Hollywood & Melodrama – are Genres Subject to Redefinition?
Compared to discovering new lands, the development of genres begins with the directions or set map of the previous instructions. The musical for instance; it was not recognised as a genre until 1930 and even then it had no regular definition until 1933. The term ‘musical’ is now referred to or combined with generic terms such as backstage, romantic, western, slapstick, etc.
Melodrama – Victorian theatrical origin
Compared to discovering new lands, the development of genres begins with the directions or set map of the previous instructions. The musical for instance; it was not recognised as a genre until 1930 and even then it had no regular definition until 1933. The term ‘musical’ is now referred to or combined with generic terms such as backstage, romantic, western, slapstick, etc. However, these terms all have historical and hierarchical value that separates them from the musical but their broad construct provides little clarity for the viewers. This means genres are left to coexist amongst one another and as changes develop the devices used to define different genres blur into another. Unlike the history of the undiscovered world, genre terms are more generic and the events that lead from one category to the next are interchangeable at any point of time. Without specifying the point in history that identifies the occurrence or development of a certain genre, the terminology holds little meaning and leaves the spectator confused as to the genre of the film viewed. The broad generic constructs used for genre terminologies means that the process used to determine different genres is not encumbrance by fixed grids. In the Darwinian process of evolution the new genus is guaranteed purity due to the extinction of the previous form disappearing forever. However, in genre the previous categories continue to exist in their purist form and then cross breed into any other genre that has existed before to create new forms. This limitless process that offers multiple imaginative options that are not bound to a single synchronic chart allow for genres to draft new directions that do not end.
Rousseau borrowed the term melodrama from the Italian synonym (substitute/replacement) for opera to describe his play and the term has since been a major focal point. The main approach to genre continuity is maintained because of universal preferences and not for the body of films or growing categories involved. The terms used in articles to define literary and film genres are forms of universal human tendencies required as expressions of understanding. The generic terminology used is a much needed tool for critics in their analysis of the universal products context put into culture regularly and helps justify their findings or positions on them. The creators of these products continually attempt to destroy these genre terms by creating new cycles only for them to be genrified in some form. Eventually the products would be folded into the universally known or sanctioned genre as critics use repeated differences within the new products to categorise them. The term melodrama has been understood through the excess of “weepies” from the forties and the films of Douglas Sirk in the fifties. The inconsistency within the term has been analysed by critics recently starting with Russell Merritt in 1983. The progression of film history has resulted in earlier generic analysis being criticized for diminishing the broad genre into cycles of films or period of time. An example is Tom Schatz limiting the western to the films of John Ford and the post-1939 time as perceived by Tag Gallager. In the tittle “Melodrama: Postmortem for a Phantom Genre” by Russell Merritt the suggestion is made that film critics have analysed and written about the term melodrama as “self-evidently clear and coherent”. . He suggests that despite recent critics deeming the term to be introspective, psychological, women’s genre; earlier in cinema melodrama actually referred to action, adventure, and working-class men films. Using the silent cinema period of criticism Merritt and Singer question the usage of the term melodrama. Richard Koszarski studies the silent-feature melodrama subgenres that highlight the villain-hero-heroine triangle, true to type characters and visually powerful confrontations instead of the self-sacrificing psychology of downtrodden women expressed in recent definitions of the genre. Steve Neale is the first scholar to directly challenge the inconsistency concerning previous and recent definitions of the melodrama films and related terms. Studying the terms (meller, melodramatic) from the trade journal Variety between 1938-1959 and selected films from 1925-1938, he discovers the term meant precisely the same thing during that key period. Therefore films featuring women or aimed at female audiences are rarely labelled as melodrama, meller, or melodramatic since their absent of the essential conventional elements traditionally required by the trades point of view to define the term. Film criticism and production are two sides of the same industry trade as Neale notes however, their interest and practices diverge and later recognising the importance of these effects. The methods used by Neale are less important than his purposes or results even though he states no precise conclusions; the article demonstrates that scholars mistake the term melodrama and is now often called the “woman’s film”. Improper use of the term when discussing the weepies has led to the systematic misuse of the term by critics and generations of feminist critics used it to denote female-oriented films from the forties and fifties.
