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A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams

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How do women's roles in A Streetcar Named Desire reflect Simone de Beauvoir's ideas in The Second Sex?

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In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that women are kept from realizing their true potential by clinging to the idea that they must depend upon men, as well as by not finding solidarity with other women. Applying those ideas to A Streetcar Named Desire, they can be seen in the situation of Blanche Dubois and in the lack of solidarity between women against tyrannical men.

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In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir felt that the idea of womanhood is unnatural, something imposed upon women by the patriarchy. Women are told they are inferior to men mentally and physically. They are told their highest goals should be marriage and then motherhood. They are viewed through a lens which strips them of their humanity, perceived as nothing but appendages to men. However, de Beauvoir also felt that women could be complicit in their oppression by not uniting and taking a stand against the men who hold them down.

One could argue such is the case in A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche Dubois is, by her society's standards, a "fallen woman" because of her promiscuity. As a result, she is rejected by Mitch, the man she hopes to marry; she wants him to support and protect her. However, he doesn't believe she is "clean" enough to be a wife.

The ironic thing about Blanche is that she does not rebel against such a society. In fact, she yearns for the old-fashioned system of sexual morality which defined the Old South. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir sees such a pattern of behavior in the Cinderella story:

How could the Cinderella myth not retain its validity? Everything still encourages the girl to expect fortune and happiness from a “Prince Charming” instead of attempting the difficult and uncertain conquest alone.

So it is with Blanche. She does not see supporting herself as a viable option and hangs onto the hope that a Prince Charming will rescue her from poverty and loneliness. When Mitch refuses to be her prince, she invents one in the form of the imaginary Shep Huntleigh.

The relationship between Blanche and her sister Stella further illustrates de Beauvoir's point about a lack of solidarity among women. Stella knows Stanley is an abusive man: earlier in the play, he hits her. However, when Blanche confesses to her that she has been raped by Stanley, Stella chooses to disbelieve Blanche even though she is wracked by doubt. Her neighbor Eunice tells her she should "never" believe that Stanley has done such a thing—not because either of them believes Stanley is incapable of violence, but because life will be harder for Stella to bear should she believe it. Therefore, Stella is complicit in both the injustice committed against Blanche and her own domination by her tyrannical husband.

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How are women portrayed as victims in A Streetcar Named Desire?

In A Streetcar Named Desire, women are portrayed as victims by simply existing within their time period. The women of the play operate in a world that is not only openly hostile toward their well being, but in which the assailants of these women are almost never given any repercussions whatsoever. Stella, the obvious victim, is on the receiving end of physical violence from her husband, but always stands up for him out of either a delusional loyalty or fear of an even worse outcome.

Blanche seems to not understand Stella's behavior until the men of the play victimize her as well. Not only is Mitch misogynistic enough to give her no chance whatsoever to explain herself, but he attempts to sexually assault her when he becomes too emotional. Much the same happens later with Stanley, except this time the he actually succeeds in raping her.

The play depicts women in a powerless, degrading situation. The men of the play become frustrated and confused when the women deviate from any behavior that is not on-script with their perceived functions as sexual and social objects, to the point that Stanley is able to sit and calmly play cards while Blanche is taken to a mental institution for the damage that he inflicted.

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How are women portrayed as victims in A Streetcar Named Desire?

All of the women in Tennessee Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire, can be seen as victims at one point or another.

Stella Kowalski

Stella is an abused woman. After a night of drinking, Stanley hits Stella. After escaping to Eunice's apartment, Stella comes back to Stanley. While this is the only time readers/viewers see Stanley abuse Stella, they can assume that he has done it before--Eunice tells Blanche that Stella and Stanley always make up.

Blanche du Bois

Blanche is victimized by two men: Stanley and Mitch. While Mitch does not actually rape her, he tries. Stanley, on the other hand, succeeds at raping Blanche. His physical strength over her is apparent. While some may think that Blanche had it coming (given her own behaviors), she is a victim.


Like Stella, Eunice is the victim of domestic abuse. At one point in the play, she comes down from her flat yelling about Steve's abuse. Like the Kowalskis, one can assume that abuse is simply a part of the marriage.

Mexican Woman

While not playing a major role, the Mexican Woman could be seen as victim. Left to wander the streets selling flowers for the dead, one could assume that the woman is a victim of circumstance.

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How can we describe the role of women in the play A Streetcar Named Desire?

I think that one can describe the role of women in Williams' work as complex.  Tennessee Williams is such a challenging writer because he did not reduce human beings to simplistic, monochromatic individuals.  He brought out so much complexity and depth to his characters, regardless of gender, that it becomes very difficult to make sweeping statements about their nature.  This is by design and it is the case with women in A Streetcar Named Desire.

In such an analysis, I think that you have to immediately go to Stella and Blanche.  Both sisters depict a fairly composite view of women, and of men, in general.  On one hand, there is a desire to embrace something that is not there, a hope of capturing something lost, and a propensity to be crushed by the weight of one's dreams.  Blanche certainly fits this and Williams uses this as an opportunity to reflect how women can represent these elements of reality.

In a social condition where so much of women's voices are silenced, Williams is able to bring out and evoke this sense of pain and suffering.  Blanche experiences this in her desire to rekindle a flame of the past in so many realms that have long since been extinguished. On the other side of the coin, Williams' depiction of Stella reflects the lengths to which women and men can go in order to be practical and how to "make do" with what is there.  Whereas Blanche might represent what should be or the pain of knowing that what might be can never be, Stella represents how one "gets along" in society.  The sacrifices made, the trade offs endured, as well as the self-interests met are all examples of this getting along.

In presenting women in both lights, Williams is able to make clear that the role of women in both his play and society in general is a complex one and dependent on both the individual and the configuration in which the individual lives.

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