Gender Roles And Active Discrimination In A Doll’s House By Henrik Ibsen And A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams
The role of males and females have long been subject to criticism and has transformed significantly over the past few decades. However, the gender roles and active discrimination in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, are evident aspects of the plays, shaping the audience’s perception of women in the 19th and 20th century. A Doll’s House was written in 1879 and explores the inferiority of women in society through the portrayal of the protagonist, Nora Helmer’s restricted possibilities. A Streetcar Named Desire, written in 1947, contains a more pronounced version of the sexualisation of women as the protagonist, Blanche DuBois, actively looks for male company to gain a sense of security, or what she terms as “protection” from hefty, strong men like Stanley Kowalski. Although both plays are grounded in the theme of male dominance and its repercussions, the different structures distinguish them and the way this message is received by the audience. The ending of A Doll’s House is bold as Nora slams the door on her husband Torvald, marking her exit from her family but also her escape from the traditional views of marriage and the sexist culture. However, A Streetcar Named Desire has a more tragic ending with Blanche being shipped off to a mental institution after losing her sanity from Stanley raping her. Thus, the appalling ending in A Streetcar Named Desire does not truly showcase the power for a woman to change societal rules, but rather uses disturbing scenes to convey how the differentiation according to sex places women at a disadvantage to men. Nevertheless, the use of stylistic features such as dramatic techniques, juxtaposition, stage directions and dialogue by both playwrights bolsters the culture of sexism prevalent in the 19th and 20th century and effectively communicates the struggle and suffering of the female protagonists to conform to the ideals of the patriarchal society.
Williams used characterization in the relationships in A Streetcar Named Desire to establish that women succumbed to the men’s sexual desires in the 20th century. Williams portrays the antagonist, Stanley Kowalski, as a dominating and animalistic creature towards Blanche, a soft spoken and sensitive woman. The sexual tension between the two characters is built from Scene 1 of the play when Stanley takes off his shirt in front of Blanchel, till the end of the play where Stanley rapes her. Furthermore, stage directions such as the train approaching with a loud sound as Stanley enters the scene is the equivalent of Stanley’s brute force and might. Stella, who appears to the antithesis of her sister Blanche, is a typical submissive woman as per the norms of patriarchy that gets victimised early on in the play by her husband, Stanley. Stanley, the alpha male, is identified as a controlling character that treats his wife as an object for pleasure. Thus, the culture of the play’s setting–New Orleans, exposes itself to criticism for its patriarchal conventions as Stella and Stanley are portrayed in a negative light where the women take a submissive role. After an episode of physical abuse in Scene 3 by Stanley towards the pregnant Stella, Stanley goes through a short period of repentance but is quickly resolved after he “presses his face to her belly” and when Stella’s “eyes go blind with tenderness”. Stanley is forgiven without any apology or discussion of the events as Stella finds it difficult to leave him, regardless of his inhuman behaviour. Although Stella suffers from gender violence, she remains in her dysfunctional relationship with Stanley, postulating the disadvantage she is put at compared to Stanley.
Similarly, this theme of male dominance for sexual desires is also present in A Doll’s House where Nora is simply a ‘doll’ that Torvald controls to his liking. When Nora learns the Tarantella from Torvald, it is obvious that she is just pretending to relearn the dance, proving her submissiveness to Torvald. After teaching the dance, Torvald proclaims that his “blood was pounding until (he) couldn’t stand it”, positing sexual connotations and that he is more interested in Nora physically than emotionally. His remark to Nora when she pushes him away – “Aren’t I your husband”– implies that Nora’s duty as a wife is to pleasure Torvald at his command. Hence, Torvald’s authoritative figure places Nora at a disadvantage, resulting in discrimination as Nora is not allowed to freely express her thoughts without facing sexist remarks from her husband.
