Jennifer Hayward, “Consuming Pleasures”


Jennifer Hayward’s treatise on “active audiences” and serial fictions moves from Dickens to melodrama to soap operas in its scope. Hayward highlights the “low” quality of her texts: “Again we see the serial audience equated both with femininity and immaturity, and the texts themselves with pernicious social influences” 7. Yet she urges against using the master’s tools to undo the master’s house [is this really what hooks meant by that phrase?] – that is, she cautions against arguing for the uniqueness or exceptional value of some of these texts above others. Instead, she wants to consider them as potentially collaborative spaces that incorporate many characters and marginalized figures [Woloch]. “It is time to stop mourning a lost authenticity and start acknowledging – and working to increase – the real power that audiences can have over mass culture” 20. (I would like to compare this to Lauren Berlant’s use of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” in The Female Complaint).

Hayward’s emphasis on the self-effacing nature of the serial is clear – Dickens, comic strips, and soap operas are not meant for preservation. (I will have to argue differently for postmodern novels and serial TV.) She flirts with the double-edged sword of gender essentialism in this chapter: “Critics such as Tania Modleski and Robert C. Allen have seen soaps’ decentered narratives and refusal of closure as reflecting essential differences between male and female ways of knowing and experience of temporality… obstacles between desire and fulfillment” 141. However, “the trope of refusal of closure reflects the material conditions of generic development” in the soap, and we should stop before we diachronically represent all female production in a certain vein 141. What she focuses on is the fact that most soaps are still focused on women and written by women, and that women still collaboratively read, write, and respond to them 143. She concludes:

“Serial producers and consumers actively appropriate what has long been perceived as a junk genre and recycle it, transforming it to satisfy audience desire for a collaborative narrative experience. Because of their continued accountability to consumers, inscribing responsiveness to audiences within the production process, serials may offer cultural models for material transformation, models that come not from the directives of academic critics, not from marginal pockets of cultural resistance, but from within mass culture itself as a result of the influence of fans’ voices over time… a past that allows a viable future” 196.



Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”


As the self-proclaimed “inventor” of reader response theory, Stanley Fish remains a controversial figure. One of many critics to overturn the centrality of the text to New Criticism, Fish nevertheless ruffled feathers even in his own community of thinkers (Wolfgang Iser wonders how Fish’s refusal to acknowledge subjectivist readerly tendencies can account for different readings of the same text). Nonetheless, his ideas remain highly influential; I am particularly interested in how a focus on the reader can help us understand the way that viewer assimilates new knowledge over time, especially in a long-form text that the reader enters and exits, and which is so clearly imbricated in the period of life they spend consuming it. It is worth comparing Fish’s “interpretive communities” to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” a term Lauren Berlant uses in The Female Complaint. 

Fish uses the Milton variorum, with its “surveying of the critical history of a work in order to find disputes that rested upon a base of agreement with the experience of a work, and argued that formalist criticism, because it is spatial rather than temporal in its emphases, either ignored or suppressed what is really happening in the act of reading” 2071.

“The facts that I cite as ones ignored by a formalist criticism (premature conclusions, double syntax, misidentification of speakers) are not discovered but created by the criticism I was myself practicing… that a bad (because spatial) model had suppressed what has really happening – loses its force because of my realization that the notion ‘really happening’ is just one more interpretation… the problem of accounting for the agreement readers often reach and for the principled ways in which they disagree” 2071.

“It was at this point that I elaborated the notion of interpretive communities as an explanation both for the difference we see – and by seeing make – and for the fact that those differences are not random or idiosyncratic but systemic and conventional” 2071.

“What if the [readerly] controversy is itself regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced?” 2073.

“In other words, it is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page that should be the object of description” 2074.

“In a matter of seconds, then, line 7 has led four experiential lives, one as we anticipate it, another as that anticipation is revised, a third when we retroactively identify its speaker, and a fourth when that speaker disclaims it. What changes in each of these lives is the status of the poet’s murmurings – they are alternately expressed, rejected, reinstated, and qualified – and as the sequence ends, the reader is without a firm perspective on the question of record” 2078 [uncertainty]

“This, then, is the structure of the reader’s experience – the transferring of a moral label from a thing to those who appropriate it. It is an experience that depends on a reader for whom the name Bacchus has precise and immediate associations; another reader, a reader for whom those associations are less precise will not have that experience because he will not have rushed to a conclusion in relation to which the word ‘misused’ will stand as a challenge… the action of the mind which its possession makes possible for one reader and impossible for the other… [to] realize at the end of ti that he has been asked to take a position on one side of a continuing controversy” 2080.

