About the author:
I am in my second year of the Literature Profile of the ALC program. I wrote this essay for a class called Gender Issues in Drama that helped me gain a better understanding of the arbitrary gender roles that are embedded so deeply into our society. Next year, I hope to pursue my passion for writing by studying Journalism and Creative Writing.
The Detrimental Effect of Southern Ideals of Femininity in A Streetcar Named Desire
By Talia Kliot
For Gender Issues in Drama with Prof. Hannah Rahimi
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire follows the story of Blanche DuBois’ stay in New Orleans with her sister and brother-in-law. Throughout the play, her real reason for visiting unravels, and she develops a tumultuous relationship with her brother-in-law. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams exposes the damaging effects of the rigid southern ideals of femininity through Blanche’s inability to conform to the constraints on aging, addiction, and sexual urges.
To stay in line with the old views about the importance of beauty in society, Blanche is deceptive about her age. She recognizes that the ideal of femininity that she so desperately tries to embody is to be “soft and attractive” (92), but worries that she will not be able to “turn the trick” (92) for much longer, and will therefore lose her power over people. She explains to Stella that she hasn’t “informed [Mitch] – of [her] real age!” (95), the exclamation point emphasizing that telling him the truth was never even on the table. Her attempts to conform to feminine beauty ideals places the unhealthy notion in her head that she must “deceive him enough to make him – want her” (95). The hesitation indicated by the hyphen further shows the deep insecurity she feels about her fading beauty, which is underscored by her aversion to light. She continually characterizes light negatively, an example of that being when she denounces its “merciless glare” (11) and insists that they cover the light with a lantern because “she can’t stand a naked bulb” (60). From the word choice of “naked” (60), one can draw a parallel about the type of bulb and how it makes her feel: exposed, ugly, and non-conforming to the façade she hopes to put forward. However, no matter how hard she tries to conceal her age and propagate the ideal image of feminine beauty, the other characters see through her deception. Mitch explains that he “knew [she wasn’t] sixteen any more” (145) despite her efforts to stay away from the light. This explains why when the lantern is ripped, she “cries out as if the lantern was herself” (176). This comparison shows the pain she feels in regard to not conforming to the ideal and demonstrates the destructive effect of the importance placed on beauty and youth by southern society.
Similarly, Blanche hides her addiction because it would not fit the image of a pure woman that she is expected to portray. As soon as she arrives at Stella’s apartment, she has a drink, but “carefully replaces the bottle and washes the tumbler at the sink” (10) so her hosts don’t realize. Williams emphasizes Blanche’s desire to hide her addiction by inserting dramatic irony. Already, the audience knows that Blanche has been drinking, but she still tries to fool Stella when she says, “Where could it be, I wonder?” (11). This is also made clear when she’s first trying to impress Mitch and she points out that she’s “not accustomed to having more than one drink” (59). Williams shows that this detrimental habit is not conducive to the image of a dainty female. For example, the same animal images she uses to denounce Stanley are thrown back at her when she is exposed for “lapping [his alcohol] up all summer like a wildcat” (143). This reversal suggests that part of the reason why she can’t stand Stanley’s clear disregard for her refined social order is a reflection of her own insecurity: she cannot live up to these ideals herself. Furthermore, her drink spilling “right on [her] pretty white skirt” (94) is a symbol for her clumsy attempts at returning to these values. The white skirt has a connotation of purity, which she taints with the object of her un-ladylike addiction. Despite all her efforts, she cannot adhere to the standards society sets for her, thus revealing the harmful nature of these constraints.
Blanche is forced to conceal her sexual history because the southern ideal of femininity does not condone indulging in one’s sexual desires. Williams uses the lily, a symbol of purity, to show that Blanche can’t resist her temptations. She preaches about her “old-fashioned ideals” (108) and pretends to be chaste in her relationship with Mitch, when in reality, she is “no lily” (119). Although she explains that she would never “dare to be seen” (89) in the Flamingo Hotel, the stage directions tell a different story. She “answers carefully” (89) about knowing Shaw, showing her reluctance to divulge her hidden sexual past. Blanche’s need to be “a refined and particular type of girl” (122) leads her to feel as though she can’t have a man’s “respect” (94) if she gives into her desires. Yet, this repression transforms natural desires into perverse and addictive urges. She gets “mixed up with” (122) a seventeen-year-old boy, causing her to get fired from her job, and she “presses her lips” (99) to those of a young delivery boy without asking his consent. Her attempts to conform to the southern ideal actually cause her to stray from it even more, in ways that wouldn’t be accepted by any society. For these reasons, Williams indicates the detrimental nature of these standards.
Tennesse Williams denotes the harmful effects of the southern feminine beauty ideal by emphasizing Blanche’s inability to conform. While these standards have been in place for centuries, this play demonstrates the need to do away with the old views and replace them with ones that lift women up rather than push them down.
Williams, Tennesse. A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions Publishing Company, 1947.