HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHY: CONSENT AND COERCION, OR STELLA AND BLANCHE IN A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

I am going back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity on which I focused my last post, this time in connection to Tennessee Williams’s popular play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a Pulitzer-Award winner. The 2014 production by the Young Vic and Joshua Andrew, directed by Benedict Andrews, has been available online since last Thursday, as part of the National Theatre’s generous streaming of successful productions while the quarantine of British theatres lasts. With its attractive cast—Gillian Anderson (Blanche), Vanessa Kirby (Stella), Ben Foster (Stanley Kowalski)—and its gimmicky revolving stage (by Magda Willi), this version of the play was enormously successful. It has attracted these days a considerable number of new reviews, all also enthusiastic—but with a caveat.

Michael Billington’s 2014 review for The Guardian noted that “The updating to the present sits oddly with a play that talks of period bandleaders like Xavier Cugat and where the feel is of an America on the verge of postwar economic expansion”. Paul T. Davies concurs, six years later. The updating (which remains quite fuzzy, as Billington’s comment indicates), “underlines the problematic sexual politics of the piece. Once we move out of the 1950s, Stanley’s behaviour is even more brutish, and it’s a tricky balancing act as, although Stanley hits his wife and rapes Blanche, members of the audience, of any gender specification, must want to sit on their front porches fanning themselves and wishing for the rains to cool their desire for Stanley down” (BritishTheatre.com, 24 May 2020). I should think that what is problematic is that Stanley, the abuser and rapist, is still connected with desire in any way and that the partial updating of the play does not alter its original sex and gender discourse.

As Williams conceived it, A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of two sisters, Blanche (the elder) and Stella (the younger), during the months of Blanche’s conflictive stay at her sister’s home in New Orleans. The sisters are the last scions of their ancestral home at Belle Rive (in Mississippi) which, as we learn, has been lost to the financial improvidence of the patriarchs in the DuBois family. Blanche has been making a living by teaching English in secondary schools, whereas Stella (no occupation mentioned) is married to WWII veteran and factory parts salesman, Stanley Kowalski.

Blanche has been unable to overcome the serious mental health issues caused by the suicide of her young closeted gay husband, which has led to a scandalous promiscuity and a liaison with one of her seventeen-year-old students, for which she has been dismissed from her teaching post. She is on the run from herself when she takes refuge in the Kowalskis’ home, though she never discloses her actual circumstances. These are dug out by the persistent Stanley, who very much resents Blanche’s presence and her interference in his marriage to Stella, based, as it is apparent, on sexual attraction and a toxic co-dependence. Stella is, nonetheless, happy enough and willing to tolerate occasional abuse from Stanley, despite Blanche’s attempts to open her sister’s eyes. When Stanley realises that Blanche is lying to his buddy Mitch—pretending to be the lady she is not in order to have him propose marriage as a way out of her troubles—he unmasks his sister-in-law. Stanley also rapes her, which breaks the lasts remnants of her sanity. The play ends with Blanche being taken away by a psychiatrist, as a devastated Stella remains with Stanley.

There are a few gender hot spots in the play, which require a negotiation with the audience: the homosexuality of Blanche’s husband and his ensuing suicide; her scene with an underage newspaper boy whom she talks into kissing her; Stanley’s brutal assault on a visibly pregnant Stella; and the rape scene. I do not know the details of the reaction that the play elicited in the original productions, beyond the fact that the rape scene caused outrage (I cannot say how it was performed). Williams himself wrote the screenplay for the 1951 film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan, with Marlon Brando (Stanley), Vivien Leigh (Blanche), and Kim Hunter (Stella). Brandon had been discovered in the Broadway production (in which Jessica Tandy played Blanche, and Hunter was Stella). Leigh, who was English, had been the quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and had played Blanche on the London stage, directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier.

The film adaptation went through a two-phase process of censorship: first, the Code Hays was applied to it and next the Legion of Decency demanded further cuts. This resulted in much confusion about the reasons for Blanche’s overwhelming sense of guilt and in a toning down of misogynistic violence. Whereas in the original play Blanche is in shock because her husband shoots himself after she calls him “disgusting” (having caught him in bed with his ‘friend’), in the film version there is a vague allusion to his enjoying writing poetry too much. The rape scene, which on the stage is directly seen, is hidden in the film by the metaphorical shot of a broken mirror. An interesting twist, though, is that whereas in the play Stella remains loyally by Stanley despite how he has acted towards Blanche, the producers of the film accepted punishing him for the rape by having Stella abandon him. The 1993 restored version brought back into the film the four minutes elided under pressure from the Legion of Decency, but not even then was the content of the plot questioned. Only now are some reviewers beginning to see its appalling gender discourse.