Merritt, Singer and Neale, imply that current definitions are wrong however other principles might exist for the problem and in-order to discover them a history of the construction of the woman’s film and its connection to the melodrama genre needs to be traced. In 1974 Molly Haskell was among the first critics to define the genre a woman’s film centres the story on a woman at the core.
“Among the Anglo-American critical brotherhood (and a few of their sisters as well), the term “woman’s film” is used disparagingly to conjure up the image of the pinched-virgin or little-old-lady writer, spilling out her secret longings in wish fulfillment or glorious martyrdom, and transmitting these fantasies to the frustrated housewife. . . . As a term of critical opprobrium, “woman’s film” carries the implication that women, and therefore women’s emotional problems, are of minor significance. . . . At the lowest level, as soap opera, the “woman’s film” fills a masturbatory need, it is soft-core emotional porn for the frustrated housewife. The weepies are founded on a mock-Aristotelian and politically conservative aesthetic whereby women spectators are moved, not by pity and fear but by self-pity and tears, to accept, rather than reject, their lot. That there should be a need and ail audience for such an opiate suggests an unholy amount of real misery. And that a term like “woman’s film” can be summarily used to dismiss certain films, with no further need on the part of the critic to make distinctions and explore the genre, suggests some of the reasons for this misery.”
The films are structured for the women to accept rather than reject their female counter parts and the notion that this is necessary for the woman’s film puts real misery onto the term. The pity is that the term can be used by critics to dismiss certain films without exploring or trying to making distinctions in the genre. This reveals the purpose for feminist critics in attempting to revitalise and challenge the perception of the woman’s film as a term and genre. In citing famous heroines such Anna Karenia and Emma Bovary along with examples from films previously known as melodramas, film noirs, dramas or screwball comedies; she defines four subgenres of the ‘woman’s film’ identifiable through the type of activity the heroine is engaged (such as – sacrifice, affliction, choice or competition). Succession of the genre was accomplished by the critic instead of production and this broadening of the definition is delayed between the period of production and critical intervention. The strengthening of the term is formed from other genres and revitalises the genre to more than simple misery films that centre on pitiful female characters.
“The ‘woman’s film’ is not a ‘pure’ genre – a fact which may partially determine the male critic’s derogatory dismissal of such films. It is crossed and informed by a number of other genres or types melodrama, film noir, the gothic or horror film and finds its point of unification ultimately in the fact of its address“
Mary Ann Doane argues that the genre is used to dismiss certain films and it’s not a pure genre consolidating one form of film but other genre types/films. Emerging genres cannot appear to be pure due to their evolving generic content that transforms and consists of other different genres for existence.
Doane’s use of the term ‘woman’s film’ by attaching it to other diverse pre-existing genres means that the modified nature of its use prevents the woman’s film from gaining independence as a genre. The term carried quotation marks with Doane 1984 and Haskell 1974, surrounding it with no legitimacy and continued subjection during the period by critics to quotation marks left the term no consequential standing. The quotation marks began to disappear in the states following the practice started in the England by critics such as Claire Johnston, Annette Kuhn and Pam Cook. The critical community began using the term in the new form, except for a few male critics (such as Robert Lang and David Cook) that remained with the previous version. Doane refers to the woman’s film as a genre however the hesitation remains around the new formed category. Analysis of this term is advantageous in understanding female spectatorship and the prejudice surrounding its address to the female viewer. The removal of the quotation marks by Doane shows her vindication or acceptance of the woman’s film as a genre. “The woman’s film undoubtedly does not constitute a genre in the technical sense of the term, insofar as the unity of a genre is generally attributed to consistent patterns in thematic content, iconography, and narrative structure. The heterogeneity of the woman’s film as a category is exemplified by the disparity between gothic films such as Undercurrent (1946) or Dragonwyck (1946), influenced by film noir and the conventions of the thriller, and a love story such as Back Street (1941) or a maternal melodrama such as To Each His Own (1946). But the group does have a coherence and that coherence is grounded in its address to a female spectator. The woman’s film, quite simply, attempts to engage female subjectivity.”
