Characterisation of the female characters in “Cat on a hot Tin Roof”

Jasenka Kapetanović (1991) je bachelorica engleskog jezika i književnosti. Trenutno je na master studiju iz oblasti prevođenja i podučavanja engleskog jezika na Filozofskom fakultetu u Sarajevu. Pored studiranja bavi se prevođenjem i držanjem instrukcija, te je aktivna članica nekoliko nevla-dinih organizacija.

Key words: drama, film, characterisation of female characters, character analysis, sexuality, gender norms, traditional family relations, motherhood

Summary: The article deals with the characterisation of the female characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, written by Tennessee Williams. It examines the portrayal of the themes of sexuality, gender norms, and social family norms both in the drama and the film. The three main characters are juxtaposed and through the analysis of their actions and dialogues we are able to recognise the ideals Williams questioned in a changing era.


Tennessee Williams’ tragedy Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first performed in 1955.1 Although the drama is placed in the South, the main themes and events are certainly universal. The drama is very outspoken for its time, with alcoholism and sexuality among the main themes. It seems groundbreaking that such a drama could have been written and played out in the 1950s, though on further looking the reader can see the brilliance of Williams in the manner of his writing. The text explores themes such as sexuality, alcoholism, gender relations, mendacity, death, masculini-ty, etc, in a manner which allows readers to form their own opinions and standpoints without him modeling the opinions of the readers. This essay will focus on the characterization of the female characters in the drama, while discussing the themes of sexuality, gender norms, and traditional family relations. It will also present examples from the text of the drama, occasionally comparing them to the movie adaptation of the drama. The essay will focus on the characters of Margaret (Maggie), Mae, and Big Mama.

Characterisation of the Female Characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The characters of Maggie, Mae, and Big Mama are characterized in a manner that they seem very different from one another, yet what they share in common is the fact that all three of them (in different ways) are tied by the constraints of society. Williams portrays the women of 1950s very accurately in the play. The gender norms of the postwar period proposed that women were to marry for life, have children, and be available to their husbands whenever they pleased. Through the character of Maggie, Williams explores the evolution of sexuality and the change in gender norms.

During the Act I, Maggie is getting ready for Big Daddy’s birthday party, changing her clothes and posing in front of the mirror. The readership soon learns that such behaviour has an agenda

