Linda Williams

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:


Melodrama is a chameleon. The history of its use as a term shows it to be one of the most unstable in the Anglo-American cinema and media lexicon, even though we all know what it is when we see it. Generally taken to connote excessive and overwrought (nonclassic) drama, it was first taken seriously by film scholars as a minor but potentially “subversive” genre dealing with domestic frustrations and excessive emotions accompanied by equally excessive music—hence the melos best exemplified by the 1950s domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, whose special ability in the case of these more “progressive” examples was to stir up a lot of dust in the form of irreconcilable contradictions. In the then prevailing psychoanalytic context, the very excesses of melodrama—its heightened emotionalism in the dramatization of contradictions that could not be easily reconciled—became the very basis of critical interest in it. Where the emotional or musical excesses of melodrama might have been derided in an era of the supposed dominance of a classical realist film, here the excesses of melodrama seemed to subvert those norms. As Christine Gledhill put it in 1987, looking back at the emergence of melodrama as a field of study: “Through discovery of Sirk, a genre came into view” (Gledhill 1987, p. 7, cited under Anthologies). That genre was soon redefined and revalued by numerous feminist theorists and critics such as Doane, Gledhill, Modleski, Mulvey, and Williams, who located in the domestic melodrama a fascinated love/hate relation with a genre now renamed “the (melodramatic) woman’s film.” In this work a whole new realm of previously ignored American films were identified and understood in terms of the genre’s efforts to reconcile—whether through death, suffering, or wrenchingly unrealistic happy endings—female desires that were fundamentally irreconcilable under capitalist patriarchy. In more recent scholarship of the last two decades, melodrama has again morphed. Under the influence of the work of Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill, it has come to be understood not only as a historical genre but as a pervasive mode of modern culture. Despite persistent associations with 19th-century stage melodrama, this mode is no longer viewed as diametrically opposed to realism nor as necessarily challenging to the putative norms of the so-called classical cinema, nor as addressed with any exclusivity to women, but as one of the most enduringly popular forms of moving-image drama, whose uniquely modern function is the quest for moral legibility in an era where moral, not to mention religious, certainties are no longer self-evident. Aside from comedy, it is what we mostly see at the movies and increasingly in both episodic and serial television. If the soap opera is dead, long live the soap on serial television!

Article.  3752 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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