Furthermore, Ibsen and Williams exemplify female discrimination by positing the female characters in their plays to make sacrifices for their husbands without recognition or true affection in return, resulting in an unfair disadvantage for females. Ibsen’s portrayal of men like Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House suggests to the reader that men take on a domineering and authoritative role and women have a largely passive role in marriage. Nora is willing to take a risky loan from Krogstad to protect Torvald’s honour and preserve his sanity. Yet, in Act III Torvald states that “no man can be expected to sacrifice their honour, even for the person they love, while millions of women have.” The rise in dramatic tension shocks the reader as Torvald explicitly states the conditions forming this unjust society, conveying how women were often at a disadvantage in a traditional Norwegian marriage in the 19th century. In the subplot of the play, it is revealed that Mrs Linde left Krogstad to marry a businessman to support her mother. Most females were very dependent on their husbands for financial support and Ibsen chooses to show the sacrifice that only the lady must make to survive. Thus, it can be seen that in the 19th century Norwegian society, only women were expected to make sacrifices, exposing the unjust society that encouraged discrimination towards women. William’s also suggested the sacrificial role of marriage in A Streetcar Named Desire when Stella sacrifices her life in the Old South for the New South, choosing Stanley over Blanche even though her lifestyle in the Old South would be more comfortable and less “common”. Stella could have also helped Blanche preserve Belle Reve yet Stella fell into Stanley’s desires and stayed on with him whilst forgoing her opportunity to be with her family in Belle Reve, living a more comfortable life.
Moreover, the playwrights often portrayed the male characters as one with power over and ownership of their wives. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella dramatically remarks that she “nearly goes wild” when Stanley is away and she feels incapable of raising her own baby or living without him. This exemplifies her financial and emotional dependency on him whilst he depends on her solely for sexual gratification. Stella’s lack of self-sufficiency would shock the 21st century audience as women today have access to more opportunities and are treated with more equality. This conveys that women were at a disadvantage compared to men as they relied on their husbands for everything even though the men often abused them, to establish a sense of power. In Stanley’s verbal attack to the sisters, he openly questions their place in society by rhetorically asking “What do you two think you are”, and instantly reminds them that “ I (Stanley) am the king around here, so don’t forget it”. Apart from this shocking the audience, it also serves as a reminder that in the 20th century, men would act as if they are predominantly superior to women. This results in characters like Stella subordinating herself to Stanley’s behaviours which exposes her vulnerability and dependence on Stanley which she never escapes from.
Likewise, In A Doll’s House Nora is subjugated to the wills and desires of Torvald, demonstrating the power Torvald has over Nora. The mailbox in the play is a symbol of Torvald’s power as he is the only one with key, which means he’s the only one who can “reveal” the truth. Moreover, Torvald refers to Nora with nicknames that are associated with small animals such as squirrel and a songbird. However, this name-calling quickly diminishes to Nora being a “little” animal creature, exemplifying the difference in the power dimension of the two. Torvald reassures his power by repeatedly calling her names that imply her irresponsible and frivolous behavior and reminding himself that he has to take care of her. Hence, these seemingly endearing names that Torvald belittles Nora with can also be posed as a mockery towards her, resulting in the discrimination towards Nora just because she is his wife.
Regardless of the several references to gender discrimination in both plays, it is true that the situation of ill-treatment towards women was even more pronounced in the 19th and 20th century as it was not widely understood that such treatment was unfair. It took the entire of the play for Nora to realise she deserved better but in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella continues to rely on and believe in Stanley as he has the male authority, unlike Blanche whom Stella leaves. Thus, even though women were discriminated it was also because they were unaware and women were often too afraid to overtly question status quo.
Although Ibsen and Williams wrote their plays in different times and place, the female characters in both plays share similar fates through evoking the theme of gender discrimination and subthemes of male dominance and the sexualisation of women. Both plays are similar as they evoke intense pathos as the audience feels sympathy for Blanche being taken advantage of, and Nora leaving her family to escape Torvald’s unfair authoritative behaviour. Although Nora moves on and breaks the cage of male dominance in A Doll’s House, other characters in A Streetcar Named Desire like Eunice abides by the double standards set by males by saying “Life has to go on”. Thus, Williams characterises women to always fight an everlasting battle against patriarchal norms to survive in society. Through Torvald and Stanley’s domineering attitudes and misogynistic behaviours, it can be seen that male egos were preserved as a priority, resulting in acute gender discrimination. In contrast, the playwrights used different structural techniques as only Nora emerges victorious as Blanche continues to fight against the restrictions imposed by the traditional 20th century system. Nevertheless, both playwrights have used their respective plays to portray the social constructs of society where women were treated unjustly, thus delivering meaning to the plays, through dramatic techniques, setting, dialogue, juxtaposition and stage directions. I believe Williams and Ibsen may have used their plays to warn the audience of the future of oppression from men towards women and its repercussions in society. However, even over time, it can be argued that women still go through injustice and males are still viewed as the superior gender in many cultures and societies today.