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Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire is widely considered the highest achievement of 20th Century American theatre. Stanley Kowalski is a symbol of the heterosexual male. Significantly this male icon is portrayed as a rapist. In 1947, Tennessee Williams (through Blanche DuBois) also describes Stanley as "sub human," a term that would inspire outrage if it had been used against Jews, blacks, women or gays. The play is a good example of how Williams, a homosexual, contributed to the "modern malaise" by undermining the legitimacy of heterosexual males, females and the family. Williams' complex motives may explain the motivation of feminists today.
Homosexuals have suffered persecution. This doesn't automatically elevate them morally nor immunize them from political criticism. Personally, I believe in live-and-let-live. That's why I wasn't prepared to discover that homosexuals, in particular, lesbian feminists, are not so tolerant of heterosexuals like myself. They are conducting a vicious attack on heterosexual institutions that society no longer can afford to ignore.
Currently the attack comes from the feminist movement, which is led by lesbians. In "The New Victorians"(1996), Rene Denfeld documents how feminists are no longer concerned with equal opportunity, but are dedicated to transforming heterosexual society. Heterosexuality is regarded as the root of all oppression and homosexuality is seen as the remedy. "For many of today's feminists, lesbianism is far more than a sexual orientation, or even a preference. It is, as students in many colleges learn, an ideological, political and philosophical means of liberation of all women from heterosexual tyranny…"
In their ruthless quest for power, feminists behave like Marxist zealots, quietly infiltrating the education and legal systems, government bureaucracy and media. They institute quotas that give women preference in education and employment regardless of merit, regardless that women may already be over represented. They display a cult-like, totalitarian attitude to dissent, refusing to debate, suppressing free speech and slandering people who hold opposing views.
It may seem absurd that gays and lesbians who represent about four per cent of the population should attempt to transform society. Of these only a minority is promoting these goals. But these activists have used specious guilt tactics to capture the moral high ground. With the complicity of the media and politicians, they wield power way out of proportion to their numbers.
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The feminist attack is focused on the male because he represents the "competition" to lesbians and must be enfeebled and neutered. Lesbians envy the male's achievements and position in society, and his appeal to females. For gay males, he is an attractive sexual partner, particularly if he is feminized. For male and female gays alike, he is a potential avenger who must be eliminated.
I believe this is part of the reason the heterosexual male has been under relentless attack in the modern era. This attack has undermined the family and the feminine woman. The "modern malaise" or sense of life's purposelessness is largely caused by the depreciation of traditional family roles, and life-cycle rituals that have sustained mankind for millennia.
The play, A Streetcar Named Desire is an example of how a homosexual, alienated from the traditional family, sought unconsciously to destroy these satisfactions for others. Long before Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, Tennessee Williams portrayed Stanley Kowalski, the "gaudy seed bearer" as a brutal rapist. While Stanley's wife Stella is giving birth to his son, Stanley rapes his sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois causing her to lose her sanity. Thus, Stanley's happy traditional family is exposed as a fraud.
Tennessee Williams did not consciously set out to trash the family and heterosexuals. Rather he used the play to express his envy of heterosexuals and his self-hatred. On the one hand, he portrays the traditional family, Stanley and pregnant Stella, in a very positive light. On the other, his own persona, Blanche DuBois, is not very flattering. I'm not saying Williams should feel self hatred and envy, only that he does and this inspires the play.
Gore Vidal said of Williams: "He was and is guilt-ridden, and although he tells us he believes in no afterlife, he is still too much the puritan not to believe in sin. At some deep level, Tennessee believes that the homosexual is wrong and the heterosexual is right. Given this all pervading sense of guilt, he is drawn in life and work to the idea of expiation, of death." 5
Blanche describes Stanley as her "executioner." She wants to be destroyed. Stanley is the instrument for Williams' own atonement. But Williams doesn't have the courage to admit this. He must elicit pity for himself by proffering himself (Blanche) as a symbol of culture and spirituality, and Stanley as a symbol of a brutal philistine male-dominated (i.e. heterosexual) society.
