stanley represents the new, heterogeneous America to which Blanche doesn’t belong, because she is a relic from a defunct social hierarchy. He sees himself as a social leveler, as he tells Stella in Scene Eight.

Stanley’s intense hatred of Blanche is motivated in part by the aristocratic past Blanche represents. He also (rightly) sees her as untrustworthy and does not appreciate the way she attempts to fool him and his friends into thinking she is better than they are. Stanley’s animosity toward Blanche manifests itself in all of his actions toward her—his investigations of her past, his birthday gift to her, his sabotage of her relationship with Mitch.

In the end, Stanley’s down-to-earth character proves harmfully crude and brutish. His chief amusements are gambling, bowling, sex, and drinking, and he lacks ideals and imagination. His disturbing, degenerate nature, first hinted at when he beats his wife, is fully evident after he rapes his sister-in-law. Stanley shows no remorse for his brutal actions.

I felt nothing but sympathy for Blanche the entire time. She is trying to live an impossible life. She believes it is unacceptable to be anything but Proper in the wealthy, Southern way she was raised, but she cannot possibly afford to be so. Moreover, being Proper, for a lady, very much involves suppressing any kind of strong desire, especially sexual desire, but she is a lusty woman. She sleeps with a great deal of men to satisfy her need for money and for sex, but it leaves her without any self-respect. Rather than face the reality of her life, she becomes more and more deluded. It was something of an impossible position to be in, and Stanley’s continued brutality towards her only made it worse. He relentlessly forced reality upon her, not just that of her past but that of her present, being distinctly verbally abusive. By the end, she has completely detached from reality, putting on her nicest clothes and claiming that she’s been invited on a tropical cruise to provide genteel companionship for an old, wealthy beau. When Stanley responds to this by raping her, it breaks her entirely.

But, you know, she was so whiny, we end up rooting for the guy in the end!

I’m actually really struggling to reconcile my friend’s interpretation with the movie I saw. If I saw a friend watching it, I’d say it was so sad, how impossible it was for Blanche to satisfy such conflicting needs. Maybe if they were feminist-friendly I’d talk about how it was the sexism in society that prevented her happiness; she couldn’t rely on men for everything because she no longer fit society’s requirements for women who are worthy of being “rescued,” but she also couldn’t rely on herself because she’d been taught from infancy to rely on men, and society was not welcoming to women who tried to be independent. Maybe if they were literature-minded, I’d talk about how Blanche represents the Old South and Stanley represents the New America, and what Tennessee thinks of the New America that is unavoidably replacing the fading Old South (hint: it’s not very nice), with bonus questions about whether his predictions were accurate, based on the current state of the world.

At no point would I suggest that Stanley was the real sympathetic character in the movie, that we should be rooting for him. I can understand finding Blanche off-putting; she’s certainly a disaster. But it still drives me crazy to see such blatant victim-blaming on SparkNotes and Wikipedia, of all places.

From SparkNotes, above:

In the end, Blanche blindly allows herself to be led away by a kind doctor, ignoring her sister’s cries. This final image is the sad culmination of Blanche’s vanity and total dependence upon men for happiness.

And from the Wikipedia summary:

Stanley has her committed to a mental institution, and in the closing moments, Blanche utters her signature line to the kindly doctor who leads her away: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, reminding us of one of the flaws that has led her to this point–relying too heavily on the attentions of men to fulfill and rescue her.

The problem isn’t Blanche’s vanity. Her reliance on men isn’t a personal flaw. It’s what every single message in her entire life has told her to do. It’s a requirement for nice Southern ladies to marry nice Southern men and never do a thing for themselves. She was raised to rely on men. To then fault her for attempting to do so is…well, it’s cruel, but it’s exactly what society does. And this story is trying to criticize society for the impossible position it puts Blanche in (among other things). We’re not supposed to agree with society, here!

So, yes, Blanche is a little “messed up.” But that earns her my sympathy, not scorn. And I can’t imagine looking at her ending, and thinking that somehow Stanley is the more sympathetic character. If a man rapes a woman, and then that woman is upset, it’s not the woman who is acting poorly, no matter how “whiny” she may get about it.

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11 Responses to A Streetcar Named Desire, sympathy, scorn, and sex.

  1. Samantha says:

    I really want to see this. Of course I have heard of the film, my father raves about it, but from what I’ve read here, it is disturbing to me that anyone can feel sympathy for ‘Stanley’.

    You are right on point when you say that Blanche has been conditioned to believe that to be successful and happy, she has to get that attention from a man, and ultimately marry him/rely on him.

    The literature comparisions of ‘Old South’ and ‘New America’ completely make sense as well.

    I really want to see this now…

  2. fremenalex says:

    I also need to Netflix this, sounds interesting. They way you described Blanche is like she’s trapped in her life of manners and the role of the Southern Belle. It’s not her fault, she was born into that world and that role.
    Literature of the early days of US History are interesting to me cuz it’s so hard for me to understand the motivation and mentality of the people that lived it. If it’s the depression, the “Old South”, the post-war era, etc. I just wanna go talk to people that lived through it every time I see a movie or read a book about that.
    I take with a grain of salt cuz even though it’s a period piece, people try to rationalize it using today’s standards. I did read the wikipedia article on it and felt just like you though, from the very first sentence of the plot synopsis, they way Blanche represents the pretentious, fading relic of the Old South and Stanley the rising member of the industrial urban class. Rising? Come on!
    I’m curious what it would look like if the roles reversed, the man as the “Old South” and the woman as the rising class.
    I’ll go back now to my own Blanche now, Ms. Devereaux if ya nasty!

