Meg Baker`s - ENGL 357: Southern Literature

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Meg Baker
English 357
September 30, 2010
Misogyny and Rape: The Downfall of Two Queens
In her essay “A Streetcar Named Misogyny” Kathleen Lant discusses the issue of rape in
A Streetcar Named Desire, arguing that the hostility towards women in Tennessee Williams’s
play is “ignored or tacitly applauded by his critics” (Lant). She argues that Williams’s attitudes
towards Blanche and Stella are misogynistic; Blanche’s rape is a punishment, but we should not
feel sympathy for her. Citing Stanley’s actions and violent behavior as evidence of Williams’s
prejudices, Lant draws on the differing sexualities of Stanley, Blanche, and Stella.
The main issue in A Streetcar Named Desire is that of women trying to live in a maledominated world (Lant). Blanche’s sexuality is frowned upon, while Stanley’s is normal and
almost healthy; Belle Reve is taken away from Stella and Blanche by their male ancestors; and
when either woman has their own voice, they are punished violently. Blanche is punished the
most severely for telling the truth, argues Lant, while Stella punishes herself and Blanche by
maintaining the lies. “Critics are fond of accusing Blanche of refusing to face facts and of lying,
but it is Stella … who constantly refuse to look at things, to listen to the truth, or even to tell the
truth” (Lant). Even in the final scene, when Stella is questioning her decision to believe Stanley
and send Blanche away, she chooses to continue living in a male-dominated world and does not
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believe her sister’s story. Stella does this to “preserve the economic and emotional security” she
has gained from marrying Stanley (Lant).
Blanche, although living in a fantasy world, is often the most observant character. In her
dramatic tirade in Scene 1, she tells Stella, “You just came home in time for the funerals, Stella.
… How in hell do you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? … Which of them left us a
fortune? Which of them left us a cent of insurance even?” (Williams 27). Throughout the play,
Blanche’s lies and fantasy are sprinkled with a few, hard-hitting truths – even so much as to
acknowledge that “I know I fib a good deal … but when a thing is important I tell the truth” (41).
Blanche is conflicted however, in her attempt to live freely from a male-dominated world. While
she is straight-forward and truthful about her opinions and about Stanley, she hides the truth of
her sexuality and her misdeeds.
This deceit and storytelling, however, is because Blanche knows what will happen if her
sexuality is brought forward. While men are allowed to be overtly sexual and aggressive, those
same traits in a woman are frowned upon and the woman is shunned. In her essay, Lant gives an
example of this double standard by discussing Blanche’s reaction to Allan Grey’s
… her first great moment of truth-telling is when she challenges Allan with his
homosexuality. This does, on the surface, seem a cruel act, but imagine for a moment
Stanley rather than Blanche in this position. Suppose now that Stanley finds Stella in a
compromising situation with another woman. We would expect and applaud shock, rage,
even violence from Stanley. We would not dream of condemning him for a lack of
compassion for the errant Stella. (Lant)
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Stanley, in this scenario, would be protecting his sexuality and relationship with his wife;
Blanche, however, is reviled for her reaction because she is female. In this same way, Blanche
would be punished and reviled if people knew about her affair with a student, while Stanley
would be excused or even applauded.
Blanche is, therefore, punished at the end of the play for both her actions and her lies.
She has lost Belle Reve, her family’s plantation, due to her male ancestors and their “epic
fornications” (Williams 43). She lost her job due to relations with a student, her husband due to
homosexuality and her disgust, and Mitch due to Stanley’s prying and her lies. In the end, she
loses her mind and her only remaining family due to rape – her ultimate punishment for being a
woman in a male-dominated world. Lant asks, “Are we to elevate Blanche to a tragic figure or
simply consign her to ignominy for the same activity which we applaud in Stanley Kowalski?”
Lant asks for a concise decision in black and white, but she asks for it in a world of gray. While
we have the ultimate ends of the spectrum in Stanley and Blanche, there still remains the middleground of Stella.
