Fake feelings: a personal essay on melodrama

[spoilers for Les Miserables in the penultimate paragraphs]

This winter, in the middle of rereading my once and future favorite novel, Les Miserables, I realized I love melodrama. Then I immediately felt bad about it. This essay is an effort to understand why.

I’m calling this a personal essay on melodrama because everyone I talk to seems to define it differently. In the few conversations I’ve had with friends, colleagues, and books since beginning to think about this topic, I’ve heard melodrama called anything from a genre to a mode to a sort of narrative metaphysics. Moreover, examples of melodramas offered in these conversations range widely in medium: for some, melodrama means film; for others, theater; for others, premier television. I tend to think of it in terms of nineteenth-century novels and fanfiction. Melodrama’s only agreed-upon qualities seem to be 1) its desire to elicit exaggerated emotion, and 2) its status as a pejorative. 

Why pejorative? From the evidence of my (admittedly limited) conversations, melodrama’s poor reputation seems to spring from an anxiety about its inauthenticity. Friends describe melodrama as artificial, manipulative, and shallow. They call melodrama’s pleasure “not thinking too hard,” disdain Downton Abbey’s class-coded stories of intimacy as ethically negligible, and lament feeling tricked into crying at the end of Big Fish. Even those who confess to liking it confess—they see their affection as a feeling to be ashamed of, since its object is unworthy of serious attention.

If melodrama’s other agreed-on quality is exaggerated emotion, it seems reasonable to conclude that what’s worryingly inauthentic about melodrama is the feelings it elicits.

What, then, does it mean to have a fake feeling? And why is that bad?  

I don’t think there’s a single right answer, but I definitely have some thoughts. I’ll begin with a conversation I had with my best friend in Toronto a few days ago. I tried to articulate how I define melodrama, or the kinds of melodrama that attract me: stories where suffering happens through no fault of the sufferers, and often through no lapse in their socioeconomic and cultural positioning. It’s why the melodramas I prefer are usually the fanfics I script in my own head before falling sleep. I can control all the variables in order to tell some iteration of the following story: well-intentioned people are hurt by situations beyond anyone’s control.

A thoughtful scholar (and lover) of drama, my friend immediately pointed out that what I’d just described was classical tragedy. Fate fells characters without their consent, leaving them no recourse. We, the audience, cry. Our tears inspire no action, since there is nothing to be done. They merely express our pity, and give a release to our sorrow.

This is a standard account of catharsis, a concept that has cropped up with some frequency in the conversations about melodrama I’ve been having. Melodrama is cathartic, we say. Catharsis is a release of feeling. But it strikes me that release only happens if a feeling has nowhere else to go. Channeled sorrow can become action, and actions change things. But in classical tragedy, since no action can alter fate, when sorrow fills the channel pointed at it, the channel bursts: catharsis. Perhaps the fundamental quality of cathartic emotion is not that it’s a release, but that it cannot be directed in the first place. Melodrama is cathartic in that it only makes us feel, or, more precisely, that its feelings are destined to remain only feelings. They move us, but not towards anything in particular.

I think catharsis helps explain melodrama’s association with inauthentic emotion—the complaint that Titanic tricks us into sobbing, our embarrassment at being moved by schlocky romance. Melodrama’s perceived fraudulence is a product of its cathartic attitude to emotion. Its only job is to make us feel. This, in turn, implies that feeling alone isn’t a credible artistic goal.

Why? Another friend’s comment sums it up, I think. “I guess when I think melodrama,” she writes, “I think hermetically sealed worlds where the action mainly turns on issues of intimacy, adultery, and parent-child conflicts with little discussion of larger issues of race, class, structural oppression.” Since she is, like myself, politically left, I believe her point reflects a worry that melodramas make us feel deeply in ways that are ethically suspect because they are not motive. They move us, but not towards anything in particular—and in her case, not towards addressing “larger issues of race, class, structural oppression.”

I don’t believe her specific charge is actually true of melodrama, and I’ll return to why later in this essay. But first I want to ask where that more general attitude comes from, because I think it lies at the root of why so many North Americans dismiss melodrama as bogus, or feel guilty for liking it. 

Those of you who know me will not be at all surprised to hear I think it’s the Enlightenment’s fault. Also Protestantism’s. Forgive me for the broad historical strokes, but despite profound disagreements in metaphysics, these belief systems shared a deep appreciation for utility, which they grounded in labor. Neither had time for feeling that wasn’t willing to work. Protestant critiques of romances as pulling readers away from their Christian duty harmonize neatly with Jeremy Bentham’s suggestion that fiction, enjoyed for itself, has no educational value. Both dismissals presume that loose feeling wastes energy that could be usefully employed elsewhere.

Though we’re not (thank god) as bad as Bentham, that we’ve retained similar attitudes towards feeling is evident every time we try to defend books by how they affect readers’ emotions. Reading, we argue, does the good work of making us feel empathy, or civic duty, or even just invested in the past. So if we read melodramas, we should read them not to cry, but to understand a historical period; recognize a rhetorical ploy; or address larger cultural or political issues. Anything less is ethically suspect. Critical reading means neither therapy nor book club: it is work readers do in order to make our feelings motive, make them able to grok and ultimately change our shitty world. We read to feel, but we feel to work. Melodrama does one but not the other; it’s therefore artificial, manipulative, and shallow. Its feelings simply aren’t working hard enough.

If I wanted to be really bitchy, I could say that dismissing melodrama is neoliberal.

