Women and “Women’s Films”

What is a film movement? What is a film genre? Janey Place writes that a film movement occurs “in specific historical periods of national stress and focus of energy,” whereas genre “[exists] through time.”

For example, Place identified film noir as a film movement. Melodrama, on the other hand, is far more problematic.

I have yet to find a better definition for melodrama than Thomas Elsaesser’s. He defines it as “a dramatic narrative in which musical accompaniment marks the emotional effects,” as it “allows melodramatic elements to be seen as constituents of a system of punctuation, giving expressive colour and chromatic contrast to the storyline by orchestrating the emotional ups and downs of the intrigue.”

To this, I would add that melodrama also welcomes investigations of the disturbances of films that clash with the dominant ideology of a patriarchal society in which men dominate and women are understood as inferior (whether symbolically or not).

This type of investigation drove 1960s Marxist film criticism to look to, as Christine Gledhill puts it, “formal analysis in order to assess the complicity or subversiveness of a work.”

Gledhill, however, argues that “melodrama’s challenge lies not in confronting how things are, but rather in asserting how they ought to be. But since it operates within the framework of the present social order, melodrama conceives ‘the promise of human life’ not as a revolutionary future, but rather as a return to a ‘golden past,'” in which “Edenic home and family, centering on the heroine as ‘angel in the house,” are key.

The ‘Angel in the House’ feminine character is defined by Ren Aihong as a popular Victorian image of the ideal wife/woman: “The ‘Angel’ was passive, powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all pure.”

Although the ‘Angel in the House’ stereotype is said to be best represented by the self-sacrificing mother of the maternal melodrama, I find those of Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) and Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) far from stereotypical.

Douglas Sirk’s works fuel many discussions on 50s Hollywood melodrama; stylization in his films make for exciting investigations of the Marxist mould.

Elsaesser agrees that Sirk’s works follow melodrama’s sublimation of “dramatic conflict into décor, colour, gesture and composition of frame, which in the best melodramas is perfectly thematized in terms of the characters’ psychological predicaments.” Examples of such sublimation abound in Sirk’s films, including soundscape and acting performances: “Robert Stack’s voice in Written on the Wind [sounds] as if every word had to be painfully pumped up from the bottom of one of his oil wells.”

It is important to consider that the melodrama has traditionally been accosted to a female audience, which explains the term “woman’s film.” While she sees Sirk’s works as exceptions (especially The Tarnished Angels and Written on the Wind), Laura Mulvey insists that “Hollywood films made with a female audience in mind evoke contradictions rather than reconciliation,” excluding not only the existence of a predominantly feminine narrative style in cinema but also highlighting the futility of the investigation of films for ideological disturbances.

I disagree with her. There definitely were films made for female audiences, as is shown by trade reviews of the time. A Variety review of Stella Dallas from 1937 reads: “There are things about the story that will not appeal to some men, but … the wallop is inescapably there for femmes.”

Furthermore, the huge success of “women’s films” with female audiences, which remains true to this day, is plain to see.

I also doubt that Mulvey arrived at the aforementioned conclusion without looking at and examining the fissures and contradictions of film melodramas. Then again, this would have meant a study of individual films over the sweeping generalization that has defined the vast majority of her writings on film.


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