“A Streetcar Named Desire” and other Hollywood films: The Effect of Negative Sexual Acts and Values on Society Research Paper
Explication of source: (Practice Three Explications)
After Blanche Dubois finds board with the Kowalskis, she is shocked by Stanley Kowalski’s brush treatment of her sister. She receives such treatment herself when the phone rings and she stands up to pick it only to be violently shoved back down to her seat by Stanley. His violence towards his wife and her sister thus exemplifies and ascertains his sexist and chauvinistic nature.
In another scene, Blanche Dubois, in an attempt to get to know Stanley Kowalski, whose bullish behavior interests her enough to want to know his zodiac birth sign, asks him when he was born. Blanche hazards a guess that he must be an Aries, because people born under Aries are “forceful… [and] they dote on noise” (A Streetcar Named Desire).
At this point Stella answers that her husband was born on Christmas day, to which Blanche exclaims: “Capricorn – The Goat!” (A Streetcar Named Desire). Blanche’s likening of Stanley to a goat is figurative as well as literal. Like a Billy goat, Stanley is brutish and his sexual desires are akin to those of a he-goat that will stop at nothing to have these fulfilled.
Lastly, the final confrontation between Blanche and Stanley ends up with the rape of Blanche. In this scene, Stanley’s act encompasses his denigration of women. By the rape of his wife’s sister, he not only shows disrespect towards Blanche, but his wife and their marriage. Stanley’s proclivity for violence leads him towards rape- the ultimate sexual violence.
The relationship between art (film) and society is symbiotic. The two entities feed off each other in a dependent state of co-existence, in that, the occurrences in society form the basis of the plots and ideas of various films, while films offer entertainment, inspiration, and sometimes guidance to the viewer. As much as film producers and directors have the freedom to create fantasy and fictional stories that go beyond the element of reality, the most poignant human occurrences, horrors, actions, sacrifices, and journeys ever undertaken in the history of man are factual, not fictional.
The greatest wars ever fought, the best love actions ever undertaken, the most horrific acts of brutality ever exercised, and the timeliest acts of providence are all factual and incidental to the existence of man. The depths of desperation of soldiers and civilians during the two World Wars, the acts of brutality during the Holocaust, and the inspiring words and actions of diverse leaders such as Martin Luther King Junior, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln are all actual events that have been immortalized in art – literature and film.
Therefore, art (film) draws inspiration from the activities in society. Conversely, the stories and life-events depicted in films offer entertainment and inspiration to the viewer. Various characters in films provide viewers with a human point of reference, where the viewer draws parallels from the actions and fate of the character and decides upon a different path of life or makes adjustments aimed at avoiding a similar fate that befalls a given film character. Therefore, film and the society mirror each other.
Unfortunately, such an intertwined relationship between art and society can have negative effects. When the behaviors, actions, or values portrayed in a film are negative, the repercussions for society can be dangerous, retrogressive or simply non-value adding. Sex, sexuality, and sexual violence are one of the most enduring themes in Hollywood -produced movies. As discussed in the foregoing paragraph, films have the inherent ability of perpetuating their themes onto society.
The prevalence of a lax attitude towards sex among American adolescents, increased sexual violence cases and a general denigration of women in the American society can be traced back to Hollywood films’ ‘acceptance’ of such sexual attitudes and actions. With “A Street Car Named Desire” as the primary reference, how do the sexual innuendoes, sexual violence, and a general depiction of women as mere sexual beings (“sex objects”) in American produced films, contribute to the subtle acceptance of such actions and attitudes in the wider American society.
A Street Car Named Desire directed by Elia Kazan
Directed by Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire is a romantic drama that depicts the romantic and sexual attitude and relationships of various characters, particular the lead characters Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. Dubois is seemingly a well-refined beautiful Southern woman who goes to stay with her sister Stella and Stanley, the husband in New Orleans.
