A Streetcar Named Desire
I had seen this movie before, and I knew I was being called to watch it again at this time because it carries messages about the interplay of feminine and masculine desires. This rewatching proved to be deliciously powerful. The sisters, Stella and Blanche, represent the two options available to women of that era, the 1940’s in the American South. Having earned the right to vote two decades prior, women were still very limited in terms of employment and mostly unable to financially support themselves. Stella falls in love with and marries a blue collar laborer, Stanley, who is the epitome of raw masculinity: brash, strong, aggressive, competitive, and virile. Blanche was previously wed to a young ‘boy’ when they were both teenagers. She recalls that he was sensitive, a poet, artistic, evidently embodying traditionally feminine qualities in a man, which she was clearly drawn to. However, as she reveals later in the film, he was unable to hold down a job, failing at his masculine duty of provider, for which she harshly reprimands him, accuses him of being weak and tells him she despises him for it. The young man flees from her, takes a revolver to his own mouth and kills himself. This tragedy haunts Blanche for the rest of her life.
At the beginning of the movie, Blanche has come to stay with her sister and her husband after she loses the family estate, Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream”) under mysterious circumstances. She withholds the exact details of that loss until Stanley, suspicious that Blanche has swindled her sister and, by extension, him, forces her to show him papers of the sale. It comes out that the estate was lost by foreclosure. The sisters’ forefathers had repeatedly mortgaged the property to finance their lavish lifestyles, no longer sustainable by the family business. After their parents’ and her husband’s deaths, Blanche is unable to keep up with the payments on her meager English teacher’s salary, especially as she is still in the habit of living beyond her means in her family’s tradition. To make matters worse, she is fired from her job for being caught having sexual relations with a 17-year-old student.
As the movie progresses, we discover via Stanley’s sleuthing that Blanche had resorted to prostitution, taking up residence at a second rate hotel called The Flamingo. We also learn through Blanche’s own confession that her promiscuity began before that, as she recalls how drunken sailors would stumble through the front yard of her family’s estate on their way home from the local bar, calling her name, “Blanche, Blanche!” the calls of whom she presumably obliged. These truths trickle out through the course of the movie as we untangle the web of lies Blanche has artfully arranged about her past and current circumstances to uphold her image of a refined, Southern lady.
Despite her deceitful behavior, I found myself empathizing with her. She was a widow trying to survive on a meager income. Her options for financial survival were extremely limited. Despite her high society upbringing, her teacher’s education, and her cultured mind, she needed the support of a man to survive. When she was called upon by masculine desire, her feminine inclination was to acquiesce, maybe out of desperation or maybe out of her own sensual longing, or both. While no one berated the men for their fornications with her, she was run out of town for her promiscuity: a clear illustration of the double standard of male and female sexuality. When she arrives at her sister’s home, she is playing her last card as an aging (and by aging, I believe she was in her early thirties), out-of-work spinster in 1940’s America, not to mention her torrid past. She needs to find a man who will marry her and provide for her before her past catches up with her, or she will have nowhere else to go. She comes close, but Stanley’s investigation reveals the truth of her past before her gentleman suitor, Mitch, agrees to marry her. Interestingly, when he learns of her promiscuity, Mitch declares she is not clean enough to marry but still attempts to have sex with her, clearly illustrating again the cultural double standard of the era. Mitch will take her as a wife only as long as she fits the cultural standard of a lady, but if she is a whore, he will only use her and discard her as an object. The masculine can play the part of a cultured gentleman but can easily slip into the role of sexual predator without repercussions. However, the feminine has no such latitude. Once a whore, she is branded forever.