“It would be possible to continue with this profile of the optimal reader, but I would not get very far before someone would point out that what I am really describing is the intended reader, the reader whose education, opinions, concerns, linguistic competences, and so on make him capable of having the experience the author wished to provide… it seems obvious that the efforts of readers are always efforts to discern and therefore to realize (in the sense of becoming) the author’s intention. I would only object if that realization were conceived narrowly, as the single act of comprehending an author’s purpose, rather than (as I would conceive it) as the succession of acts readers perform in the continuing assumption that they are dealing with intentional beings” 2080.

“It would appear that I am open to two objections… the procedure is a circular one. I describe the experience of a reader who in his strategies is answerable to an author’s intention, and I specify the author’s intention by pointing to the strategies employed by that same reader. But this objection would have force only if it were possible to specify one independently of the other. What is being specified… are the conditions of utterance, or what could have been understood to have been meant by what was said… The second objection is another version of the first” if the content of the reader’s experience is the succession of acts he performs in search of an author’s intentions, and if he performs those acts at the bidding of the text, does not the text then produce or contain everything… have I not compromised my antiformalist position? This objection will have force only if the formal patterns of the text are assumed to exist independently of the reader’s experience… they are in the text before the reader comes to it …[but this is] the spectacle of an assertion supporting itself” 2081.

“It is my thesis that the reader is always making sense (I intend ‘making’ to have its literal force), and in the case of these lines the sense he makes will involve the assumption (and therefore the creation) of a completed assertion” 2081. [faceting, facere]

“How easy it is to surrender to the bias of our critical language and begin to talk as if poems, not readers or interpreters, did things. Words like ‘encourage’ and ‘disallow’… imply agents, and it is only ‘natural’ to assign agency first to an author’s intentions and then to the forms that assumedly embody them. What really happens, I think, is something quite different: rather than intention and its formal realization producing interpretation… interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out” 2082.

“What I am suggesting is that formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not ‘in’ the text, and I would make the same argument for intentions” 2083.

“The form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise… what produces them?… if intention, form, and the shape of the reader’s experience are simply different ways of referring to… the same interpretive act, what is that act an interpretation of? I cannot answer that question, but neither… can anyone else, although formalists try to answer it by pointing to patterns and claiming that they are available independently of (prior to) interpretation… I would argue that they do not lie innocently in the world but are themselves constituted by an interpretive act, even if, as is often the case, that act is unacknowledged” 2083.

“What is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy… the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself… I must give up the claims implicitly made in the first part of this essay… that a bad… model had suppressed what was really happening… just one more interpretation” 2085.

“The price one pays for denying the priority of either forms or intentions is an inability to say how it is that one ever begins… why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same…? … both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts, something which produces them” 2085.

“The notions of the ‘same’ or ‘different’ texts are fictions. If I read Lycidas & The Waste Land differently (in fact I do not), it will not be because the formal structures of the two poems (to term them such is also an interpretive decision) call forth different interpretive strategies but because my predisposition to execute different interpretive strategies will produce different formal structures. That is, the two poems are different because I have decided that they will be” 2086.

Augustine advocates the opposite, in a tradition of Christian exegesis: that every reading conform to the scripture and the love of God.

“Why should two or more readers ever agree…? …Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” 2088. (think Marxist critics, often)

“This, then, is the explanation both for the stability of interpretation among different readers (they belong to the same community) and for the regularity with which a single reader will employ different interpretive strategies and thus make different texts (he belongs to different communities). It also explains why there are disagreements and why they can be debated in a principled way: not because of a stability in texts, but because of a stability in the makeup of interpretive communities and therefore in the opposing positions they make possible” 2088 (Althusser/ ISAs).

“The ideal is of perfect agreement and it would require texts to have a status independent of interpretation. The fear is of interpretive anarchy, but it would only be realized if interpretation (text making) were completely random. It is the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities that allows us to talk to one another, but with no hope or fear of ever being able to stop” 2088.

“Interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned… How can any one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us?… The only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” 2089.



dir. Douglas Sirk, “Imitation of Life”