She states that her reason for moving to her sister’s house is that her own farm/plantation had been lost due to the “sexual sins” of her ancestors. Dubois is shocked by the relatively free expression of sexual intimacy and romance both in the Kowalski home and the city of New Orleans. She pretends to harbor no such attitudes towards love and sex; however, she seems perturbed by her sister’s almost masochistic sexual relationship with her husband.
Stanley Kowalski is the prototypical macho man, and he physically and emotionally abuses his wife. However, Stella remains sexually attracted to him and tolerates his chauvinistic and sexist acts and attitude. Stella finds such ‘macho’ attitudes in men ‘attractive’. Dubois’ beauty causes tensions with Stanley, who is used to having his way with women.
An element of sexual attraction exists between Stanley and Dubois. Dubois drowns her frustrations with life and her pretentions of sexual indifference in alcohol. When Stanley discovers that, despite all her pretentions, Dubois was sacked from her teaching job back in Mississippi for having an affair with a 17-year old student, he confronts her (Kazan).
The confrontation ends with Stanley raping Dubois, who later suffers a nervous breakdown. Stanley then commits Dubois to a mental institution in an attempt to conceal his crime. His crime, however, becomes known, and the film ends with his wife vowing to leave him.
Sex in A Streetcar Named Desire
Sexual activities are portrayed in an easy fashion in the film. Stanley Kowalski and his wife engage in intimacy acts right in front of their visitor (Blanche Dubois), who is shocked by this attitude that her sister and her husband have towards sexual intimacy. Stanley Kowalski’s heavily sexist attitude towards his wife and her sister overrides all engagements he has with the two women.
Blanche Dubois’ visit to the Kowalski home upsets many of the previous balances in he Kowalski home, but most importantly, the sexual attention that Stanley reserved for his wife now had to be inadvertently shared with her beautiful sister.
All the principal characters in the film are portrayed as having an element of sexual “naughtiness” in them. The act and image of sex permeates the engagement of the leading characters even when they are pursuing matters unrelated to sex. The Kowalskis seem to enjoy an almost animalistic sexual relationship, and where Stanley dominates and Stella is a passive recipient of his testosterone charged sexual advances.
Blanche, on the other hand, despite her pretensions of sexual purity and loathing of sexual activities, engaged in an affair with a 17-year old student. There exists sexual attraction between Stanley and Blanche despite the fact that they are both headstrong and are antagonistic towards each other.
The urban setting of the City of New Orleans, further contributes towards the promotion of a lax attitude towards sex and sexual activities. Blanche Dubois arrives in the city in a streetcar aptly named “Desire” – the name of the route that the Streetcar follows to the Kowalski home. Therefore, desire – sexual desire – dominates the film at different levels of thematic delivery.
The residents of the City of New Orleans (seen through the activities of the neighbors to the Kowalskis and Stanley’s workmates) are similarly portrayed having liberal sexual attitudes. Contrasted with the ‘backward’ and conservative State of Mississippi from where Blanche arrives, the City of New Orleans serves as a cultural front for liberal sexual attitudes.
Gender Based Violence, Sexual Violence in A Streetcar Named Desire
Stanley Kowalski’s relationships with the women around him, including his wife Stella, are based on masculine attitudes accompanied by violence. The violence, which Stanley perpetuates on the women, varies in intensity. It involves the subtle violence expressed in the sexual relationship he has with his wife, to the outright physical violence exhibited through his physical shoving of women (for instance Blanche) when they act in a manner that he objects.
Stanley represents the sexist theme in the film that portrays the man as physically stronger (and thus superior) to the woman. Both Stella and Blanche are at the receiving end of physical aggression perpetuated by Stanley who feels superior to the women around him.
The gender-based violence in the films is also emotional. Stanley demeans and degrades his wife on various occasions through speaking words specifically aimed at belittling her stature as a wife and woman. He calls her a hen when he feels her guest-hosting abilities are a little low: “Hey you two hens cut out that cackling’ in there!”(A Streetcar named Desire) in an effort to harm her self-esteem as a woman.
