I wrote this essay for a class I'm currently taking. It's titled
A Streetcar of a Different Color
note: it's easier to read if you're familiar with the film or the play, "A Streetcar Named Desire." Even the Simpson's version is helpful, but here's a quick explanation for those who need the background: everyone is poor. Stanley is an abusive (verbally and physically) husband, Stella is his wife who tries (and fails) to make things better, Blanche is Stella's sister, who is staying with them because otherwise, her troubles will catch up with her and she'll kill herself from depression. That's all you really need.
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” is a play that by all means I should understand. I am from a poor family, I routinely witness doomed relationships featuring dominant males who are often abusive (verbally, physically, or both); but I don’t feel that this play touches me in any special way. In fact, the reason I want to write about this play at all is because of the response of my peers. When the classroom lecture turned into more of a discussion, and worse yet when we watched clips from the video with Marlon Brando, I felt my stomach turn. I am incredibly concerned with the mental health of the student body.
This play should (by all means) have one of two effects on a reader/theatre-goer: they should either feel enlightened and empowered by the realization of their own horrible situation or repulsed and saddened by the show of force this play represents. From the charade of Blanche, the hopeless attempts to make things better by Stella, and the sheer ignorance of Stanley, there is nothing represented in this play that should elicit more than a nervous laugh, if anything. Nervous laughter is understandable: an attempt to laugh off a situation, to distance yourself, is very common and makes a lot of sense in light of “Streetcar.”
However, the laughter that occurred in the classroom last week was more than nervous laughter, and I find that disturbing, and it was made all the more disturbing by the fact that the majority of the laughter came from male students. Anyone who can laugh at the blatant abuse of women, broken men screaming in the streets, and the explosion of hair-trigger tempers has a problem. My response to the play as well as the video clips is one of repulsion. I have seen these things first hand, I have heard the screaming and seen the bruises. I can neither imagine myself perpetrating these acts nor being a steady victim, despite the fact that it is prevalent in the strata of society I come from. Through this sentence, I find my first entrance into why our responses differ.
Poverty is a defining factor in my life. In poor communities, domestic violence is far harder to ignore. Poor children don’t have anywhere to run to, and neither do their parents, when things start to go quickly downhill. In a richer family, emergency vacations can be taken, lawyers can be brought into play, and day help can be enlisted to watch over the children whilst the parents work things out behind closed doors (typically with a marriage counselor of some sort). As a result, children from more affluent families are less likely to see the full force of a domestic dispute. Given that the average income of a student’s parents at this college is almost ten times what my family made last year, I am making the assumption that the majority of my peers are better off than I am in these arguments. I have little in common with the general population of this campus, and my background is the defining force behind our differences.
My “peers” have most likely never seen the full force of a domestic dispute, and as such have trouble relating to the situation that the characters in “Streetcar” are doomed to live. It’s an abstract idea to them, an absurdity, but still nothing to be laughed at. Pain and suffering, not to mention violence, should never elicit laughter from an audience. Worse than this situation is what I saw happen last quarter while my fiancé and I were directing a production of “Cabaret.” As I’m sure you know, “Cabaret” has its humor moments, but is also, at its core, a story of heartbreak in Nazi Germany. If there is ever a situation that shouldn’t make people laugh, it’s the holocaust, right? Wrong: apparently on this campus, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh through an entire production of “Cabaret,” even while faced with characters wearing camp uniforms and the infamous yellow Star of David. While characters yell at each other, a woman is slapped, a relationship is ruined by the impending Nazi takeover, and a way of life (the life of the theatre) is crushed under goose-stepping feet, the audience at Thursday and Friday night’s showing of “Cabaret” giggled to themselves and occasionally had a whole-hearted guffaw at the expense of real tragedy. Unlike “Streetcar,” “Cabaret” is based primarily on a true story. It’s also important to note that most of the people who were laughing in the audience were (again) male students from our community.
Disconnection from issues to this degree is hard for me to believe. I don’t have much faith in public consciousness and I’m not easily disappointed by my “peers,” but this is truly disturbing. I don’t expect people my age to have a grip on modern issues like prisons, poverty, military action, politics or the like, but I do at least expect them to have the decency not to delight in the suffering of others. It would seem that the modern pop culture climate is just that, though. From television to movies, music to video games, popular culture is all about suffering. TV is predominantly ruled by “reality” shows, expertly crafted to expose the most revelry, deceit, and consequent guilt and pain possible (i.e. “The Real World,” “Survivor,” “Fear Factor,” etc). Movies are mindless trips through implausible situations, pain and recovery, but almost always a happy ending. Films that win Oscars are hardly crowd pleasers when it comes to the youth of America could you imagine any of the aforementioned young men watching “Monster”? How about “Hotel Rwanda”? No, my peers are into things more along the lines of “Sin City,” “xXx,” and “Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle.” Girls my age are disappointed when they go to see “Alfie,” and realize how incredibly depressing the plot is (note: none of them have the slightest clue that it’s a remake of a Michael Kane movie, either). Popular music is a binge and purge society of mindless violence through mainstream hip-hop, and melodramatic emotional release of Emo. Underground hip-hop, mindful of societal issues and historical untruths is ignored by today’s youth in lieu of more ephemeral dance club hits by artists like 50 Cent. Even Eminem, (who raps about killing the President of the United States on his new album) has fallen out of favor with most of my peers because of his consciousness. When his last album came out, there wasn’t a white kid in town who wasn’t blaring his CD, but not this time. Emo is the (supposed) evolution of Punk music, which has gone from intense social catalyst to angsty teenagers crying in the fetal position under their desks (see Dashboard Confessional). Video games have always been fairly mindless, but as of late have taken a turn for the worse. Though I myself enjoy video games, I have trouble dealing with the thought that anyone could do some of the things that games, as of late, contain. Not to beat a dead horse, but “Grand Theft Auto” has raised the bar for pain and suffering, and even games as seemingly innocent as “Fable” give you the ability to marry for a dowry and then murder your wife.
Any of these things on their own is acceptable, but when seen in a big picture with the unflattering results, our society takes on a darker turn. We are unable to cope with reality, suffering and pain. We are unable to learn from anything that is truly painful. There are intellectual offerings out there, but the future leaders of our society are not interested. When we begin to settle for movie, television and video game versions of reality, and the mindless falsity of manufactured emotion in music, there is definitely something wrong with this country. There is real heartbreak, real triumph, and real struggle in the world, but without knowing a Stella, a Blanche, or a Stanley, all they can do is laugh.
comments are welcome. i had more to write in this essay but i filled my quota a little quicker than expected. c'est la vie.