Douglas Sirk’s famous 1959 remake of the 1934 John Stahl film and 1933 Fanny Hurst novel changes a number of key features of the story. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) takes the place of the white heroine Bea Pullman, her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) replaces Jessie, and the live-in help they meet at the beach and hire are not Delilah and Peola but Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Instead of selling pancakes and syrup, Lora Meredith is selling herself here – first as a stage, then a movie actress, offering a sort of meta-commentary on film in film (Lana Turner was incredibly successful at this point, and her wardrobe of over $1 million for the film was the most expensive to date). Steve Archer (John Gavin) remains the love interest Susie falls for, but in this version, after refusing Steve for 12 years for the sake of her career, Lora decides to marry him, with Susie going off to school in Colorado to recover from her crush. In this sense, the novel hierachizes the two female leads more as masculine breadwinner and feminine domestic laborer – a “queerer couple” even than the original film. Sarah Jane runs off and changes her name after being beaten by a white boyfriend who discovers she is “colored.” The massive funeral of the brokenhearted Delilah comes after a trip to see Sarah Jane in L.A., where she is acting and dancing. The funeral, featuring Mahalia Jackson’s gospel singing invites us, as Lauren Berlant points out, to see the scene as satire and melodrama, which Sirk intended. It has nevertheless been read “straight” by many viewers since the film’s release. The spectacle of the funeral, more ostentatious even than any of Lora’s spectacles, reveals to the white woman the entire universe Annie has built, not with fame and notoriety, but action and commitment. The film was largely read as “soap opera” and “melodrama” and only came to be appreciated as one of Sirk’s “masterpieces” later on. The opening credits feature the song “Imitation of Life” Thomas Webster (“without love you’re only living – an imitation, an imitation of life), with weighty, faceted, rainbow-colored falling diamonds piling up and filling the screen, giving the sense of a wall of bubbles as the song concludes.

dir. John Stahl, “Imitation of Life”


In this first version of Fanny Hurst’s novel, released just a year after the book, white Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie take in black Delilah Johnson and her light-skinned daughter Peola as live-in help. Bea markets Delilah’s pancake recipe, literally making her “the face” (like Aunt Jemima) of the business (this unfolds in the film through 2-dimensional renderings of Delilah’s smiling face that are continually flipped over – like pancakes – emphasizing their flatness). Jessie falls in love with Stephen, Bea’s beau, and they play out a comical “Boxer and the Bobby Soxer” routine before Bea refuses him, prioritizing her daughter’s feelings, and promises to come find him when Jessie has recovered. Like the Sirk film, the early version ends with the same grand funeral for Delilah, who dies of a broken heart after Peola abandons her, but here we see Peola “accept her race” and return to her Negro college. (See Lauren Berlant on both films.)


dir. Stanley Kubrick, “Lolita”


Kubrick is a great director, but this is not a great film. There’s a cleverness to starting with Humbert’s murder of Quilty and there are some wonderful locations for the events (it was, after all, not so long after the 1950s in which the novel is set), but even allowing for the limitations of what the Hollywood production code deemed appropriate in 1962, the film sort of withers on the vine. Part of my resistance is undoubtedly a firm attachment to the novel, and I’m not sure you could make a great version of this film back in 1962 (the 1997 Adrian Lyne version, which I much prefer, has the advantage of contemporary production freedoms, to be sure). Still, if you’re going to change the story and its characters, why not write a new (even if similar) story of your own and call it something else? (This is also my beef with the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, though the TV shows are far better.)

Kubrick adds tons of dialogue, a ridiculous school dance scene, and a Lolita who slavishly adores Humbert – her reason for leaving at the end of the film is that she didn’t love him, a phrase that’s present in the book and other film version, but contextualized by the shadow of rape that must attend it. Here, it’s simply another thing she says before hoping she can “keep in touch from Alaska.” What? There’s a key materiality to Lo’s body (and the world around it) that’s just absolutely absent here – there’s no intimation that she needs to stop at the gas station after their first sexual encounter to do anything but make a phone call, and even her pregnancy (in a far too nice-looking house) is so slight that it barely alters her pretty frame from what it was before.

Not to mention the fact that everyone calls the child Lolita – even her mother! What America is this where middling white people name their daughters things like Lolita? What about the fact that his renaming her is a vital part of his violation? It’s less that Kubrick seems to be making deliberate artistic choices to compensate for what he can’t tell (because it’s not a novel) or show (because of the code), and more that it seems like he’s careless with the original work. Again, why not just write a new story then? By starting with the murder and jamming a maddeningly garrulous and neurotic Quilty (where did these traits come from?) into every other scene of the film, Kubrick twists the tale into a competition between two men over a girl who toys with them both, rather than the potentially hallucinatory revelations of a rapist justifying (and pleasurably reliving) his experiences.

The one scene I love is the fight scene at Beardsley, which is really almost as good as the 1997 movie. The other thing that’s nice is Kubrick’s repetition of what’s “normal,” and his demonstration of how desperately Lo wants normalcy over and above everything else (this reminds me of Lauren Berlant’s “imagined communities”). “You have a nice normal face,” Quilty even says to Humbert. Still, the issue with the film is that it is less about pattern than repetition, and this is an important distinction. Without pattern (repetition with a difference), the ways into Lo’s personhood are blocked – you can’t film this completely ‘flat,’ just as the novel can’t be as flat in its second half, as the image falls to pieces, as it is in its lovely and dreamy first half. This film falls flat because it’s shot too flat – not in a productive and interesting way, but one that misses the forest for the trees: the Lolita for the male leads.

