Feminist Analysis of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

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Niki Fellows
English 4200
Feminist Analysis of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is massively stocked with various
situations that feminists should explore in depth. Maggie’s social standing during the
1950’s, her sexuality and lack of desire by Brick, and the roles of Mae and Big Mama are
intricately carved for many reasons. While exploring the three roles of the women it is
important to consider the time period in which they were written. Williams, like many
other authors of his time, wrote about the decade according to his personal experiences
with women. His own accounts with women dealt with sensitivity to the way his mother
and sister were treated by his father. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has extreme undertones of
emotional, sexual, and spiritual need that are apparent in his character “Maggie the Cat”.
During the 1950s women were conditioned to find their worth in marriage and
creating a sound family structure. The women in Williams’ play are portrayed as very
dependent creatures with a variety of characteristics, each in their own very different but
all three tied by the constraints of society. Women were to marry, and no matter how
miserable they were treated, they were to please their husbands. There was also a
tendency for women to stay in meaningless marriages because divorce was not supported
by social standards. In the case of Maggie and Brick, he reminds her they are simply
living together and married only by name. She seems to be in constant torture because
she cannot experience intimacy (be it physical or emotional) with the man in which she
has vowed the rest of her life to. It is obvious Brick does not appreciate the devotion of
Maggie. He is in a state of denial about life (and his possible sexual orientation and
attraction to Skipper) and has degraded Maggie since the beginning of the relationship.
He also expresses how amazed he is that Maggie could possibly want to have a child with
a man that hates her. Despite his abuse, Maggie stays married to a man who does not
want her. According to the 1950s society, it was that characteristic that made her even
more beautiful. Some modern feminists, from the 1960s (and even the late 1950s) to
present day, would consider her weak but the pure fact that she could survive in that
environment of moral decay is exasperating and courageous. Women need other women
to confide in and to help take a stand, women in numbers are powerful; however, Big
Mama and Mae are no help to Maggie. She is on alone for the duration of the play and
cannot leave Brick because of her devotion and her dependency to his family.
One of the most powerful things a woman can experience, and something men
will never truly understand, is that of childbirth. The ideal 1950s wife was a woman who
was pregnant within her first year of marriage. Maggie wants to experience the joys of
motherhood, possibly because she needs to fill a void in her life. Having a child would
allow Maggie to gain a strong loving relationship with someone who depends on her for
love. Nancy Chadorow focuses on a relationships success through fantasy and has
written: “If the events of the heroine’s story provoke too intense feelings such as anger at
men, fear of rape and violence, worry about female sexuality, or worry about the need to
live with an unexciting man, the romance will be discarded as a failure or judged to be
very poor” (Storey, 115). This quote is a great representation of Brick and Maggie’s
relationship and the fact that readers still hold on to ideals of the 1950s to present day.
Maggie is not able to become sexual with Brick and he is a depressed alcoholic. The
marriage has produced no children, therefore she is an outcast to society; her status of
woman and wife is called into question and abused by other female characters, especially
Mae, who is hostile towards Maggie and is a mockery of Big Mama.
Because “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is infused with sexual forces and their failures,
it is easy to pity the gorgeous, undesirable heroine Maggie. However, Maggie is a very
shocking character to many during the 1950s because of her abrasiveness and sexuality.
Women who were sexual were very taboo but literature was a great (and safe) place to
explore their sexualities. At the beginning of the play, Maggie is revealed to the audience
by looking at herself in a mirror, alluding to her vanity, but in a different context she is
the representation of Maulvey’s “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Maulvey’s argument is that
women in media are broken up into pieces that male gaze is not afraid of or feel inferior
to, but there is another aspect she has left out: all women want to be desired and
appreciated and looked at. It is a source of comfort to women, a woman’s sexuality can
be used as strength against men. At the moment she was looking in the mirror at herself,
the reader/viewer interprets the scene as her wallowing in her self-pity. Instead of vanity,
she tries to discover why Brick cannot love her, at least physically. It is almost as if she is
asking herself why she is so undesirable. If he cannot love her for the person she is he can
possibly become attracted to her physical appearance and give her some feeling of value.
She tries to make him fall in love with her through proving Skipper was not gay. Brick
then makes her suffer through marriage with false hopes. Her looking in the mirror and
getting ready for Big Daddy’s party shows her at her most vulnerable state and Brick can
only give her looks of disgust.
When Maggie complains of the marriage being a phony relationship and not being
what a marriage should be, Brick suggests she go elsewhere for sexual satisfaction. She
does not wish to enter into another shallow relationship and her love and her morals are
stronger than her sexual need, it is her love that needs to be satisfied. She remains a “cat
on a hot tin roof” being frustrated and angry at her situation. Unlike the audience’s
perspective of the situation she is hopeful it will change. Williams wrote her as a very
sexual creature but gave her characteristics that would make Maggie socially acceptable
without pushing the boundaries too far. There is violence from Brick against her and he
torments and neglects her needs while she is full of nothing but compliments for him all
of the time. What makes Maggie so profound of a character is her ability to highlight the
issue of sexuality and bring it to the forefront. Williams expressed through her how
sexual women are and how much women need intimacy from men as men need intimacy
from women. There is an idea, through the celibacy of Brick and Maggie’s marriage, not
only of the constant struggle of Brick with homosexuality, but, at the same time, an issue
that sex should be equal on both sides (women/men or men/women).
