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Matt Migliorini ©2011

Poor Little Rich Girls:


Representations of Class
and Gender in Classical
Hollywood Melodrama

Matt Migliorin
Matt Migliorini ©2011

This essay aims to examine the ways in which melodrama in Classical


Hollywood cinema conveys and critiques dominant ideologies concerning
community, class and gender identities. Through an analysis of the style and
spectacle of Victor Flemingʼs 1939 film Gone with the Wind (GWTW) (USA) and
Douglas Sirkʼs All that Heaven Allows (ATHA) (1955) (USA) this essay will take
Mary Beth Haralovichʼs statement that, ʻMelodrama is a genre whose
conventions make ideologiesʼ visible and watchableʼ (1990: 59) as its key point
of focus to argue that Classical Hollywood films are able to critique dominant
ideologies by making them visible through melodrama. This essay will examine
GWTW first and then use ATHA as a point of comparison. Firstly however, It is
important to outline melodrama as both a genre and a mode.

Melodrama is perhaps Hollywoodʼs most prevailing genre, if indeed it is a genre,


due to its comparatively loose set of conventions and iconography, and the fact
that its primary concerns are thematic rather than stylistic. In her discussion of
melodrama, Linda Williams states that,

Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving


pictures. It is not a specific genre like the western of horror film . . .
Rather, melodrama is a peculiar democratic and American form that
seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a
dialectic of pathos and action (Cited in Langford 2005: 31).
This essay agrees with Williamsʼ argument that melodrama is not a genre and
that it is a mode of address employed throughout American popular cinema,
namely Hollywood. One of the key characteristics, or thematic conventions of
which, as highlighted above, is an investigation of pathos. Haralovich has stated
that,

Melodramas are also known as ʻweepiesʼ because the charactersʼ


struggles are tied so strongly to ideologies over which they have no
control. The emotions of the characters critique ideology because
these emotions show how difficult it is to cope with ideological
pressures. (1990: 60)
These conventions concerning pathos and visible emotional struggles are
exhibited throughout Flemingʼs film. GWTW is set in the American South in and
around the time of the American Civil War, telling the story of the Civil War and
its aftermath from a white Southern viewpoint. The filmʼs dominant ideologies
are those of patriarchy and the American dream, specifically the value of owning
land.

The film details the struggle these ideologies surrounding the war place upon
the filmʼs leading protagonist, the daughter of an Irish aristocrat, Scarlett OʼHara
(Vivian Leigh). Throughout the film she is shown in states of emotional turmoil
due to events brought upon her by the harsh realities of the war; events beyond
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her control. Scarlett begins the film as a shallow, narrow minded young girl and
is forced to change with the pressures and responsibilities placed upon her.

GWTWʼs three hours and forty-five minute running time, foretells of the filmʼs
epic stature. It is long enough to provide a heavy weight to the filmʼs historical
context in terms of Scarlettʼs experience and development as a character. It
allows plenty of time for the ideologies surrounding Scarlett to really bare their
weight upon her, and by extension the audience. Tom Brown cites Sobchack, in
his exploration of GWTW as a product that elicits, what he calls, ʻthe historical
gazeʼ. He notes that, ʻSpectacle in GWTW has an almost onomatopoeic
function because it envisions a change in the characterʼs perspective through
particular kinds of visionʼ (2008: 169).

This is to say that Scarlettʼs place in the historical setting sees her change
through the filmʼs formal aspects over its ʻepicʼ duration. She goes from a girl
who is complimented on her clothing, period costuming and decor, which offer a
kind of spectacle in themselves, to living in a broken down plantation and
having to fashion a dress out of curtains. Nearing the filmʼs end, Scarlett
eventually becomes a woman, whom having been brought under male control
by her final husband, Rhett Butler (Clark Gabel), dresses in a far less flowing
and colourful type of costuming, that appears restrictive but strong. Brown
states that these changes are part of the filmʼs spectacular vista that actualises
this process. ʻScarlet OʼHara is altered by her first hand experience of massive
historyʼ (2008: 167). And her experience is echoed in the filmʼs larger contextual
issues and ideologies surrounding the war itself.

