The Presentation of Masculinity and Femininity in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Ariel’.
In both Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, there is extensive concern for how masculinity and femininity are portrayed. Both texts present archetypical interpretations of gender as well as juxtaposing figures that undermine these stereotypes, either actively or passively.
One such archetype that is prevalent in both texts is the notion of brutish men. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley is one such example of this. When he is introduced, the stage directions state “Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes”. This implies that his interests are of a base nature, removed from an anthropomorphic sphere of interest, hence presenting masculinity as brutish. The animalistic attitude of men as embodied by Stanley can be further argued as Stanley rarely speaks in complex sentences, instead they are typically short and punctual; “What’s this here? A solid-gold dress, I believe! And this one! What is these here? Fox-pieces!” The use of simple sentences and incorrect grammar (“What is these here?”) projects Stanley as mentally inferior to his female counterparts, yet he retains his dominance through physical superiority. This is contrary to how the stereotype of brutish masculinity is displayed In Sylvia Plath’s writing, as she often does not employ the use of animalistic imagery. Rather, the morally condemnable tendencies of men are frequently alluded to through association to well-understood evils. For example, in Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’, certain references seemingly present masculinity as brutish; “Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You -” By likening the character’s father to the German tanks of the Second World War, Plath conjures imagery of an industrial and destructive man, hence perpetuating the notion that masculinity is often brutish. Furthermore, the use of grim apostrophe when talking about the father further emphasises the death imagery in the line. This text is just one of several ‘Holocaust poems’ by Plath, and the period in which the text would have been received was recently post-war. Therefore, the allusion to Germany would have had greater impact in enforcing the notion of brutality to a contemporary audience due to recent history.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, more animalistic imagery is used later in the aforementioned instance of stage directions, as it is stated that Stanley derives pleasure from sexual relations with women and he revels in the power and pride he receives from such relations. He is likened to a “richly feathered male bird among hens.” From this it can be understood that men occupy a position of elevated sexual autonomy in comparison to women as they are described as sharing attributes with peacocks – notorious for their overt mating displays, and the connotation of richly feathered birds implies sexual confidence. Later in the text men are presented to be abusive of this privilege of sexual autonomy through the instances of rape committed by Stanley and Mitch’s attempts to pressure Blanche into sex. The effect of this is that masculinity is demonstrated to be rather bestial and impulsive, as men are portrayed as unable to control their sexual urges, even seemingly honourable men such as Mitch. Williams would have had extensive exposure to the destructiveness of vulgar and irresponsible men as his father was an alcoholic whom he despised. This implies that he would have projected his understanding of his father onto Stanley (also an alcoholic) and detailed Stanley’s liquor-infused rages with contempt, knowing that it would make the character appear more brutish and unlikeable. Furthermore, the fact that Williams was homosexual can be interpreted to mean that he would be highly critical of patriarchal discourse of the time (which would heavily stigmatize his sexuality). This could be interpreted as further cause for the audience to understand Williams’ commentary on masculinity as brutish and negative. When interpreting A Streetcar Named Desire via a Lacanian psychoanalytic approach, the theory of phallocentrism can be interpreted as a main source behind the motivations of Stanley, and by extension, masculinity as a whole. The theory postulates that having a penis grants one privilege in society and social relations. This is demonstrated where Williams writes “Since earliest manhood the centre of [Stanley’s] life has been pleasure with women […] He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.” The phallus is the center of Stanley’s sexual world and the ordering of his social world. Women are viewed as conquests and his relationships with them are detailed as merely sexual, hence implying that the phallus is the primary element in his social interactions. Therefore, Stanley’s brutish nature, especially in regard to his treatment of women, can be attributed to his phallocentric world view as informed by a Lacanian reading of the text.
The brutish nature of men in A Streetcar Named Desire is predominantly presented as patriarchal oppression in a visceral form. For example, Blanche frequently identifies Stanley’s feral attitudes; “What such a man has to offer is animal force”. This implies that it is intrinsic in masculinity and part of male nature. In Ariel, masculinity is similarly presented as brutish, however, it is insinuated that this brutishness is structured and systemic, as opposed to beastly and of a natural force. It is presented as a tool employed by men to oppress women and for patriarchal values to thrive. This is evident in ‘The Couriers’, where the golden ring of marriage is described as “Lies. Lies and a grief.” Marriage is a structure of society, demonstrated by the fact that it has value in law. Furthermore, men typically propose to women, and if marriage is to be understood as “Lies and a grief”, it can be interpreted as a structured oppression of women imposed by men. The effect of this is that it potentially presents brutish masculinity in Ariel as even more pernicious than its manifestation in A Streetcar Named Desire, as it is a conscious decision of men to oppress and act in a callous manner, however in A Streetcar Named Desire it can be understood as a more natural urge and instinct essential to all men.