At the beginning of the film, Stella is a happily married woman. Stella and Stanley are poor by the standards of Stella’s Southern aristocratic upbringing, but they are seemingly happy in their lowly New Orleans apartment. Stanley is brutish and virile, much to the delight of Stella, who revels in his primal, masculine energy. Stella is in the early stages of pregnancy. She has the protection and the intense passion of a man, and the promise of motherhood. She embodies the sensuality and joy of the desired maiden becoming the mother. Everything is rosy until Blanche shows up and rocks the boat of her happy home. The lack of privacy in the two room apartment and Stanley’s suspicions about the loss of Belle Reve put an immediate strain on the couple’s relationship, which only intensifies throughout the film. Still, the deep, primal love between Stella and Stanley persists even after Stanley strikes Stella in a drunken rage. In the famous scene, a sober and regretful Stanley bellows her name from the street, and Stella slowly descends the stairs to him, clearly feeling her power over him, the embodiment of feminine power over the masculine. Despite his greater physical strength and financial status, he is weak without her. He needs her just as much, if not more, than she needs him. Stella seems to represent the new, empowered feminine. She has successfully navigated the cultural structure of her day to achieve a marriage that satisfies her desire while owning her personal power. This is evidenced by the way she tells Stanley, after he tells her and Blanche to stop cackling in the other room while he and his friends play cards, “This is my house, and I will talk as much as I want to!” She is his equal and she lets him know it. While Blanche constantly frets about her appearance, what others think of her and whether men desire her, Stella radiates an inner confidence. She owns her sexuality. Yet, despite this, the story ends tragically for Stella as well.
Her sister has gone crazy as a result of the combination of Stanley’s brutish treatment of her and her complete lack of any positive future outlook. While she has imagined a suitor has invited her to cruise the Caribbean on a yacht and dresses for the occasion, in fact, she is being escorted away to a home for the insane. Stella reluctantly abets the extradition, believing Blanche’s story that Stanley raped her while Stella was in labor at the hospital to be another one of her made-up stories. However, after Blanche leaves, Stella apparently finds the accusation intolerable and declares she will leave Stanley with their baby. We are left to wonder how she, a single, unemployed, new mother, will fare in this masculine dominated world. Blanche’s parting words as she is escorted by a kindly doctor from her sister’s apartment, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” seem to echo that soulful longing I acknowledged in myself through the EK practice of being a child of the world, of everyone and everything, a free spirit, fully supported by the universe at large.
To me, the two women in this film symbolize two parts of the contemporary woman. The old, fading archetype represented by Blanche, tries unsuccessfully to suppress her erotic desire to conform to the societal ideal of a lady. She tries to manipulate the masculine into supporting her both financially and emotionally by use of feminine charm and deceit. She conceals reality and calls it magic. Yet her subconscious desire bubbles to the surface and gets the better of her. Her inability to integrate her ego and subconscious ultimately ends in her losing herself entirely.
Stella is the emerging feminine ideal. She does not depend on her family’s inheritance. She forges a path of her own. She marries for love and desire, not money. She finds joy, satisfaction and personal power in her relationship to the masculine. Yet the same brute force and domination that turns her on in the beginning becomes repulsive to her by the end. Her masculine counterpart is still rooted in the old patriarchal ways of aggression and domination, and as she grows tired of his unconscious, destructive nature and his exploitation of the weak feminine, embodied by her sister Blanche, she must leave him. Her leaving him represents a pivotal point for the modern feminine woman. The future is uncertain. How will this new, strong, feminine woman make her own way in the world? We are left to answer this question for ourselves. It’s a new era that is yet to be written. We are writing it now.
I feel both Blanche and Stella living inside me. Blanche is the part of me that is as fragile and vulnerable as a wilting flower, that wants to surrender fully to the masculine and to the world, to belong to the other, to be owned, desired, cherished, protected, and supported. That feels deeply satisfying. I could give myself completely and simply be a vessel for desire, sensuality and joy. There’s also that part of me that identifies with fiery Stella. Empowered by motherhood, by the recognition that I am a divine portal for life, that I can bring a man to his knees with my femininity and sexual power, that I can create my own destiny and a new paradigm for the world. What do I do when my ‘weak’ feminine persona shows up and undermines me like a long-lost sister, a relic of the past? Do I heal her or shun her? Do I integrate her or disown her?
