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The central female protagonists in Nella Larsen’s novella Quicksand and Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire embrace material culture for a multitude of reasons. Helga Crane’s love of colour is both aesthetic in the clothing she adores and it serves as a metonym to criticize racial prejudice. There is also a duality of meaning in how Blanche DuBois approaches material culture. Her fondness for pretty clothes and the decorations in her room is a source of whimsy and the means that empower her to seduce men. However, dominant males and powerful institutions attempt to pacify the statements Helga and Blanche make with their displayed bodies. Whereas Helga becomes disillusioned with how others dismiss and appropriate her colorful, adorned body, Blanche is temporarily able to challenge for space only because she masks the true age of her body from male through dress. This sense of confusion and deception coupled with the temporal limitations of age and waning reproductive power, mark the female body as an illusory source of power.
Dominant males like Stanley Kowalski view a woman’s attempt to decorate her room and dress up her body as a passive, non-threatening act. It is easy to dismiss Blanche as materialistic and vain as she prances around the Kowalski home in flowery print dresses and hangs up frilly decorations like the paper lantern. Upon Blanche’s arrival Stella asks her husband to admire her sister’s dress and tell her that she’s looking wonderful, insisting, “That’s important with Blanche. Her little weakness!”. According to Stella, these physical displays of beauty are harmless. They please a male spectator and a woman eagerly accepts this validation of the male gaze as Blanche needs to be told that she does indeed look good. The very name ‘Blanche’ has connotations with something lacking substance or being bland, like a white canvas which can be the basis for a colorful work but on its own remains an empty space. When Blanche mentions where she is from Stanley retorts, “Yeah, in Laurel, that’s right. Not in my territory”. Stanley is quite determined in this first meeting with Blanche to point out that the apartment is not just his space but his ‘territory,’ as if he is salivating for the chance to mark and defend it. Based on the reader’s first encounter with Blanche, it is doubtful whether her non-substantial body will pose a serious threat to the power imbalances in the Kowalski home.
Helga is treated in a similar manner by her colleagues at Naxos. Her attempt to assert control over her body and to adorn it in an attractive manner is dismissed as shallow, materialistic and vain rather than an assertive action empowering the female body. The reader first encounters Helga through the objects in her room, such as the reading lamp and carpet painted in deep shades of black, red and blue. While in Naxos it is revealed, “most of her earnings had gone into clothing, into books, into the furnishings of the room”. Since she spends so much time sheltered in her room with these possessions, Helga’s celebration of colour and beauty is considered by her colleagues to be an excuse to revel in her own appearance and to justify the collection of material things.
Helga’s room and the overwhelmingly negative response to her vibrant outfits actually help reinforce the power of the institution. Her room is described as an oasis of colour in a uniformed, highly regimented school system. The furnishings of Helga’s room “held her” which implies that this personal space, decorated with flashes of colour like the gold and green negligee, acts as a sanctuary from the politics of Naxos rather than a direct attack on the system. Helga’s frustration is infantilized by her colleagues. She becomes the upset daughter running to her room and acting out in this secluded space.
Despite what her colleagues may think, Helga is not simply having a tantrum or playing dress up. She uses colour as part of a feminine aesthetic toward beauty to criticize a society that flattens difference and forces people into categories based on ridiculous notions such as racial purity. The words of a white politician reinforce how colour can be manipulated into a tool of repression rather than the outlet for personal expression Helga thinks it should be. When this politician visits Naxos he refers to the crowd of schoolchildren and the black staff as Negroes. This description is not commented on directly in the story, which gives it the power of being unspoken, matter of fact racism. Labeling his audience all as Negroes raises the white politician above the crowd and groups them together as poor inferior black folk. Helga gazes upon the same crowd and sees a sea of diverse coloured faces with shades of ebony, bronze and gold.
Helga’s vibrant descriptions of colour reach out to include blacks, persons of mixed race, and even whites. This sense of diversity is expanded upon in a Harlem night club where she observes, “There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white”. Helga does not comment on the race issue explicitly. She attempts to look beyond racial divisions to find simple colour and celebrate an array of shades and unique experiences instead of dividing people into binary groups pitting black against white.
It is important to note that Helga’s uplifting and impassioned rhetoric toward skin colour is part of an internal monologue. Her discussions and celebrations share a quality of distance and remoteness. They either take place in her mind, or through the observations of the narrator who is removed from the world of the story and its characters. When Helga is fed up with Naxos she decides to run away to Denmark. She flees from repressive societies multiple times, and it is difficult to view these flights as more than passive acts of resistance that fail to challenge the societies that have created the social inequalities she despises.
Helga ultimately loses control over what statement she is making with her body. In Denmark her aunt and uncle decide what she wears and her image is appropriated by the artist Axel Olson. When Helga is shopping with her aunt and uncle she “consents” to a pair of shoes they have picked out. On the one hand, Helga gets what she desires in Denmark. She admits the shoes are nice and they do fit her feet quite well. Even though in this new society she is encouraged to wear pretty things that would have been unheard of in Naxos, such as bright orange dresses, what is missing is her own personal choice in the matter. As the day wears on and the clothing piles up Fru Dahl insists, “you ought to have higher heels – and buckles”. These two items are uncomfortable and they distort Helga’s body. The buckles are eerily reminiscent of the shackles of slavery, and the associated loss of control over one’s body.