He believes that, Blanche is a prostitute because she owns expensive clothing and jewels, which he believes a teacher’s pay would not enable her to afford. Stanley’s condescending attitudes towards his wife and her sister stems from his belief that, as the man and head of the house, he is intellectually, physically, and economically better off than they are.
Rape in A Streetcar Named Desire
The condescending attitude that drives Stanley’s aggression especially towards women makes him view them as an inferior sex. As such, he expects to have his way with women at all costs. In his masculine and sexist world, women are supposed to acquiesce to the demands of the men that make them. Stanley constantly hints to Blanche that he is sexually attracted to her.
Although Blanche also fraternizes, she is acutely aware that, it would be the ultimate show disrespect towards her sister if she gave in to her bodily desires. Blanche thus exercises restraint. However, Stanley does not portray such a level of caution in seeking to fulfill his sexual desires. He pursues Blanche, and finally confronts her with the truth of the sex scandal that forced her out of her teaching job.
In a way, Stanley uses the incident of Blanche’s relationship with her student to justify his sexual aggression towards her. Stanley then rapes Blanche, showing his ultimate contempt, disrespect, and condescension not only towards Blanche whom he rapes, but towards Stella his wife too.
The Effect of Sexual Violence Scenes and Rape Scenes in Films on Perceptions of Such Acts in the Minds of Viewers
As stated earlier, the themes expressed in films have an almost direct influence on the lives of the viewers. According to the survey I did, 70% of 38 people agree with the statement that, “A Streetcar Named Desire” promotes a lax sexual attitude amongst its viewers, and condones sexism and sexual violence against women. The large majority of the viewers surveyed thus concur with the stated link between the connection of film and society.
They feel that the themes expressed in the film “A Streetcar Named Desire”, to a certain extent, promote sexism, and condone sexual violence within society. Worth noting is the fact that, a majority of the viewers surveyed (80%) stated that they do have film actors as role models and whose beliefs and actions (even on film) sometimes influence them.
The survey, thus, effectively establishes the link between film and society. As a theoretical analysis in this paper will show, exposure to films that promote certain themes inclines viewers towards adopting the behaviors and beliefs expressed in the film.
Several elements come into focus insofar as the portrayal of sexual violence in films as is the case in A Streetcar Named Desire. The power (“star power”) and influence of the lead characters and the roles of the play have an impact on the perceptions the audience. Famous film stars who play certain roles have a much bigger influence on their viewing fan base.
Second, scenes from movies, especially, sexual violence scenes shape individual perceptions and values. Thirdly, the depiction of sexual violence and rape perpetuates such trends in the American society.
The Role and Influence of Film Stars
Films stars, in and of themselves, have a massive fan base, and dedicated followers. Film stars who play heroic roles such as superman, reviled yet admirable roles such as Dracula, and powerful roles such as presidents tend to have their influence go beyond the scope of the given films. The film stars in such roles acquire a status as powerful as their roles in the film, and soon become the role models of a substantial number of impressionable teens and youths.
Such a trend means that, directors of films sometimes select films stars for specified film roles due to their already established ability to increase audience numbers once the film is produced. In the film, A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski plays one of the lead character roles, and Vivien Leigh plays the other leading character role as Blanche Dubois.
Both actors, even as far back as1951 when the film was produced, were crowd pullers in their own right. Vivien Leigh, particularly, after having played the timeless lead role in the epic film, Gone with the Wind, had a solid fan base of male and female admirers.
The influence of film stars stems from their ability to project the prevalent contemporary values and norms. According to Fischoff et al, audiences admire characters for projecting values such as strength, power, or intelligence (402). It follows that most film stars are usually admired for having played roles that portray characteristics such as these.
Similarly, the attributes, which are projected in most cultures, are the same ones transferred to films and espoused by film stars. The fact that the most eminent film stars of the past century played roles in the film, A Streetcar Named Desire, which depicted sexual violence, is thus bound to have an impact on the American society.
The mere fact that, the film stars, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, had roles in this film makes the ability of the film to project its negative values of sexual permissiveness, sexual violence, and rape to go higher.