Women have been owned by men for many thousands of years. To think that the scars of this generational trauma don’t live deep in our psyches is to live in denial, as Eunice, Stella’s older neighbor encourages Stella to deny Stanley’s rape of Blanche. The ghost of our wounded feminine lineage lingers in our collective psyche. Hiding her and suppressing her only means she will turn up again and again unannounced and unwanted just like Blanche appears at Stella’s home and continue to hinder our evolution and be exploited by the unhealed masculine. Just as there wasn’t room for both Blanche and Stella in the tiny apartment, there isn’t room for us to keep these parts of ourselves separate. It will always cause tension. Healing ourselves, integrating our desire to be submissive and our desire to be powerful, to be the whore and the queen, to own and honor all of ourselves, will allow us to evolve. After so many generations of having our sexuality be owned and controlled by men, the modern woman is now being called to heal her fractured shadow self and reinvent her identity as the embodiment of the feminine in the physical world.
Perhaps instead of burying that weaker feminine self in shame and judgment, it would be better to acknowledge, forgive and even indulge her. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was a part of the feminine that was complicit in our historical subjugation. Maybe we have a secret, shameful desire to be owned, dominated, controlled, and yet we keep this part of ourselves in the shadows just as Blanche avoids harsh lighting in the film. It’s not socially acceptable for the modern female to feel that way. We are supposed to be progressive, self-determining, autonomous, strong. But how do we retain our femaleness while going through this transformation? Our female essence is supple, soft, submissive, surrendering. These qualities are deemed as weak in our patriarchal society. Men desire us but when we give them what they want, we are whores. So we are constantly toeing the line between men’s desires, our own desires and what is socially acceptable. The masculine and feminine are inherently drawn to each other. Yet, while men can let their desire run rampant we have to be the keepers of proprietary or risk ostracism. This double standard still lives on today. So as we forge the path of reinventing ourselves, the modern woman is tasked with the chore of constantly fighting off not only masculine sexual desire but her own desire as well. How can we love ourselves and each other when we recognize our weak feminine? If we do not, we are only upholding the patriarchal legacy of separation and shame. If we do not love every aspect of ourselves unconditionally, we cannot fully heal. If we do not honor our shadowy submissive side, she will continue to invite exploitation at any cost. Her deep, unconscious desire will powerfully undermine our efforts to claim our sovereign identity until we integrate her and give her what she wants. And what she wants is to be wanted.
Interestingly, the single moment when Blanche appears to own her sexual power is right after a young newspaper boy appears at the front door asking for a donation. Blanche checks her purse and finds she has nothing to offer, then tells the boy that she is not the lady of the house. The young man turns to leave but Blanche stops him and proceeds to seduce him, instructing him to come closer to her so she can kiss him “just once.” Her fragility and self doubt seem to melt away, and she is suddenly bold and lusty. This seduction is not a means to an end, such as with her gentleman caller, a marriage prospect and potential provider. This is pure, unadulterated desire. Did the young man elicit this desire from Blanche, perhaps reminding her of her young husband? At first glance, that would seem to be it. But is it a coincidence that she was forced to admit her destitution to him first? Her admittance of having no money and not being the “lady” of the house, just an impoverished, transient being, is followed by irresistible, passionate desire such that she cannot contain herself. Is she turned on by her own poverty, by her lack of stability, her need to depend on the kindness of strangers, just like I was in my EK meditation? I believe this is why I was called to watch this movie. The synchronicity is just so powerful. Women, once kept as property, are now not allowed to like being submissive. It makes no sense. We are not one dimensional. Our shadow sister, Blanche, still lives with us. Let’s not ostracize her and send her away to the looney bin. She is our sister after all. In fact, she is us. We are not meant to become like men in the new paradigm. We are meant to create a new paradigm. We must not deny or hide Blanche, our shadow sister, because the patriarchy will no longer sustain her. We must seek to understand her and learn from her. We must let her be without judgment. That is, we must allow ourselves to feel our shadowy feelings without judgment, such as the desire to be taken care of, even subjugated and owned. But that doesn’t mean we have to act on those feelings. In fact, the movie teaches us that we must claim financial independence on a large scale so that we may become emotionally independent as well. Without the potential to survive independently, we cannot fully step into our sovereign power. That is to say, even if a woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mom or housewife, she does so out of choice. If the situation ever becomes undesirable, she has the option to leave and support herself. “A Streetcar Named Desire’ was set in the ‘40’s and was released in the ‘50’s. The female characters in the film did not have the option of financial independence and thus, Stella was unable to leave her husband at the end of the film because of her sister’s accusation of rape, at least in the original version. I learned in a Google search that Hollywood later changed the ending so that she did leave him. Even though women at that time had achieved legal equality, the film illustrates that, until they have economic equality, they cannot be truly free. We are much closer to that now but still have a way to go. And the emotional dependency persists whereas it’s no longer a result of financial dependence so much as a cause of it.
