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):
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.
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.