Gender Conflicts in the Dramas of Tennessee Williams

Bachelor Thesis, 2003

40 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theories on Gender

3 Theories on Conflict

4 Gender Conflicts

5 The Cultural Background of the Plays – The United States South
5.1 Historical Background of the United States South
5.2 Southern Culture and Identity
5.3 Gender Roles in the South

6 Southern Culture in the Dramas of Tennessee Williams
6.1 Southern Culture and Identity as a Source of Gender Conflicts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
6.2 Southern Culture and Identity as a Source of Gender Conflicts in A Streetcar Named Desire

7 Sexuality in the Dramas of Tennessee Williams
7.1 Sexuality as a Source of Gender Conflicts in A Streetcar Named Desire
7.1.1 Blanche
7.1.2 Stella and Stanley
7.2 Sexuality as a Source of Gender Conflicts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
7.2.1 Big Daddy
7.2.2 Mae and Gooper
7.2.3 Brick and Maggie

8 Homosexuality in the Dramas of Tennessee Williams
8.1 Gender Conflicts Related to Homosexuality in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
8.1.1 Brick’s and Skipper’s Relationship a Source of Conflict for Maggie and Brick
8.1.2 Brick’s and Skipper’s Relationship as Source of Conflict for Big Daddy and Brick
8.2 Gender Conflicts related to Homosexuality in A Streetcar Named Desire

9 Conclusion

10 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Tennessee Williams has often been called the American national poet of the perverse and a dirty writer because a recurrent theme in his work is sexual deviation, such as nymphomania, promiscuity, rape, impotence, homosexuality, profligacy, frigidity, cannibalism, and castration (Bauer-Briski 11).

This statement clearly suggests the controversy with which Tennessee Williams’ dramas were perceived by the public and the critics. It is well known that conflicts on these issues can be found in many of his plays. This raises the question as to what extent these conflicts are related to specific gender roles and their subordinate themes. Williams once said that he has never written about anything he has not experienced first hand, thus most of the conflict issues can be considered to be autobiographical to a certain extent. As Williams’ childhood was restricted to a rather reclusive life due to diphtheria, which forced him to spend almost his entire childhood at home with his family, the experiences with his mother, father and sister shaped not only his character, but also the themes in his plays. His upbringing was characterised by Puritanism which was of vital importance in his family. His mother later became the model for his antiquated Southern Belles and overprotective mothers in the plays. His boisterous father was perceived as a frightening and alien male presence by him, his sister and his mother. He later became the model for the same type of harsh, brutal characters in his plays, such as Big Daddy and Stanley Kowalski (Falk 155 f). Yet, not only his Puritan upbringing shaped his life, but also the fact that he grew up in the South of the United States, in the Mississippi Delta, and the region’s heat, its storms, floods, the division into social classes, the colourful imagery and rhythms of the language were to shape his setting and dialogue (Tischler 2).The uniqueness of the South along with its cultural and social characteristics is embodied in many of his plays, and the social roles appointed to the people living there offers an extensive basis of analysis for not only gender roles, but also the related conflicts. In addition to this, Williams was known as being homosexual and leading a very promiscuous life, especially with men much younger than him (Bauer-Briski 11). Homosexuality also plays a very important role in some of his plays, but, as it will be analysed later, even though it is the source of highly important conflicts in the play, it is only mentioned in a very subtle and careful manner.

The two plays A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were chosen as the basis of the analysis of gender conflicts in Williams’ dramas, because they both represent not only very fruitful sources for gender conflicts, but also contrasting and unanimous elements on the issues. The Glass Menagerie was deliberately left out in this analysis even though it represents a good basis of analysis in terms of gender conflicts related to Southern culture, but it was found not suitable in terms of sexuality and especially homosexuality, as it entirely lacks elements of the latter, and homosexuality is regarded as a very important and interesting factor in the analysis of gender and its related conflicts.

In order to understand the gender roles and conflicts in the plays an analysis of Southern culture was regarded as being necessary, which was also of great concern to Williams as he states in the foreword to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

I once saw a group of little girls on a Mississippi sidewalk, all dolled up in their mothers’ and sisters’ castoff finery, old raggedy ball gowns and plumed hats and high-heeled slippers, enacting a meeting of ladies in a parlor with a perfect mimicry of polite Southern gush and simper. But one child was not satisfied with the attention paid her enraptured performance by the others, they were too involved in their own performances to suit her, so she stretched out her skinny arms and threw back her skinny neck and shrieked to the deaf heavens and her equally oblivious playmates, “ Look at me, loot at me, look at me!” And then her mother’s high-heeled slippers threw her off balance and she fell to the sidewalk in a great howling tangle of soiled white satin and torn pink net, and still nobody looked at her. I wonder if she is not, now, a Southern writer (6).

