Friday, May 15, 2009

Final Paper: Why Was That Streetcar Named Desire?

The concept of desire is one that grants us individuality, yet at the same time makes us uniquely similar to everyone else.  The most profound conclusion that we have come to in this class is that desire is socially constructed, that it is created by our society, not by each individual.  And if that is the case, what makes desire so special?  Our desires drive our wants and fuel our attraction towards others.  Yet, if our desires are so similar then that must mean that the majority our society wants and is attracted to the exact same things.  But what is possibly the most interesting idea is that these socially constructed desires seem to yield constructed feelings as well.  Our feelings and emotions are not unique to ourselves and our experiences but tend to be uniform among our society.  It seems to follow a linear formula of “if this happens,  then I am supposed to feel/experience this”.  In addition, in today’s media, there is an unrealistic standard of how couples are supposed to act and what is considered ‘good’ and ‘bad’ within a relationship.  Also, the over-glorification of  concept of “the one” seems not to translate well between fiction and real life.  Therefore, in romantic relationships today, it is clear that through imitation couples seek happiness, romance, and desire.  

Saussure’s theory of language can be applied to desire.  Which comes first, desire itself, or the emotions associated with them?  Individuals do not want things or people; they want the feeling that is associated with them.  Saurrure says that “ready-made idea exist before words” (Saussure 78), where the idea is the emotion or feeling and the word is the the thing or person that is going to lead them there.  If we consider the streetcar in “A Streetcar Named Desire” to be a character in the play, the role it plays is the force that brings Blanche to New Orleans, to her sister, to Stanley, to Mitch, and to where she can recreate her past.  It may not that she actually wants any of these things or people, but she wants the feelings that they will bring.  This requires that Blanche lack these feelings before she arrives so she has something to aspire to and will be able to measure its value by comparison (Saussure 86).  

Why do we want the things or people we do?  One reason is because other people already have it.  One person’s desire becomes another.  And it is not just that they want that thing, they want to feel what the other person feels.  Imitation is one popular way to achieve this.  Butler presents the idea that through her differences she was defined as  “a copy, an imitation, a derivative example, a shadow of the real” (Butler 722).  But I find that what we consider normal or ordinary is really the imitation of real.  Society accepts normal because it is a concept exercised by the majority.  There is nothing unique or real about normal.  In this clip from “Dirty Dancing Havana Nights”, these two young people are struggling to be able to dance together.  It is not their bodies that are the problem, but there is an emotional feeling that they feel they are lacking.  They want to dance together so they can feel this emotion.  They decide that the solution to their problem is to imitate another couple. 

Disney films have played a significant role in the ways children understand the world and  how to feel in it.  They learn when to be sad and when to be happy based on imitation.  In addition, children cultivate their desires based on the characters desires.  In “The Little Mermaid”, Ariel is an excellent example of someone who lusts after a feeling and will do anything to fulfill it.  In the song “Part of Your World”, Ariel reveals that her material possessions do not give her the feeling she lusts after.  She now desires to live among humans because she thinks that is what will give her what she is looking for.  This also suggests that if the materials possessions had satisfied her, then she would not have wanted or needed to live among humans, reiterating the theory that she really desires the feeling, not the thing or person. 

In the final episode of “Will and Grace”, writers appeased to their audience’s wishes by giving them a metaphoric ending in which Will and Grace are finally united, through their children.  In this show, Will’s homosexuality keeps him and Grace from fulfilling the role of each other’s “the one”, the love that is supposed to last a lifetime.  Audiences cannot accept “the one” as a non romantic partner.  More importantly, audiences cannot accept that “the one” may not exist.  McDonald offers the idea that “the love story is so familiar in our culture that we rarely give it a second thought… “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ is exhibit A of standard plots in all fictional media” (2).  The most important part to note is that this is the structure for fiction, not real life.  But so often are the two confused, examined, and treated as the same.  Will and Grace are given a love story ending, but should they have?  

The neo-traditional romantic comedy, which is popular today, exemplifies the ideals that society has now embraced as their own.  According to McDonald in his book “Romantic Comedy”, he defines the neo-traditional romantic comedy as one that “reasserts the old ‘boy meets, loses, regains girl’ structure, emphasizing the couple will be heterosexual, will form a lasting relationship, and that their story will end as soon as they do” (86).  This seems to be the case for Will and Grace.  Their story can only end, not with them as lovers, but their children.  It suggests that the show could not have ended until they were united, that their friendship was inevitably leading up to the point in which their relationship would be everlasting and expressed through a romantic outlet.  It also hints at the idea that friendship is not a legitimate lasting relationship and cannot embody the ideals expressed by “the one”.  

