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Gender Roles in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Great Gatsby

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Critics have interpreted that ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams and ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald present traditional gender roles through the characters of the texts and the way they behave towards each other. Both texts portray women as being oppressed, having no freedom to voice what they want and are subjected to the men in their families. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ by Fitzgerald, the traditional gender roles are presented through the characters of Daisy and Tom by the way in which their relationship demonstrates exactly how women were treated in the 1920s and how men were the stereotypical dominant males who had all of the power. The 1920s was a time for change for the women; where they began working rather than remaining as housewives. However, when women wanted to use the power they were receiving, men felt like they would have to take control and they needed to oppress women to regain power. The writers of both texts show when women were able to use their power, they were still forbidden to do so by the men in their lives. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Williams, Blanche is the main focus for the feminist society as she is subjected to many activities in which she has no say, including getting raped by Stanley.

Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams portray the male protagonists Tom and Stanley as perfidious and dominant, illustrating how superficial their relationships are. In ‘The Great Gatsby’, Tom has an affair with Myrtle which emphasises how superficial his marriage to Daisy is and how it is an assertion of dominance over all the other men who wanted to marry her whilst also reducing her to an object. However, the relationship that he has with Myrtle also lacks love because he only uses her for his sexual desires, enforcing stereotypical masculinity as it suggests that Tom may be incapable of loving anyone. Fitzgerald portrays male dominance during the dinner party at the Buchanans where Daisy talks about her bruised finger and accuses Tom for hurting her- “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it.” Fitzgerald may have done this to symbolise their marriage; to show how Tom has hurt her emotionally as well as physically and Daisy wants him to realise what he has done. Some readers may suggest that Tom is aware of the effects his actions have on her, but he does not seem to care. The bruised finger could be a symbol of their marriage, Tom hurts her unintentionally and Daisy cannot seem to stop talking about it because she would like something to be done about it. Fitzgerald does this to show how because women were beginning to gain power in the 1920s, there was a strong collision as this change was a shock to the era. Fitzgerald shows this collision when Daisy is aware of what is happening, but she refuses to voice it as she does not want to ruin the image of their seemingly ‘perfect’ life. This implies that despite the slight fluctuation in the power women held, they were still unable to voice their concerns regarding their partners as they did not have much of a social standing without them. Furthermore, Daisy then states that this is what she gets for marrying “a brute of a man”, once again blaming herself for Tom’s mistakes and showing how men dominated women to the point where they were unable to say anything even if they needed to. She then tries to do something about it by continuing to speak when Tom interrupts her, reflecting the idea of how men were in control. Fitzgerald conveys the idea that Tom is manipulative. This is evident in Chapter 1 when Tom receives a phone call from Myrtle and Jordan mentions that “everyone” is aware of Tom’s affair, yet she still stays with him arguably to keep the social status she has. This also mirrors the idea of how men were the reason that women got their status and women were told what to do by their partners. Contextually, men in the 1920s embraced the role of the breadwinner and spent more time away from their home as they gained more respectable careers and as a result, they were able to buy the reputation of their families; still considered the head of the house. Similarly, in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Williams portrays Stanley as the embodiment of patriarchal values reinforcing the strong division between the two genders during this era. Williams presents Stanley as an oppressive individual who rapes his wife’s sister, Blanche, because he feels intimidated by her. In scene 10, Stanley gets infuriated with Blanche because she compares Shep to Stanley, exclaiming that he is a cultivated gentleman as opposed to the “swine” he is. Due to this, he exposes his violent nature; which reinforces the idea of men being in control and having the power. Williams does this to convey how men reacted to women being able to start taking control of their own lives and because they felt like they no longer had the power they believed they deserved, they expressed themselves in a violent manner and take forceful action against them. Stanley then goes on to grab Blanche’s wrist and exclaims “Tiger–Tiger!” referring to Blanche in an animalistic way which shows how little he thinks of her, he sees her as less than human. By doing so, it perhaps makes him believe that he is almost better than her and she cannot intimidate him because she is an animal. This is ironic because the adjective “brute” illustrated an animalistic quality to his behaviour that has been hinted at throughout the play by Williams- for example in Scene Two his actions are described as “stalk[ing]”, “hurl[ing]” and “jerk[ing]” when he raids Blanche’s suitcase. Through this characterisation of Stanley, Williams could be evoking sympathy for Blanche by stripping away Stanley’s humanity and highlighting the physical inferiority of women against men. It implies that despite the primal instincts’ men have, they are still seen as superior due to their advanced physical prowess. It was impossible for Blanche to intimidate Stanley because as a “delicate” woman she could not defend herself against “strongly, compact[…] build.” Stanley then says, “Drop the bottle top! Drop it! We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” commanding her and further suggesting how he refers to his actions as part of their fate and how he doesn’t seem to care. He uses the imperative ‘drop’ to patronise and make her feel powerless which links into the idea of gender division and how men used their power as a sort of luxury for themselves but also used it to make women believe that men had more power. Through this dialogue, Williams suggests a shift in blame. The noun “we’ implies that it was a mutual decision to do what happens and not an assertion of power on Stanley’s part. Much like Fitzgerald with Tom, Williams is highlighting the manipulative nature of Stanley with subtle changes in speech to include her in the construction of the event. Both Stanley and Tom are shown as brawny further reinforcing gender stereotypes; men being dominant over women as a result of their superior strength.