Through these formal changes, of costume, decor and lighting, that reflect the
filmʼs narrative progressions, the filmʼs ideologies become visible. Perhaps the
most prevalent and the filmʼs concluding ideological standpoint is the
importance of land ownership. Throughout the film the audience sees Scarlettʼs
attitude change towards issues of ownership and an identity linked to land and
heritage. Her attitude at the beginning is that it (the family plantation of Tara) is
unimportant. Her father (Thomas Mitchell) says to her, “You mean to tell me . . .
that land doesnʼt mean anything to you? Why land is the only thing in the world
worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because itʼs the only thing
that lasts.” This notion becomes increasingly realised throughout the film
through Scarlettʼs various homecomings, and her eventual epiphany that Tara is
the only place she can go in order to regroup and find the strength to reconquer
her husband Rhett once heʼs left her.

At this point in the film the idea that Scarlett lives in a world in which she is
totally dominated by men, is solidified. During her epiphany, the non-diegetic
voice-overs of her father and the only two men sheʼs ever loved (Ashley and
Rhett), deliver to her the message that she belongs at home. Nonetheless,
Scarlettʼs position as a strong female character in a system of patriarchy could,
at times, be seen to be critiquing the more submissive gender role women
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generally adopt within this system. For example, it is demonstrated that Scarlett
is capable of taking care of the plantation after the death of her father, and it is
she who ensures the future survival of her family by taking on the position of
provider, traditionally associated with men at the time of the filmʼs production.
Ultimately however, Flemingʼs ending firmly places her under the control of all
the men she has spent the film rebelling against and in this sense she can be
seen to have lost an element of her wilful identity. Although, counter to this, and
arguably more visibly to an audience, she can also be seen to have assumed a
new identity in which she has finally subscribed to the dominant ideologies of
ownership (and by association, that of the American dream) and takes on her
assigned position in patriarchal society. Williams has said of the filmʼs ending
that,

Although Scarlett is punished for this transgression by social


ostracism, and she exhibits, in its aftermath, what may be her only
sincere remorse, her infraction is of a patriarchal white code that
believes - as Scarlett never does, and as the novel and film never do
- that southern white womanʼs place is in the home. (2001:196)

When considering these two readings of the filmʼs ending it is important to


distinguish whether the film aims to convey these ideologies or critique them
through its depiction. Sue Thornham cites Roland Barthes in her discussion of
feminist theory and ideology,

Ideology seeks always to efface the signs of its own operation and
present its meanings as ʻnaturalʼ or self-evident. Film effectively
ʻnaturalisesʼ ideology through the operation of its ʻsigns which do not
look like signsʼ (Barthes 1977: 116).
This statement appears to hold validity for many Hollywood products of the
classical era and indeed to a large extent, those of its contemporary output.
This essay supports this statement in agreement with the following aspect of
Theodor Adornoʼs argument of Hollywood that,

The consumers are made to remain what they are: consumers. That
is why the cultural industry is not the art of the consumer but rather
the projection of the will of those in control onto their victims. The
automatic self-reproduction of the status quo in its established forms
itself an expression of domination (1991: 160).
Supporting both of these quotations in tandem, GWTWʼs ending supports the
idea that the signs and symbols employed in Hollywood films certainly appear to
wish to remain hidden when placed in the context of what Adorno suggests.
That the status quo of ideologies put forth by those in control of the cultural
industry, in this case Hollywood, work to affirm the consumersʼ choice to the
consumer itself, makes sense when attempting to instil a pre-existing
ideological conception to its audience. In Flemingʼs film, the audience has spent
the epic duration following Scarlettʼs development and is with her at the point of
Matt Migliorini ©2011

her realisation that it is land that matters most in life. However the filmʼs coding
of this ideology is not explicit in its execution, and conveys this ideology but
does not critique it, at this, its most opportune of moments.