In the film “Love Actually”, the idea of the couple ending as soon as the story does is clearly evident.  The youngest character in the film, Sam, struggles with the dilemma of being in love with a girl who is not in love with him, as well as not even knowing  he exists.  He spends the majority of the film working furiously to catch her attention, while struggling with the feelings of impending failure.  A conversation between Sam and his stepdad Daniel briefly highlights the actualization of relationships and depicts the thought process that gives life to the idea of “the one”:

Daniel: You know, Sammy, I'm sure she's unique and extraordinary, 

but... the general wisdom is that, in the end, there isn't just one person 

for each of us.
Sam: There was for Kate and Leo. There was for you. There is for me. 

She’s “the one”. 

Daniel: Fair enough.

If movies always end at the climax of a relationship, audiences never have the opportunity to see a relationship end, or discover that “the one” actually does not exist.  Hence, allowing them believe that real relationships are this way.  Here, Sam actually uses movie characters, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in “Titanic”, to justify the existence of “the one”.  Since Sam is only eleven years old, the probability of him and Joanna actually spending the rest of their lives together is extremely unlikely.  The film ends with the suggestion that they will have a lasting relationship.  As heartwarming and romantic as that may appear, audiences may strive to achieve such outcomes in their lives while neglecting to consider what could have happened after the film actually ended.  

If “identity is best understood not as a fixed entity but as an emotionally charged discursive description of ourselves that is subject to change” (216) as Barker suggests, why should we think that love should stay the same and last forever with the same person?  How can “the one” constantly change and adapt to the ever-changing self to ensure compatibility for eternity?  Instead of “the one” changing, perhaps the self changes to adapt to fit the cultural circumstances that reinforce the existence of “the one”.  “Identity is cultural ‘all the way down’, being specific to times and places… forms of identity are changeable and related to definite and cultural conjunctures” (217) according to Barker.  This again hints at the idea that “the one” is a product of our current culture and in the future the role may no longer exist.  

The concept of “the one” is not only implicitly suggested in “Will and Grace”, it is also explicitly expressed in one conversation between Grace and Karen: 

Grace: I want to marry... “the one.”

Karen: And well you should, honey. How else are you going to get to

“the two” and “the three”?

Although Karen’s suggestion is comical, it seems to have embodied some truth, as well.  If the “self” is constantly changing, the concept of “the one” holds so many restrictions and rules, and eternity is such a long time, perhaps the idea of “the one” is really more like a process and there actually is not just one “the one” for each person.  In addition, perhaps “the one” does not or should not simply embody the romantic relationship but extend its boundaries to other relationships.  If such constraints were not placed upon this idealized concept, perhaps the outcome would have been different for Will and Grace.  Perhaps they would have been each others “the one”.  And perhaps their ending would have simply ended as friends, just as they had always been.  And perhaps they, the characters, and the audience would have been completely satisfied with allowing Will and Grace to maintain the relationship they have always had and legitimized it to fall under the circumstances of “the one”.  

Not only is there a translation issue between “the one” we see on the big screen and “the one” in real life, but there is also a translation issue between that guy or girl on the television screen and the one sitting next to you on the couch.  Today it seems that many desires are formulated around fictional characters and then those desires are expected to be fulfilled in real life.  Similar to “the one”, lusting after a fictional character holds unrealistic expectations and can certainly lead to failure.  A new trend in media forms has taken place recently, however, and that is where the leading man or woman exhibits “normal” and even negative characteristics.  It is an illustration of who the “everyday man or woman” is and goes through the story of how they find romance, love, and fulfilled desire.  Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” is an excellent example of how a film can turn what society would consider a “loser” into a desirable leading man.  This further illustrates what role media, especially film, plays on our desires.   

This paper has illustrated the social issues that accompany this seemingly natural unique sensation called desire.  What it has not addressed is its necessity to the individual despite its social flaws.  Desire is essential in our lives.  Without it, we lack passion and a drive to move forward in our lives. Although socially constructed, desire feels unique to each individual, when is quite a phenomenon.  

Works Cited

Barker, Chris. Cultual Studies: Theory and Practice. 3rd. London: Sage Publications, 2008.

Dirty Dancing Havana Nights. Dir Guy Ferland. Miramax, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality”.  Gender Studies, Gay/Lesbain Studies, Queer Theory. 683-692.

Knocked Up. Dir. Judd Apatow. Universal Studios, 2007.

The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements, John Musker. Disney, 1989 

Love Actually. Dir. Richard Curtis. Universal Studios, 2003.

 McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. London: 

Wallflower Press, 2007.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics. 76-89.

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. London: Penguin Books, 1951.

Will And Grace. By David Kohan, Max Mutchnick Perf. Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, 

Megan Mullally, Sean Hays. NBC. 1998-2006.

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