Feminism Messes with Blanche DuBois

On Double X, Slate's relentlessly smart site for women's issues, Margaret Wheeler Johnson alleges that feminism has screwed with Blanche DuBois. 

Forget about the irony of the alleged perpetrator for a second, and think of the victim.

Is there a greater crime possible against a character in American theater?

The greatest of all American tragedies — the rape of beauty by force — has been sullied, if such an allegation is true, and if such a double negative is possible.

Wheeler complains:

Stanley’s attack is the second rape attempted on Blanche in a single
evening, following the unwanted advance of her recently disillusioned
suitor, Mitch. [Tennessee] Williams’s stage directions specify that she “sinks to
her knees,” allowing Stanley to carry her “inert figure” to the bed.
Her reaction inevitably raises the question of why she doesn’t fight
back. Has she just come to believe that she deserves it, or does she
actually deserve it?

placeAd2(commercialNode,'midarticleflex',false,'')

The BAM production elides this feminist’s dilemma by calling into
question whether this is rape at all. In [Liv] Ullmann’s version, both
Blanche and Stanley are drunk off their rockers by the time Stanley
pushes Blanche onto the bed, giving the scene, at worst, the ambiguity
of date rape. “It is clear this is something [Blanche] may want,”
Ullmann said at a recent Q&A at BAM. The director’s main goal seems
to be to rescue Blanche from total passivity. Of course, this creates
the problem that if she wasn’t raped, she later lied to her sister and
said she was. But in Ullmann’s version, at least Blanche remains in
control.

Fundamentally, and interestingly in this context, the complaint about feminism as a movement seems to be that it doesn't know when to stop.

It's true that men far too often use force in sex, for instance, but then feminist Andrea Dworkin famously complained about the nature of sex itself, arguing that (according to Wikipedia):

"Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women."

In 2009, has feminism — or a dramatic attempt at an expression of such — gone too far again?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the good news, everyone fortunate enough to have seen the production agrees, is Cate Blanchett.

In the words of the great John Lahr, in a recent New Yorker:

Blanche is the Everest of modern American drama, a peak of
psychological complexity and emotional range, which many stars have
attempted and few have conquered. Of the performances I’ve seen in
recent years, Jessica Lange’s lacked theatrical amperage, Natasha
Richardson’s was too buff, and Rachel Weisz’s, in this year’s
overpraised Donmar Warehouse production in London, was too callow. The
challenge for the actress taking on Blanche lies in fathoming her
spiritual exhaustion, her paradoxical combination of backbone and
collapse. Blanche has worn herself out, bearing her burden of guilt and
grief, and facing down the world with a masquerade of Southern gaiety
and grace. She is looking—as Williams himself was when he wrote the
play—for “a cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in.”

Blanchett, with her alert mind, her informed heart, and her lithe, patrician silhouette, gets it right from the first beat.

Blanchettasblanche

8 thoughts on “Feminism Messes with Blanche DuBois

  1. I saw Cate Blanchett’s performance of Blanche DuBois up here in New York and it pales in comparison to what Rachel Weisz did up in England ( Which i also saw while visiting family in the UK). Its not a matter of feminism, its a matter of being true to the heart of the piece and i think Blanchett overplayed the role to the point of being more theatrical than letting people understand the character. Weisz not only let you understand the character but made you understand that the rape in the ending of the play was the final straw that pushers the character over the edge, which was slowly building over time. The reason she did not fight back was because she was slowly losing what was left of her dignity and sanity. She had her life striped from her and was trying to keep the world at bay from what she was feeling inside. Weisz not only displayed that perfectly but you were devastated by the outcome of her character, even if you knew it was coming. Blanchett came across as someone trying to put on a play and overacting in areas that a little more sense of subdue intelligence should have been applied. You did not get a woman who was slowly come apart from the seems, you got a woman who was so over the top that you did not understand or sympathise with her. It was too much of a showy and stagy performance while Weisz’s interpretation made you not only understand Blanche but grieve for her as well because she made her a human being.

    John Lahr is entitled to his opinion (We all are) but you can see his bias towards the Weisz production by saying it was overpraise while trying to hype up the Blanchett production of this play.

    Thanks for letting me ramble and have a good holiday.

    Like

  2. And example of what I mean:
    […]
    Richard Holloway: And there are priests there, and he asked them to kiss him. I mean, that broke my heart. Begged them…and one wouldn’t because he was worried, but one did, one came over and I suppose must have felt the wrench of pity that I think is the one thing that keeps us from absolute monstrousness. It’s an astonishing story. It was made much by Michel Foucault and his big book on punishment because he was showing what humans have been capable of doing. There’s a WH Auden poem that talks about the concupiscence of desire. There is something about power and cruelty that gives us a kind of a sexual thrill as well. And I think quite a lot of that was going on there. And of course crowds bought tickets to see it, as they would if we brought back public executions today. […]

    Note: someone actually took the time to study the work of Foucault and Auden, because, well, that’s what we’re all taught to do whenever white men speak or write about something. We just assume it must contain Truth, right?