Sirkʼs film however is far more subversive in its approach towards conveying
dominant ideologies, so strongly upheld by the narrative frameworks of
Hollywood. ATHA sees the development of a love story between an affluent
suburban widow, Cary (Jane Wyman), whose life revolves around her social
interaction at the country clubs, her two college-age children and a number of
men trying to win her affection, and her gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson). Like
GWTW, ATHA lends itself strongly to the mode of melodrama, however, unlike
Flemingʼs film, it strongly critiques the dominant ideologies it makes visible. The
most prominent of which is class and more specifically, the forceful desire to
conform that is attached to it; Caryʼs peers and children frown upon their
motherʼs involvement with a younger man of a lower class. As such the film
abounds with clichés of the period and rather than affirming them and their
position in society, Sirk utilises them towards his critique.

Due to the extreme emotional outbursts from her two children, that Cary has
made them to feel ashamed, she leaves Ron and is confronted with a future of
loneliness when her daughter decides to marry, and her son is offered a job
abroad. The filmʼs ending then sees the miraculous reunion of the couple and
thus provides the audience with its arguably traditional happy ending, of a
heterosexual embrace of romance. However, Sirkʼs execution in reenforcing the
seemingly compulsory ideology of the period, is far from invisible compared to
that of Flemingʼs film. Not only does it convey the ideology in a watchable
manner by briefly providing spectacle, but it draws explicit attention to its lack of
verisimilitude, thus providing the audience an opportunity to distance
themselves from the text and examine the ideologies functioning within it. This
presents the charactersʼ problems in the film as not really being so insubstantial
as to be overcome so easily.

Christine Gledhill states that, ʻSirk conceived of his subject . . . not as a


celebration of the American Dream, but as an articulation and ultimately a
criticism of itʼ (cited in Mercer and Shingler 2004: 40). Mercer and Shingler go
on to state that,

Sirkʼs films are . . . emblematic through a particular use of an ironic


mise en scene, which suggests a critique of bourgeois ideologies that
reveals wider conflicts and tensions that manifest themselves
through the dominant cinema of the period (2004: 40).
This aspect of Sirkʼs film-making style works very differently in its effect
compared to Flemingʼs film. In GWTW colour and costuming are used to
punctuate character developments and to provide the spectacle of previously
unseen verisimilitude; the glorious Technicolor employed in the film being an
Matt Migliorini ©2011

extreme rarity at the time of its release. In Sirkʼs work it is used to code the
emotions and functions of the textʼs characters. For example, at the filmʼs
beginning Cary wears a bright red dress that expresses to the audience that
she is still a sexual being; her daughter wolf whistling at her mother when she
first sees her and her son telling her that, ʻitʼs cut kinda lowʼ. After her break up
with Ron, her daughter is seen wearing a similar type of red dress. Ben Singer
makes note of Sirkʼs use of mise en scene to create a visual critique,

In Sirkʼs 1950s family melodramas, for example, the mise-en-scene


is conspicuously oversaturated with glaring colors, overstuffed with
too much furniture and too many mirrors, and overdetermined with
props that are often “too symbolic,” too obvious in their sexual
implications (2001: 39).
The visual echo of the red dress, set up by Sirk, is used to communicate Caryʼs
position of isolation to the audience; she has been robbed of her position as a
sexual being, she is now just a mother to her increasingly estranged children.
When coded in red, her daughter reveals she is engaged to be married. The
symbolism is all too clear. It is Caryʼs daughter that is now able to embrace a
future of her own as a sexually available and active woman.

Sirk then pushes his use of mise en scene to an implicit extreme not matched in
any scene of Flemingʼs film. At Christmas, after her children have both
announced their leavings, they give her a television. If the implication of the gift
wasnʼt already clear enough, as Shingler comments that, ʻThe “last refuge of the
lonely woman” (2004: 65) that Cary had previously rejected is now presented to
her as a substitute for real life. The man who delivers it to her says, “All you
have to do is turn that dial, and youʼve got all the company you could want.” It
would appear, that like Scarlett, Cary is destined to remain at home, fixed in her
gender role as a widow.

