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.

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