Authority is not necessarily given to someone, as in the case of police or soldiers. However, brute force is a factor that gives someone authority over another person. This is the case in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which tells the story of Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) who moves in with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her sister’s husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Streetcar is centered on the drama that transpires in Stella and Stanley’s home in New Orleans, much of which stems from Stanley’s brutish nature, and the twisted relationship between him and Stella. Stanley is the controlling, intimidating head of the house. Stanley and Blanche are constantly challenging each other. While Stanley and Stella do the same, their relationship is one that is defined by an undeniable need for or attraction to each other and Stella’s reprisal against Stanley is one that is a long time coming. Stella and Blanche’s retaliate against Stanley using the power of their sexuality, and these acts further feminist themes in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Stanley’s relationship with Blanche is one that is based on an intense loathing and distrust immediately. It is as if Stanley, by his shear nature, has determined that he has a right to hate someone immediately. His immediate and outspoken dislike of Blanche establishes some authority over her. Metaphorically, he is saying that he’ll do as he pleases, and there is nothing she can do to change his mind about her. Stanley’s bullheadedness is what gives him such staunch power. It is as though he doesn’t operate in the realms of logical human thought, where one would first get to know someone before determining whether they’re worth the time of day or not. In this way he places himself above Blanche. Blanche retaliates, but she does so meagerly. She plays dumb. However, Stanley doesn’t buy it. “In Streetcar, Blanche is continually professing her innocence verbally, yet contradicting her words with her questionable actions” (Liebman 29). Blanche reacts to Stanley by basically killing him with sweetness, and putting on a façade of purity. Blanche attempts to challenge Stanley’s authority in a very passive way, through merely her presence and attitudes. Blanche uses her sexuality against Stanley. In one scene she has him button the back of her dress, a subtle sexually suggestive act. In another, she is perfuming herself and parading around in a slinky dress. She attempts to make herself seem irresistible, which only irritates Stanley more. Though he is the man of the house, he cannot stifle her desirable aura. He can’t control this aspect of her. Stanley is only irritated because he desires her sexually, and that contradicts his principles. “She represents values and attitudes that challenge his masculine authority and his self-esteem” (O’Shea). By behaving sensually she attempts to strip Stanley of the only power he possesses: his masculinity. In a final act of authority, Stanley rapes Blanche, causing her to have a mental breakdown. It could be interpreted that her personality backfires on her. While she parades around Stanley’s household, painting herself with a deliciously sweet façade, he only wants to conquer her even more to prove that 1) she isn’t as innocent as she pretends to be and 2) she has no power over him.
Stanley and Stella have a much more dynamic relationship that suffers through a constant push and pull motion: Stella walking away, and Stanley pulling her back in. She is resilient to Stanley in many ways. She tells him when he is being rude, and doesn’t have trouble verbalizing her discontent with him. However, when Stanley uses physical force to establish authority Stella relents. Stanley’s temper is unparalleled. The only threat that Stella can use against Stanley is the prospect that she might leave him and this seems to provoke the most fear in him. She uses his attachment to her to her advantage. However, at the same time, she is also caught up in him. After verbal and mild physical abuse, Stella still returns to Stanley due to some magnetism. This idea is best portrayed in the “Hey Stella” scene. After Stanley loses his temper in the house Stella retreats to a neighbor’s. Stanley follows shortly after, crying out Stella’s name in anguish.
He is defeated. She walks down the stairs slowly and with an air of authority herself, projecting towards Stanley the notion that what he did was wrong, that she is in control now. She is almost a stoic. In this scene, she clearly dominates him emotionally after he is terrified that she wouldn’t come back to him. The way in which she turns his authority unto herself is by manipulating his love for her. She establishes the fact that only she has the power to return to him, which might by the greater of the two authorities. In her final act of authority, she leaves Stanley.
However, calling these progressive movements in feminism is somewhat problematic. If Blanche and Stella are feminist vehicles, and they are using their sexuality to challenge Stanley’s authority, then it is rather contradictory to the feminist idea. It is saying that a woman’s power lies solely in the fact that she be desirable. But then again, it is better to challenge Stanley’s authority by any way possible, than not at all. The way in which Stella and Blanche retaliate against Stanley is also indicative of the time period in which Streetcar was filmed. The Tennessee Williams play that it is based on was published in 1947, three years after the end of WWII, when men were returning back home and into the workforce, displacing many women who had found a place of authority as workers and caretakers. Women were upset that they no longer had authority. “In spite of these stirrings, women’s rights made no significant gains in the 1950s” (Lindop 52). So perhaps, left with no other devices, a woman’s only means of asserting authority was through a manipulation of the men around her, using her sexuality to bring them to their knees. In this way then Stella and Blanche are successful feminist figures.
Curator: Hailey Mawhinney