A Streetcar Named Desire & The Colour Purple: Attitudes and Struggles of Female Sexuality

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The theme of sexuality contributes to important ideas of oppression, expression, and violence throughout the texts by utilizing the female characters Celie and Blanche to represent attitudes and struggles surrounding female sexuality of the time. ‘The Colour Purple’ is a 1982 epistolary novel written by Alice Walker and follows Celie’s passage to womanhood, spanning over a time period of 40 years, whereas ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is a 1947 play which follows the family dynamics between Blanche, Stanley, and Stella. Both texts are constructed conventionally, arguably following the structure of Freytag’s pyramid with a dramatic opening, a series of rising actions full of conflict and struggle, leading to a dramatic climax that is followed by falling actions and a final denouement. In terms of Celie’s journey, this translates to the novel opening with abuse before advancing into her transit of empowerment and ownership. This contrasts the structure of Blanche’s journey, which begins with her aggressive sexual expression which builds throughout before regressing under the assertion of male violence and ultimately closing with Blanche’s rape. Contextually, this difference can translate to a distinction in times of writing and publication as well as other factors such as the Southern Womanhood and the legacy of slavery.

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Both texts include descriptions of rape and abuse, however, the placement of these scenes within the storylines differs, with ‘The Colour Purple’ opening with abuse and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ ending with Blanche’s rape. This relates directly to the theme of male violence within both texts and how the dominance of the male characters asserts itself over female sexuality, leading to the oppression of sexual identity and expression. In ‘The Colour Purple’ Celie is objected raped at the age of 14 by her father and is used sexually by Mr., who also abuses her physically during the full course of their marriage. The threat of violence is a consistent restraint on Celie’s sexuality as the enjoyment of sex and sexual pleasure is something she has never experienced, with her only sexual partners additionally being her abusers until meeting Shug. The use of shocking, childlike language introduces abuse at the beginning of the novel: ‘He never had a kind word to say about me. Just say you gotta do what your mammy wouldn’t. ’ This reveals the youth of Celie to the reader, creating a juxtaposition between the realism of reality and Celie’s innocence. The phrase, ‘You gotta do what your mammy wouldn’t’ suggests the attitude that women are interchangeable and dehumanizes Celie and her mother as sex objects. Pa’s attitude is similar to Stanley’s in A Streetcar Named Desire, as built up frustration of not being able to have sex with his wife Stella is a factor contributing to him raping Blanche. Contextually, we can relate this to the legacy of slavery, as we saw a generation of black men raised on violence and oppression, and ultimately becoming the abusers themselves and treating their wives like slaves. Walker herself revealed that her grandmother was raped by her white slave owner and that she alludes to this directly within the color purple. Contrastingly, in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ Stanley’s toxic masculinity appears in constant battle with Blanche’s aggressive sexuality. Blanche often flirts with men and wears provocative clothing, which contrasts the hyper-masculine presentation of Stanley, similarly expressed through stage directions: ‘roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes’. Budding tension between the two, as well as masculinity versus femininity, is shown immediately through the language of the two. Blanche is euphemistic, often drawing out her sentences and exaggerating for dramatic effect, using allusions and symbolism to express intense emotional reactions ‘the long parade to the graveyard!’. This reflects Blanche’s tendency to be hysterical and is the first indication of her insanity and intense pain surrounding the deaths she has endured. The phrase ‘long parade’ creates vivid imagery which contrasts the implications usually associated with death and funerals. Contrastingly, Stanley’s direct language reflects his instant disinterest in Blanche and animalistic brute nature, as monosyllabic phases ‘Catch!’ present a sense that Stanley expects to be listened to and obeyed. This contrast works towards building dramatic tension throughout the play. The narrative voice of Celie is used to reflect a similar struggle against male dominance, as the first spoken word heard from her is the phrase ‘beat her.’ This reflects the all-encompassing nature of male violence, presenting the idea that the use of violence against women has become Celie’s norm and immediate reaction, linking back to the legacy of slavery, which suggests widespread violence and abuse within black communities is a symptom of the oppressive conditions of slavery. This reflects a clear overarching difference between the presentation of the two characters, as Celie is presented as submissive and succumbing to male violence and hypermasculinity, which contrasts with Blanche’s blatant sexual expression and desperate struggle against the animalistic nature of Stanley.

Despite Blanche’s sexual ownership, as Stanley rapes Blanche in the climax of the play, resulting in her mental breakdown, the bleak reality for women at the time is finally represented. For example, post the second world war, women were demobilized from men’s work to prepare for the return of servicemen. This contrasts with the rising empowerment of Celie as she embarks on a close, intimate relationship with Shug and finally stands up to Mr. This contrast could be explained by the times in which the texts were written. ‘The Colour Purple’ was written in the 1980s, which marked the end of second-wave feminism moving into the third wave, which reflects a much more positive time for women’s activism compared to 1947; the year ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was written. 1947 was post World War 2 and the effects of the depression may be apparent through William’s writing. For example, Blanche losing her family estate to Belle Reve suggests economic difficulties. The 1980s also marked the growth of womanism- a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of black women- which promoted intersectionality.

Overall, the placement of sexual abuse within the wider climate of the texts is important in defining the two characters’ sexual journeys. Walker presents a journey of empowerment and progression, whereas Williams illustrates a sense of inescapable brutality and maltreatment by ending the novel with Blanche being an outcast from society, whilst Stanley remains a proud family man, leaving the play with an underlying sense of injustice. This contrasts with the ending of ‘The Colour Purple’ as Celie feels the ‘youngest us ever felt’ leaving an impression of hopefulness.