    For the context and the whole discussion, see here:
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2009/2770454.htm

    And watch how even when white men “get it” there will always be someone to steer them away from doing so–to prefer to be more concerned about men’s feelings than women’s freedom from being sexual used and abused by men. And whose interests are served there, do you suppose? Rapists or Feminists?

    Like

  3. An example of what is stated above:
    […]
    Richard Holloway: And there are priests there, and he asked them to kiss him. I mean, that broke my heart. Begged them…and one wouldn’t because he was worried, but one did, one came over and I suppose must have felt the wrench of pity that I think is the one thing that keeps us from absolute monstrousness. It’s an astonishing story. It was made much by Michel Foucault and his big book on punishment because he was showing what humans have been capable of doing. There’s a WH Auden poem that talks about the concupiscence of desire. There is something about power and cruelty that gives us a kind of a sexual thrill as well. And I think quite a lot of that was going on there. And of course crowds bought tickets to see it, as they would if we brought back public executions today. […]

    I’ll cite the source in a moment. But first, we can note how there is an assumption that when white men write things and become known for doing so, we assume that there must be some kernel of Truth to it, right? I mean people STUDY Foucault and Auden’s writings, don’t they? They take time to understand the nuances and possible meanings. They are reflective, not defensive as they do this. They want to learn, to grow, to understand more about humanity, not less.

    And yet, when it comes to someone like Andrea Dworkin, whose book Intercourse is brilliant, all kinds of people will be quick to dismiss a whole career of writings, because of one misunderstood quote. How tragic for humanity is that?

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2009/2770454.htm

    There’s the context, in the full interview, where, above the passage I’ve noted just above, we can watch as a white heterosexual man actually “gets it” but then is immediately steered away from staying with what he gets, because, well, we wouldn’t want white men to suffer now would we? I mean him getting it might mean what? Days of contemplation, introspection, understanding what one has selfishly done in one’s life and why? We can’t have that! So he is steered away, because, really, the feelings of white men are always more important than anything that happens to women systematically that is oppressively harmful, and causes human suffering–in women.

    Like

  4. Well, the quote from Dworkin I used came from a book review in The New York Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/03/books/male-and-female-men-and-women.html

    Is it taken out of context? Well, obviously some may think so, but I know plenty of women (including my daughters) who consider themselves feminists, or third-wave feminists, and have read Dworkin, and consider her beyond the pale. As your cite shows, she does argue against biological determinism, but insists that all too often sexual intercourse is given a political interpretation. I would say she too is guilty of this over-determinism as well. For instance (from the NYTimes review):

    ”Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally: occupied even if there has been no resistance, no force; even if the occupied person said yes please, yes hurry, yes more,” she asserts.

    Like

  5. Intercourse occurs in a context of a power relation that is pervasive and incontrovertible. The context in which the act takes place, whatever the meaning of the act in and of itself, is one in which men have social, economic, political, and physical power over women. Some men do not have all those kinds of power over all women; but all men have some kinds of power over all women; and most men have controlling power over what they call their women–the women they fuck. The power is predetermined by gender, by being male.

    Intercourse as an act often expresses the power men have over women. Without being what the society recognizes as rape, it is what the society– when pushed to admit it–recognizes as dominance.

    Intercourse often expresses hostility or anger as well as dominance.

    Intercourse is frequently performed compulsively; and intercourse frequently requires as a precondition for male performance the objectification of the female partner. She has to look a certain way, be a certain type–even conform to preordained behaviors and scripts–for the man to want to have intercourse and also for the man to be able to have intercourse. The woman cannot exist before or during the act as a fully realized, existentially alive individual. — Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse, Chapter 7.

    These are philosophical statements, right? Not sociological ones. They are ideas meant to be contemplated, not measured against your own sexual history as signs of “accuracy”.

    How can one wee bit of anything not be taken out of context, particularly in a book as complex as Intercourse? How sexist, really, to assume that one book, with so much scholarship, so many points made, so much analysis and great writing, gets reduced to one reductive remark. Really. Seriously. Don’t you get how sexist that is? Even if you don’t agree with the remark? (Especially then.) If I pulled one bit of Freud, would you consider that someone you don’t need to consider at all? How about Marx, or Darwin? Or your favorite writers?

    I mean the swiftness with which people are capable of dispensing with the need to read what an important writer has said, because she’s female and speaks deep truths about female experience in a socially male supremacist context… well, it’s as stunning as it is discouraging.

    Most men I know, have learned a lot from the book, from her, about being more humane when with women, about letting go of those sharp edges of masculinist socialisation that tend to cut women most deeply. But men, of course, are not made to read what radical feminist women say.

    But we all must read Shakespeare and know white men’s history of warring, right–from the white man’s point of view, of course. Because it’s not “The Vietnam War” to Vietnamese people. It’s “The American War”. Because U.S. Americans came and committed atrocity after atrocity. So it was never their war on us, it was always ours on them.