2 Theories on Gender

In linguistic terms, gender concerns substantives and is a vital component in the grammar of many languages. In this context it is a category by which words and grammatical forms are classified according to not only sex or the absence of sex (neutral gender) but also other characteristics, such as morphological characteristics in what is called “grammatical gender.”

In English, however, there is almost no such thing as a gender in the grammatical sense, meaning that no gender is applied to non human beings, objects and things. Many nouns still seem to have a gender, though, but this development is rather accidental than intentional (Miller 63).

In the German language, the English words sex and gender translate as the same word, Geschlecht. As a result, in German, there exists no distinction between the meanings of these expressions, as there is only one translation. In English, however, this distinction has been the basis of various discussions, mainly socio-philosophical ones, and its analysis raises subsequent questions which shall be analysed as well. Commonly, the term gender is used to refer to the difference between men and women. Usually, this is meant in a sexual context, actually referring to the biological sex of a person. In everyday communication, the terms sex and gender are often used simultaneously.

One of many theories concerned with this topic is the so-called biological determinism, in its earliest stages present in Aristotle’s philosophies, justifying social inequalities on the basis of physical, mental and moral inferiority of women. This determinism is based on the assumption that the differences between men and women, in terms of character traits, behaviour, social relationships, and social and economic status, are a results of their biological constitution (Swanson 45 ff). The consequence of this theory shall be brought up again later in the gender discussion.

It shall be supposed that the general difference between gender and sex is that sex is considered to be the biological constitution of the body, a human being comes equipped with, whereas gender is culturally constituted. In addition to that, gender is not a property of bodies or something originally existent in human beings. It is rather the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviours and social relations (de Lauretis 3). Therefore, it cannot be concluded that gender is to any extent linked to sex , is the causal result of it, nor that its condition and definition is as fixed as that of sex. Assuming that gender is the cultural meaning which the sexed body takes on, it becomes obvious that a gender cannot be said to derive from a sex in any way (Butler 9). Therefore it is suggested that there is a strict distinction between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders, representing a quite apparent discontinuity. This non-existent link between the biological sex and the cultural gender means that the gender construction of men does not necessarily refer to male bodies and that women does not only apply to female ones (Butler 10).

It is often assumed that gender is the representation, the mirror image, of sex and is therefore not only binary, but also linked to or to a certain extent restricted by it. This assumption actually represents a contradiction, but since the existence of two sexes in terms of morphology and constitution does not directly imply that there are also only two types of genders, it shall be assumed that there are more than two genders. It shall be added that even though there are naturally only two biological sexes, the existence of several variations to this fact cannot be denied, as there is medical evidence to this.

It can therefore be deducted that the culturally constructed gender is independent of sex.

It is important to note that gender is not only the cultural inscription of meaning on a given sex, but that it is also the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. Therefore, the relationship between sex and nature is the same as the relationship between gender and culture (Butler 11).

As already mentioned above, gender is constructed, but does that mean that the differences of the genders are created and limited by certain laws?

The assumption that gender is constructed implies that the body simply receives the gender in a passive way, and that this is controlled by an inexorable law. If then gender was determined and fixed, then culture, and not biology, would be the origin of identity.

Another suggestion is that a person rather becomes a certain type of gender than being one. This alteration always happens under the cultural compulsion to become that certain gender, and this compulsion does not come from sex (Butler 12).

There are two ways to place the body in the gender construction. The body is either “a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed, or an instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning for itself.” The fact that the body is simply a mere medium or instrument which only relates to certain cultural meanings in an external way, is true for either case. However, the body itself can be considered to be a construction, as are the countless bodies which make up the entire domain of gendered subjects, because they do not have any signifiable existence before they are marked by a certain gender.