    On a side note, do you have any recommendations for holiday movies?

  3. eloriane says:

    I’m pretty sure Tennessee Williams DID mean for Stanley to represent the “rising New America.” He just didn’t think very highly of this “New America.”

    But yeah, not everyone seems to get that!

    As for holiday movies, I’m not sure. If you want movies that are related to the holidays, you might rent Elf, the only Will Ferrell comedy I’ve ever enjoyed. I wasn’t a feminist yet when I saw it but I remember it very fondly. I find most holiday movies a bit too cheesy (especially as a non-Christian) so you might want to ask others– anybody else know of good holiday movies?

    If you just meant something that’s currently in theatres, I quite liked The Day The Earth Stood Still, and I’m going to be blogging about it soon.

    • Crowfoot says:

      Re: holiday movies: I’ve always rather liked A Christmas Story, which isn’t very Christianity-like. And at least the huge amount of work that the boy’s mother does is acknowledged.

      I am kind of beyond being able to comment coherently on the play – too upsetting that so many people A) sympathize with the violent abuser and rapist over the women he brutalizes, and B) blame Blanche for being raped. gah

  4. fremenalex says:

    I’ll try Elf, but I have a serious problem with Will Ferrell: I don’t find him funny. Christmas Story was hilarious when I saw it cuz it;s like a live version of the Simpsons. Thx for the suggestion.

    P.S. very relieved you didn’t suggest the Wonderful Life one. =]

    • Crowfoot says:

      A Christmas Story is like a live version of the Simpsons! 😀 (P.S. I always found It’s A Wonderful Life a little depressing heh)

      Back to A Streetcar Named Desire: I keep thinking that Blanche is kind of in the same predicament as the main character of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I’m drawing a blank on her name). Or maybe, Blanche is that other woman 20 or 30 years later. I think we often forget how much women’s abilities to get ahead in life were constrained even 35 years ago, let alone in the 1950s (or earlier!). It’s not like there were many careers for her to choose from in order to gain some financial independence. She could become a nurse or a teacher or a secretary. Oh, a librarian. Yes, some women did become doctors and lawyers, or did start up businesses, but for most women their options were fairly narrow. Women for the most part really did need men to gain any kind of real financial security. Not because women weren’t capable or driven to succeed or any of that, but because the cards were so stacked against them, their realistic options so constrained.

      While in some ways I think things may have gotten worse, in that so much of mainstream culture and thought no longer even pretends to have a degree of chivalry (calling it respect) towards women and now just comes with a regular dose of misogyny, in other ways I think that so much has also changed for the better. While women are still deeply under-represented in the higher echelons of business, women can forge careers much more easily than they used to. Hell, a woman can now open a bank account or get a credit card without getting her husband’s permission and signature. O.o

      What else is Blanche to do? Particularly as an older woman? What are her realistic options, apart from marrying well? So of course she “puts on airs” and sells her self as high quality goods; that’s the best option the patriarchy has given her. Like Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there’s no way she could have broken free on her own. There’s little option for real financial security and freedom apart from men, or a man.

  5. fremenalex says:

    LOL I always find myself sayin stuff that eloraine previously mentioned.

    Hey Crowfoot, have you ever seen The Big Sleep? It’s got that Bogart guy and that Bacall lady. Well anyways, it’s set in the 50’s I think and Bacall plays this lady that gambles like men, plays around like men, chain smokes and drinks like the men around her. Of course there’s gonna be all that sexist stuff, but I found it to be such a contrast with other movies of the time. I think it passes the Bechedel(sp) test cuz I don’t remember her talkin about a husband other than the one she buried or divorced, but I’m still a newbie on using the test. You might like this movie. (Same for you too Eloraine =])

    • Crowfoot says:

      oooooh Lauren Bacall! loooove her. Her movies would be a great set to look at with regards to gender! I think you’re right in that her characters were quite independent and strong and smart – tho in the 40s and 50s everybody smoked. It was a cancerstickorama! I have seen the Big Sleep but it was a long time ago. I think I’ve seen it :-/ Time to ziplist it (a Canadian version of Netflix). Thanks for the reminder!

      I think either eloriane or I should do something on early Hollywood movies and their representations of women – I know eloriane has done quite a few older movies already.. I may need to refresh my memory of her earlier posts to see if she’s covered this already. There’s something interesting going on with female characters being more emancipated in the 30s then it goes downhill after the war (I think). Good thing I’ve got some time off this Christmas break! I’ll have time for movie watching \o/

  6. Dolly says:

    (Haven’t read the comments yet, warning, so sorry for the break-in).

    I’ve never actually seen this play or read the script, but I have seen the Simpsons episode A Streetcar Named Marge. When you mentioned that Stanley ends up raping Blanche, all I could think of was Marge outpowering Flanders in the knife scene. I wonder if the creators were making a statement about the original in doing that?

    Anyways, I got a similar reaction from classmates when we read William Blake’s “My Pretty Rose Tree.” Everybody always hates the female character and sympathizes with the man. They don’t see how gender makes a difference in the way we view characters. All the more reason for feminism!

  7. […] told this friend that I loved this song, and she said she liked the tune, but thought it was mean to dump a guy just […]

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