This week on Feminist Flashback Friday we revisit with a femme that not many people remember nor realize is actually a pretty badass babe: Stella Kowalski (née DuBois) from Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s steamy drama A Streetcar Named Desire.
Who Is She?
The sister of the story’s main female protagonist, Stella is a free-spirit who escaped from her stuffy upper-class southern home to steamy, noisy, sexy New Orleans where she now lives with her brutish (yet physically beautiful) husband, Stanley. When we meet Stella, she is reunited with her elder, troubled sister Blanche, who is visiting, and from the very beginning we see that Stella is a stronger woman than anyone realizes. Blanche immediately launches into comparisons and passive aggressive jabs at Stella for leaving their childhood home, Belle Rive, the upkeep of which fell completely on the mentally fragile Blanche.
What Makes Her A Badass?
Stella is suave and fiery, but her character is often overshadowed by the intense and often terrifying chemistry between her husband and sister on which the plot of the film revolves. She loves her husband, despite his short temper and frightening bouts of violence, and is never afraid to stand up to him when he’s getting out of line, even if that results in a black eye or bruise for Stella.
The only time Stella is really highlighted in the movie is during he infamous scene where, after having struck her, Stanley cries out for Stella at the foot of the stairs leading to the upstairs apartment of their complex, Elysian Fields. Stella is seen coming down and returning into Stanley’s (supposedly) remorseful arms and the scene cuts away to elude to a passionate night of lovemaking for the couple. Blanche is unable to understand why or how Stella can ever forgive Stanley for his abuse and we, the audience, wonder the same thing.
But what we always fail to see is that Stella never lets Stanley’s temper harm anyone other than her. She stands up to him, knowing the extent of his temper and usually knowing how to evade his abuse. She is an old-fashioned girl in some ways, but in most ways she is remarkable for her boldness and gumption. Her true awesomeness comes out at the very end when, having discovered that Stanley raped her sister and drove her to a complete nervous breakdown, she takes her newborn baby and leaves him once and for all.
Why Does She Still Matter Today?
Leaving an abusive partner is difficult. Leaving an abusive partner with a new baby in tow is more difficult. Setting personal boundaries and sticking by them, even if it means leaving the man you love is maybe the most difficult. And Stella does this without a second thought.
Throughout the movie she is seen successfully keeping Stanley from harming her sister, mentally or physically, and the one night she is away (at the hospital to have her baby) and is unable to protect Blanche, Stanley abuses her despite knowing that it will break Stella’s heart (not to mention is a dickish thing to do) and Stella refuses to stand for it.
Today, there are thousands of women who suffer abusive marriages and often the abusive spouse will use children as a way to keep the other from leaving because it can be difficult for a single mother regardless of whether or not she’s escaping a bad relationship. Stella doesn’t give a second though to her decision and, having seen that Stanley just plain refuses to respect her in any way despite how much he may love her, she walks out on him. She’s almost a champion for all battered people (especially women) who put aside the fears, and worries and take their lives into their own hands to do what is best for themselves and their loved ones.
A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t about Stella, but having watched this movie as many times as I have, you can’t help but eventually notice just what a fabulously strong-willed woman Tennessee Williams placed in the background of the Stanley-Blanche drama.