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Critics have long debated the way both writers, Fitzgerald and Williams, present women in their texts as passive and weak. Lee Edwards, a literary critic, argues “Daisy is defined by her relationship with Tom and is overruled by male dominance.” Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the 1920s where gender division created conflict, and the women refused to voice their feelings. The women were treated as weak and submissive by the men in their relationships as they were seen as needing support and dependent. Daisy is an embodiment of the women during the era and by portraying her as fitting the stereotypical image of a woman Fitzgerald highlights the oppression of women during this era. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ Williams presents Daisy as a dependent woman through her marriage with Tom. She does this by showing her submissiveness to Tom as she chooses to stay with him even after his affair. When the reader is first introduced to Daisy, she tells Nick about the time she gave birth to her daughter and woke up alone. “She told me it was a girl, […] I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” explaining that she is aware of how women are treated which is why she cries when she finds out that it is a girl. Her pessimism reflects her way of thinking about how society will treat her daughter, yet she is unable to change that and still does not want to leave Tom. She stated that Tom was “god knows where” which shows that even while giving birth he did not stay by her side and reinforces their marriage as superficial. It shows that she is unhappy with her marriage, but she refuses to do anything about it conveying that she is possibly only with him for social status and because he is wealthy. To ensure Daisy is living up to the stereotypical role of women the 1920s, Fitzgerald portrays Daisy as being unable to make decisions for herself. She cannot seem to decide on who she wants to be with as she claims to Gatsby, “I did love him once,” and then states “but I loved you too” which shows that as a woman she is unable to make decisions for herself suggesting how she needs someone there to guide her and in this instance, she is still not able to choose who she wants to be with. Ultimately, Fitzgerald does this to show that she is living up to the expectations of being a “beautiful little fool” like all the other women in her social class as that is all they are capable of. She is used to her life being a certain way with Tom which is perhaps the reason she goes back to him, suggesting that without him she is not capable of anything and she relies on him to make decisions for her. Similarly, Williams in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ portrays Stella and Blanche as being dominated by the males in their lives yet how they deal with this in two very different ways. Robert Filliman claims “Stella and Blanche are binary opposites” showing how their thoughts differ as whilst Blanche tries to gain power, Stella is dependent on Stanley and fits the traditional gender stereotype. Williams presents Blanche as a character who challenges the traditional gender roles although, as soon as readers see a sense of power from her, she is raped by Stanley which shows an immediate shift of power. Contextually, this reflects the conflict that women gaining power in the 1940s caused and how society perceived women as not being able to be independent or have the freedom to voice out what they wanted. It also implies how negatively, specifically men, reacted to the shift in power. To modern audiences, this may create a deeper sense of respect for women who struggled for their rights – especially in an era where they were thought to be hysterical for showing too much emotion or for going against the norms of society. Through Scene 10 Williams may be creating sympathy for Blanche due to getting raped by Stanley but also, he may be highlighting how powerful she is. Women were supposedly seen as weak, but Williams shows Blanche as an exception to that stereotype by portraying her as an independent woman, possibly fighting for her rights and gaining power. This would have been a threat to Stanley- especially the influence Blanche had over Stella prior to her moving away from Bellereve and the way she challenges Stanley’s authority in his own home. Contrastingly, Stella is presented as a submissive woman; fitting the traditional stereotype through her marriage with Stanley. By marrying Stanley, her responsibilities were to maintain a positive relationship with him and to keep him happy by doing what he wants her to do. She seems to have no freedom to express her feelings or opinions which shows how Stanley dominates her and she depends on him to make choices for her. Arguably, Stella is a naturally submissive character shown through the way she has had no control over her life. In her past in Belle Reve, she used to be commanded around by Blanche which suggests her past life is a reflection of her life now. By leaving her family home, it would have been expected that her life had changed, and she was an independent woman by making choices for herself; including the choice to marry who she wanted. However, the way Stanley treats her mirrors her past and how she was dependent on Blanche and now Stanley. This could perhaps imply that she is almost comfortable being dominated over as that is how it has always been for her. To contradict Filliman’s argument, Stella went against the norms of society as she ran away from home and married someone of a lower class which gave her a sense of freedom by making a choice for herself; portraying her as a powerful character. 

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