Sexual Violence Scenes and their Effect on Shaping Individual Perceptions and Values
The kinds of values that an individual is constantly exposed to are likely to be the values that the individual will perpetuate. The ability of film to influence the society through the values expressed in the film has been discussed in the introduction.
The values that are expressed in many films produced in Hollywood thus do not only reflect American values, but also influence American values. To the extent, the popularity of films and their ability to express and export American popular culture to the world makes films a vital tool in the shaping of perceptions and values of Americans.
Therefore, the values that are expressed in Hollywood films are likely the values that will be adopted by the general American audiences. Films have been a monumental part of the American popular culture, and the values expressed therein are a vital indicator of the values and perceptions of a large number of American citizens. The symbiotic relationship alluded to earlier between art (films) and society aptly describes the imprint of values that Hollywood films have on American society.
Bufkin and Escholz analyzed fifty of the most popular movies in the United States in the year 1996. With special focus on sexual violence and rape scenes in these films, Bufkin and Escholz were able to discern that sexual violence and rape scenes were common in these films (1318). The fact that, most of the fifty most popular films within a specified year in the American film industry contained sexual violence scenes indicate that, such values (negative values of sexual violence) were easily imparted into the minds of the Americans.
The continuous exposure to films containing such scenes inoculates the viewer from perceiving such scenes with the revulsion they deserve, and slowly the viewers begin to see such scenes as an expression of common acts within American homes. Noteworthy is the fact that the film A Streetcar Named Desire is ranked as one of the 100 best films of all time in American film making history.
The values that the film perpetuates are similar to the negative values that are present in the study by Bufkin and Escholz – sexual violence. The correlation between the values expressed in popular films, and their acceptance within the wider American society, thus, indicates that, such films have a powerful influence in shaping the values of the Americans.
Scenes Depicting Sexual Violence and their Effect of Extending Such Violence onto Society
The role of art in the form of film in influencing and inspiring society is understood. Many films are the repository of influence and inspiration in many homes. Ultimately, the scenes, as opposed to the characters, in this instance act as the source of influence. According to Apanovitch et al, sexual violence scenes from movies shape individual perceptions and values (147).
Whenever viewers sit down to watch a film, they submit all their senses and perceptions towards the film. When an audience watches a comedy film, the laughter elicited brings out happy feelings in the members of the audience. Conversely, when an audience watches an emotive or sad film, similar feelings of sadness engulf members of the audience well beyond the duration of the film.
When members of the public watch a film, which depicts sexual violence, they are thus likely to have their perceptions on the same influenced. In the film, A Streetcar Named Desire, largely, the violent and sexually suggestive nature that Stanley Kowalski engages with Blanche Dubois is tolerated, and viewed as typical of masculine men. Both Stanley and Blanche engage in flirtatious exchanges of glances that express the sexual desire of both characters towards each other.
In the end when Stanley rapes Dubois, the viewer is almost left feeling helpless on whom to get angry at between Stanley and Dubois. Indeed, although Dubois is the unfortunate victim of rape, her previous flirtation with a man whom she knew exceedingly well to be violent both physically and emotionally was less than an act of sobriety.
To a certain degree, the viewer sympathizes with her and then scolds her naivety; an oscillation of feelings elicited by her rape at the hands of Stanley. Such feelings amongst viewers, coupled with the inability of some viewers to distinguish fiction from fact, leads to an increase in sexual violence cases in the society. Apanovitch et al, in their study of the influence of sexual violence scenes in the movie on society, concluded that such scenes have a tendency to extrapolate themselves onto society.
The study examined the influence of sexual violence and gang rape scenes on male and female members of society, and found that, the sexes react differently (Apanovitch et al.148). While women viewed such scenes with fear, trepidation, and even revulsion, the sympathies of the men were only temporary, with a majority slowly developing an acceptance of such sexual violence acts.