    It is assumed, of course, that Shakespeare or [you pick the white male writer who we are all forced to read when young if schooled in the West] speaks to “the human condition”? But what about Vietnamese women did Shakespeare know. What of any Indigenous woman’s life and struggles. He speaks to a cultural experience in its time, some themes of which extend beyond that time. So it is with most great writers, but only white men’s writings are taken as especially and essentially truth-bountiful, yes?

    I mean, you could read the book, then determine its value, yes? Or, even, read her many books? Or at least a dozen speeches and essays, which are available online?

    Do you really use daughters to filter out what you take in? Might you, possibly, see something in Dworkin’s work that they do not? And that doesn’t make them “not feminist” but it would make you unusually profeminist to actually reach beyond your daughters’ perspectives to find out what a radical feminist writer is saying, unfiltered, unshaped by what you’ve heard already that allows you to write her off as extreme, or whatever.

    One point, Kit, is that intercourse is never not political. You may wish for it to be. You may wish, as many do, for global warming to not be political either, but when power is involved–human agency and will to effect change, that means politics lives there. So in what circumstances does intercourse not involve at least one person’s will, agency, and action? You write “it’s given a political interpretation”. You realise how many global warming deniers use precisely that term, yes? Because it really is intellectually and emotionally easier to pretend that horrific things “just happen”.

    What if she, not you, knows what is and is not political about sex, because, for one thing, she has experienced it in a variety of contexts that you have not? While being battered, when poor on the streets, when raped, and when not raped so she knows the difference? Might such a person have more insight that those of us who go through life able to actually believe intercourse is, somehow, not political? Have you read “Sexual Politics” by Kate Millett? I’ll guess no. Because if you had–and the book is now forty years old–you’d know that all social exchange is political. You’d know that from reading Foucault, actually. You don’t even need women’s writings to know that.

    You will always find good reason to reject looking deeper into what someone has to say with whom you assume you disagree. And, being a white guy with some degree of class privilege, it is unlikely anyone can hold you to account to make you reading anything you don’t want to. (If only American Indian children had the option only to learn their own languages, eh? And not be forced into boarding schools to become good Christians, white-like, if possible. If only all my heterosexual female friends had the option to not have what men learn from pornographers applied to the sex those men wish to have with those women. If only.)

    Kit, what I’m watching here is a form of intellectual and emotional laziness that is bound up with race and gender privileges. You get to not investigate this and many other topics. And we all will gravitate to those subjects which most interest us, in part because they don’t challenge us to look at ourselves more closely than we are comfortable doing, or at our fathers, brothers, and sons, and all those male friends who are doing exactly what with women? Do you ask, not out of prurient interest, but to find out if guys are making sure they only approach really drunk women so their “chances of scoring” are higher? Do you want your daughters hanging out with the most sexist men you have known who you never called out as such?

    If you had a son, would you tell him never to have sex with a woman if she’s drunk? Do you know how to attend compassionately to those who have been raped multiple times?

    You know, yes, that Indigenous North American women are far more likely to experience rape than any other group of women in this region? And that most of their rapists are white men, right? And that climate issues will disproportionately impact and destroy Indigenous people?

    And so you might understand that when you write things like “The greatest of all American tragedies — the rape of beauty by force — has been sullied, if such an allegation is true, and if such a double negative is possible” that you are speaking with extraordinary privilege to not know very much about what tragedy is. Because for you, of course, it is beauty harmed. But for me and the woman I know, it is human beings being harmed, in atrocious ways, while men are more concerned about having access to women, to being able to see women exploited and exposed, to being horrified when “beauty” is injured, because men appreciate beauty, right? Beauty belongs to men because men see it and men define it, and with many industries, men control it too. I’d argue “the rape of beauty by force” is nothing at all compared to an actual child or woman being raped by force, regardless of whether or not the one year old girl, five year old boy, or eighteen year old woman is “beautiful”.

    And Indigenous women likely prefer not being raped at all by any men, including the men that stole her homeland. I’d argue, and you are free to disagree, that there are more important things than beauty (as men define it) being raped. If you want a glimpse into the world you and I don’t live and will never live, not for one day, read this. But be prepared to know more than will make you comfortable. And don’t worry: it’s not written by Andrea Dworkin.

    http://radicalprofeminist.blogspot.com/2008/10/lakota-woman-on-not-being-white-or-male.html

    And after you read it, I’ll ask you this: is the most horrible thing in the world “The greatest of all American tragedies — the rape of beauty by force”?

    Like

  6. "Beauty belongs to men because men see it and men define it, and with
    many industries, men control it too. I'd argue "the rape of beauty by
    force" is nothing at all compared to an actual child or woman being
    raped by force, regardless of whether or not the one year old girl,
    five year old boy, or eighteen year o ld woman is "beautiful"."

    I don't think "beauty belongs to men" to men because every woman I know values beauty and the beauty of the world. It's not either/or.

    But I must say, that's the longest simple post anyone has ever put up on this site, myself included. Impressive.

    Like

  7. What is feminism actually mean? I never understand the main concept of it. Both men and women that I know, are values beauty. So beauty belongs to men and women. If just men values beauty, then, why the women always want to look beauty? So, it is clear for me that both of them are values it very well. Regards, Alex

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: