In Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, how have Mae's and Maggie's "hyper-feminine" gender expressions hampered them? In what ways are they constrained by the way they present themselves in the world?
In Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the women are a reflection of the playwright’s Southern heritage and of his story’s repressed emotionalism. While the character of Mae represents the more vulgar and abrasive perception of feminism, however, that of Margaret, or Maggie, represents the more seething, unrequited feminism prevalent in Southern literature. Maggie is two people, a common phenomenon amongst the more genteel of society. In public, she is the endearing, proper wife and daughter-in-law; in private, with Brick, she is a deeply wounded, embittered individual unable to connect with her husband, who conceals his own bitterness and repressed homosexuality beneath a thinly veiled layer of disgust at the hypocrisies around him cushioned by the alcohol that numbs her to his life’s realities. Maggie is accustomed to walking on the proverbial egg shells around Brick, and around her in-laws, but is reaching the limits of her endurance. Maggie also lives with the knowledge that it was her, not Brick, who finally consummated a relationship with the now-deceased Skipper, a development known to Brick and that keeps the latter in a perpetual state of resentment regarding his wife’s infidelity. In their first protracted encounter in their bedroom in Act One, Maggie finally cries out at Brick: “How long does it have to go on? This punishment? Haven't I done time enough, haven't I served my term? Can't I apply for a-pardon?”
Williams utilizes this scene to emphasize the enormity of the emotional gulf separating Maggie and Brick, as in his instructions that Brick respond to Maggie with an air of detachment:
“[A tone of politely feigned interest, masking indifference, or worse, is characteristic of his speech with Margaret.]
MARGARET: Why, you know what they're up to!
BRICK [appearing]: No, I don't know what they're up to.
MARGARET: I'll tell you what they're up to, boy of mine!--They're up to cutting you out of your father's estate, and-- [She freezes momentarily before her next remark. Her voice drops as if it were somehow a personally embarrassing admission.]
--Now we know that Big Daddy's dyin' of--cancer....”
And, following another of Maggie’s diatribes, to which Brick can’t possibly have been oblivious, he responds with the following: BRICK [wryly]: “Did you say something, Maggie?”
Maggie and Mae’s feminism, however, manifests itself in their dual for the right to Big Daddy’s affection and, more importantly, to his inheritance. It is Maggie who repeatedly references Mae and Gooper’s apparent efforts at insinuating themselves into Big Daddy’s good graces – an ultimately unsuccessful endeavor given the family patriarch’s obvious disdain for Gooper’s wife and children. Maggie cannot get past Brick’s resentment towards her, though, and his refusal to accept her as his partner in life is an open wound she cannot close, as is evident in the following exchange:
BRICK: I've dropped my crutch.
[He has stopped rubbing his hair dry but still stands hanging on to the towel rack
in a white towel-cloth robe.]
MARGARET: Lean on me.
BRICK: No, just give me my crutch.
MARGARET: Lean on my shoulder.
BRICK: I don't want to lean on your shoulder, I want my crutch! [This is spoken like sudden lightning.] Are you going to give me my crutch or do I have to get down on my knees on the floor and--
MARGARET: Here, here, take it, take it!
[She has thrust the crutch at him.]
BRICK [hobbling out]: Thanks...
Brick cannot bring himself to lean on Maggie either physically or emotionally; he drinks because it is his sole emotional crutch, and even Maggie’s attempts at baiting him with her evident sexuality fall flat:
MARGARET-Big Daddy shares my attitude toward those two! As for me, well--I give him a laugh now and then and he tolerates me. In fact!--I sometimes suspect that Big Daddy harbors a little unconscious 'lech' fo' me....
BRICK: What makes you think that Big Daddy has a lech for you, Maggie?
MARGARET: Way he always drops his eyes down my body when I'm talkin' to him, drops his eyes to my boobs an' licks his old chops! Ha ha!
BRICK: That kind of talk is disgusting.
Maggie’s feminism does not necessarily hamper her. On the contrary, her sexuality is her greatest strength, especially as it both contrasts with Mae’s shrill, obnoxious demeanor, and provides her a tool with which to manipulate the male emotions that are traditionally dominant in this culture and in a mansion owned and controlled by a character referred to as “Big Daddy.” Mae’s domineering relationship relative to Gooper constrains her in the sense that the role reversal present in their relationship was a definite hindrance in the culture of that place and time, and marked her for the alienating figure that she was. Maggie’s feminism, on the other hand, relies less on overt displays of dominance than on subliminal displays of sexuality and deference. In private, though, she is resolute in her conviction that she deserves better than the drunken, resentful homosexual (or bisexual) to which she has been condemned, and it is her triumph in the end that Brick regains a measure of self-respect and recognition that he is married to a woman of considerable will able to go head-to-head with the more openly conniving Mae while simultaneously seducing the men in the house with her obvious physical and emotional charm.