Unlike GWTW, ATHA delivers a clean cut ending with the filmʼs two leading
lovers last being shown in an embrace. This being the most popular ending of
the time and arguably functioning, as Adorno suggests, in a manner that will
please the consumerʼs choice, to the consumer; allowing audiences to believe
in the possibility of a happy ending in their own lives, as they experience the
thousands theyʼve experienced on screen.

However, Sirkʼs third act takes place in the last fifteen minutes of the film,
resolving itʼs loose ends with non-conventional speed through a series of highly
coincidental and fortunate events. The end being delivered through deus ex
machina or ʻdivine interventionʼ, when Cary drives to find Ron, he sees her from
afar and falls from a cliff when attempting to get her attention but she fails to
see him. The next scene sees Caryʼs friend informer of the news and Cary soon
joins Ron at his bedside and the couple are happily reunited, with Cary stating
to Ron that, ʻIʼve come home.ʼ Just like GWTW, ATHA endings on the joyous
notion of the central female figures homecoming.
Matt Migliorini ©2011

ATHA like GWTW shares in making ideologies concerning the importance of


land visible. Caryʼs home operating in the film as a juxtaposition of Ronʼs Mill, a
place where Ron can live free of societies conformities. However, whilst these
two places are represented as being in opposition to one another, they both
represent a place in which Cary is a firm part of a patriarchal hierarchy. In her
own home she is a widow and mother and at the Mill she is forced to live life as
Ron does. While he may offer her an alternative lifestyle, it still has at its core,
the same patriarchal ideologies concerning the importance of land and
supposed freedom. Here Sirk takes his subject matter and uses it to critique the
situation subversively. Ronʼs two friends claim that Ron lives a wonderful
independent lifestyle in which Cary could join him, however, her being of a
different class, Ron is unwilling to compromise anything in his life for her; she
has to conform to his ideologies if she is to be free of those of the community in
which she is a part, those of the country club.

In summary, this essay concludes from its examination of GWTW and ATHA
that melodrama, be it a mode or genre, does make ideologies visible and
watchable, however it is through the approach to representation by film-makers
and studios that decide whether these ideologies are critiqued or just conveyed.
Flemingʼs film doing far less to critique the ideologies it presents and adhering
to Barthesʼ theory, that Hollywood films seek to ʻnaturaliseʼ these ideologies
through effacing their coding. Sirkʼs film however, as we have seen, is far more
subversive in its approach, intentionally denaturalizing its content to offer a
critique of its subject matter and the traditions of melodramatic Hollywood film-
making of the time.
Matt Migliorini ©2011

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor (1991) The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass


Culture London: Routledge

Bordwell, David (1990) Narration in the Fiction Film London: Routledge

Brown, Tom (2008) ʻSpectacle/Gender/History:the case of Gone with the Windʼ


in Screen 49.2

Haralovich, MB (1990) ʻAll that Heaven Allows: Color, Narrative Space and
Melodramaʼ in Close Viewings: An Anthology of New Criticism

Langford, Barry (2005) Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond Edinburgh:


Edinburgh University Press

Maltby, Richard (2003) ʻA Classical Cinema?ʼ in Hollywod Cinema 2nd edition


London: Blackwell

Mercer, John and Martin Shingler (2004) ʻStyleʼ in Melodrama: Genre, Style,
Sensibility London: Wallflower Press

Mulvey, Laura (1996) Fetishism and Curiosity Indiana: Indian University Press

Singer, Ben (2001) Melodrama and Modernity New York: Columbia University
Press

Thornham, Sue (1997) Passionate Detachments, An Introduction to feminist film


theory
London: Hodder Headline Group

Williams, Linda (2001) Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White
From Uncle Ton To O.J. Simpson Princeton University Press: Oxfordshire
Matt Migliorini ©2011

Filmography

All that Heaven Allows Douglas Sirk (1955) USA

Gone with the Wind Victor Flemming (1939) USA