The One Unforgivable Thing: On Policing Male Violence

Blanche DuBois is not a relatable character. This is what makes her role as the main character in A Streetcar Named Desire intriguing; her actions have an alien quality to them, as though she is being compelled by something unrecognisable. The play unfolds during Blanche’s visit to her sister Stella and Stella’s husband Stanley after leaving her hometown under clouded pretences. Blanche lies compulsively, obsesses about her image to extraordinary lengths and takes pleasure in provoking and flirting with Stanley, despite his short temper and violence. Among her eccentricities, though, there are moments of familiarity, like loanwords from your native tongue in a sea of foreign dialogue. Her fears of abandonment, of not being desired, of being disliked, are very human and not uncommon. Blanche is not relatable, but she is pitiable for recognisable reasons. One of her lines of dialogue, however, has stuck with me despite how different I think myself to be from her. I find myself repeating it in my thoughts and conversations more often than anything else from that play, or from most other texts I have read. ‘Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable’, she says. ‘It is the one unforgivable thing … and the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty’.

I am of two minds about police reform. I am quite sympathetic to demands to abolish or defund the police, and to cries of all cops being bastards. In my work at a local court, I have seen firsthand how broken our justice system can be. Countless people who are brought before the courts, especially for lower-level crimes, should not be there—people with mental illnesses or disabilities, people with addictions, people in crippling poverty or dealing with personal tragedies. These people deserve justice, but our first port of call when dealing with them should not be the police. I am unequivocally in favour of a justice system which diversifies its community outreach, investing in social workers, therapists, addiction counsellors, and other less confrontational support workers. Police are not equipped to deal with the plethora of reasons which underpin crime, and they cannot reasonably be expected to be so; we should not, and cannot, rely on the same group of people, with the same training and goals, to resolve domestic disputes, comfort mentally unwell people who are ‘disturbing the peace’, chase down runaway perpetrators and fact-find about cases months after the fact. In addition to this, police officers are often imperfect and sometimes cruel. They wield the unique power of state-sanctioned violence and are often defended when it is employed incorrectly or unnecessarily. They can import prejudices into their work, into who they investigate as potential suspects or who they choose to stop and frisk. Low-income and marginalised communities are demonstrably overpoliced, and BIPOC are disturbingly overrepresented in carceral systems in many liberal democracies. Something about policing needs to change.

Despite this, I cannot consider myself truly anti-police, for the simple reason that there are some crimes I think are worth policing. These crimes are not those which arise out of poverty, addiction or other coercive factors, but those which arise out of cruelty—deliberate cruelty. I know far too many women and gender minorities who have been sexually assaulted, harassed or otherwise abused by men to believe that all crimes happen for reasons that could be solved with more social workers. These crimes are motivated by a slew of things which I will not even pretend to be privy to, but one such motivation is undeniably power—perhaps a pursuit of power over a victim, or a drunkenness on the power afforded them by a culture which turns its back on victims, but power nonetheless. This power, both awarded to and sought by perpetrators, breeds entitlement and cruelty. When people I love have confided in me that this type of crime has been committed against them, I have told them to report it to the police and to pursue criminal charges. I do this despite my scepticism of police and my broader criticisms of incarceration as a form of justice. I do it because sexual and gendered violence scare me, in a primal way, and I want to believe that insofar as justice exists, it ought to be served in the face of deliberate evil.

When my loved ones have told me that they have suffered male violence, one sentiment keeps coming up: that despite the enormous psychological pressure these women are under—the physical harm they have suffered, the ongoing reckoning they are having with their bodies and spiritualities, the ever-unfolding pain of divulging such a personal cruelty to others in an effort to not feel alone—they do not want to act as though something abnormal has happened. They attend their classes, work their shifts, keep up their personal commitments despite the great ugly thing which is gnawing at them. If they cannot keep up appearances, it is agonising. When describing it to me, multiple people have used the exact same metaphor: that to diverge from normalcy would be to let their perpetrator ‘win’—to give him power. There are many cruelties that make up gendered violence. This is one of them. Perpetrators drop a burden onto their victims: the burden of moving on. Of making polite conversation with their rapists and abusers and assailants so as not to draw attention in social settings, of smiling when it would be abnormal to frown, of relearning intimacy and losing the fears that plague them. If they cannot move on, these women will be crushed. They will lose.

It is convenient for me to imagine cruelty, and criminality, as a dichotomy between circumstantial and deliberate. It soothes the cognitive dissonance that plagues my thoughts on policing: we could use social workers and therapy to resolve the former category of crime, and police and incarceration for the other. This, however, is misguided. Complaints of sexual crimes are not reliably handled well by the police or the courts. Only a fifth of police reports of sexual assault proceed to trial. These trials are draining and humiliating. I have sat through hearings where complainants’ retellings from years ago were relentlessly poked through in cross-examination until both story and complainant lay hollow and defeated. Questions which are integral to the functioning of a just courtroom—how reliable is the complainant? Was the accused accountable for their actions?—can be excruciating when recounting such intimate violence. Even if the charge results in a conviction, the victory is hollow. The burden of moving on does not magically shrink. Our justice system cannot truly compensate victims of gendered violence, and it is built in such a way that those victims are subjected to even more cruelty if they are brave enough to seek justice.

In the climax of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley, Blanche’s brother-in-law, rapes her. This unconscionable act of cruelty shatters her already fragile mental state, which Stanley uses as an excuse to send her to an asylum. The world of the play moves on. Blanche does not. In the film adaptation, this is Stella’s wake-up call: she gathers her things, grabs her newborn baby, and storms out of the house, muttering to herself that Stanley went too far while his despondent cries of ‘Stella!’ chase her out. There is no justice for Blanche, but Stella, who has been the victim of his violence throughout the film, is freed as the credits flash on the screen. It is a hollow victory, but a victory nonetheless.

This ending was doctored by the Hayes Code which demanded that characters receive endings which befitted their morality. Stanley, as an evil man, could not get a happy ending, and so was sentenced to being abandoned by his wife. The play ends differently. As Blanche is driven away, Stella stands, distressed, holding their baby. Stanley stands beside her. He wraps his arm around her and sticks his hand down the front of her blouse. The stage goes dark.

If I don’t go to class, he wins. If I cry on the train, he wins. If I can’t move on, he wins. My heart breaks. He wins no matter what.

About the author

Nicola Brayan

Nicola Brayan is a Sydney-based writer with a passion for culture, language, gender, and art. She has recently graduated with Linguistics Honours and a Bachelor of Advanced Studies in Media/Communications.

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