Female financial independence will undoubtedly threaten and very likely enrage the masculine as male financial superiority represents the last remaining vestige of male societal dominance. Knowing this inevitable reaction of the masculine ego to the increasing power of the feminine, the only appropriate counter-reaction is grace, as Stella so poignantly shows Stanley in the scene where she descends the stairs to comfort him, stroking his head on her lap like a child. We know the ego will lash out in defiance and self-protection. That’s what it does. It is futile to fight ego with ego, as is the masculine behavior that has resulted in countless wars over the millenia. Now, we must meet ego with loving grace to let it dissolve into nothing, which in truth, it is. The feminine does not seek to dominate but to mutually support.
Blanche lives in the world of her fantasies. She is endlessly creative in her ability to embellish upon what is, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except when it hinders her ability to be present in the moment. If we could embrace our desires the way Blanche does, as if they are already real, and also accept and enjoy the present reality as it is, like Stella, we could conceivably integrate the two realities, the two disparate parts of ourselves and manifest heaven on earth. The magic that Blanche perceives would live not only in her mind but in the physical world as well because we would be able to see the potential in the present and be happy just as we are without needing external circumstances to change first. To conceive of a new world paradigm, we must first have the fantasy and then step into it. Yet instead of fantasizing about the past, we must fantasize about the future. And we must not condemn the present. The present is the portal to the eternal and is all we ever have. To deny it is to deny life itself. So in relishing what is, even relishing our desire as part of that what is, with shameless abandon, we open up the gates to powerful, magnetic receiving.
2 thoughts on “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Great take on this Classic Carey. The view from the female perspective is enlightening. I always felt this was the better of the two masterpieces that he directed in this time. The other being On the Waterfront, of course. I feel this was more nuanced and it’s depiction of the child like Brando trapped within societies interpretation of masculinity was pitch perfect. I love the portrayal of the poverty both economically and morally. This was really a breakthrough in direction by Kazan and writing by Tennessee Williams, showing these deeply flawed characters that you can have sympathy, but not empathy for. And the cinematography, with its dazzling portrayal of the city so alive it’s a character that should be listed in the credits. To its gritty portrayal of their home life shadowy with characters constantly moving in and out of the shadows creating a visual subtext that is still used today. I always admired how the wiring and direction never took a side. It was almost a voyeuristic view letting the story unravel before you. There is almost a guilt associated with watching it because it’s so viscerally honest. This film is one of the pillars of cinema changing as a storytelling medium. Later in the 70s some of the greatest directors of the generation refer back to this as a huge influence. You can see threads woven in the work of Martin Scorsese’s films and Brian DePalma’s scripts. A true classic of American film. Great job delving into the subtext.
Thank you for your feedback and elaboration, and yes, I agree, it’s such a gritty, raw and visceral film. Packed with so many layers of meaning!