(A side note: I think it’s telling that melodrama has, since the nineteenth century, become a feminized mode. Eighteenth-century writers like Samuel Richardson could write weepy doorstoppers and be lauded for their sentiment, but by the Victorian era such books were being written mostly by women—and castigated as stupid by reviewers. If our distaste for melodrama reflects our utilitarian desire that feeling do work, and if we code work as male, of course melodrama is female. Liking melodrama is an admission that I am unfit to do the useful labor of feeling; that I am, deep down, too feminine for the hard stuff. [Let’s bask for a moment in the irony of melodrama being a category whose femininity is an implicit claim that women can’t do emotional labor]. I think it’s telling that melodrama, as a cinematic mode, became coded female during a moment where women were beginning to live independently—just like melodrama, as a novelistic mode, became coded female during the industrial revolution, when women began to work outside the home. That women’s feelings might work as hard as our bodies could was so threatening that writing evoking those feelings was reclassified as useless).

But as I said earlier, while I think the marriage of Enlightenment utility to a Protestant work ethic has produced our common suspicion of melodrama, I don’t think its assumptions are actually correct. Melodrama can do work, and that we don’t count that work as melodramatic tells us something about how we legitimize feeling in the first place.

I’m indebted for these reflections to Emily West’s blog post on Douglas Sirk, and to my colleague C.J., who recommended me Charles Baxter’s essay “Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama” in his collection Burning Down the House. In her post, West quotes Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who describes a melodrama that made him cry because “you can understand both of [the lead characters], and both of them are right, and no one will ever be able to help either of them. Unless, of course, we change the world. We all cried over the movie. Because it’s so hard to change the world.” Similarly, Baxter calls melodrama a mode that preserves the possibility of real evil: of suffering that has no clear remedy because it lacks an easily-comprehensible cause, whether that be the obscure hand of fate or the impenetrable callousness of people who simply don’t care about others’ pain.

Both of these notions recall fate’s role in classical tragedy. All recognize the emotional power of unjustified suffering, and all refuse that feeling any clear channel—a direction, an answer. Instead, the feeling bursts its sluice, erupting into the sorts of exaggerations that feel commensurate to realizing that “it’s so hard to change the world.” Melodrama, like tragic fate, is a way of acknowledging ills that have no single cause and no easy cure.

We have so many of those ills. Among his melodramatic authors, Baxter lists Anton Chekhov, Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, and Thomas Pynchon. I think you could easily add James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Kurt Vonnegut. All three unflinchingly chronicle systemic oppression, and all three strike melodramatic poses as a way to try and depict living with—and for Baldwin and Morrison, beneath—such widespread, entrenched, and seemingly inexorable abuse. Realism can’t quite capture it. For this reason, these writers’ dreamlike, absurdist gestures are often kin to their melodrama (see: “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”). Sometimes they’re even concurrent. The climax of Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain is an unapologetically melodramatic dream-vision that casts American racism as a Biblical curse-of-the-father, and from which Baldwin’s narrator, John, awakes sobbing. If that comparison seems exaggerated, overly emotional or excessively fatalistic, it’s because Baldwin’s task is to describe what the despair of awakening to such oppression feels like: a god’s curse, something that cannot be defeated by mere individuals, or good intentions. The suffering it causes is unwarranted and systemic, inexplicable as a product of individual cause and effect. Fighting it can feel impossible, like taking a swing at fate.

What feelings are loud enough to convey that kind of awakening? From the outside, their volume might seem excessive—melodramatic. “Why are you crying so much?” we ask, outside. “Aren’t you overreacting?”

I wonder if the reason we don’t usually call writers like Baldwin melodramatic is because we fear pain with no simple cause or easy answer, pain that cries out against injustices so vast they feel like fate. We want to believe that John’s despair is nothing like Cain’s curse. We want his suffering to have a clear solution. Heirs of the Enlightenment, we’re comfortable dismissing Titanic as melodramatic because its silly romance makes us cry uselessly, but crying during Go Tell it on the Mountain cannot be melodramatic because to call it that would be to admit that its sorrows, too, make us feel useless. It would deny our claim to emotion as agency. In the specific context of Baldwin’s book, it would deny white readers the comfortable faith that we can repair the oppressive system we’ve created by feeling bad about it.

We distrust melodrama because feeling that doesn’t work is fake feeling. What would it mean to sit, for a moment, with the confession that feeling’s work might not be enough? Go Tell it on the Mountain opens with John recalling, “Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about” his place in the world, “and by then it was already too late.”

Melodrama asks us to feel our way into situations where it might already be too late. In return, we call it manipulative.

This essay began with my reading of Les Miserables, and it’s where I’ll end, too. Les Miserables is a novel I think most people would feel comfortable calling melodramatic. Its intertwined stories of desperate, downtrodden people are intended to jerk tears, and for many of its characters, despair feels like a permanent condition. Fantine dies in horrific pain after giving everything for her only child; the revolutionary students die on the barricades, their rebellion a failure; Javert commits suicide. Nor is Hugo coy about the cause of their misery: it’s society, which when viewed longitudinally looks like history, and when viewed head-on looks like fate. He lays this out again and again, meticulously explaining his own symbols. Only Hugo’s insistent religion saves Les Miserables from being an utterly bleak book. But even the promise of heaven does not solve the problem that life on earth is hell (Hugo’s faith in Christianity is like his faith in progress, ungrounded in the evidence of history). Such profound suffering feels like destiny, though it isn’t; and it feels hopeless, though it isn’t that, either—technically.

Les Miserables is a treatise on what work melodrama can do. Like any mode, it can do that work well or poorly, or choose not to do it at all. It is not the work of solutions, which is why we call it inauthentic, and find it embarassing. Rather, when done well, it is the work of testimony.

Melodrama forces us to feel without agency. It challenges us to only feel. Sometimes that’s a silly mission. But it can also be profoundly necessary—especially for those of us who have had the fortune to live without ever having to experience a feeling for which there is no clear answer, no easy solution—a feeling that feels, even if it isn’t, something like fate.