A Bean-Counter Named Torvald/A Streetcar Named Stanley
(What’s Wrong with Post-Liberation Women?)

        The films A Streetcar Named Desire, directed in 1951 and based on Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, and A Doll’s House, directed in 1973 by Patrick Garland and based on Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, provide a unique opportunity to compare polarized stereotypes of the sexist male spectrum. Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) is a composite of all of the very worst qualities associated with men—he is brutish, violent, volatile, uncultured, discompassionate, oafish, and generally unwashed. A Doll’s House’s Torvald (Anthony Hopkins) is all the things Stanley is not; yet in terms of male unpleasantness, he is his Ivy-league counterpart—Torvald is emotionally stunted, uncompromising, domineering, patronizing, arrogant, egotistical, self-important, and like Stanley, utterly consumed by pride. At a glance, both of these men are both topping out the “toxic-bachelor” scale in their own areas of expertise, but the biggest difference between them is in how women tend to react to them.

        Torvald is an easy man to hate—we do not like it when he dangles money in the air and makes Nora dance like a squirrel for it, we feel the collective outrage of every oppressed woman when he observes that she has not a thought in her pretty little head, and we intuitively surmise that eating plain oatmeal is more erotically stimulating than sex with this man. How did Nora put up with him for as long as she did? Torvald is obviously one bad apple, and we despise him accordingly, so it should be no surprise that looking at Stanley, the first thing to come out of one’s mouth is. . . . drool?
        Can we really be blamed for the director’s decision to cast Marlon Brando in this role? Certainly not, but perhaps Stanley’s steaming bucket of excessive hotness goes deeper than the glistening sweaty skin stretched over his rock-hard rippling muscles. We forgive Stanley for his negative qualities because they comprise exactly what is most attractive about men. We see his violent volatility as “passion,” his brutishness/lack of compassion as masculine virility, and his disdain for culture/basic hygiene as “ruggedness.” How could Torvald “the dead fish” Helmer possibly compete with all of that?

        Now that we have admitted that Stanley is not so bad, perhaps, in the interest of fairness, we should try to think of some positive things to say about Torvald. I have compiled a list of the top five areas in which he arguably outdoes Stanley:

        1. Torvald is not a rapist.

        2. Torvald is not a rapist.

        3. Torvald is not a rapist.

        4. Torvald is not a rapist.

        5. Torvald is not a rapist.

        Some of Torvald’s more positive qualities that did not make the top five are as follows: Torvald does not hit his spouse in the original play but does in the Garland version when he is angry, he does not break things when he is angry, and he rarely gets angry at all. Torvald behaves as he believes he is supposed to behave; nobody has ever given him the slightest indication than he should be anything either than he is—least of all, Nora. If Torvald is patronizing, then it also should be noted in his defense that Nora has never complained of or refused to perform her squirrel dance, has never made the slightest effort to show him how she should be treated—quite the opposite, in fact, Nora reinforces his marginalization of her at every opportunity because it makes it easier for her to manipulate him into giving her what she wants. She encourages and relies upon Torvald’s view of her as a vacuous child because that perception absolves her of all accountability for her actions, allowing her to behave as irresponsibly with his money (and his affection) as she likes. In the end, Torvald was willing to change, to be more yielding, understanding, to try to see Nora as an equal with personal agency—but she never gave him the chance.

        Torvald loved Nora as much (if not more) than Stanley loved Stella (Kim Hunter), but we also know that Torvald is not going to be shouting it out in the streets, waking up all the neighbors half-naked and weeping. We know that he is not going carry Nora into the bedroom to savagely deflower her in the aftermath of the apology. In truth, none of us ever really cared how overtly chauvinistic and oppressive either of these men were; it does not matter that Torvald is open to compromise or that Stanley is a rapist. We have passed judgment; and Stanley wins because to us, the one unpardonable sin is not lack of love, decency, or respect—it is lack of passion, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

Joan Royalty