Of all the elements of the play, the most jarring one is no doubt the rape scene. The standard sexist reading has always been that Blanche is ‘asking for it’, both because of her promiscuity and because she is attempting to undermine Stanley’s patriarchal rule in his own home. She attributes his very short fuse to his being a natural brute, uneducated and rough, though Stanley can also be read as one of the many unhinged WWII veterans whose inexplicable mood swings made marital life so difficult after their homecoming. Of course, any interpretation of Stanley is very much complicated by the bodily magnetism of Marlon Brando in Kazan’s film, but when he is played by less attractive actors (such as muscled, tattooed Ben Foster in the 2014 production) the ugliness of his personality becomes apparent. At the root of the play there is, however, something even uglier than Stanley’s patriarchal masculinity. I believe that the author Tennessee Williams, a gay man, rapes Blanche by proxy, using Stanley, to punish her for her homophobia. When the rape scene happens, Stanley has established his dominion over Blanche and he simply needs to call the psychiatrist to get rid of her. The rape is an act that the character needn’t perform but that the author requires to further humiliate Blanche for her own humiliation of her gay husband.

This brings me back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity in my previous post. A point that kept nagging me after writing it is the matter of consent. According to Connell, Messerschmidt explains, hegemonic masculinity operates on the basis of consent obtained “largely through cultural ascendancy” or “discursive persuasion” (2018: 28). Furthermore, the concept of hegemony would be “irrelevant” if it “only referred to, for example, violence, aggression, and self-centeredness” (2018: 40). The “discursive legitimation (or justification), encouraging all to consent to, unite around, and embody such unequal gender relations” (2018: 46), and not “direct control and commands”(sic) (2018: 120), is the basis of discrimination. The play by Williams survives and is still very much successful because as audiences we have granted our collective consent, agreeing to its “discursive persuasion” about the fact that both Blanche and Stella need to be disciplined into submission. Yet, here’s the contradiction: A Streetcar Named Desire shows that, actually, hegemonic masculinity does not only work by consent, but also by coercion, perhaps in a 50-50 ratio.

Stella appears to consent to her husband’s sexist dominion over her but his savage punch to her face reveals that this consent is granted by a mixture of willingness and fear (both physical and psychological). Blanche is disputing all the time both Stella’s consent and Stanley’s coercion, and this is the reason why she is ill-treated and ultimately declared insane, which is the ultimate coercion (together with her rape). Those who think that she deserves this fate are granting their consent to the hegemonic masculinity practices by which Stanley undoes her resistance to patriarchy, and are in fact complicit with him (and with Williams, who is as patriarchal as his charcater, despite being gay).

There is a scene in which Blanche tells her sister what is wrong with her dependence on Stanley, and for a second we can imagine an alternative play in which Stella is rescued and the two sisters start a new life helping each other to overcome their toxic relations with the men in their lives. It is, in fact, perfectly possibly to turn A Streetcar Named Desire on its head and, without altering the plot, stress its underlying sexism and misogyny—but for that Marlon Brando needs to be forgotten. If Stanley is, in any way, justified or glamorised, then the play serves the cause of hegemonic masculinity. This is why the 2014 production still falls short: Foster’s Stanley has no charm, but Blanche could and should be played as a strong, independent woman slowly going insane under patriarchal pressure, and not as a clueless girly woman constantly blabbing about gentlemanliness.

The way out of granting our consent is by education. The first time I saw Streetcar, the film, I was too young to understand the rape scene but I had been told by family, friends, and reviewers that this was an amazing film which I had to enjoy and respect. So I did enjoy and respect it. The second time, I was educated enough in gender issues to notice that there seemed to be a discrepancy between the cult around the film and Williams, and the severity of Blanche’s victimization—I was shocked to recognize the rape scene for what it was (Brando a rapist?) and by the truth about Blanche’s husband. This third time I should have known better but I was attracted by the presence of my admired Gillian Anderson (Scully in The X-Files) in the main role. That is another form of granting consent: lowering your defences and accepting to be made complicit with an atrocious story of patriarchal control out of admiration for an actor, whether this is Brando or Anderson.