Exposure to Sexual Violence Scenes and rape: Children, Teens, and Youth as Vulnerable Groups
Despite the best efforts of concerned federal film censorship boards, X-rated films are still within the grasp and viewership of children and teens in American homes. Although standard movie theatres do not allow children and teens to view X-rated movies, these young minds are still exposed to such movies at home.
When an elder person in the home rents such movies, once they are finished viewing the children and teens in the house can easily access the movie. These X-rated movies, such as A Streetcar Named Desire can have a particularly negative influence on the lives of unguided children and teens. Many impressionable youths also fall in this category despite being of a more advanced age.
Children and teens are constantly learning about sexual matters from the mass media. Television and film also come in handy for eager and curious teens desirous of learning more about their sexual nature. Because films are a popular form of entertainment, they are particularly significant as a source of values and perceptions concerning sexual issues. According to Brown, movies are one of the most significant initiators of sexual desire (45).
The tendency of viewers to learn not only the values and perceptions of characters and film scenes, but also to imitate these values and actions therein makes films a powerful learning tool. Jowett, Jarvie, and Fuller also aver that films have an impact on the educational trends of children (27). Continuous exposure – whether legally or not – to X-rated films has the effect of shaping the perceptions of these young minds for an unusually long tome to come.
Various elements come into play on the matter of teens and youth, and their tendency to imitate the actions of characters in the film. Firstly, to these young minds most of the film stars are their heroes and role models. The young thus easily imitate the behavior of their role models and many times aspire to the standards they set in the films.
The film A Streetcar Named Desire has one of the most famous and best-loved film stars in Marlon Brando, who plays the character of Stanley Kowalski. The fact that, Marlon Brando, in this film, denigrates women and is sexually violent towards them, easily leads his dedicated teen fan base towards imitating his actions and acquiring his perceptions towards women.
A Streetcar Named Desire glorifies the archetypical ‘macho’ and masculine male and his sexist attitudes in the character of Stanley Kowalski. The teens viewing such a film, out of admiration and desire to imitate their role model, can easily acquire such habits and attitudes to dangerous consequences for the contemporary and future American societies.
Secondly, the simple fact that children, teens, and youth are young, inclines them towards blindly imitating values and activities that they view in films. Their minds are tabula rasa that will easily take up the values and perceptions that they come across, and being none the wiser, lead them towards imitating the actions of a sexual nature that they view in films.
Because a film, such as A Streetcar Named Desire, glorifies male physical and emotional abuse of women, its impact on viewing teens can be particularly disastrous. The teens may believe and perceive such behavior as not only normal, but also favorable. Thirdly, because many children and teens watch these movies without adult supervision, they are not able to have the benefit of an adult’s advice concerning the sexual issues exposed in the film.
They thus proceed from the viewing of sofas and seats, with perceptions of the sexual matters, in the films that are heavily biased, and based on the fictional and unrealistic actions of film actors that have no place in the real human society. Such perceptions and imitations of the actions of film actors and sexual scenes in films have a negative influence on the sexual activities of adolescents and youth.
Adolescent Sexual behavior in Relation To Exposure to X-rated Movies
As the age group that is most curious about sexuality and sexual matters, X-rated films provide a vital source of quenching this curiosity for adolescents. As stated in the foregoing paragraphs, adolescents are particularly susceptible to imitation of the action and activities seen in films. They thus easily copy the sexual values, acts, and beliefs espoused in X-rated films such as A Streetcar Named Desire.
Adolescents’ relative inability to distinguish fiction from reality is especially worrisome when it comes to imitation of sexual acts viewed in films. According to Wingood et al, there is a direct relationship between adolescent viewing of X-rated films and subsequent risky sexual engagements by these adolescents. Teens and youth who are continuously and constantly exposed to X-rated movies are more likely to engage in unsafe sex, sexual acts with multiple partners, and are conventionally unconcerned about matters such as virginity and sexual chastity (1116).
Having established a direct relationship between adolescent exposure to X-rated movies and imitation of the sexual acts in such films, which result in risky sexual behaviors, the concerned authorities; parents, censorship boards, and even teachers should attempt to minimize and eliminate exposure to such films.
