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Meganne Lemon
Professor Richards
English 357
2 Dec 2010
“We’ve had this date with each other since the beginning”: The Ritual of Masculine Sexuality in
A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a drama ripe with conflict and tension
between Stanley and Stella Kowalski that frequently erupts into physical violence. In her essay,
“Authorizing History: Victimization in A Streetcar Named Desire,” Anca Vlasopolos says
Stanley uses his hyper-masculinity in a way that “becomes the response by which to subdue the
female adversary” (Vlasopolos 330). Stanley creates a ritual based on his physicality that
disempowers his female adversary by forcing her to recognize his authority and control through
violence.
Stanley Kowalski’s hypermasculinity is the first thing the script notes: “Stanley
Kowalski… roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes…carr[ying] his bowling jacket and a
red-stained package” (Williams 18). This rough, masculine appearance is further underscored by
the following action in which Stanley “heaves the package” at Stella and she “cries out in protest
but manages to catch it; then she laughes [sic] breathlessly” (14). The sexual undertones amplify
Stanley’s masculinity not only in suggesting it overtly by heaving blood-stained meat packages,
alluding to the hunter in a hunter-gatherer family, but that he is hypersexualized as well by
Stella’s response. She protests his action, catches the package, and then shows enjoyment as the
Colored Woman teases, “What was that package he th’ew at ‘er?” (14), for the near-sexual act
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that just happened; Stella enjoys the display of sexuality and masculinity, even in a rather
voyeuristic situation.
This scene reveals not only Stanley’s desire to force his sexuality onto Stella, but also to
show his masculinity. It parallels how Frederick Douglass shows his transition to masculinity
and manhood in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by
Himself, saying, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was
made a man” (Andrews 47). In her article “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and
the Afro-American Narrative Tradition,” Deborah E. McDowell says, in regards to Douglass’
line, that it “equates resistance to power with physical struggle” (McDowell 180). In Streetcar,
the opening scene shows the power dynamics existing between Stanley and Stella, suggesting
that it could very well come to physical struggle by Stella’s resistance of the package, yet it will
end in gratification on both their parts, just like Douglass was gratified by his ability to reject one
identity for another.
Stanley uses his own ritual to force Stella, and ultimately Blanche, into submission the
same way a master used ritualized violence against Douglass to control him. Stanley’s ritual, first
shown in Scene One to depict his hypermasculinity, begins when Stanley is with his friends,
usually either at a poker game or a bowling league, and drinks. A woman, usually Stella,
aggravates him, such as by playing the radio, and scolds his behavior when he tells her off,
“Don’t yell at me like that” (Williams 14). This causes Stanley to become even more agitated,
reacting with increasing anger that someone removes his- or herself from the situation. The other
runs after to apologize and they make up, such as Stella hurrying after Stanley to watch him bowl
in Scene One. While Scene One shows this ritual on a smaller scale, the entire ritual shown in
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Scene Three suggests Scene One foreshadows a scenario more disturbing for an audience to
understand and witness.
The ritual of Scene Three begins at the poker game, where Stanley and the men are
drinking. Their conversation turns crude the more the men drink. Stanley begins to show his
frustration with Stella, “giv[ing] a loud whack of his hand on her thigh” (48), which Stella tells
Blanche “makes me so mad when he does that in front of people” (48). He becomes more
agitated and Stanley’s rage takes over as he “charges after Stella” (57) and loses his temper,
which sends the sisters upstairs for refuge. Stanley realizes Stella left him and he “stumbles half
dressed out to the porch and down the wooden steps to the pavement before the building...he
throws back his head like a baying hound and bellows his wife’s name: ‘Stella! Stella,
sweetheart! Stella!’” (59). This display of passionate apology, during which Stanley is soaking
wet and half-dressed, once again referencing his hypermasculinity, culminates in a sexuallycharged act of forgiveness: “Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are
glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other.
Then they come together with low, animal moans” (60).
As the primary ritual, this shows an increase in Stanley’s use of violence to achieve
control and explains why he uses sex as a marker of completion. A previous incident shows
Stanley just as hypermasculine but not as violent. While his anger may be related to Stella’s
behavior, Stanley instead directs his anger towards the light bulbs, smashing them with her
slippers. However, Vlasopolos says, “violence against inanimate objects foreshadows later
victimization”; this later victimization happens when Stanley tries to use this ritual to control
Blanche and reveals a disturbing increase in the violence needed to ensure his ritual remains
intact (Vlasopolos 328).
