Streetcar Named Desire: A Review

Note: This piece was written in January 2017.

Goodbye, 2016! I personally had some glimmers of happiness, but in the grand scope, I’m ready to kick 2016 to the curb. While many social issues caught my attention, the prevalence of rape culture affected me deeply. Feminists bemoaned the inadequate sentence of the Stanford University rapist, and then just a few weeks later, we endured Pussy-Gate and listened to many justify a celebrity’s boasting of sexually assaulting women as male banter, aka “locker room talk.” Don’t worry that celebrity got what was coming to him; he became the president-elect of the United States…  

Time and time again, women hear the same tropes: she was asking for it; why didn't she just keep her legs closed? Why didn't she fight more? Victim blaming is out in full force, and society may once again need Sarah Silverman's tips on how to not rape someone. Silverman’s points are directed at men, but women can use the tips too. It comes down to this: Don’t rape.

Recently, I saw a poignant performance of Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire, bringing to life Stanley Kowalski's brutality. This play set in post-WWII New Orleans follows events that unfold after Stanley’s sister-in-law visits Stanley and his wife, Stella. Blanche has fallen on hard times, recently having to mortgage the family estate after multiple family members died. Stanley feels entitled to money from the estate and blames Blanche for squandering the money. Stanley develops an intense obsession with Blanche’s past, believes salacious acquisitions against her, and plants divisive thoughts in the minds of Stella and Blanche’s beau. Throughout Blanche’s visit, Stanley subjects Blanche to physical intimidation and verbal and emotional abuse.

Blanche also witnesses Stanley beat pregnant Stella, and despite Blanche’s pleas, Stella refuses to acknowledge that she is a battered woman. Stella chalks Stanley’s brutality up to his military background and his stark disposition. Her upbringing as a southern Belle may have also contributed to her unwillingness to see Stanley as the beast he is. Stella has been taught to be submissive and to obey, and her language suggests that she believes she deserved to be physically abused because she disrupted Stanley’s poker night. This is not okay, and Blanche tries to make Stella see this. Blanche fails, and the tension between Blanche and Stanley continues to build. Stanley sees Blanche as a threat to his unchecked power, a threat to his marriage, and a threat to him. Therefore, he decides that Blanche must be destroyed.

Blanche is flawed. She uses derogatory terms to describes Stanley’s heritage, showing that Blanche is not as enlightened as she tries to convey, and she openly discredits the hard choices that Stella made by leaving the home estate. Blanche’s hurtful words to Alan Grey about his closeted sexuality and his sequential suicide haunt her, and, of course, there’s the questionable entanglement with her seventeen-year-old male student, which the audience is spared the graphic details. Without clearer information about nature of this relationship, the audience does not know the circumstances of the relationship, although the student-teacher power dynamic and the ages of those involved raise eyebrows and solicit quick judgment. Blanche is, at times, mean, unsupportive, uncaring, begrudging, and vindictive, but she is also passionate, sexual, educated, and fierce when it comes to her sister’s safety. Blanche is critical of Stanley, which he believes has tainted Stella’s love for him. Stanley sees the storm that Blanche is and does everything in his power to reign her in, which comes to a climax when he violently rapes her.

Blanche may be a hard character to love, but that doesn't mean that she deserved Stanley’s brutal attack. No matter what Blanche wears, who she slept with, or where she happened to be, she did not deserve this. In no capacity was she “asking” for it by confronting Stanley. [Side note: Asking is egregiously asinine word choice used to blame the victim. Seriously, no one would ask to be violated and brutalized in this fashion. Those who partake in BDSM must also do so in a consensual manner with safeguards in place, so, internet trolls, don’t try to argue that “some just like it that way.”] Rape is hate. Rape has one goal—overpower and violate.

Following the attack, no one believes Blanche’s story, including her sister. Stella demurs, “I couldn't live with Stanley if I believed her story,” and the neighbor replies, “You’ll never have to.” Some productions have modified the ending, and Stella and the baby leave Stanley. However, I believe the original ending has a very powerful message about the hopelessness that many women feel. Why come forward if no one will believe you? Why come forward if your rape kit (an invasive procedure itself) will be added to the backlog of untested kits? Why come forward if people will continue to be taught how not to get raped instead of being taught not to rape?

In the United States alone, the CDC reports that nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped. 12.5% of rape cases are perpetrated by family members, and over 50% are by intimate partners. To many, Blanche is just a statistic, but we must remember that she is a person. Blanche can represent any person who has been sexually assaulted or raped. She is flawed; she is human. She does not deserve this. No one ever does.

Reference

Williams, Tennessee. Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1947.