So here I am, apologizing for my lapse, and trying to educate others into withdrawing their consent and to learn the subtle and less subtle ways into which this is elicited from us. Does this mean that you should not see/read A Streetcar Named Desire? Not at all: by all means educate yourself, just do not enjoy what cannot be enjoyed unless you align yourself with patriarchy.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHY: POINTS OF CONTACT

This is not really a review of Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification by James W. Messerschmidt (2018, Rowman & Littlefield) but a post inspired by a number of passages I have come across in this volume. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, hegemonic masculinity is the brainchild of Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell (formerly known as R.W. Connell), one of the founding parents of Masculinities Studies. Messerschmidt, Connell’s disciple and academic collaborator, offers here as the transparent title of his volume announces a sort of ultimate guide about how this concept should be understood and used. The problem is that since the concept itself was quite unstable in its origins—poorly formulated, if you want less elegant language—it has generated much controversy about its actual meaning and intended use. Messerschmidt and Connell already published an article back in 2005 intending to fix its use but since they obviously could not succeed, because of the porosity of the concept, Messerschmidt has tried again, sounding a little bit like a disgruntled acolyte offering the definite Bible to errant believers.

A matter which makes me feel disgruntled is Messerschmidt’s cavalier approach to feminism and the fact that he does not even mention Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), an omission that I simply fail to understand in a volume about how gender changes historically. Butler is a philosopher and I’m thinking that perhaps citing her in a treatise on sociology is not kosher, but this is the equivalent of writing about power and ignoring Foucault. Reading Messerschmidt’s account of how 1970s and 1980s radical and socialist feminism ‘failed’ to explain patriarchy, I am reminded of why Masculinities Studies always sounds suspiciously misogynistic. At least he does. Look at this: “Radical feminism made distinctive and original contributions to feminist theory, yet got entangled with biological arguments as the foundation of ‘patriarchy’” (2). Poor things, the silly women!

What seemed to cause the entanglement was that patriarchy, Messerschmidt says, was formulated as an ahistorical system of female oppression which was ultimately too broad-ranging to make any sense. This is why theorists in the social sciences gave up any attempt to further refine the definition of patriarchy in the 1980s. If you ask me, I think that the radical feminists got it right in many ways: patriarchy is not ahistorical but can certainly perdure despite profound historical changes because its main bases as regards gender (misogyny and homophobia) endure. Patriarchy is infinitely flexible and, as I have been arguing, currently it is beginning to invest more energy on organizing society hierarchically on the basis of individual power than of gender. But let me go on.

Now, according to Messerschmidt, Connell took the new feminist theorization of gender in the mid-1980s and started talking about gender relations instead of patriarchy; an important reason why this turn happened is that gay men started explaining their own masculinity in relation to heterosexual masculinity, revealing how they were empowered as men in relation to women but disempowered as homosexual men. In Gender and Power (1987) Connell formulated the concepts of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in the way in which they were known throughout the last decades of the 20th century (please note that Butler’s Gender Trouble was published just three years later and has had really a much bigger impact). The main point, Messerschmidt clarifies, is that Connell “concentrated on how hegemonic masculinity in a given historical and society-wide setting legitimates unequal gender relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities” (46, original italics). That is to say, hegemonic masculinity is not a set of actual men or a set of actual features that define masculinity but a set of values that are practiced by certain groups of men (that I would not hesitate to call patriarchal). The aim is to keep femininity and non-hegemonic masculinities in a position of inferiority. Connell also came up with the division of the non-hegemonic masculinities as complicit, subordinate, marginalized, and protest masculinities.

If you want another angle on the same matter, hegemonic masculinity combines a variety of techniques of domination into one. It is, plainly, masculinist sexism, as defined by feminism, and homophobia, but also racism, ethnic supremacism, nationalism, ableism, ageism, and all other prejudices combined into one. Messerschmidt describes a situation in which there is not one but a sort of local, regional, and global network of hegemonic masculinities in charge of policing the gender borders. All of them “must be culturally ascendant to advance a rationale for social action through consent and compliance” (76) for, and in this you see the Gramscian roots of the concept, hegemonic masculinities operate on the basis of consent, not coercion. In contrast, Messerschmidt explains, “Dominant masculinities are not always associated with and linked to gender hegemony but refer to (locally, regionally, and globally) the most celebrated, common, widespread, or current form of masculinity in a particular social setting” (76). If I understand this correctly, Donald Trump is an example of how hegemonic masculinity is practiced (after all he was democratically elected), whereas Barack Obama would be an example of dominant masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity need not be admired but it is obeyed, contributing to gender inequality, whereas dominant masculinity is respected and admired but might have little impact on gender divisions.