Censorship of X-Rated Films as a Possible Solution
It is indeed a contradiction in terms to speak of the censorship of X-rated films. By their sheer nature and identification, “X-rated” films have been inherently censored so that viewer discretion is advised. Persons under the age of 18 are not supposed to watch such films.
However, the truth is that American popular culture has idolized the Hollywood film industry to the extent where these film ratings are applied in the minimum of instances, both in theatres and American homes (Brown 17).
However, to insist on circumspection from adults who in viewing such films expose not only themselves, but also the young minds around them to negative sexual values, is not to insist too much. Therefore, censorship, as viewed in this section, is censorship of not only the X-rated films within our homes, but blocking (censoring) the young minds around the home from exposure to such films.
At a higher level, the federal and state censorship boards should have a mechanism of regulating the number of X-rated films that are approved for public viewing. This is because as discussed earlier, whether the viewing public is a mature audience or not, the proliferation of X-rated films that depict sexual acts of violence and rape has the effect of extending the same on American society.
The sticking issue is not so much the maturity of the audience viewing the films sometimes, but the fact that the continuous exposure to such films vicariously extends the negative sexual depictions to the minds and ultimate actions of the members of American society.
Ultimately, the making of films is a veritable ideology-spreading act. Films are made to spread a certain message, and convey given ideas on the minds of the viewers (Powers, Rothman, and Rothman 38). This is especially true of Hollywood films, which industry is a gigantic ideology that shapes the cultural perceptions of Americans (Maltby 28).
Sadly, many movies spread ideologies that are not necessarily beneficial to the American public. As discussed in this paper, most Hollywood films over-glorify sexual violence and a macho male attitude that denigrates women (Eschholz and Bufkin 656). Such negative values, when adopted by the larger society, can have disastrous consequences.
These include the prevalence of sexual violence in society, the tendency to engage in risky sexual behavior as expressed in these films, and the general denigration of women in society.
Therefore, X-rated Hollywood films, which depict sexual violence in which women are shown in passive roles, in relation to men, have a direct impact of making such negative values permissible in society. Adolescents and youth are especially susceptible to believing and actualizing the negative sexual values and attitudes expressed in these films.
Censorship, caution, and circumspection, while viewing such films, will thus go a long way in ensuring that, the American public does no permit such tendencies and acts among its members, because their effects on society, as discussed in this paper, can be disastrous and irreversible.
Apanovitch, Anne, Hobfall, Stevan, and Salovey, Peter. “The effects of social influence On perceptual and affective reactions to scenes of sexual violence.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32.4 (2002): 146-156.
Brown, Jane. Sex and Hollywood: Should There Be a Government Role? Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 1996.
Bufkin, Jana, and Eschholz, Sarah. “Images of sex and rape: A content analysis of popular film”. Violence against Women 6.12 (2000):1317-1344.
Eschholz, Sarah, and Bufkin, Jana. “Crime in the movies: Investigating the efficacy of measures of both sex and gender for predicting victimization and offending in film.” Sociological Forum 16.4 (2001): 655-676.
Fischoff, Stuart, Dimopoulos, Alexandra., Nguyen, Francois, and Gordon, Rachel. “Favorite movie monsters and psychological appeal.” Imagination, cognition, and personality 22.6 (2002): 401-426.
Jowett, Garth, Jarvie, Ian, and Fuller, Kathryn. Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Kazan, Elia, dir. A Streetcar Named Desire. Warner Bros, 1951. Film. Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995.
Powers, Stephen, Rothman, David, and Rothman, Stanley. Hollywood’s America: Social and political themes in motion pictures. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.
Wingood, Gina, DiClemente, Ralph, Harrington, Kathy, Davies, Suzy, Hook, Edward, and Oh, Kim. “Exposure to X-Rated Movies and Adolescents’ Sexual and Contraceptive-Related Attitudes and Behaviors.” Pediatrics 107.6 (2001): 1116.
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