Stella is constantly stuck between her sister and her husband. She defends Stanley when
Blanch attacks and critiques him, and defends Blanche when Stanley tries to unmask her lies. In
Scene 2, Stella and Stanley are discussing Blanche’s “ordeal” and the loss of Belle Reve. When
Stanley questions what happened to the plantation, Stella tells him “you don’t know how
ridiculous you are being when you suggest that my sister or I or anyone in our family could have
perpetrated a swindle on anyone else” (35). Stanley goes on to empty Blanche’s trunk, and
Stella argues with him about the abundance of nice clothes – but she never argues too
extensively. Although she defends her sister, she still gives Stanley his space as the power
figure. Stanley asks, “Since when do you give me orders?” and Stella allows the issue to drop,
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sealing Stanley’s authority over her.
Stella defends Stanley to Blanche multiple times
throughout the play, when Blanche calls him a pig and questions the way Stella and Stanley are
living. Stella shows that, although Stanley has an often violent power over her, she accepts it,
when she defends Stanley in Scene 4. Blanche is appalled by the fight she witnessed the night
before, and even more by the fact that Stella goes back to Stanley. “I’m awful sorry it had to
happen, but it wasn’t anything as serious as you seem to take it.” Stella says, “He didn’t know
what he was doing… He was as good as a lamb when I came back. and he’s really very, very
ashamed of himself” (63). Although Stella is a victim of misogyny and abuse, her acceptance of
a male-dominated world and her role within it save her from the same fate that befalls Blanche.
Stanley’s rape of Blanche is the final show of his power in the play. Blanch has,
according to Lant, “broken the one inviolable rule of relationships between men and women.
Women do not tell the truth, they do not challenge, they do not unmask.” Stanley is punishing
Blanche, and Blanche is “deserving of the punishment simply because of who one is (a woman)
rather than because of what one has done” (Lant). Rather than being punished by the rape,
Blanche is ultimately guilty of the rape; this is where Lant’s assertion that Williams is a
misogynist – not just the character of Stanley – is most pronounced. However, there is another
way of understanding Blanche’s rape that does not place the blame on Blanche in the same way
that Lant says the play does.
In her essay “The Space of Madness and Desire” Anne Fleche argues that Blanche cannot
describe the rape in any way that would matter, because Stella “couldn’t believe her story and go
on living with Stanley” (Williams 133). The rape is “familiar and inevitable, even to its
“characters,” who lose the shape of characters” (Fleche). Instead of being a punishment or a
deserved action, the rape is inevitable from the very first meeting of Stanley and Blanche –
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before he even knows about Blanche’s true identity. “We’ve had this date with each other from
the beginning!” Stanley tells Blanche (Williams 130), the two were eventually going to be in this
position. When the time comes, Blanche sinks to her knees, as if acknowledging the inevitability
of the act to come (Fleche). Stanley becomes the violent and sexual male, while Blanche
becomes the inert and silent female; the characters are, at this point, no more than symbols in a
play (Fleche). The punishment of rape becomes a statement of the characters and their true
Although Blanche and Stella represent two different types of violence towards women,
their individual outcomes at the end of the play are not evidence of a misogynistic attitude on
Williams’s part. Lant shows how the act of the rape comes about from the male-dominated
world and the attempts at breaking out of that world. Fleche shows that the rape is from the
characters innermost identities. However, it is some combination of these two that leads to the
downfall of the two sisters. Blanche, trying to unmask everyone except herself, brings Stanley’s
wrath upon her; while Stella, in trying to accept the violent male world she lives in, punishes
herself and her sister.
Stanley is the victor, unpunished and powerful in his misogynistic
relationship with Stella and his rape of Blanche. Blanche may deserve some punishment for her
misdeeds, but the ultimate act of rape is a punishment on both Blanche and Stella from the maledominated world in which they live.
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Works Cited
Fleche, Anne. "The Space of Madness and Desire: Tennessee Williams and Streetcar." Modern
Drama 38.4 (Winter 1995): 324-335. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed.
Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt. Vol. 111. Detroit: Gale Group,
1999. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.
Lant, Kathleen Margaret. "A Streetcar Named Misogyny." Violence in Drama. Ed. James
Redmond. Cambridge University Press, 1991. 225-238. Rpt. in Contemporary
Literary Criticism Select. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resources from Gale.
Web. 20 Nov. 2010.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1951. Print.