Episode 4: Gender in A Streetcar Named Desire: A Quick Overview

Episode 4: Gender in A Streetcar Named Desire: A Quick Overview


Mr. Cyrus Chan
English Language Specialist
B.A. in English, CUHK

Cyrus obtained his B.A. in English from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he honed in on academic writing skills, literary analysis and creative use of the English language. His lessons are filled with creative practices and techniques to help students combat public exams with confidence, and are also well-balanced with lecture and interactive activities. His areas of expertise are in Common Entrance Exams, Creative Writing, Core English skills, IGCSE English 1st Language, IBDP, TOEFL and IELTS.


What if I told you that something, all-pervasive and almost imperceptible, has rooted itself in society and is slowly tearing the world apart? No, I’m not alluding to a conspiracy theory or doomsday situation. What I’m referring to is a theme that persists throughout the play we’re reviewing today—binaries. 

A Streetcar Named Desire, written by the American playwright Tennessee Williams, was initially produced and performed in 1947. Those were turbulent times. World War II had just ended not long ago and America was determined to recover from the catastrophe. Despite having regained the long-lost peace that many yearned for, the American society was enveloped in, as Williams himself put it, “developing tension and anger and violence”. Indeed, America in the 1940s was shrouded in divisiveness which manifested itself in various aspects of life, including race and gender. Noting this, Williams created A Streetcar Named Desire, a play filled with binaries that were all too familiar to the American crowd at that time. Its success was subsequently elevated with the production of a movie adaptation, making it one of the most well-known plays of all time.

The plot of the play was rather straightforward—Blanche, a girl who claims to have just lost her plantation, travels to New Orleans in hopes of seeking help from her sister, Stella. While Stella herself is more than delighted to meet her sister, Stella’s husband, Stanley, suspects that Blanche is merely deceiving the two in order to wring them dry of money. During her stay there, Blanche finds herself falling in love with a man named Mitch. However, the seemingly bright future before Blanche eventually dims as Stanley proves himself to be correct in his doubts. An ambiguous scene of Stanley sexually assaulting Blanche ensues, which leaves Blanche in a state akin to insanity.

One can tell from just a brief summary of the play that gender is a binary one cannot afford to ignore. Upon our first reading, it may appear that the differences between men and women are absolute and irreconcilable. The notion that women are frail is planted in the reader’s head from the very beginning of the play, where our female protagonist, Blanche, is described as “a moth”, a creature known for their delicate figure and propensity to hurt themselves due to their attraction towards flames. It would not be unfair then to imagine that women are individuals in need of protection and are easy to manipulate. The subtle hint at self-destruction here also seems to dash any hopes of long-term solidarity, which proves to be true at the end of the play where Stella betrays Blanche despite both of them sharing the same gender identity. On the opposite side of the scale are men, as represented by the “strongly, compactly built” Stanley who possesses what Blanche refers to as “animal force”. The contrast here is stark—while women are portrayed to be weak and fragile, men are painted as individuals teeming with brutish, raw strength, much like an untamed beast. As a result, readers are naturally led into believe that men, being protective and ostentatious, are always the dominant party in a heterosexual relationship, or in the world in general, as women tend to be more submissive due to their frailty.

Now, such an interpretation seems fine and dandy, or does it really?

Let’s not forget how Blanche interrogates Stella by bombarding her with a series of questions like “[w]hy didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you write to me, honey”. The way that Blanche feels the need to know everything that her sister does how’s her over-protectiveness, which should be regarded as a trait belonging to men if we were to strictly follow the methods of categorisation previously established. Indeed, the addition of a title of endearment at the end of successive questions does ameliorate the issue by insinuating that Blanche has done so in the name of love, but one question we may ask ourselves is if love equates to control. And what about when Stanley tries to beg for Stella’s forgiveness while only being “half dressed”? The fact that Stanley is so terrified by the thought of losing Stella that getting properly dressed would be a waste of time to him is reflective of an emotional mind, a womanly quality according to the stereotypes illustrated.

So what is a man and what is a woman in Tennessee Williams’ head? If you would like to know the answer to this question, I’d highly recommend going through the play again specifically with deciphering binaries in mind. Thanks for listening!

Content creation: Mr. Cyrus Chan

Audio Narration: Arthur

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