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Research Project

"Based on a True Story:" American Melodrama and Cultural Analysis 

This project asks: can the affective and emotional strategies that define the American filmic melodrama be regarded as useful tools for a future feminist politics, or is the melodramatic mode detrimental to such a politics?

In her essay "Melodrama Revisited" Linda Williams notes that melodrama "should be viewed [...] not as an excess or an aberration but in many ways as the typical form of American popular narrative in literature, stage, film, and television." According to Williams, it is "in ever modernizing forms of melodrama, not epic, not 'classical realism,' that American democratic culture has most powerfully articulated the moral structure of feeling that animates its goals of justice". Somewhat counter-intuitively, social conditions and conflicts might be far more effectively staged in the emotionally charged and affective atmospheres of melodrama than in realism.

Situated at the interface of affect theory, social and cultural criticism and film studies, this project takes up the dramatization of questions of gender positioning and production in both classic and contemporary filmic melodrama as an entry into a wider analysis of the relentless and seemingly inevitable melodramatism(s) of American popular art and culture. 

Have filmic melodramas newly taken up female experiences and empowerments that have not hitherto been expressed? Can and should the melodramatizations and emotional intensifications inherent in American culture, especially their assumption of a shared, ultimately humanist agenda and approach to gender constructions and organizations, be aligned with a feminist politics? Are a politics of affect a useful platform for bringing about social change? In the light of these questions, an analysis of American melodramatizations, both artistic and cultural, is a necessary step towards the development of a melodramatic, or perhaps a 'post-melodramatic', feminist politics.