The genre is tangible through its concept to appeal to the female spectator and also to images of female preconceptions. Doane appears contradictory in her analysis however Altman perceives this as the process to changing the woman’s film status. This suggestion does not imply that Doane is alone in turning miscellaneous old films into a widely recognised genre however; Altman claims that her book establishes the woman’s film as a genre. In assimilating the genre with other already established genres and pointing out that melodramatic films are associated with the “feminine” form linking it closely with the woman’s film. In assimilating the genre with other already established genres and pointing out that melodramatic films are associated with the “feminine” form linking it closely with the woman’s film.
In analysing the connection from melodrama to the woman’s film Doane follows the finds initiated by Laura Mulvey and Tania Modleski along with attending conferences and using colloquia from the early 80’s onwards.”Because it foregrounds sacrifice and suffering, incarnating the ‘weepie’ aspect of the genre, the maternal melodrama is usually seen as the paradigmatic type of the woman’s film”
Modleski redefines the approach by identifying the origin of the term hysteria to the female anatomy. This allows for her to hypothesis that the hysterical nature of melodramas has been synonymous with the term woman’s film as displayed through the history of the genre. Legitimacy of the woman’s film as genre would be achievable if removal of the quotations marks was abandoned to support a generic status and established it fully as the equal representation of the other traditional genres.
“a clue as to why for a large period of film history melodrama and the ‘woman’s film’ have been virtually synonymous terms“
The woman’s film has been supported by copying observations made from Thomas Elsaesser’s 1972 article. The topic of Elsaesser is supposedly analysing a particular type of melodrama (the family) and his elaborately stated conclusions have been regarded as associating all melodramas as whole. The assumption that family melodramas are identical to the melodrama is disputed by Elsaesser and Robert Lang summarizes this position identifying that family melodrama represents the melodrama’s true subject while other films are simply melodramatic.
Critics promoted the woman’s film during the 80’s and aided it to become the main body for all the other female-oriented film phases within other genres. The family melodrama was a minor melodramatic subgenre representing all other melodramas and once it was established as a genre the link was formed redefining both terms into one through the common goal of addressing primarily a female audience.
“Like the parallel move made by western and musical from adjective to substantive, the slide from “woman’s film” to woman’s film carries far more than simple grammatical ramifications. Once it could be divorced from specific films and pre-existing genres, the woman’s film was free to take on a life of its own, drawing to its corpus virtually any film apparently addressed to women. But not just films. Tania Modleski (Loving ) and Jane Feuer (”Melodrama”) stress the importance of gothic romances and television soap operas for any study of woman’s film. Starting with Annette Kuhn’s 1982 Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema and E. Ann Kaplan’s 1983 Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera , the corpus was expanded to include not only classic Hollywood films, popular novels, and television programs, but also recent films and videos produced by women.”
The woman’s film if unleashed from other specific films and pre-existing genres could absorb practically any films correlated to women. Escalation of the term woman’s film has expanded into a multimedia banner by Annette Kuhn, Jane Feuer, and E. Ann Kaplan to include novels, television programmes and video’s produced by women.
1. The genre constitution process is not limited to a cycle’s or genre’s first appearance. It would be convenient indeed if all generic categories, once constituted, could be counted on to remain forever stationary. The benefits of such a stable system shine so brightly that a number of critics have declared undying allegiance to original industry-spawned definitions. Yet it must be manifest that industry interests in novelty guarantee a constantly shifting generic map. Neither melodrama as a category nor melodramatic texts have stayed the same since Pixérécourt, Belasco, and Griffith any more than comedy has remained stable since the Greeks. It would indeed be convenient if genre stability were guaranteed, but it is decidedly not so, and our genre theories must be established accordingly.
2. Taking one version of the genre as representative of the genre as a whole is not only a common practice, it is a normal step in the regenrification process. Rhetorically, the most effective method of redefining a genre is not to do so overtly, but rather to promote a subset of the genre to a representative position. When Northrop Frye needed to define comedy in a particular manner, in order to fit conveniently into his overall pattern of mythoi, he simply appointed New Comedy as the only worthy bearer of comedy’s flag. Recognizing the importance to the Greeks of both Aristophanes’ Old Comedy tradition and of Menander’s New Comedy strain, Frye nevertheless claims that “today, when we speak of comedy, we normally think of something that derives from the Menandrine tradition” (”The Argument” 58). Stretching the notion of comedy beyond its original theatrical meaning to cover all media, Frye effectively redefined comedy for a generation of critics. A similar logic governs the common attempt, initiated by Jerome Delamater, to build an “integrated musical” genre around films produced by Arthur Freed for MGM during the forties and fifties.
