Lauren Berlant: “The Female Complaint”



“Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking” 1. Popular culture

“market[s] what is sensational about the complaint, speaking from a pretense to skewer an open secret that has been opened and skewered, in US culture, since at least the 1830s. Fusing feminine rage and feminist rage, each has its own style of hailing the wounded to testify, to judge, to yearn, and to think beyond the norms of sexual difference, a little… [they] foreground witnessing witnessing and explaining women’s disappointment… they are also sentimental, and therefore ambivalent: they trust affective knowledge and irrational assurance more than truths of any ideology; they associate femininity with the pleasures, burdens, and virtues of emotional expertise and track its methods in different situations; they focus on the sacrifice of women’s emotional labor to a variety of kinds of callousness, incompetence, and structural inequity; they catalog strategies of bargaining, adaptation, and flouting the rules. But in popular culture ambivalence is seen as the failure of a relation, the opposite of happiness, rather than as an inevitable condition of intimate attachment and a pleasure in its own right”1.

The “thrilling encounter with pleasure, foreboding, and disappointment familiar to fans of the soap opera and the melodrama” might be placed on a spectrum with the type personality of the sitcom 2. “Complaint genres” blame “flawed men and bad ideologies” for “women’s intimate suffering,” but also “maintain some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place” 2. This is a “vigilance” in “recording how other women manage” – “a space of disappointment, not disenchantment” 2. The sentimentality lies in the American “love affair with conventionality,” as well as with the “tomorrow is another day” attitude that demonstrates a “confidence in the critical intelligence of affect, emotion, and good intention… agency that is focused on ongoing adaptation… transcending the world as it presents itself” 2.

Such “permission to thrive” constitutes “permission to live small but to feel large; to live large but to want what is normal too; to be critical without detaching from disappointing and dangerous worlds and objects of desire… the aesthetically expressed desire to be somebody in a world where the default is being nobody” 3.

“Thus to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world. To love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them. The convention is not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but it is also sometimes a profound placeholder that provides an affective confirmation of the idea of a shared confirming imaginary in advance of inhabiting a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived. In popular culture, when conventionality is not being called a homogenizing threat to people’s sovereignty and singularity it is seen as a true expression of something both deep and simple in the human… I span the term’s normative and aesthetic senses and claim that the mass mediation of desires in women’s genres constructs a deep affinity between them” 3.

A genre “mediates what is singular, in the details, and general about the subject. It is a form of aesthetic expectation with porous boundaries allowing complex audience identifications: it locates real life in the affective capacity to bracket many kinds of structural and historical antagonism on behalf of finding a way to connect with the feeling of belonging to a larger world, however aesthetically mediated” 4.

“To call an identity like a sexual identity a genre is to think about it as something repeated, detailed, and stretched while retaining its intelligibility, its capacity to remain readable or audible across the field of all its variations. For femininity to be a genre like an aesthetic one means that it is a structure of conventional expectation that people rely on to provide certain kinds of affective intensities and assurances” 4.

Importantly, for Berlant, this means that ‘performativity’ often means variations within convention, rahter than “dramas of potentially frame-breaking alternativity” 4. The swerves a genre takes as “transgressions” on the way to the ultimate end are often part of the convention: “women’s culture always contains episodes of refusal and creative contravention to feminine normativity, even as it holds tightly to some versions of the imaginable conventional good life in love” 4. “The gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real – social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life… one of the main utopias is normativity itself… an aspirational site of rest and recognition in and by a social world” 5.

“An intimate public operates when a market opens up to a bloc of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires… participants… feel as though it expresses what is common among them, a subjective likeness that seems to emanate from their history and their ongoing attachments and actions… seems to confirm the sense that even before there was a market addressed to them, there existed a world of strangers who would be emotionally literate in each other’s experience of power, intimacy, desire, and discontent, with all that entails… ‘Women’s culture’ was the first such mass-marketed intimate public in the United States of significant scale” 5.

“As long as they have had a public sphere, bourgeois white women writers have mobilized fantasies of what black and working-class interiority based on suffering must feel like in order to find a language for their own more privileged suffering at the hands of other women, men, and callous institutions [The Help!]… Compassionate liberalism is, at best, a kind of sandpaper on the surface of the racist monument whose structural and economic solidity endures: in the intimate sphere of femininity a kind of soft supremacy rooted in compassion and coercive identification wants to dissolve all that structure… while busily exoticizing and diminishing the inconvenient and the noncompliant… But… intimate spheres feel like ethical places…” 6. [vs Mad Men?]

“The problem at hand is of naming what appears when a collectivity is historically created by biopower, class antagonism, nationalism, imperialism, and/or the law and, at the same time, is engendered by an ongoing social life mediated by capital and organized by all kinds of pleasure… Intimate publics elaborate themselves through a commodity culture; have an osmotic relation to many modes of life; and are organized by fantasies of transcending” 8.

“Biopower has indeed reorganized individuals into populations deemed incompetent to the privileges of citizenship… fields of historical commonality that are at once specifically related to events… and to what it was like back in the day” 9.

