Femininity in On the Waterfront and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

“If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel.”

-Terry, On the Waterfront

Maggie, we’re through with lies and liars in this house. Lock the door.”

-Brick, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 

Masculinity is a broad categorization of male semantics. Masculinity has prevailed in public discourse and social history as the dominant attribute of humankind, and as such, as the polar opposite to the female descriptor of femininity. Simone de Beauvoir questioned this dominant status in her work The Second Sex, which sought to highlight this masculine domination by its interaction with femininity. This approach brings to attention the tendency of judging one gender in relation to the other, in judging a pulse of feminism as a drop in masculinity. This polarity in understanding genders is due to the two gender titles available to our open discourse being founded on biological definitions as opposed to social study. In following this limitation inherent in our speech concerning gender, I will follow the masculinity of Marlon Brando’s Terry character from Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront and Paul Newman’s Brick character from Richard Brooks’s 1958 film Cat in a Hot Tin Roof. The assessment of their masculinities will be based on the polar system of feminine and masculine in relation to the character’s reaction to conflict in their given films. Influential to this system will be the theory of gender as a social act of performance as opposed to something naturally fixed.


Marlon Brando’s Terry is faced with a guilty conscience after he unknowingly sets up his friend to be killed by the Mafia. He hides this emotion throughout the film, even hiding his involvement with his friend’s death from his friend’s sister, Edie, as he develops a romantic relationship with her. Terry acts out a facet of masculinity in seeming emotionally cool to the exterior world regarding his friend’s murder in great part because of his involvement with the Mafia. The Mafia’s leader, Johnny Friendly, sets the tone for the type of masculinity to be embodied by the men working with him when he slaps one of his workers for stealing and then gives Terry a bribe for maintaining quiet about the murder. This masculine pressure is based on Johnny Friendly’s demand for male unity, hard working conditions, and work ethics. Masculinity is a disciplined act for Terry to follow. The emotions behind this act crack throughout the film, until Terry’s final decision to “rat out” the Mafia and admit his involvement in the murder. Marlon Brando plays breaking away from masculine expectations by shifting his eyes in discomfort whenever the murder is brought up.

Terry and Edie

He cannot keep the emotional cool required of him. After he testifies against the Mafia, Terry is considered “a rat” and a “pigeon” by the entire neighborhood, with the exception of the pastor and Edie. He is affronted with cold hostility for having broken the code of silence present throughout the film, which everyone follows out of fear of the Mafia. They disown Terry for his honesty because it shows his emotional inclination, which places him in a feminine rapport with Edie’s emotional investment in the unfolding of the truth, as well as his disregard for the Mafia rules every man follows. Even the young boys who had helped him with his pigeon coop revolt against him by killing his pigeons. They punish him for breaking the codes of their gang. This affront leaves him more effeminate than a boy, in the eyes of the masculine system embedded in the film.

Paul Newman’s Brick is faced with a direct affront to his masculinity by his marital situation with his wife Maggie, played by a hysterical and materialistic Elizabeth Taylor. Their marriage lies at the center of a family fight over inheritance prospects due to the family patriarch’s ailing health. Brick’s complexity in his gender role is evident in the bisexual undercurrent of his character who will not sleep with his wife (which undermines his virility and therefore masculinity) and who is deeply depressed over his best friend’s death and insinuates that he cared more for his friend than for Maggie or anyone else.

In his Acting Male writer Dennis Bingham explores the idea of a bisexual male character when writing of James Stewart’s on screen presence in the 1950s. He describes this bisexual image as being cemented in Stewart’s  “failure to fit the ‘straight’ leading man [role, along with] his lithe physique and emotional demeanor.” (24) Brick is also faced with this screen presence, he does not walk with erect confidence, but rather hunches over on his limp, carrying a cane, overshadowed by Maggie’s quick movements and tall presence. He is loudly criticized by his brother, sister in law and father for his drunken behavior and lack of motivation. Towards the end of the film, when his father, Big Daddy, is aware of his imminent death, he confronts Brick’s bravery by saying “I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?.” Again, the masculine character must be able to handle his emotions in such a way that leaves him proudly standing in confrontation of life, as opposed to limping along on an alcoholic sideline.

In her article for Time Magazine Meredith Melnick points out that “once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action.” (1) She supports this claim through review of a university study which found that men define their gender status as what they do in opposition to the way they are. This drive to justify masculinity through action is preset in both films. Both characters break the normative male guidelines set forth in their respective realities. The interesting narrative in both films is that their masculine misconduct is not something natural to their characters, but rather a fall from grace since Terry was a boxing champion, and Brick was an al star athlete in his youth. By the middle of the films they are both unemployed, rely on indulging their emotions instead of on a cool-headed approach espoused by the men around them, have romantic issues in which they must prove something to their respective wife or girlfriend, and are looked down upon by society. Emotion is highly linked with femininity because, as Bingham points out, women are “inferior beings because of submitting, they open themselves up,”(29) as opposed to the stoicism generally labeled as masculine. It is essential to the film that the main character regain his masculinity after having flirted with femininity for so long. The overcompensation of the masculine is embodied in Terry’s breaking down of Edie’s door, sexually harassing her for her to affirm her love for him, and his final scene of bravado at the dock fighting Johnny Friendly and leading the dockworkers into another dock. By setting a domination against a submissive woman, Terry falls into the historic narrative of the normative relationship between man and woman catalogued in Simone de Beauvoir’s work.

He establishes himself as masculine through his virile, violent, and trailblazing actions. He establishes domination, which lets him atone for his effeminate moments in the past. Brick regains his masculinity in a similar fashion, he regains the respect of his patriarchal father by admitting the truth, and by ending the film by finally agreeing to sleep with Maggie and get her pregnant.


Waterfront leader



Written by Daniella Lopez

For The Pathos of The Privileged


1.Bingham, Dennis. Acting Male. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994. Print.


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