That all this is less than perfectly defined appears more than evident when Messerschmidt explains, in what reads like a gender tongue twister, that “Although hegemonic masculinities and emphasized femininities at times may also be dominant or dominating, dominant and dominating masculinities and femininities are never hegemonic or emphasized if they fail culturally to legitimate unequal gender relations; in this latter scenario, dominant and dominating masculinities/femininities are thereby constructed outside relations of gender hegemony” (125). I fail to understand this. There is clearly a great difference between Trump and Obama and how they connect with gender inequality, or how they connect in their different masculinities. But as Presidents of the United States they both belong to the same patriarchal system that has made it practically impossible for a woman to be elected President. Obama did not graciously withdraw when Hillary Clinton announced her intention to be the Democratic Party’s candidate in 2008 and Trump cheated her of a Presidency she had actually won in 2016. Hillary possibly lost much support because many women saw her as either too patriarchal herself or too radical as a feminist, but the point is that the 2020 female Democratic candidates have been also swept aside. As things are now, there is, then very little difference between hegemonic and dominant masculinity because the only way towards gender equality is that these categories are abandoned. Or, alternatively, that the dominant masculine model becomes what Connell and Messerschmidt have called ‘positive’ masculinities and femininities, a label so vague that it could mean anything. I myself prefer using anti-patriarchal, so that the enemy is clearly defined both for men and for women outside patriarchal circles.

When Messerschmidt says that “The hegemonic masculine social structure consists of different types of power relations” (133) it seems evident to me that he means patriarchy. Hegemonic masculinity is “continually and pervasively renewed, recreated, defended, and modified through social action” (133) because it is, plainly, the ideology of patriarchy by another name. Whereas the patriarchy defined by radical feminists was (allegedly) a monolithic, ahistorical institution designed to oppress women, Connell’s hegemonic masculinity is the same dog but with a historical collar, devoted not only to oppress all women but also all the types of men that resist its rule or lack sufficient power to join the ranks. Hegemonic masculinity can be found at the local, regional and global levels where patriarchy exists because it’s the same thing. Or, the other way round: I have altered the definition of patriarchy to make it a more useful concept than hegemonic masculinity. Sorry to sound so smug, but Messerschmidt also sounds smug
 In plain words: all types of discrimination consist of “different types of power relations”. He and Connell call that hegemonic masculinity, I call it patriarchy, following my feminist predecessors.

Both they and I, however, are trapped by the same problem: the persistence of gender binarism. Messerschmidt continually alludes to attitudes that are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, having besides accepted Jack Halberstam’s notion that there is something called ‘female masculinity’. For me, matters look different: if, to give an example, being a nurturing person has been traditionally associated with women, this does not mean that nurturing men are expressing a ‘masculine femininity’. It just means that as society progresses and prejudice diminishes certain attitudes will be seen to be gender neutral. Being, for instance, self-assertive will cease being connected with masculinity to be gender-neutral, just as being blond is gender-neutral. I read recently, besides, that the generation born in the 2000s and later increasingly resists being defined by binary gender labels, which will affect how both masculinity and femininity are understood. Yet, here we are, speaking of men and women as if nothing is moving. The day will come when the moment a baby is born the parents will be told ‘congratulations, it’s a person’ and not ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’.

What am I ranting and raving about, then? It seems to me that when the use of an academic label fails to please those who created it, as Messerschmidt’s censorious volume evidences, then the problem lies with the label, not with its users (or abusers). I would say that further discussions are a waste of time (here I am wasting my time) while what really matters, how patriarchy follows its rampant path of destruction, goes on. Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performance may also have its flaws but it is useful to explain why patriarchy persists and how it can be changed: patriarchal masculinity is very good at adapting to the changing times without losing much power, whereas anti-patriarchal masculinities are very good but less successful at opening up masculinity to other styles of performance, including its very dissolution into gender-neutral variants. I grant that before the emergence of hegemonic masculinity there was not a single concept to explain the simultaneous oppression of women and of marginalized men, and that Connell and company have made a reasonably good job of explaining how men who feel entitled to power find the perfect niche in their circle to express their sense of entitlement, from Trump down to the unemployed man who lashes out against wife and children. I also grant that patriarchy is not an ideal label to explain how gender and power intersect but perhaps this is because we’re struck with binary labels that cannot help. To be blunt, the behaviour of the lesbian woman who batters her wife cannot be explained by invoking hegemonic masculinity, or masculine femininity, because it has to do with power in ways for which we still lack a name. I have been struggling to find an alternative to patriarchy, but this is what I have for now.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/