Comparing and Contrasting Feminine Constructs in a Streetcar Named Desire and Forrest Gump
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois -- the self-deluded Southern Belle -- leaves her home (and her world) for the primal, modern world of the Kowalskis. In doing so, she travels via the Desire, which serves as both the name of the streetcar in New Orleans and as an ironic symbol of that which she does not possess: fulfillment. Blanche is an unsatisfied woman, in part because she refuses to see herself for what she is -- a semi-depraved human no different from Stanley, desperately in need of saving (or as she herself puts it: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers") (Williams 123). In Forrest Gump, the title character is also traveling from one world to another via public transportation. The film is told in flashback sequences while Forrest sits at a bus stop. He has left his world of randomness and wandering and is entering a world of settlement (where Jenny and his son wait for him). Like Blanche, Jenny is also in need of a kindness, which is why she has recalled Forrest. In both works, Southern femininity is dependent rather than independent and both serves to complement and be complemented by Southern masculinity. It is only when pretense and "independence" get in the way that matters are complicated. This paper will compare and contrast the construction of Southern femininity (in terms of pre- and post-War ideals) in both Forrest Gump and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Pre-War Southern Construction of Femininity
Blanche Dubois is a melodramatic. She is also something of an imposter. She imagines that she represents the Old South -- the pre-War South, the South that had honor, virtue, self-respect, and self-reliance. The pre-War Southern Belle was dignified. Blanche Dubois only preserves a pretense of dignity: she is hiding from a life of indignity. In a way, the indignity that she has suffered mirrors the indignity that the South itself suffered following the War. It was stripped of its prestige, its honor, and its order.
Blanche, too, has lost her husband (to another man), has lost her teaching post (for seducing a student), and is steadily about to lose her mind (for vainly attempting to uphold the Southern Belle veneer that Stanley Kowalski cannot stand). Stanley is her foil: he is utterly honest, even to the point of discomfort. In a way, his crassness is a reflection of Blanche's interior. She (and her ideals), on the other hand, are a reflection of everything that Stanley does not (but perhaps should) strive to be. She (at least outwardly) manifests a show of gentility.
Stanley simply does not believe in her gentility (first, because it is not as real as she makes believe -- it is artificial; second, because it does not have a place in Stanley's primal modern world; and third, because it is independent). Thus, when he dominates her in the conclusion, it is an animalistic action in which he tries to force on his/her reality. It is also a savagely symbolic action. Stanley forces her to drop her pretense of independence by violently taking possession of her: "Oh! So you want some rough-house! All right, let's have some rough-house!" (Williams 112). However, his brute act fails to achieve its purpose, and she is further disconnected from his reality. She retreats into her mind's Southern Belle world where strangers are kind and gentility still exists. Thus, her femininity is both an attempt at survival and a semi-destructive construct. She is consumed by that which nourishes her.
If the pre-War Southern female is dependent on the manners of a pre-War Southern world, the post-War Southern female (which is Blanche, although she does not want to admit it) attempts (disastrously) to remain independent of the post-war Southern world that has seemingly abandoned the old world manners. In a way, Blanche is a victim of the North's victory: the South loses its independence (wherein it has established its own order, for which Blanche longs).
In another way, she is a victim of her own delusions: she fails to consider that she cannot rely on the kindness of strangers anymore than the she can expect to find the manners of the Old South to still have any meaning. It is essentially a problem of mistaking the external for the internal. Blanche seeks an internal anchor for her external front. Stanley has no external cover to control his internality, which rages without restraint. In this sense, the two ought to be dependent on one another (at least, symbolically), but instead only serve as foils for one another to point out the other's lack. The problem is not remedied because neither is able to embrace any type of real humility or charity.
The Post-War Southern Construction of Femininity
This is not the case in Forrest Gump. Forrest represents the missing link between Blanche's fake pre-War Southern femininity and Jenny's post-War Southern feminism. The construction of femininity that Blanche represents is based on pre-War ideals (and is sadly dependent on pre-War externals). The construction of femininity that Jenny represents is based on post-War ideals (in reaction, no doubt, to Blanche's deluded expressions). Jenny represents the independent Southern woman, whose femininity is crushed in much the same way that Blanche's is -- by a tendency to withdraw into independence. Jenny's independence is not forced (as Blanche's is); rather, it is chosen. Jenny chooses to become a flower child; she chooses to embrace the drug culture; she chooses to leave Forrest. She seeks to maintain her life independently of his. It is only after all of her choices fail to bring her the security that she realizes (at the end) she needs, that she finally chooses to recall Forrest to herself and admit him fully into her life.
In a sense, Jenny is the kind of woman who came out of the Betty Friedan era. Betty Friedan had been shaped by much of what went on in early twentieth century America. An avid activist and strong supporter of equal rights for women, Friedan took the opportunity on the fiftieth anniversary of the granting of women's suffrage to organize a strike for equality. Her book The Feminine Mystique essentially sparked the Feminist Movement. She claimed "that she came to political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife" (Horowitz 2). She wrote the book on feminism, literally, as a means of doing what the Jewish producers in Hollywood had done: reinvention of self. Not only did Friedan attempt reinvent herself, but she enabled millions of women to attempt to do so as well.
In fact, the sexual revolution of the '60s had much to do with the mobilization of many radical platforms. Traditional morality and gender norms were viewed as oppressive; freedom was associated with transcendence; empowerment with self-actualization. "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar," was the anthem of every woman who did not want to be stifled.
This attempt at reinvention is somewhat prefigured by Blanche in Desire. (Blanche wants to continually project her vision of herself as a Southern Belle). But Friedan's feminist is more boldly embodied by Jenny in Forrest Gump -- but only to an extent. The fact is that Jenny makes a rather poor feminist, for in the end she returns to a traditional code of femininity by allowing herself to need Forrest and to be dependent on him. She vacates the empty ideal of independence and adopts the pre-War Southern construction of femininity by becoming a dependent person.
And yet Jenny stays true to her post-War construction as well. She does not wait for Forrest to propose marriage. Instead, she proposes it herself. (Knowledge of her own imminent death may also very well be a big factor in the proposal -- and concern for the well-being of her son no less so, but the fact remains: Jenny can no longer live independently). By seeking help and a helpmate, she aligns herself with Blanche's character -- but she also illustrates her origins in the Friedan mold by taking charge of her man (rather than he of her).
In this sense, Forrest is an anti-Stanley. Forrest represents the kind of humility and charity that might have helped Blanche overcome her self-deception. The only question is whether Stanley would have allowed Forrest to help -- probably not. Stanley's point of contention with Blanche is that her independence is fake and does not even grow organically out of the pre-War femininity that she tries to effect. Stanley will force to Blanche to become a dependent woman. The only difference between him and Forrest, however, (and it is a big one) is that he will not allow her to be dependent on him, but will force her to take refuge anonymously in an asylum. The only love she will receive will be from a paid staff of medical doctors. It is a gloomy conclusion.