Tennessee Williams said he is Blanche DuBois. The similarities are obvious. They both lust after Stanley. Williams said: "I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character for whom I have physical desire."6
Williams, like Blanche, is a neurasthenic. Thirty five per cent of his energy, he said went into "the perpetual struggle against lunacy (neurasthenia, hypochondria, anxiety feelings)… it's like having wild-cats under my skin."7
Finally, Williams recounts in his Memoirs how he filled his empty heart with hundreds of chance sexual encounters, whether in the steam bath or the park. Often he seduced heterosexual males.8 Similarly, Blanche in the play, entertained all and sundry, including soldiers from a nearby army base and a student she taught. She almost seduced the newspaper boy, warning herself, "I've got to be good and keep my hands off children."9
Blanche DuBois has been run out of town for her immoral ways. Sick and broke, she is dependent on her sister and her husband. Yet, inexplicably, from the moment she arrives, Blanche/Williams sets out to destroy her sister's archetypal traditional family. Here, s/he is a precursor of the modern feminist.
Stanley carrying the "red stained package from the butcher's" is the provider (13). The pregnant Stella nurturing and malleable is the epitome of the feminine. She believes in her husband: "it's a drive that he has" (50). The couple is passionately in love, spiritually and sensually. Nevertheless Blanch/Williams is determined to make heterosexuality appear pathological. The similarities between the homosexual and feminist perspectives are startling.
Immediately on arrival, Blanche refers to Stella's home as "this horrible place (19)." She reproaches Stella for not helping to save the plantation: "Where were you! In bed with your Pollack!" as if this is wrong (27). When Stanley and Stella lose their tempers and exchange blows, Blanche, like a counselor at a womyn's shelter, urges Stella to leave her husband, open a shop, and become independent (67).
Stanley is genuinely repentant for hitting Stella although today this would be dismissed as part of "the cycle of violence." In fact, Blanche has made Stella criticize and defy her husband probably for the first time. Now, like her feminist sisters, Blanche hopes the resulting domestic violence will separate them altogether. But Williams knows enough to portray these spats as transitory and harmless.
Stella ignores her sister, and continues cleaning: "I'm not in anything that I want to get out of," she says (65).
"Stop! Let go of that broom," Blanche persists. "I won't have you cleaning up for him!" (66)
The feminist tone is again heard in Blanche's dehumanizing of Stanley. "There's something downright bestial about him! … He acts like an animal, has animal's habits! … There's even something subhuman something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I've seen in anthropological studies."(71)
Can you imagine a modern play in which a man says this of a Jew, a woman, an African American or a homosexual?
Stanley overhears this conversation, yet this supposedly ape-like creature does not react violently. He patiently tolerates Blanche although she has been living with them in a two-room apartment for six months.
In the same oft quoted speech, Blanche a demented pitiable woman urges her sister to leave her husband in the name of progress and civilization. "God! Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella my sister there has been some progress since then! … In this dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching . . . Don't hang back with the brutes!" (72)
In this psychodrama, Williams dignifies his own self-loathing and desire for immolation by identifying Blanche's defeat with the cause of culture. This is understandable. Not so clear is why most people critics and audiences alike have gullibly accepted this rationalization, and its implications. Blanche is generally seen sympathetically as the tragic heroine of the play. Stanley is a monster. His rape of Blanche characterizes all men as rapists. Why do men allow themselves to be demonized? Why do they fall on their sword?
Men seem to freeze like deer in the headlights when confronted by the twin female weapons of guilt and hysteria. This is the weapon Williams wields against Stan, and feminists use to emasculate men. It is useful to remember that, like Williams, feminists may be motivated by self hatred and envy. After all, often they have denied their own feminine instincts, and have missed the profound fulfillment available to normal women.
At the end of the play, Williams has achieved his unconscious goal: destroying the heterosexual male, and driving a stake into the heart of the heterosexual family. Stella, in the play, must ignore her sister's claims in order to preserve her family. "I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley," she says (133). Nevertheless, her family is bereft of moral legitimacy. In the movie version, Stella is the precursor of the modern single mother. She leaves Stanley vowing never to return.
In conclusion, Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire is an example of how one homosexual twisted the way heterosexuals think about themselves and society. By discrediting the heterosexual male and the traditional family, he contributed to the sense of life's purposelessness that characterizes the modern era. The ultimate significance of this play may be that it illustrates the assault on heterosexuality that has been so destructive to our wellbeing.
1. Rene Denfeld, The New Victorians. (New York: Simon and Schuster,1996), p.45
2. Statistics Canada, Canadian Social Trends (Spring, 2000). The situation is similar in the U.S.
3. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” Atlantic Monthly April 1993, p.47
4. Journal of Sex Research 2001; 37:333-343.
5. Ronald Hayman, Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else is an Audience, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. xviii
6. Ibid. p. xiii.
7. Ibid. p. x.
8. Tennessee Williams, Memoirs, (New York: Bantam, 1976). P.76.
9. Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire, (New York: Signet, 1976), p.84. All references are to this edition.