From the perspective of social scientists, gender is the factor of an analysis, but can also refer “to embodied persons as a mark of biological, linguistic, and/or cultural difference” (Butler 12). Therefore gender can be considered to be the signification that a body, which has previously been sexually differentiated, assumes, and that the sex is the biological identity. Biological determinists would probably deny the existence of gender, as a cultural construction, because biological destiny is final and cannot be altered. Theories of biological determinism also imply that a change in the roles and hierarchy, which nature has designed for each individual, is “impossible, or at least, if possible, it is dangerous, immoral, regressive or antievolutionary” (Swanson 45).

However, even in the above mentioned case, the signification does only come into existence when it is in relation to another, opposing signification. Especially the feminist point of view supports the fact that gender is a relation, although here it is often considered to be a set of relations rather than just one. From the humanist feminist point of view, gender is an “attribute of a person who is characterised essentially as a pregendered substance or ‘core’, called the person, denoting a universal capacity for reason, moral deliberation, or language” (Butler 14). Yet, historical and anthropological positions, which understand gender as a relation among socially constituted subjects in specific contexts, displace the universal conception of the person as a point of departure for a social theory of gender. This assumption suggests that the constructed relations which determine what the person is, and especially what gender is, are always in a relative relation. Therefore it cannot be said that gender is a substantive being, but rather a relative point of convergence among sets of relations which are historically and culturally specific (Butler 15).

De Lauretis agrees on the point that gender can only signify a relation. She claims that gender is in fact a representation, but not only in the sense that every word and sign refers to its referent, which can be an object, a thing, or an animate being. Gender is the representation of a certain relation, in fact, that of belonging to a certain class, group or category. Therefore gender constructs a relation between one entity and several other entities, which are previously constituted as a class. Thus, this relation is one of belonging. Assuming that one of these entities is an individual, it can be said that gender assigns to this individual a position within a class and also one between them and other preconstituted classes. Hence, gender does not represent an individual, but instead, a relation, which is a social relation (de Lauretis 3ff). The term gender can therefore be used to denote any kind role that exists between individuals, or between an individuals, a class of individuals and society in general .

In feminist social studies there is a conceptual structure called the sex-gender system, which is a sociocultural construct and a semiotic apparatus. It is a representation system which assigns meaning, such as identity, value, prestige, location in kinship, status in the social hierarchy, etc., to individuals within society. As already mentioned, gender represents relations which are positions in classes. If then gender representations are social positions which carry different meanings, “then for someone to be represented and to represent oneself as male or female implies the assumption of the whole of those meaning effects” (de Lauretis 5). Therefore, “the construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation and self-representation” (de Lauretis 5).

If gender then is a type of cultural role which depends on the contextual relations surrounding it, what can be meant by identity, or even gender identity ?

Sociologically it is suggested that the notion of the person is an “agency that claims ontological priority to the various roles and functions through which it assumes socials visibility and meaning” (Butler 22). In terms of philosophical discourse, the notion of the person has been thoroughly discussed, and it is being assumed that “whatever social context the person is “in” remains somehow externally related to the definitional structure of personhood, be that consciousness, the capacity of language, or moral deliberation” (Butler 22). Concerning the constitution of personal identity, philosophical sources usually deal with the question as of what internal feature of the person establishes this self-identity or continuity of the person through time. Butler, however, is mainly concerned with the question as to what extent “regulatory practises of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person” (Butler 23). Is identity a descriptive feature of experience or a normative ideal? Is identity governed by these regulatory practises to the same extent as gender is? Butler notes that the coherence and the continuity of the person are rather socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility than logical or analytic features of personhood (Butler 23). Since identity is assured through sex , gender and sexuality, the notion of the person is called into question by gendered beings who “appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined” (Butler 23). This implies that the identity of beings failing to conform to these norms is questionable, because they are incoherent and discontinuous. Those genders which display and maintain coherent and continuous relations among sex , gender , sexual practice and desire are said to be intelligible genders. Since the claims of discontinuity and incoherence always depend on their relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, they are constantly prohibited and produced by the same laws that seek to establish connections between biological sex , culturally constructed genders, and the way they are manifested in sexual desires which are expressed through sexual practice (Butler 23). A question arising from this is to what extent there is a truth of sex. This is the result of the fact that regulatory practises generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms. The assumption that heterosexuality is the truth of sex requires that there is a discrete and asymmetrical opposition between feminine and masculine, and that these are understood as expressive attributes of male and female. Butler here mentions the term compulsory heterosexuality which “challenges the assumption that heterosexuality is the most innate or inherently satisfying sexual orientation” (Smedman 87). It suggests that sexual identity, practices and desire are constructed in order to fulfill patriarchal social and political agendas. Some theories claim that heterosexuality is merely a political institution which is supposed to keep women dependent on patriarchal power and thus keep them from forming close bonds. Therefore both gender and sexuality, as it can be regarded as a form of expression of gender, are both culturally constructed. In the context of patriarchal societies certain identities cannot exist because the cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires this. This includes identities in which gender does not directly “follow from sex and those in which the practises of desire do not ‘follow’ from either sex or gender” (Butler 24). In this case to follow/be linked to means to conform to the cultural laws that establish and regulate the shape and meaning of sexuality. Therefore, those identities which fail to follow from gender, for example, are considered to be developmental failures or logical impossibilities (Butler 24).