The dominant feminine archetype presented in both A Streetcar Named Desire and Ariel is that of the passive woman, typically a domestic mother. Women are frequently interpreted and understood in terms of their function and role in society as defined by their male counterparts. The entrapment felt by women in a measured life is evident in Plath’s poem ‘A Birthday Present’; “Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, Adhering to rules, rules, rules.” This presents women as helplessly tethered to the structure of motherhood and domesticity, in which menial tasks and tedious duties are perpetually repeated. By simultaneously employing an epizeuxis of the world ‘rules’ and satisfying the rule of three, Plath creates an immense emphasis on the stifling formality of the ‘rules’ and protocols that must be adhered to by a woman hoping to maintain her female values. The protagonist is expected to cook and be subservient, and as a result has low expectations for happiness; “I do not want much of a present.” This lack of pleasure and surplus in archetypical female roles is also mirrored in A Streetcar Names Desire, as Stella states “Stanley doesn’t give me a regular allowance, he likes to pay bills himself.” As Stella has little spending money of her own it is implied that she is therefore often at home as she would not have the money to go out and spend money on luxuries. If one interprets the aforementioned examples of femininity via a Freudian psychoanalytic approach, it is evident that female passivity and dependence on men is necessary. Female penis envy dictates that after the phallic stage of psychosexual development, women experience anxiety due to the fact that they do not have a penis. When applied to Stella and Stanley, it can be argued that Stella’s reliance on Stanley is due to his ability to sate her penis envy. Furthermore, Freud noted that narcistic tendencies is a result of an unresolved penis envy, a trait which Blanche’s frequently exudes; “You know I haven’t put on one ounce in ten years, Stella? I weigh what I weighed the summer you left Belle Reve. The summer Dad died and you left us…” This potentially acts as an explanation for Blanche’s anxiety and hysteria, therefore defining her as a woman dependent on men.
The Freudian theory of the Electra complex is immensely apparent in Plath’s poetry, notably ‘Daddy’, where the woman of the poem conflates her dead father with her husband. She refers to the husband as “vampire father” indicating her unresolved Electra complex. This psychoanalysis is highly applicable to Plath as her father died in her youth, therefore emphasising the emotional cavity left by Plath’s father, which can be identified as being projected onto the woman in the poem. This develops the understanding of the character, as it further implies a reliance on masculinity and therefore undermines female individuality, creating the image of a passive female. The theme of motherhood and family in A Streetcar Named Desire is most strikingly detailed in the final scene where Eunice states in reference to Blanche’s claim that Stanley raped her “Don’t ever believe it. Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep on going.” Stella takes this advice, demonstrating how she is so determined to sacrifice her belief in her sister’s integrity in order to retain the stability of being partnered with Stanley, and to actualize her societally-determined goal of being a mother in a nuclear family. This can be interpreted to mean that women’s fixation on motherhood can force women to live in disillusionment and passivity, for fear of uprooting the family. This anxiety to protect the structure of the family is lost in Ariel, where a distinctly different sentiment on motherhood and family values can be detected, notably in the poem ‘Morning Song’ with the line “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.” This nihilistic construal of motherhood confirms the detachment between mother and child, and the simile of the cloud distilling a mirror highlights the distance from the reflected subject, further exaggerating the disjunction between the expectations of maternity and the mother’s actual relation to her child. During the period in which A Streetcar Named Desire was written, strong families were seen as highly desirable especially in contrast with the previous catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Therefore, by maintaining strong family values, society could symbolically distance itself from previous tragedies. The model of the nuclear family was idealized by the media, where women were presented as passive homemakers and housewives. This explains the commencement of the Baby Boom era where a record 3.8 million babies was born and the development of the stereotypical “M.R.S” Degree, a trope where women supposedly went to college to find husbands. This meant women were largely denigrated and disenfranchised as a gender, and had been reduced to their ability to function as childrearers and home maintainers. A contemporary female audience would have shared the same concerns of motherhood due to the societal expectations of their time, and therefore the sentiments of maternal nihilism in ‘Morning Song’ would be extremely potent and juxtaposing to common societal discourse about the subject of mothering. This creates a more powerful image of women being subservient and passive, and reluctantly fulfilling their maternal duties.