  • to lure her husband, Brick, into having sexual intercourse with her. Traditionally, in literature as in life, the female agent is a passive agent of sexual relations, while the male agent presents an active force of sexual relations. Maggie is an active agent in her sexual relationships, especially when compared to Brick. She is presented as an attractive, seductive female. In the movie adap-tation of the drama3 she is very seductive, even more than in the drama. This is best exemplified in the way Elizabeth Taylor, who plays Maggie, uses her voice in the movie. Maggie is well aware of her sexual appeal; she even notices that Big Daddy subconsciously lusts for her from the “way he always drops his eyes down my body when I’m talking to him, drops his eyes to my boobs” (Williams, 2001: 21). She seeks such attention from Brick, yet rarely receives it. Some critics, such as McCullers, suggest that Maggie the Cat is a great example of that type of Williams’ characters who can best be described as “those in desperate need for sex as a stimulant” (ed. Unger, 1974: 387). She lacks intimacy in her marriage, both physical and emotional, but remains devoted to Brick which is coherent with the family norm of the 1950s.4 Brick’s family does not perceive her as a member of it (apart from Big Daddy), especially due to the fact that she is childless. Such a view is often expressed by Mae and Gooper, whose marriage has produced five children already, and Mae is pregnant again. They perceive the childless Maggie as a threat, since they can see the obvious affection the patriarch in charge of the inheritance, Big Daddy, shows for Maggie and Brick. Mae is a traditional gender norms carrier, she fully accepted them. She believes that motherhood is “an experience that a woman ought to experience fully” (Williams, 2001: 20), and Maggie expresses her opinion that Mae perceives her and Brick as childless, therefore useless5. We can imagine that such opinions are often expressed at home, often enough that Dixie, Mae’s and Gooper’s daughter, has brushed on them seen in her making the cruel remark that Maggie took her pistol because she was jealous because she is childless.6 Mae is a matriarch, being a mother of five children and being the dominant agent in her marital relationship. She embodies the negative features often ascribed to women – she is sneaky, spying on Maggie and Brick and plotting against them, and manipulative. The hypocritical ways of her behavior are best shown near the end of the drama when she tells Maggie not to imagine that she is “goin’ t’put a trick over on us, to fool a dyin’ man” (Williams, 2001: 21) with the news of her pregnancy, while throughout the drama we can observe Mae’s own children playing tricks, putting on shows for Big Daddy, etc. It seems that the Mae and Maggie were characterized in diametrically opposite manner. Maggie is honest, while Mae is deceiving. Maggie truly wants children, yet she remains childless. On the other hand, Mae is fulfilling the social and gender expectations with her five children and her sixth pregnancy, but it does not appear that she truly wanted children for other reason than to fulfill her marital responsibility. Maggie is a member of a new generation of women breaking the social conventions and gender norms. Unlike her, Mae accepts such norms to their full extent, teaching them to her children. She does not seek sexual intercourse; it is implied that for her sexual intercourse is merely a way of procreation; Maggie yearns for the sexual relations Brick deprives her of because of numer-ous reasons. She wants to procreate, but also to achieve both psychical and emotional intimacy with her husband. The sheer fact that she wants sex and is active in having it, shows that she has not come to terms with the traditional gender norms. Traditional social conventions and gender norms are best presented in the character of Big Mama, a matriarch of an older generation. She is dedicated to Big Daddy, though he is sometimes cruel to her. Like Maggie and Brick, Big Mama and Big Daddy have not had sexual relations for five years, although unlike Brick, Big Daddy still possesses a healthy desire for women.7 In terms of appearance, Big Mama is described as being fat, morbidly fat in the drama. Big Daddy describes the effect her appearance has on him in the follow-ing utterance: “When Big Mama goes out of the room, I can’t remember what that woman looks like, but when Big Mama comes back into the room, boy, then I see what she looks like, and I wish I didn’t!” (Williams, 2001: 64) People are often judged on the basis of the appearance, the previous being true especially for the women. In those terms, the gender norm did not change greatly from the 1950s until today, which would possibly provide us with an explanation of Big Mama’s much leaner appearance in the movie.8 Maggie’s appeal and Big Mama’s obesity work on a greater level showing what the two female characters crave and how they deal with their own problems. While Maggie tries to pursue sexual relations with Brick, Big Mama fills the void in her life with shopp-ing and, probably, comforting herself in food. She is characterized as a devoted wife, remaining beside her husband no matter what happens, even disease and abuse. She is plain, as her speech, and she is often identified with the items she had purchased to fill the void and her house which symbolizes her as an old matriarch. All three female characters, Maggie, Mae, and Big Mama, struggle in the world they live in, carrying the weight from their relationships with their husbands and the expectations the society has put on them. Mae finds refuge in her children, thinking that they will provide a vehicle for her and Gooper to inherit Big Daddy’s wealth. Big Mama tries to be supportive of Big Daddy and his decisions, even when they are not favorable to her. She cares for her adult sons, providing them with the love and care as she deems fit. She bears her suffering in silence, so as not to burden anyone with it. Maggie struggles to have a child, probably envisioning that she will find the love she need in that child. In the end, she resorts to falsely claiming that she is pregnant counting on Brick’s support in the lie. That lie might have been the last tool she had to resort to, to finally have Brick’s support and to make him be obliged, in certain way, to have sexual intercourse with her. The play closes with Brick proclaiming that he admires Maggie.9 She kneels beside him, and offers him to drink together, showing him that she is submissive to him. A strong female character as her is finally compromising, being aware that in that way she can achieve her goals.


Tennessee Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof employing various themes, some of which were a taboo at the time, while others have remained a taboo until today. The variety of characters he created helped him explore issues such as sexuality, homosexuality, and alcoholism. The female characters of Margaret, Mae, and Big Mama are present both as radically different from one another, and as very similar characters to one another. Through their characterization we are able to explore the themes of sexuality, gender norms, and traditional family relations. Maggie’s strength and willingness to break some of the gender norms and social conventions, is brilliantly contrasted with Mae’s full acceptance of them. Big Mama and Maggie, though diverse in appearance, are confronted with the lack of intimacy and sexual relations. Mae enjoys healthy sexual life, but she does not seem to be greatly interested in it. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that women were like tea bags, their strength only being revealed once they are put in hot water10 (or on a hot tin roof, as I would say). Tennessee Williams succeeded in creating characters of strong women, those willing to fight for themselves and their loved ones, even during the hardships.


  1. Williams, Tennessee (2001). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. London: Penguin Books.
  2. Brooks, Richard (1958). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
  3. Unger, Leonard (1974). American Writers -Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  4. Roberts, Steve (2008). York Notes on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. London: York Press.
  5. Fellows, Nikki. Feminist Analysis of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. efolio/USERS/nfellows1/Cat.doc
  6. Roosevelt, Eleanor.

Karakterizacija ženskih likova u drami Mačka na vrućem limenom krovu

Ključne riječi: karakterizacija ženskih likova, analiza likova, seksualnost, rodne norme, tradicio-nalni porodični odnosi, majčinstvo

Sažetak: Rad se bavi karakterizacijom ženskih likova u drami Mačka na vrućem limenom krovu (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) autora Tennesseeja Williamsa. Rad razmatra način na koji su u drami i filmu predstav-ljene teme seksualnosti, rodnih normi, te društvenih normi koje se tiču života porodice. Kroz usporedbu načina predstavljanja tri glavna ženska lika dolazimo do zaključaka o idealima koje je Williams doveo u pitanje, a koji su karakterizali period pun promjena.,

Izvor fotografije: Google

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