“A public is intimate when it foregrounds affective and emotional attachments located in fantasies of the common, the everyday, and a sense of ordinariness, a space where the social world is rich with anonymity and local recognitions… textually mediated: as Miriam Hansen has argued, modern publics required stylistic strategies and modes of narration to absorb viewers into textually constructed positions of general subjectivity that also served the historical convergence of social and economic objectives [think Williams and the code and Mulvey and the gaze]…. in mass society, what counts as collectivity has been a loosely organized, market-structured juxtapolitical sphere of people attached to each other by a sense that there is a common emotional world available to those individuals who have been marked by the historical burden of being harshly treated in a generic way… a sense of lateral identification… revelations of what is personal, regardless of how what is persona has itself been threaded through mediating institutions and social hierarchy” 10 [think faceting!]

“Mass-mediated popular culture is always generating more opportunities for fomenting a sense of focused belonging to an evolving world in this intensely connected yet mediated way… Belonging to an intimate public is therefore a condition of feeling general within a set of porous constraints, and of feeling held or sustained by an evolving sense of experience that confirms some homogeneity and elaborates social distinctions” 13.

Disappointment and fulfillment are “partners” in the culture of women and love: “Each is central to the absorbing anxiety that gets animated by having an object of desire” 13. In Lacanian terms, “the loss of pleasure, then, can be defined as the insufferable interruption of a repetition with which a lover has identified the optimism of a fundamental attachment” 14.

“Love is the gift that keeps on giving when people can rely on reexperiencing their intimates’ fundamental sympathy with the project of repetition and recognition [importance of ‘tomorrow’]… Love is the gift that keeps on taking for the same reason: the search for mirroring (desire) demands constant improvisation (anxiety) and taking of accounts (disappointment)” 15.

When a success, this is called reciprocity. For Jacqueline Rose, “anxiety is the core affect of femininity, which operates under an imperative never to fail to stop working on itself” 16.

“In women’s culture, normative femininity and aesthetic conventionality constitute the real central couple, with the love plot as the vehicle for and object of desire. Spivak’s description of the ‘concept/metaphor’ that is simultaneously descriptive and transformative is useful here… for not changing, but adapting, propping the play of surface against a stubborn demand to remain in proximity to the promise” 19.

“For a woman committed to romantic fantasies of love as reciprocity to break with the normative emotional bargains is to threaten her participation in the good life that seems to unfold from desire and to be maintained by ordinary emotional labor. The sentimental bargain of femininity… receives her own value back not only in the labor of recognition she performs but in the sensual spectacle of its impacts. In this discursive field the emotional labor of women places them at the center of the story of what counts as life, regardless of what lives women actually live: the conjuncture of family and romance so structures the emergence of modern sexuality, with its conflation of sexual and emotional truths, and in that nexus femininity marks the scene of the reproduction of life as a project… to be proximate to this story of emotional centrality. The circularity of the feminine project… is a perfect form, a sphere infused with activities of ongoing circuits of attachment that can at the same time look and feel like a zero” 19. [think Joan Holloway Harris]

“The mechanism of sentimental saturation of the intimate sphere with materials and signs of consumer citizenship has been crucial to what Mark Seltzer has called the ‘pathological public sphere’ of the contemporary US… the sensationalism of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Uncle Tom genealogy is notable precisely because its sensationalism was a politically powerful suturing device of a bourgeois revolutionary aesthetic” 20.

Why write the history of these privileged, mostly white and straight women, Berlant asks? “For too long the only importance a counterpublic has had to intellectuals is its convertibility to politics… to make transgression and resistance the values against which the data were measured” 24. Berlant turned away from a cultural history of these artifacts and toward affect and intimate publics 26. Because not all life is political, “it seems important to understand what is absorbing in the defensive, inventive, and adaptive activity of getting by, along with the great refusals to go through power to attain legitimacy” 27. (The repetition of absorbing here is so interesting – given what it says about TV/femininity/absorption as lack of intelligence vs action as exercising intelligence.)

The chapter on Imitation of Life “develops a notion of prosthetic subjectivity and prosthetic bodies as vehicles for self-generalization, or leaving history behind through identification with celebrity… To identify with someone in mass society is not necessarily to want to be them or to have them, but to be freed from being who you are, with all of its burdensome historical determinations. To see identification as a departure from rather than an imitation of might seem ironic in a chapter on imitating life, but the imitators turn out all to have chosen bad objects in their flights from their historical (racial, classed, sexual, and gendered) unfreedom” 29. It is also about the “white supremacy” invoked by films that exploit the sorrow of black pain.

“Each chapter closes with an opening, a segment of ‘unfinished business.’… to unpredicted destinies of material in the chapter that precedes them… what happens when a capitalist culture effectively markets conventionality as the source and solution to the problem of living in worlds that are economically, legally, and normatively not on the side of almost anyone’s survival, let alone flourishing. Nonetheless, flourishing happens” 31.

