A close analysis of gender in The Handmaid’s Tale and A Streetcar Named Desire
Through a focus upon gender, both Elia Kazan’s film of Tennessee Williams’ original play, A Streetcar Named Desire (Warner Bros, 1951) and Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1986) effectively manage to mirror the concerns of both time and place. Despite differing contextual influences, both of these texts manage to aptly explore similar issues relating to gender, revealing the universality of gender concerns. A Streetcar Named Desire reflects that the compliance to a patriarchal hierarchy results in female passivity and male dominance and when patriarchal paradigms are forced upon society, the marginalisation of women will ensue. In a similar fashion, The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrates how obedience to gender norms and expectations results in the oppression of women and how gender roles ostracise individuals, and despite subversion of the patriarchy, women continue to suffer.
Tennessee Williams’ seminal film, A Streetcar Named Desire, reflects the concerns of time and place, in which the compliance to a patriarchal hierarchy results in female passivity and male dominance is demonstrated. Williams draws parallels to his own epoch of early twentieth century America, reflecting the treatment of women as inferior to that of men in the post war industrial period. Traditional values were embraced as men attempted to reassert their masculinity in the home after returning from the war; which Williams saw in his own father. This notion is exemplified in the scene where Blanche is introduced to Stanley. As Stanley enters the house, he throws a packet of meat at Stella and yells “Catch!”. Stanley exerts his masculine power through the imperative, establishing his aggressive, virile nature. The meat is the physical manifestation of Stanley’s sexual proprietorship over Stella, resulting in Stella’s sexual compliance and infatuation of Stanley. The film continues to make evident Stanley’s overtly aggressive and sexual behaviour, epitomised through his costuming. Stanley undresses in front of Blanche and wears an undershirt as an outer garment, thus, the character is depicted as intimidating by imposing his physicality. This juxtaposes with Blanche’s costuming, who ironically wears white, the symbol of immaculacy, in order to conceal her impurity. The costuming therefore accentuates the blatant differences between the sexes, of which Williams gives rise to this power imbalance. Hence, through complying with patriarchal ideals, Stanley’s dominance and Blanche and Stella’s inferiority is portrayed, thus reflecting concerns of time and place.
Similarly, Margaret Atwood’s pivotal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, expresses how gender as a concern transcends time and place through its representation of how obedience to gender norms and expectations oppress women and diminishes their identity. Atwood’s examination of the patriarchy of Gilead reflect the concerns of society, with the condemnation of sexual expression of females by the Moral Majority under the Reagan presidency. The oppression of women was also seen in countries such as Iran, due to religious fundamentalism and rising fanaticism of the Iranian fundamentalist theocracy. Atwood reflects this critical idea of the oppression of females in the scene where Offred acts as an escort to the Commander at ‘The Jezebels’. The scene is established through repetition used to describe the absurdity of “The Jezebels”’ costuming, “Too red, too wet… too clownish”. Through the abnormality of the Jezebel’s costuming in a patriarchal society, emphasised through the repetition of ‘too’, the manipulation of “The Jezebels” shown. This reveals that male desires are thrust upon women, in order to appease males, thus diminishing the identity of the female. This mirrors Stella’s adherence to Stanley’s sexual demands. Furthermore, the Commander takes Offred to “The Jezebels” in order to experience freedom from the regimes of an oppressive society. However, it is ironic that the place in which the Commander takes Offred explicitly displays the oppression and degradation of women. In a similar way, Stanley’s sexual and physical power displays the oppression of Blanche, as expressed through the oppression of Offred and “The Jezebels”. This is manifested through the rhetorical question used by Offred to comment on the emotional detachment of women. “Is there joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it?”. Offred is aware that the superficial contrast to the joylessness of the Gilead she knows may merely be an appearance, not the reality. Hence, the rhetorical question implies that women have limited power and have resorted to complete subservience in compliance to male superiority. Thus, the universality of gender concerns is demonstrated through the oppression of Offred and the Jezebels and failure of recognition of their individual identity.
Furthermore, it can be seen through Tennessee Williams’ referral to gender concerns of his own historical time how, in A Streetcar Named Desire, when patriarchal paradigms are forced upon society, the marginalisation of women will ensue. Through this, Williams alludes to his own ostracism and internal struggles, for he was known to have struggled with his own sexuality, and in the failure to conform to the “All American” ethos which was propagated by the return of the of the soldiers from the war. Williams shows this through the scene where Mitch confronts Blanche about her deceitful past. Chiaroscuro lighting is used as a motif throughout the play and Blanche’s reluctance to appear under bright light shows her inability to grasp reality, foreshadowing her demise into insanity. When Mitch forces Blanche to stand under direct light, the literal and metaphorical truth of Blanche and her past is exposed, revealing her sexual maturity and disillusionment with reality. Mitch symbolically smashes the lantern, demonstrating his aggression to physically and metaphorically expose Blanche and destroy her facade she uses as a mechanism to avoid ostracism and in aim of seeking validation in a society dominated by males. The use of a close-up shot reveals Blanche under direct light, divulging her true identity and exposing her struggle in a patriarchal society that lead to her desire to conceal her past in fear of marginalisation. This is juxtaposed to the high angle shot of Mitch looking down on Blanche cowering, trying desperately to hide herself from him, revealing her mental instability and fear of the truth, which inevitably leads to her marginalisation .Thus, gender concerns of the 1940s era are portrayed through the marginalisation of Blanche as a result of her failure to conform to patriarchal values.
In a similar fashion, Atwood expresses gender concerns as a universal concept, through demonstrating in The Handmaid’s Tale how gender roles ostracise individuals, and despite subversion of the patriarchy, women continue to suffer. These efforts to subvert gender stereotypes and inequities in The Handmaids Tale are a manifestation of the rise of feminism in the 60s, 70s and 80s and its imminent threat from conservative forces. Feminist advocates viewed pornography as an instrument of oppression and sought censorship. The oppression of women, despite their subversion, is demonstrated through Offred’s mother’s involvement in feminist rallies; burning pornographic magazines in response to the patriarchy. It is ironic that through the way in whcih Offred’s mother demands rights for women, she is displaying misandry values and totally emulating the demeaning values of a patriarchal society; however, against men. This is made evident through “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women”. Offred’s mother is utterly degrading the worth and value of men for a functional society. It is through this juxtaposition of the extremity of the patriarchal regime of Gilead’s treatment towards women and the extremity of Offred’s mother’s view of men, that Offred’s mother’s destiny is foreshadowed; indicating the constant suffering of women, despite sedition to the patriarchy. The imperative of “Here. Toss it in. Quick.” used by Offred’s mother demonstrates her urgency and eagerness to rid society of misogynistic values and the degradation of women. Similarly, Blanche removes herself from society through her refusal to appear in light, mirroring Offred’s mother’s detachment from the patriarchal society, leading to the oppression and marginalisation of both Blanche and Offred’s mother. This ultimately indicates the idea imposed by Gilead that women have brought around their own oppression through their submission to the patriarchy.
Hence, the universality of gender is seen through Gilead’s effort to ostracise individuals, despite attempts of rebellion. In summation, the universality of gender concerns is made evident through A Streetcar Named Desire and The Handmaid’s Tale. Both texts encompass specific issues relevant to their personal accounts and historical context in order to reflect the degradation, oppression and loss of identity of women in patriarchal societies.
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