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That the smashing of the lightbulbs happens on their wedding night reveals Stanley as
cognizant of how Stella responds to his anger, violence, and masculinity. Stella tells Blanche, “I
was—sort of—thrilled by it” (Williams 64), which suggests that Stanley plays up his
hypermasculinity in order to provoke the animalistic response from Stella for two reasons. First,
Stanley knows that as long as he apologizes through sex, Stella will not leave him, as she tells
Blanche, because “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that
sort of make everything else seem—unimportant” (70). Second, the sex works in Stanley’s favor
because it restores his masculinity. Her fleeing the apartment, a removal from the domestic space
that only men should be capable of in the late 1940s, emasculates him. McDowell argues that
“’masculinity’ was restored by putting…women in their proper ‘feminine’ place” (McDowell
173). Because Stanley immediately takes Stella to bed as part of the apology process, it
reinforces his control over Stella and forces her to recognize his authority by literally putting her
underneath him.
Unlike Stella who actively participates in Stanley’s ritual, Blanche refuses to. In
Stanley’s first attempt to elicit her participation, he goes through her trunk. Stanley and Stella
argue about Blanche’s “treasure chest of a pirate” (Williams 36) stocked with “pearls! Ropes of
them…bracelets of solid gold, too…and diamonds!” (36). As per the ritual, Stella removes
herself, “go[ing] out to the porch” (37), but Blanche enters, causing a slight deviation for Stanley
as it enables him to shift control from his wife to her sister and assert his ritual over Blanche.
Rather than getting angry as Stella would, Blanche simply remarks “it looks like my trunk has
exploded” (38). Stanley tries provoking Blanche into an animalistic fury that he does Stella, yet
she does not fall for it. She talks Stanley out of his anger by proving his foolishness over
mortgage papers which he tries to rectify by invoking authority, saying, “You see, under the
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Napoleonic code—a man has to take an interest in his wife’s affairs” (43), rather than resorting
to his tried and proven method of using his hypermasculinity as a way to control women.
Because Blanche’s “increasing dissent makes Stanley try even harder to keep control,” it
causes him to deviate from his ritual as Douglass forces his master to deviate from his ritual of
dehumanization (Vlasopolos 330). Thus, Stanley must respond more sinisterly to maintain
control. In Scene Ten, Stanley’s ritualized sexuality conflicts with Blanche even more so that in
order for him to control her appropriately as he manages Stella, he must force his masculinity
and sexuality onto her in Streetcar’s most violent scene. Stanley proposes, “Shall we bury the
hatchet and make it a loving-cut?” (Williams 125). They begin drinking yet it turns violent as
Stanley corners Blanche in the bedroom despite her protesting “some awful thing will happen”
(130) and “they have some rough-house” (130). That Stanley has to rape Blanche in order to
complete the ritual that began earlier is incredibly disturbing. Not only does the rape reveal how
far Stanley is willing to go in order to make Blanche recognize his authority, but also because
Stanley reveals to Blanche that “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” (130).
Stanley intentionally planned to achieve some sort of gratification from Blanche regardless of
participation, actively or passively, because he derives pleasure from this ritual in order to satiate
his hypermasculinity, which McDowell says “constitutes his ‘stylistic signature’ and expresses
his ‘performing self’” (McDowell 177). Stanley relies on this ritual for attaining sexual
gratification and retaining control far too much that it becomes his signature and forces him to
behave only as the ritual allows.
Like the ritual was used as the opening, the ritual is used to end the play in Scene Eleven.
Stanley and Stella argue over Blanche’s institutionalization but it is unclear if Stanley is able to
follow through as now Stella has their newborn son to care for. In Scene Eleven, we see not only
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Stanley beginning to reassert his control over Stella as he murmurs “Now, honey. Now, love.
Now, now, love” (Williams 142) and “kneels beside her…his fingers find the opening of her
blouse” (142), but also Baby Kowalski beginning to assert his control over Stella through
nursing and her maternity. This last image can, and ought to, be further explored in future studies
of power dynamics in Streetcar as it considers the idea that men are groomed from infancy to
ritualize their control over women. Further study can also include analysis of Marlon Brando’s
performance in the 1951 film as Stanley. His performance takes the character’s desire for ritual
to extremes that enhance Williams’ characterization, demanding more recognition that
masculinity and sexuality create a dangerous ritual that forces female disempowerment and
submission, sometimes necessitating the removal of female presence entirely.
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Works Cited
Andrews, William L. and McFeely, William S., ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: WW Norton and Company, 1997.
McDowell, Deborah E. “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American
Narrative Tradition.” Ed. William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely. Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: WW
Norton and Company, 1997. 172-183.
Vlasopolos, Anca. “Authorizing History: Victimization in A Streetcar Named Desire.” Theatre
Journal 38.2 (1986): 322-388. JSTOR. 3 Nov 2010.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Signet, 1980.
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Meganne Lemon`s - ENGL 357: Southern Literature