Therefore, sexual practices can be regarded as types of gender which are actually not supposed to exists, but since they clearly do so, they are regarded as developmental failures and logical impossibilities in society.

3 Theories on Conflict

One definition of conflict is that is denotes “a state of tension due to perceived incompatibility of actions or goals”.[1] There are two types of conflict, intra-personal and inter-personal ones. The first one describes “a tension arising between goals within a person”, and the latter is “a tension between people over perceived incompatibility of goals”.[2] In literary terms, conflict is the “opposition in a work of drama or fiction between characters or forces (especially an opposition that motivates the development of the plot”.[3] It is already implied that it involves a perceived incompatibility of goals, thus depending on the context, relations and perception.

Individual perception, as well as thought, feelings and interactions are influenced by social and political structures, cultural beliefs and values. Therefore conflicts can only be analysed as long as the context, or these circumstances are considered. Especially in patriarchal societies, gender and power play an important role in the contexts in which status relations or values are negotiated. Any kind of conflict is therefore evoked or influenced by gender and power, as they are socially situated and culturally maintained. In patriarchal societies, such as ours, the influence of gender on conflict is often not being noticed in superficial examinations, as traditionally, greater value is placed on the opinion, thoughts and agendas of more highly valued participants, which typically tend to be male. Thus gender plays a very important role and shapes the issues of conflicts, as well as every management process. However, this male dominance in the context of conflicts cannot be considered to derive from sexual differences, since it is a cultural phenomenon, as well as gender, culturally constructed and based on patriarchal beliefs (Taylor/ Miller, 1-4).

In many cases, conflict studies and gender studies focus on the same internal debates, as the study of conflicts often analyses conflicts which are based on gender. As an example, the already discussed difference of gender and sex is also common to both studies. It is said that it cannot be assumed that only “two parties are involved” (Taylor 221). Taylor therefore raises the questions as to what extent androgyny and homosexuality fit into this gender scheme. Especially in terms of patriarchy, this contradiction becomes obvious, because it is not clear how patriarchy applies to sexual harassment between homosexuals. Therefore, assuming that the number of parties involved in (gender) conflicts is binary, cannot be considered to be a sufficient basis for analysis. However, there is the need for distinction between the parties involved, but they cannot be “dichotomously categorized”(Taylor 222). Taylor notes that the term gender conflict is a misnomer, since it implies that generally “most/all men against most/all women”(Taylor 222). He suggests that the term value conflicts offers a better approach because it focuses not only on the meaning and importance of gender, but also on its application to traits, attitudes and roles in society and because the arising conflicts are traditionally on moral subjects such as equality, privilege, difference and commonality. Taylor regards these subjects as issues which are “points of contention that define some question or value in which the parties perceive a difference between themselves”(Taylor 223). Traditional feminist issues are equal employment opportunity, abortion rights, sexual discrimination etc. These are all issues which deals with the extinction of women’s disadvantages in society, but there also more fundamental gender distinctions which point to the structural bases of conflict issues, such as distinctions by dress, occupational aspirations, role models or religion (Taylor 223).


[1] Definition of conflict:, 22.05.03

[2] Types of conflict:, 22.05.03

[3] Definition of conflict in literary terms:, 22.05.03

Excerpt out of 40 pages


Gender Conflicts in the Dramas of Tennessee Williams
University of Bayreuth  (Faculty for Language and Literature Sciences)
1,7 (A-)
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
628 KB
Gender, Conflicts, Dramas, Tennessee, Williams
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Kerstin Müller (Author), 2003, Gender Conflicts in the Dramas of Tennessee Williams, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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