The Role Of Sexuality in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Williams explores female sexuality as the foundation of a woman’s place in society by emphasizing the loss of Blanche’s sexual appeal and the animalistic aggression Stanley displays to exploit Blanche’s remaining sexuality, as her sex appeal is the only thing left that holds value in her life. Allowing Williams to establish the downfall of Blanche through her sexuality, as she served her purpose to her male counterparts and is no longer deemed useful.
Williams highlights the importance of Blanche’s sexuality through her fear of her “physical beauty passing”. The imagery of “passing” creates the recurring semantic field of death and loss that Blanche is constantly faced with throughout her life and by Blanche’s beauty being “physical” Williams illustrates how Blanche lacks any other qualities like “beauty of the mind” and is only useful for her outward appearance and now, as she faces the death of her beauty, she has no value. Williams uses dramatic irony as the audience is aware that Blanche no longer has “tenderness of the heart” or “richness of the spirit” and everything about Blanche is outdated and no longer of use, just like the old south thus causing her to cling onto her sexuality as it is the only thing that she has left and the only thing she can use to survive in the new industrialized America.
Blanche’s tone becomes angry as she realises, she’s wasted her sex appeal by “casting my pearls before swine!”.The biblical language of “pearl” represents purity and innocence but also can represent virginity and virtue which is something Blanche desires, to once more be clean. The harsh animalistic language of “swine” when referring to men, specifically Mitch and Stanley, symbolises how Blanche views them as unclean, dirty, and gluttonous creatures, showing the female sexual principle of needing sex for protection and comfort versus the male sexual principle of primal and brute like mating and how female sexuality will always be exploited by the greed of men. This can also be seen as Stanley is constantly and unforgivably “deliberate” with his cruelty towards Blanche; representing the societal man being disgusted by a sexual woman despite his sexuality. Williams further presents the differences between female and male sexuality when Blanche states that Mitch “returned with a box of roses” through the dramatic irony the audience not only sees Blanche’s refusal to give up her illusions but also her desires. The symbolic imagery of “roses” can connote to love and romance displaying how a woman’s sexual desire is driven by her need to be loved and feel loved by a man. But also “roses” can be connoted to their thorns and the pain they cause which can express the double nature of love; showing how even though a woman’s desire is fuelled by her love, the love she might feel for the man may not be returned and will end up causing her pain in the end.
Female sexuality is further seen in a negative light as Stanley states Blanche has tried to turn their home into “Egypt” and become the “Queen of the Nile!”. Through this Stanley compares Blanche to Cleopatra, a woman known for her disgusting and taboo sexual nature and who uses her sexual nature to trap men and lure them to their doom, this comparison to Cleopatra feeds into the concept of a man’s sexuality being attractive, but a woman’s sexuality is taboo and unholy. Mirroring Blanche as she tried to ‘lure’ Mitch by using her sex appeal to trap him in marriage thus leading to his ‘doom’. Williams emphasizes the simple 1940s concept of woman and sex only existing for male pleasure and anything else was vulgar as Blanche’s sexual acts makes the other characters in the play perceive her as a fallen woman while these same sexual feats are seen as strength and dominance in Stanley. Additionally, by calling her a “Queen” Stanley uses the same tone of when he called her “Dame Blanche”, mocking her and her once powerful status in the old southern America. As Blanche nears her impending assault, her surroundings change and “the night is filled with inhuman voices like cries in a jungle”. The simile of sounds being like “cries in a jungle” bring forward the volatile atmosphere of being in a primal, uncivilised, caveman setting which can signify the carnal needs of humanity, that woman also have, of sex and desire as the structure of society has disappeared. However, by Blanche feeling like she is in a “jungle”, a place where she would not be able to survive on her own, reminds the audience of her vulnerability and lack of physical power she holds over Stanley, which conveys the male dominance and the priority of male sexual urges over female sexuality.
Williams continues to explore a woman’s story of sex and loss through the society outside of Blanche and Stanley where a “prostitute has rolled a drunkard. He purses her along the walk, overtakes her, and there is a struggle”. The “prostitute” being assaulted by a drunk man echoes Blanche’s current situation as it serves as an allegory for a woman having to use their sexuality out of necessity not want but still being assaulted for using her sexuality, Williams uses the allegory of the prostitute to foreshadow Blanche’s rape. The “drunkard” “purses” and “overtakes” the woman, the animalistic language of the drunk man stalking the woman conveys him as a predator who “overtakes'' his prey as men ‘prey’ on female sexuality. The man also being predator-like, needs the prey to survive and live from, demonstrating how the cycle of predator versus prey will continue thus showing how a woman will forever be subjected to a man’s carnal needs despite being ridiculed for their sexual desires. The “struggle” that they face not only mirrors the “struggle” between men and women for dominance but also the “struggle” for a woman to be able to use their sexuality freely without having to hide it without exploitation. Through the symbolism of the Negro woman “rooting” through the purse it brings back the theme of sex for money and how the value of a woman is her “physical beauty” and without it, the woman has no value. As Blanche is overpowered by Stanley, she “sinks to her knees'', the submissive and inherently sexual position of Blanche being on her knee’s mirrors Stanley in scene three, showing that the power dynamic has been set; Stanley, as the man, is in power. Blanche, like every woman in new American society, has submitted, no matter their status. Through a feminist reading, Blanche “moans” instead of groans when pain, the language of moaning Williams chose to use is characteristically sexual; as Williams, even in her weakest moment, presents her as sexual. Due to this, Williams serves a reminder that Blanche’s sexuality was the cause of her downfall and through Freud’s theory of Eros leading to Thanatos, Blanche using her sexuality led to her death: mentally, sexually and socially.