Maggie’s loneliness lies within Brick’s refusal to recognize her as a woman in
need of intimacy and her desire for that intimacy. Maggie is possibly the most fascinating
character because of her sexual deprivation. She shows her willingness to go to any
necessary length to conceive a child with her husband to fill the void that Brick cannot
offer. One must assume that Brick is either homosexual, mad that Maggie slept with
Skipper (which leads to a distrust and disgust in the relationship), or that Brick cannot
perform sexually due to his own lack of sexual desire. It could be argued that Brick is
using his lack of sexual desire as an escapism technique for covering his lack of desire.
Maggie, because she is the most sexual character in this play, is transformed into the
male’s shoes of sexuality. The 1950s did not leave much room for women to express
their sexual desires and needs. But Maggie did. She was the open character that is given
morals, which gives her credit as a good woman through her want to be a mother and
staying in an unhealthy relationship. She is textured. She is a character that showed the
many facets of being a woman. This could easily transfix an audience of women who are
suffering the same conditions and allows the audience to identify with her and her want
to create something that cannot be: a loving relationship and family with Brick. She is
desperate in her lacking and finally finds a voice when she reveals her plans to conceive.
Big Mama is a woman who places all of her hopes for the future of her family in
Brick. Mama is a gaudy woman who wears jewels all of the time to show her status, a
typical woman of the 1950’s. She is married to a husband who despises her, much like
Brick despises Maggie (except for the fact they are intimate and have children). Maggie
sees in Big Mama what will eventually happen to her, in the future, if she does not take a
stand against Brick. It is obvious Big Mama is a catalyst against Maggie because she is
naïve to Big Daddy’s hate and condescending manner towards her. She never offers to
help Maggie in her struggles or offers her kindness. Brick is the character in which
everyone pays more attention too, thinking Maggie, as a woman, should be able to handle
the loneliness. Big Mama is an object of pity and dogged femininity; she is loyal and
cries only when spoken to by Big Daddy answering her questions. In comparison to Big
Mama, Maggie sees the harm in the relationship and is determined not to have her life
and relationship turn into that of Big Mama and Big Daddy. Both Maggie and Big Mama
are women who stand by their men and fight for their beliefs. However, Maggie is the
embodiment of a new forefront of women’s sexuality during the 1950s.
The most immoral character is the miniscule Mae. She is a materialistic
Neanderthal who uses false flattery to advance in the world. It is in Mae where the moral
conflicts occur. She degrades Maggie for not having children and uses it against her to
gain Big Daddy’s money. She has a very unhealthy attitude towards everyone except for
her children and Gooper. She tries to twist facts in order to gain inheritance from Big
Daddy. She makes a mockery of Big Mama because she is spying on Brick and Maggie
to find out about their sex life and the prospects of having children but the entire time
thinks only of herself. She is the type of woman who doesn’t care about the advancement
of other women because she is constantly embracing herself as a vessel of greed and
keeping other females degraded by constantly telling them what they do not have
(example: Maggie having a child).
Williams is trying to be accurate in his portrayal of women in the 1950s. The
1950s was a time of growth for women and their sexuality, even though popular culture
tried to force women to fit into a mold of virginity and strength through marriage
children. Williams tests the boundaries of women’s sexuality in the play “Cat on a Hot
Tin Roof”. Through exploring the social standards of women throughout the 1950s,
feminists can understand the struggle of Maggie’s social standing, her sexuality, her
relationship with Brick, her relationship with Big Mama, and the use of Mae as an
antagonist to moral values and degradation to other women. Tennessee Williams, though
confronting the issue of homosexuality in this play, confronted an evolution of sexuality
in women that had not been portrayed in plays before the 1950s. This is truly a play that
pushes the boundaries of social thinking during the decade of the 1950s.
Works Cited:
Williams, Tennessee, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, New York, New York: Penguin
Putnam Inc., 1955
Ang, Ien, Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Post Modern
World, London: Routledge, 1995
Brunt, Rosalind and Carloine Rowan (eds), Feminism, Culture, and Politics,
London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982
Franklin, Sarah, Celia Lury and Jackie Stacy (eds), Off Centre: Feminism and
Cultural Studies, London: Harper Collins, 1991
MacDonald, Myra, Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in Popular Media,
London: Edward Arnold, 1995
McRobbie, Angela, Feminism and Youth Culture, London: MacMillan, 1991
Storey, John, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, Harlow, England: Pearson
Prentice Hall, 2001
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