3. Most generic labels carry sufficient prestige that they are retained for the designation of newly formed genres, even when they are only partially appropriate. Frye could have chosen to label one of his mythoi simply as New Comedy , but such a designation sounds limited and neo-logistic as compared to the traditional and powerful simplicity of just plain comedy . Delamater might well have treated the “integrated musical” as one of many subgenres of the musical. Instead, the integrated approach to the musical is termed the genre’s “Platonic ideal” and attention to the MGM musical is justified accordingly: “Choosing to concentrate on the MGM musical is based on more than judgmental whim, however. The MGM musical seems to contain every element which characterizes the musical as a genre. The concepts of the star vehicle, studio style, the producer’s touch, and the Platonic ideal of the integrated musical come together at MGM and become manifest in many of that studio’s films from the late-1930s to the mid-1950s” (130). In passing, we may note that Delamater uses the term MGM inaccurately, if purposefully. During the period in question, three units produced musicals concurrently at MGM, led by producers Jack Cummings, Arthur Freed, and Joe Pasternak.
4. Any group of films may at any time be generically redefined by contemporary critics. One of the founding principles of genre study is the importance of reading texts in the context of other similar texts. We have seen how studios may provide those very texts. Immediately following the success of Disraeli , Warners failed to produce films that would ensure a biopic-oriented reading of Disraeli . After the unexpected success of The Story of Louis Pasteur , however, Warners produced a series of films guaranteeing that Pasteur would be understood through a particular tradition, that of the newly identified biopic. But producers are not the only ones who can establish a context of films within which a given film will be read. Just as Frye ensured that Molière would be read within a New Comedy context, rather than against the Old Comedy?related slapstick tradition, the romance-oriented comedy-ballet mode, or the tragic dark comedy strain (each of which many of Molière’s plays fit just as well as New Comedy), so Elsaesser and the rehabilitators of the woman’s film have ensured that, say, Sirk’s Tarnished Angels (1957) would be read in the unexpected context of Stella Dallas (1937) and Rebecca (1940), films that another era would have placed in entirely different genres. Placing films that include a great deal of male action, like most of Sirk’s later work, in the context of films built around female performers and domestic plots, has the effect of concentrating critical attention on Sirk’s women, thus transferring his films effectively from one genre to another.
5. In the regenrification process, critics regularly take on the cycle-formation function previously associated only with film production. To some recent genre theorists, for whom traditional genre definitions remain sacrosanct, the process of generic redefinition may seem unauthorized, interventionist, and thus undesirable. Yet as treated here, critics’ recourse to regenrification as part of their critical and rhetorical arsenal is entirely expected, reasonable, and in any case not preventable. Feminist critics are thus not wrong to redefine the woman’s film and family melodrama, they are simply going about their business. Though we often like to think of ourselves as objective and distanced from our objects of study, we too have objectives and needs, we too must differentiate our products from those of rival critics. In other words, today’s critics find themselves in the same position vis-à-vis yesterday’s films as yesterday’s producers vis-à-vis day-before-yesterday’s films. Just as producers would assay a successful film, replicating certain aspects in order to initiate a successful cycle, so critics in all periods assess recent criticism, replicating certain aspects of successful publications in order to initiate a successful critical cycle. But those same critics also assay groups of films, creating new cycles in support of their own interests. The redefinition and rehabilitation of the woman’s film and family melodrama provide a particularly clear example of this process.
6. Studio-initiated cycles become genres only through industrywide adoption of their basic characteristics. This rule governs both studio-produced and critic-initiated cycles: until a cycle is consecrated as a genre by industrywide recognition, it remains a cycle. Thus family melodrama, first constituted as a cycle by Thomas Elsaesser, became a genre virtually replacing melodrama when first Tom Schatz and then the feminist critics previously cited reiterated in their analyses Elsaesser’s implied corpus, context, and reading formation. The woman’s film in turn remained no more than a cycle, slightly redefined from contemporary critical usage, until its quotation marks were removed and its affinities with the newly redefined family melodrama were discovered.