Despite the prevailing nature of passive female archetypes, there are examples in both texts of femininity presented as being active, and these iterations of female identity combating gender roles in the texts. The most striking example of an active female in A Streetcar Named Desire is obviously Blanche Dubois. Blanche’s existence contradicts the values of society as defined by patriarchal terms; she displays rampant sexual autonomy and as a result she was run out of Laurel; “But even the management of the Flamingo was impressed by Dame Blanche! In fact they were so impressed by Dame Blanche that they requested her to turn in her room-key -for permanently!” This demonstrates that overt displays of sexuality in women was not tolerated in 1940s American society, and that women were expected to maintain restraint. Rampant sexual autonomy would disrupt familial structures and endanger the integrity of maternal principles; therefore, it was treated as uncouth and unsavory behavior, and resulted in the rejection from society of any that challenged female archetypes with explicit sexuality. Eventually, Blanche’s active behavior is dealt with through labelling her with hysteria and clinically treating her. This clinical approach to suppressing women is also evident in Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’, where another incarnation of female activity is demonstrated. In the poem, the protagonist is suggested to be a wife and mother that has attempted suicide. Just like Blanche’s rampant sexuality, this too leads to the destruction of the family, and therefore is shunned as an option for people in society. This contradiction of patriarchal confines is too dealt with in a clinical fashion; “They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.” The medical numbing of the women implies that women must be dulled down and made less alert in order to conform to patriarchal expectations of women. This sentiment of forced female conformity is echoed by Andrea Dworkin in her essay ‘Women Hating’. She states that “In fact, when she is good, she is so passive in life that death must be only more of the same.” Dworkin would argue that in the eyes of patriarchal society, active women who display unchecked autonomy must be numbed and committed to mental institutions in order to limit them and pacify them. Dworkin notes that active women are marginalized in fairy tales as evil witches or wicked step-mothers, and by extension, this can be understood to relate to the diagnosis of hysteria in more contemporary active women. If a woman is not submissive then she is despised and stigmatized, as those committed to mental institutions and hospitals for suicide often are. This relates back to the woman mentioned in ‘Tulips’, as Dworkin’s writing suggests that the protagonist’s attempted suicide will be met with more attempts from patriarchal forced to suppress her autonomy as her existence disrupts patriarchal society by not living up to expectations for women, notably their duties as mothers.
In Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’, the subject’s refusal to remain passive is also manifest in a suicide attempt. She rails against patriarchal confinement, stating that she will not conform and reduce her autonomy; “Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware.” Plath conglomerates God and Lucifer and as they represent the most significant patriarchal evils, she sends a warning to them. By assuming the German tongue in context of the Second World War, the insinuation is made that God and Lucifer both represent fascist authoritarian forces and are the enemy to both the antagonist and by extension, Plath herself. The analogy between Nazi Germany and patriarchal values can be identified, as in both there exists systematic oppression of those deemed less superior, and both are ruled by the authoritarian command of men. Plath too attempted suicide so it is possible to read the poem in a self-mythologizing fashion, however Plath never introduced her poems as confessional and always referenced them in the third person. The effect of removing the themes of the poem from Plath’s personal life is that the presentation of figures in the poems become more applicable to masculinity and femininity holistically, as opposed to only referencing Plath’s life. It is evident that fictional characters and anonymous women that display active behavior demonstrate the repercussions of denying passivity to a far more applicable degree that just relating the poems to Plath’s own life, or to the potentially similar marginalization that Williams felt as a homosexual.
Both A Streetcar Named Desire and Ariel provide interpretations of masculinity that differ from the typically presented archetypes of brutish men. Masculinity in both works sometimes entails paternalistic attitudes and kindly, compassionate behavior. This strong paternal instinct is undoubtedly evident in A Streetcar Named Desire, where Stanley states “When the telephone rings and they say, “You’ve got a son!” I’ll tear this off and wave it like a flag!” This details how Stanley will revel in the birth of a son, and therefore he is capable of compassion and love, not just bestial sexual love as is often displayed with Stella. This contrasts the masculine ideal presented in the rest of the play, where men’s boundaries of interest care don’t extend beyond the realm of physical and bestial pleasure. The emphatic nature of his statement and use of multiple exclamation points denotes the true happiness he is feeling, as exclamation points typically are only employed with Stanley when he is in a rage; his animalistic emotions have been, for once, translated into joy. This therefore makes his elation even more poignant. In Plath’s poem ‘The Applicant’ the expectations of society are instead projected onto men as opposed to women, as is so often the theme of Plath’s poetry. The weight of expectation is manifest in the lines “I notice you are stark naked. / How about this suit – / Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.” The applicant is expected to be a working man, where a suit and what it connotes can give him purpose and value. Without it his is both literally and figuratively naked. Like women, men too assume the societal roles determined for them, and ‘The Applicant’ underlines this with the repeated question “Will you marry it?” Men are also subject to the weight of expectation of marriage as it can symbolize success and value in society for both sexes. The final line of the poem also repeats the incessant inquisition about marriage; “Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.” The lack of a question mark on the end suggests that the question has become an expected imperative for the man to fulfill. The hyperbole present in this line further accentuates the demanding nature of peers and society to actualize predetermined structures of living.
This imperative for men to ‘settle down’ is also present in A Streetcar Named Desire as Mitch’s mother is frequently pestering him to find a woman; “She worries because I’m not settled”, and “She wants me to be settled down before she-.” It seems to be Mitch’s mother’s greatest concern that her son should find a wife, perpetuating the notion of the expectation of marriage. In the 1940s and 1950s, marriage was considered significant to the success of a man. This can be observed in instances such as the writings of R.E. Dumas Milner, a self-made millionaire of the time. He states, “We employers realize how often the wrong wife can break the right man … more often than is realized the wife is the chief factor in the husband’s success in his career.” This demonstrates the concern of Mitch’s mother for her son, but also the accepted maxim that wives significantly impacted husband’s careers. Therefore, careful selection of a wife was necessary not for just on an emotional basis, but also for financial and occupational reasons.
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