The expression of female sexuality is explored within both texts both through the characters and attitudes towards them. Williams presents the expression of sexuality as a problem, which is ultimately Blanche’s greatest downfall. This contrasts with Walker’s presentation of sexuality as a necessity, which ultimately empowers Celie and enables her to break free of her oppressive marriage. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ the theme of sexual expression is explored through Blanche’s persona of the ‘southern belle’ and sexual promiscuity, as well as her contrastingly chaste demeanor. The most prominent example of Blanche’s sexuality is the revelation of her promiscuous past. After the suicide of her husband, Blanche finds it challenging forming lasting sexual and romantic relationships and expresses that ‘intimacies with strangers was all I could seem to fill my empty heart with’. This contrasts previous attitudes expressed by Blanche, as she declares ‘desire is just a bad, inferior animalistic feeling’. This reflects the stigma attached to the expression of female sexuality as well as Blanche’s personal shame and embarrassment in regards to her promiscuous past. This idea is also presented when Mitch no longer wants to marry Blanche after finding out about her numerous sexual affairs with strangers, suggesting he too views it as shameful and no longer deems her worthy of marriage based purely on the knowledge of her past sexual encounters. Blanche is of an inherently sexual disposition, yet she still attempts to display herself as innocent. This is demonstrated throughout the play, as Blanche is often depicted as wearing white clothing and bathing regularly; a sense that she is cleansing herself from impurity is created. Contextually, this links back to the idea of southern womanhood. During the early 1900s, there was a certain expectation of southern women, which was often distinguished within the literature as the stock character of the southern ‘belle’. This was a representation of a young, attractive woman of the deep south’s upper socioeconomic class. The idea of the ‘belle’ encapsulates the ideal womanhood experienced by a southern woman.

Whereas in ‘The Colour Purple’ sexuality is explored through Celie’s instant attraction to Shug. Celie is presented as an outwardly sexually submissive and almost asexual in her behavior towards Mr. Yet, Celie privately holds an intense sexual attraction to Shug. This mirrors Blanche to an extent, who outwardly portrays herself as virginal, ‘daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice’ yet harbors a secret sexual past. However, Blanche’s promiscuity in regards to her clothing and flirtatious behavior is what sets the two apart, reflecting a clear difference in their comfort when expressing themselves sexually. Celie’s ultimate sexual awakening comes after bathing Shug, as she describes her ‘long black body’ and thinks she has ‘turned into a man’. Celie’s attraction to Shug is instant, which contrasts her relationship with men. Throughout the novel, metaphors are used ‘make myself wood’ to portray Celie’s lack of attraction towards men and how she is ‘scared of them’. The word ‘wood’ Celie has an evident attraction to women which she battles with throughout the novel. On one hand, Celie represses her feelings for Shug, yet the other part of her feels they are natural compared to her feelings towards men. Societal attitudes in the early 1900s towards homosexuality were still backward, which explains Walker’s presentation of Celie’s struggle. However, at the time of writing, Walker would have seen vast developments within society following numerous campaigns and protests, such as the Stonewall riots, which would have made it significantly easier to display Celie and Shug’s intimate relationship so overtly within her writing.

In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ sexual expression is purely heterosexual in regards to the female characters. However, homosexuality is referenced within the play as Blanche catches her husband in bed with another man. This has a drastic effect on Blanche’s sexuality, and she is further traumatized as her husband kills himself following the incident. Arguably, this is the cause of Blanche’s downfall, as she ‘she didn’t just love but worshipped’ her husband, and therefore, being disregarded by him so cruelly has led to her inability to form lasting sexual and romantic bonds. Additionally to this, she appears to never have moved on from his suicide as ‘She avoids adult sexual relationships but actively seeks affairs with adolescents’. Blanche begins an affair with a student, which leads to her losing her position as a teacher. Additionally, to this Blanche cannot accept that she is no longer the young southern belle of her past. As the play progresses, she clings more desperately to her past identity, refusing to stand in direct light which contrasts the portrayal of Blanche’s love for her husband, as she describes it as a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow’. Blanche does everything in her power to avoid facing reality, and her avoidance of light is just another way to hide her age and cling to her sexuality, and is therefore in turn a symptom of her grief. All in all, this suggests Blanche’s sexuality is rooted in her past and has had little development since her youth, as it appears the suicide of her husband has tapered her sexual growth. Blanche is Williams himself, was a practicing homosexual at a time where it was still illegal, which could explain this inclusion of a homosexual character and the negative situation surrounding him which may mirror William’s own experiences living in this time.

Additionally, to this expression of female sexuality is presented through Stella and Stanley’s relationship. The two have an intense relationship rooted in their sexual bond. Stella expresses that ‘there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark- that sort of make everything else seem unimportant’ which confirms the sense of desire Stella feels towards Stanley. Stella’s traditional, domestic sexual attraction to her husband is a more accepted form of sexual expression compared to Blanche’s numerous affairs and promiscuity. Despite Stella and Blanche’s clear sexual expression, Stanley’s brutal sexuality dominates and overwhelms the female sexuality in the play. Stanley’s final act of sexual dominance comes after revealing Blanche’s past and raping her. As described by Nicola Onyett, who says ‘ In cruelly unveiling the truth about her scandalous past, Stanley strips her psychological, sexual, and cultural identity’. The sexual relationship between Stella and Stanley contrasts with the relationship Celie experiences with Mr. Celie and Mr._’s sexual relationship is based purely on Mr._’s perception of pleasure which contrasts with Stella’s enjoyment of sex with Stanley.  

29 April 2022

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