The artist Axel Olson also physically violates Helga by seizing control over her female body. When Helga sees the finished portrait of herself she is outraged. It does not look like her at all. Axel has transformed her into a wild eyed and exotic animal. Helga is only able to catch isolated words of his description of her, “superb eyes … color … neck column … yellow … hair … alive … wonderful”. Axel dissects the female body. This chopped up description demonstrates the power of the male gaze to assert control over and rearrange elements of the female body according to a man’s values of physical beauty, which in this instance reduce Helga to an objectified, exotic black body.
Whereas Helga struggles with how to publicly confront dominant institutions, her colleagues, and men in general through material culture, Blanche is able to use her dressed up body to convey the message she wants. She is a seductress who uses flirtation to counteract Stanley’s boorish behaviour. Where Helga is at times passive, Blanche is passive aggressive. When Stanley questions her about Belle Reve, Blanche sprays herself with perfume and then playfully sprays him, retorting, “My, but you have an impressive judicial air!” (Williams 2200). Stanley marks his territory with empty beer bottles and the refuse of last night’s poker game. Blanche has left her own distinctly feminine scent to linger in the air and challenge for space in the apartment.
Through examining material culture it becomes evident that the female body is not a source of power on its own. Blanche’s flirtatious behaviour demonstrates how the female body needs to be carefully presented, even in a deceptive manner. Many times Blanche is behind a curtain or employing some sort of disguise to hide her aging body. She masks her face with powder, is constantly bathing or dabbing on splashes of perfume, and she insists on only meeting Mitch at night in the dark. A curtained partition removes Blanche from the hyped-up masculine world of Stanley’s poker games. Behind this curtain men are putty in her hands. When she turns on the radio and starts to waltz to music Mitch is delighted. He moves, “in awkward imitation like a dancing bear” (Williams 2207). Blanche has temporarily emasculated him and she keeps him in her space in the Kowalski home while Stanley bellows for him to return to their game. Unlike Helga, Blanche is able to control and manipulate space. In another instance, Blanche undresses behind the curtain, “she takes off the blouse and stands in her pink silk brassiere and white shirt in the light of the portieres”. Stella promptly yells at her that she is standing in the light, to which Blanche dryly responds, “Oh, am I”. Blanche is essentially stripping in front of the poker players with one small caveat, her body is mostly hidden behind the curtain.
It is interesting to note contradictions between Helga and Blanche in relation to age, and how this problematizes the notion of agency over the body. Whereas a young female body like Helga’s is put on display and the subject of paintings by a Axel Olson, Blanche’s older body is hidden under layers of clothing, perfume and shade. When Blanche dresses up her female body and parades around in public she is viewed as manipulative and deceitful. At the beginning of the play when it is unclear how old Blanche exactly is, her body is valued and desirable. Stanley, in an act that demonstrates how he views all space in his home as a masculine domain, violently rummages through her trunk. He bellows, “What’s this here? A solid gold dress I believe … Genuine fox fur-pieces, a half a mile long” (Williams 2198). These images of wealth and luxury fit the southern belle image Blanche comes into the Kowalski home trying to maintain. At this point in the play she is in control of the statement her body is making. Once Stanley finds out Blanche’s real age and digs into her past this very same trunk of clothes is deemed to be worthless. He berates her, “Take a look at yourself, in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag picker”. The line ‘take a look at yourself’ is quite interesting in that it is Stanley’s opinion of Blanche that has changed. This is the same trunk of clothes from the beginning of the play. The worth of a female body is mediated not only by the physical limitations of age but also through the male observer.
The female body is adorned, concealed and carefully presented, its meaning a point of contention to be fought and struggled over. The male body, on the other hand, can be openly and simply displayed. Throughout the play Stanley’s body is depicted rather nakedly. He strips in front of the window, in the middle of the apartment, and in front of members of the opposite sex. Compared to the fading Blanche and soon to be too-old-to-marry Helga dressed up in their elaborate outfits, there is a sense of permanence and effortlessness in the exhibition of Stanely’s male body. His act of stripping in front of Blanche is in some ways an interesting challenge to her femininity in that he also has a desirable body and can exert power from being able to hold the Other’s gaze.
Lacking the supposed permanence of a man’s seed the female body is marked as an empty reproductive vessel. Stanley is described as compactly built and “the gaudy seed-bearer” (Williams 2195). His reproductive power will not diminish so drastically over time. At the conclusion of Quicksand, Helga is mired in a cycle of southern poverty where she has effectively lost her reproductive rights. The narrator observes, “And hardly had she left her bed and become able to walk again without pain … when she began to have her fifth child” (Larsen 1803). Other women tidy her house, take care of her children, and pay attention to her husband. In this limited role as a mother and caretaker Helga is merely a passive receptacle for the reverend Pleasant Green’s children, unable to walk or get out of the marital bed.
Unlike Helga who is young and somewhat disillusioned, her mind clouded by racial prejudice and stigma, Blanche is old enough to realize that she is powerless. When Mitch rejects her Blanche exclaims, “I don’t want realism. I want magic”. In a few short weeks Blanche’s body is progressively devalued from a southern belle, seductress, and even potential mother like Stella, to a harlot as Stanley and Mitch try to rape her in a final act of violation over a woman’s body and personal space. Once the clothing, colour, and decorations are stripped away, the tone of the endings of both these works reads as a death sentence rather than a celebration of new life or personal expression. The act of dressing up is a veil, a temporary distraction that obfuscates power imbalances Helga and Blanche cannot escape from or change.
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