Laura Mulvey, “Visual & Other Pleasures”


“This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him. It takes as its starting-point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle… Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” 14.

(Interesting that Mulvey uses ‘fascinate’ twice – linked to witchcraft and enchantment, but also to the Greco-Roman ceremonial phallus, the fascinum.) Mulvey begins by pointing out the paradox of phallocentrism: that the man’s “presence” can only exist against the woman’s “lack”: woman is necessary to the construction of man 14. Maternal plenitude and phallic lack are the two forms “posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud’s famous phrase). Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis” 14.

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which an can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” 15.

Mulvey argues “we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one” 15. With the advent of 16mm film, Mulvey argues, film has been opened up to artists beyond the capitalist Hollywood regime and its ideologically mimetic films 15. The “magic” of Hollywood cinema is in “its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order… through its formal beauty and its play on [the subject’s] own formative obsessions” 16. Mulvey seeks “a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film,” since “analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” 16. The tradeoff is “a new language of desire” 16.

One of the pleasures of cinema is “scopophilia” – the pleasure of looking 16. Freud identifies it as a drive separate from the ‘proper’ erogenous zones: “he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze… the voyeuristic activities of children… the primal scene” 16. The gaze is “essentially active” – its extreme is the voyeur or Peeping Tom (think Psycho & Peeping Tom, both 1960!) How can this be in film, where “what is seen on the screen is so manifestly shown”? 17.

“The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… an illusion of looking in on a private world… the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” 17.

Cinema actually “develops scopophilia,” however, it does not just satisfy it, partly by creating a world on screen that is anthropomorphic in its proportions and fixations 17. Lacan’s mirror stage hinges on the moment the child’s “physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity… more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body… thus overlaid with misrecognition… an ideal ego” that “prepares the way for identification with others in the future” and “predates language for the child” 17. The parallel for Mulvey between mirror and film screen lies mainly in the fact that “cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it… the sense of forgetting the world as the ego has come to perceive it… is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition” 18.

Thus the cinema is involved in contradictory pleasure structures: one scopophilic (sexual stimulation by the sight of another), one narcissistic (identification with the image as mirror) 18. Instinctual drive and self-preservation are polarized forms of pleasure, but they both engage in “indifference to perceptual reality” 18. “The look, pleasureable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox” 19.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spctacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” 19.

“Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative. (Note, however, how in the musical song-and-dance numbers interrupt the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” 19.

Woman is erotic object for both subjects: character and spectator, “with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen,” making the showgirl, in her exhibition to both, a perfect combination of those gazes (think of Foucault, “Las Meninas” 19. (Do we compete with characters for her?) “For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no man’s land outside its own time and space” 19-20 (think of Betty & Megan in Mad Men, or Some Like It Hot – where the men in drag actually drag the pace of the action – use ‘female’ performance as a delay mechanism!)

“Conventional close-ups of legs… or a face… integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen” 20.

(FACETING!) “The male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen… the bearer of the look of the spectator… transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle” 20. The centrality and activity of the male protagonist are a “screen surrogate” for the spectator, who feels omnipotent and in control of the filmic events – the male film star is the ideal ego (more in control than the spectator) and the female film star is the object of scopophilia (voyeured object of desire) 20. The narrative space of the male star is thus 3-dimensional, rather than flat (interesting to think about this as another reason for treating surface seriously – because women themselves are reduced to it – it is a tool of patriarchy that can unmake the house?)

The female star is usually presented alone, sexualized, and exhibited at the start of the film, but becomes the tamed property and possession of the protagonist over the course of the narrative (and therfore of the spectator as well) 21. The problem, however, is that

“ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star” 21.

(This all seems pretty flawed to me, actually. Williams’ argument is stronger by far.) Fetishism is flatter than the sadism of scopophilia, which “demands a story,” either “punishment or forgiveness” – as in Hitchcock 22.  Mulvey emphasizes the flatness of Sternberg’s films (vs Hitchcock’s), focused on women as stylized products that merge with the screen, ultimate fetishes in cyclical, rather than linear, time, with plots focused on misunderstanding, rather than conflict, sans controlling male gaze. 22. “The high point of emotional drama in the most typical Dietrich films, her supreme moments of erotic meaning, take place in the absence of the man she loves in the fiction” 22. In Hitchcock,

“the power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both… True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness – the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong… liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze. The spectator is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis, which parodies his own in the cinema” 23.