“For many people, sentimentality and the fantasy of a better proximate world so close that one can experience it affectively without being able to live it objectively produces art that does, that transports people somewhere into a situation for a minute… the terror of detaching… the emphasis is on the process of bargaining with what there is… most revision and adaptation is the activity of making change take place, even if it is also usually the opposite of that, and a mirage… endings can be made into openings” 31. [again, yonic]


Berlant begins with Passing, suggesting that Irene does not so much desire Clare as desire to be in her body – to experience ‘passing’ 109. The ‘mulatta’ is “the paradigm problem citizen” 111. In the novel and both film versions of Imitation of Life, “the white woman struggles to achieve economic success and national fame while living in a quasi-companionate couple with the black woman, who does the domestic labor; the black woman, who is also instrumental in the white woman’s mastery of commodity culture, remains a loyal domestic employee, even in the wealthy days” 112. Importantly, it is with money that “their bodies reemerge as obstacles, sites of pain and signs of hierarchy” and Annie’s death “from heartbreak effectively and melodramatically signals the end of this experiment in a female refunctioning of the national public sphere” 113.

Moving from novel to film to film, the source of “passing” moves from a husband (Bea Pullman, with Delilah as the logo) to Delilah herself (Bea, with Delilah still as the logo) to Lora as the public entity entirely (and Annie as the domestic labor support) 113. In the first case, men connect Bea to “the public sphere and capitalist enterprise” 115. When Mr. Pullman dies and Bea finds herself pregnant, she is “imbricated more deeply into separate spheres: the domestic/maternal and the public/capitalist… an impossible position, mapped out according to two mutually reified gender logics” 117. In the novel and Stahl’s film, “when Delilah stands framed in the store’s plate glass window making her authentic pancakes, the mise-en-scene of capitalist aesthetics merges with actual production” 118.

“Because Bea herself is so desperately liminal, masquerading as the difference between the white man’s name and the black woman’s body, she has no consciousness of her privilege. Rather, like Delilah’s light-skinned daughter, Peola, Bea has the perverse opportunity to capitalize on racist patriarchal culture by creating a compensatory ‘body’ to distract from the one already marked by the colonial digit” 119. Delilah becomes the trademark – ” a consensual mechanism” who “triangulates with the customer and the commodity… a ‘second skin’ that enables the commodity to appear to address, to recognize, and thereby to ‘love’ the consumer” 120. When she dies, part of her well-attended funeral is due to this “facsimile” which has “legitimated blackness in public white culture” 121. “The recurrent success montage that traces Delilah’s transformation into a trademark begins by emitting the same odor of racist expropriation that permeates Hurst’s novel. For Bea takes Delilah’s pancake recipe, her maternal inheritance, and turns it into a business; she takes Delilah’s face and turns it into a cartoon trademark. Stahl stages Delilah in this scene as a buffoon, a position that provides her an opportunity for ironic commentary” 125. (It’s interesting that Stahl flips this logo over and over again…)

If Delilah signs over her body thus, but still critiques the system in her “perplexity” about “where the blame lies,” Peola is focused on becoming “less meaningful and more American” 130. In this early version, “national nostalgia for a safe domestic space was played out in commodity culture through the production and transcendence of a black trademark” 132. Sirk’s film “pulls back the black trademark’s curtain and reveals the white woman hovering there: in one of the great tu quoque sequels of our time, his… exposes the form of the white woman to the commodification she has for so long displaced onto the black woman’s body” 132. Berlant maps Lora’s progress from face above the Coney Island sign to disembodied face to the point of fame where “women in the audience mime her look so that projection of her visual image is no longer necessary to transmit to us her dominion in the national/capitalist space of fantasy consumption” 133.

The main argument against Lora’s career is that “public life is ‘imitation’ and private life is ‘real’ where women are concerned” 136. Sarah Jane’s role is that of “internal estrangement,” with “no space safe from performance or imitation” 137. “Annie and Steve, who police imitation with an unwavering moral passion, become implicated in female fraudulence by their addiction to it. Steve and Annie assume pain the way Lora and Sarah Jane want pleasure: and if the star-crossed women overinvest in the ecstasy and value of being public objects, the star-crossed blood lovers turn their pain into its own kind of spectacle,” showing not just “the prosthetic public female body” but “the problem of the female body itself becomes a commodity” 139.

Sirk films the funeral scene through windows for “costume rentals” and “fakery,” and insisted that Mahalia Jackson should have read as grotesque to viewers, rather than moving. The problem of the racialized body becomes one of suppressing evidence 140.

“One of the main ways a woman mimes the prophylaxis of citizenship” is marriage – “borrowing the corporeal logic of an other, or a fantasy of that logic, and adopting it as a prosthesis… But marriage turns out to embody and violate the woman more than it is worth. Thus other forms of bodily suppression have been devised. This is how racial passing, religion, bourgeois style, capitalism, and sexual camp have served the woman… this ameliorative strategy has become the ‘trademark’ of female existence across race and class and sexual preference” in Sirk’s film 141. The text belies the reality that existence in public space will never truly emancipate the white woman, and certainly not the black woman, who remains a laborer even in the house of the “nicest” white woman 142.



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