Versus other visual forms, cinema uses the “shifting emphasis of the look… cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself… Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” 25.

“There are 3 different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences… fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” 25.

“Nevertheless… the structure of looking in narrative fiction film contains a contradiction in its own premises: the female image as a castration threat constantly endangers the unity of the diegesis and bursts through the world of illusion as an intrusive, static, one-dimensional fetish. Thus the two looks materially present in time and space are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego. The camera becomes the mechanism for producing an illusion of Renaissance space, flowing movements compatible with the human eye, an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject; the camera’s look is disavowal in order to create a convincing world in which the speaker’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude’ 25-6.

“Simultaneously, the look of the audience is denied an intrinsic force: as soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion, and the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishisation, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him” 26.

For Mulvey, this phenomenon is specific to film (a lot of it seems like baloney, as many critics have since pointed out). Mulvey calls for a freeing of the look of the camera (Vertov? Eisenstein?) and the freeing of the look of the audience “into dialectics and passionate detachment” 26. This destroys the pleasure of film, which for women should cause nothing more than “sentimental regret” 26.


Mulvey returns to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to address the melodrama of the uncertain female sexual identity (making female stars central) and alternatives to the 3rd-person male spectator position (the liberation of the female spectator vis a vis the freedom of the male protagonist) 29. For Freud, children of both sexes pass through a phallic phase, though for girls it ends in the repression of the masculine 30. “Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis” 31. “As desire is a given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature. However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clothes” 33.

The marriage or not- marriage plot is the signifier of either social acceptance as it “sublimates the erotic into a final, closing, social ritual” 34 or “the rejection of marriage personifies a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence” 33. For the female spectator, the Western is more than Oedipal nostalgia, more than the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence 37. For a woman to “drag” in masculinity is to refuse acceptance, even as she accepts a sort of vicarious agency 37.


“It has been suggested that the interest of Hollywood 1950s melodrama lies primarily in the way that, by means of textual analysis, fissures and contradictions can be shown to be undermining the films’ ideological coherence,” which “seems to save the films from belonging blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them” 39. But “this argument depends on the premise that the project of this ideology is indeed to conjure up a coherent picture of a world and conceal contradictions which in turn conceal exploitation and oppression. A text which defies unity and closure would then quite clearly be progressive” 39.

This unfortunately creates a trap “quite characteristic of melodrama itself,” however 39. “Ideological contradiction is actually the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes” 39. The excitement of melodrama lies in sexual repression and frustration, in conflicts of love and blood, not those of enemies 39.

“Melodrama as a safety-valve for ideological contradictions centred on sex and the family may lose its progressive attributes, but it acquires a wider aesthetic and political significance. The workings of patriarchy, and the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets (or a kind supplied, for instance, either by male art or popular culture) in spite of the crucial social and ideological functions women are called on to perform. In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, a simple fact of recognition has aesthetic and political importance. There is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stomping-ground, the family” 39. (think of Berlant)

Melodramas like Sirk’s are thus “a corrective… probing the pent-up emotion” 39. As in Greek tragedy, where the overvaluation of patriarchy destroys social balance, the melodrama calls for the softening of sexual difference 40. “As Sirk has pointed out, the strength of the melodramatic form lies in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, the cloud of overdetermined irreconcilables which put up a resistance to being neatly settled, in the last five minutes, into a happy end… He turns the conventions of the melodrama sharply” – away from happy resolution 40.

“Discussions of the difference between melodrama and tragedy specify that while the tragic hero is conscious of his fate and torn between conflicting forces, characters caught in the world of melodrama are not allowed transcendent awareness or knowledge” 41.

“The formal devices of Hollywood melodrama… provide a transcendent, wordless commentary, giving abstract emotion spectacular form, contributing a narrative level that provides the action with a specific coherence. Mise en scene, rather than the undercutting of the actions and words of the story level, provides a central point of orientation for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator’s reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience. Although this device uses aesthetics as well as narrative to establish signs for characters ont he screen as for the spectator in the cinema, elements such as lighting or camera movement still act as a privileged discourse for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers” 43.

“Melodrama can be seen as having an ideological function in working certain contradictions through to the surface and re-presenting them in an aesthetic form… It is as though the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess which precludes satisfaction. If the melodrama offers a fantasy escape for the identifying women in the audience, the illusion is so strongly marked by recognisable, real and familiar traps that escape is closer to a day-dream than to fairy story… a story of contradiction, not reconciliation” 43.

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.