Movie Genres: Melodrama–Genre, Approach, Directors, Gender, Audiences, Gay

Research in progress: Nov 3, 2022–984 words

Issues of Melodrama to Study




Censorship: Impact


Consumer Culture

Context (filmic and other)


Gay viewers




History: Melodrama’s historical variability, multi-faceted structure

Star Images



Mulvey, Laura

Williams, Linda


Approaches to Melodrama:

  1. as a genre
  2. as a style
  3. as a critical tool
  4. as a mode/rhetoric
  5. as sensibility
  6. as aesthetics
  7. as camp


Melodrama: Goals

For some critics, melodrama has 3 goals:

  1. Dramatic continuity of plot
  2. Sentimental (emotional) identification with characters
  3. Graduation of sequences (almost musical-like)

Melodrama: Connotations


Characters at the intersection of primal ethical forces and the clash of these forces.

The indulgence of strong emotionalism

Moral polarization and schematization of good/evil

Extremes states of being, situations, actions, crises

Good/Evil: Overt villainy, persecution of the good, and the final renewal of virtue

Inflated and extravagant expression

Internal emotional and ethical drama



Breathtaking peripety

Allowing the viewers to have the pleasure of self-pity

The experience of wholeness

Identification with monopathic emotion

Melodrama: Definition 

The term was used pejoratively.

The cultural specificity of the term/genre (like romanticism and baroque)

Melodrama, not as a set of themes, or a genre, but as a mode of conception and expression; a certain fictional system for making sense; a semantic field of force.

Attributes (B. Klinger)

Impossibility of happiness

Theme of blindness: characters (mis)perception of the world

Mise en scene

Obvious artifice;

Visual artifice: conveys a sense of delusory and the characters’ impotence

Unnaturalistic lighting

Foregrounded objects

Mirror-ridden compositions

Melodrama is an excessive narrative form, used to articulate moral conflicts as an expression of modern sensibility, shifting away from faith in a divine order to a new preoccupation with the moral occult (Mercer and Shingler)

Directors associated with Melodrama:

Critics and scholars have favored the melodramas of certain directors, King Vidor, Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, over those by Michael Curtiz and Joseph Mankiewicz

Prevalence of Gay Directors:


Irving Rapper

George Cukor did not make many melodramas; his specialty was comedy or dramedy.


Melodrama is a genre intrinsic to the so-called “women’s film.”

Films meant for women, but always made by men (in studio era).

They construct a female spectator “who is made to participate in what is essentially a masochistic fantasy.”

Disturbance about gender roles and social positions


S. Hayward, Melodrama, p. 68

If fathers transgress, the  whole family suffers and is punished.

If women transgress, they are personally punished, and punishment is wreaked upon their bodies

Examples: Kramer Vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment, Fatal Attraction


Most critics and viewers have regarded Hollywood melodrama as a femme-centric genre.

But a closer look reveals that there are at three types of melodramas:


Male weepies

Male melodrama is part of family melodrama.

But how different from female-centered melodrama

Laura Mulvey:

The ideological contradictions in Sirk’s films are not produced by the authorial voice but are congenital feature of melodrama as a genre filled with ideological inconsistencies

How melodrama exhibited unconscious and subconscious dynamics that undermined dominant ideological values (the genre might otherwise seem to endorse (Klinger).

Mulvey praises Sirk over Minnelli for not resolving the tensions and contradictions in the narrative via ironic deux ex machina devices.

These are over-determined irreconcilables, which resist being neatly resolved in the last 5 minutes of the film.

Male melodramas tend to resolve the irreconcilable social and sexual dilemmas

In 1950s, masculinity dictates that males need to reassure and reassert the role of the patriarch within the family unit.

But films with female protagonists, the dilemmas remain and resolution cannot be achieved.

Rebel Without a Cause

East of Eden

Not as a Stranger

Some Came Running



Magnificent Obsession (1934, 1954)

All That Heaven Allows


Peyton Place


Family-Centric (Dynasty at Center)


Written on the Wind

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Long Hot Summer

God’s Little Acre

Melodrama Definition:

Melodramas as more narrowly defined category of cinema.

Melodrama as referring to a set of films  that deal with:

Highly-charged emotional issues

Extravagantly dramatic register and overtly emotional form of address.

Oppression of women within the family

Marriage Vs. Career (Imitation of Life)

Motherhood (rewards, price)

Disturbance about gender roles and social positions

Audience: Gay Men

Most American audiences are not capable of appreciating melodrama as an art form; they tend to take it as camp.

The most conspicuous group of 1950s family melodramas were gay men.

Gay men appreciate melodramas years before they were recovered ad rediscovered as subversive works by mainstream (and gay) critics.

Films by Minnelli, Sirk, Ray, Billy Wilder, Cukor, Joseph Losey achieved cult status among gay men.

Gay male appreciation of these films, due to their excessiveness, extreme emotionalism, mannered over the top performances by stars, forms of address, intentional and unintentional manifestation of camp, subversive, ironic, and progressive tone



Melodrama was often considered to be a trivial form, though the good melodramas achieved the status of a serious and artistic form.

The good melodramas defined the potential of the genre, surpassing its cathartic aims and reactionary tendencies.

They achieved aesthetic complexity and social commentary.

They realized the genre’s historical capability to act as a revolutionary form during times of cultural crises.

The vivid critique of family as social institution; anguished sexual malaise

Melodrama as transgressive of the repressive Eisenhower era with its vision of complacent nuclear family.


The melodrama’s most productive and fascinating period was between 1954 and 1960: Sirk, Minnelli

The genre’s  associations with post-War attitudes about sexuality, masculinity, mass culture

More recently, rewriting about the genre as subversive by younger critics

Gay men see it as camp


Pathos is evoked for the audience–and other characters who witness suffering.

Intense, excruciating moments of sympathy and pity at such prolonged and undeserved suffering.

Melodrama enables to reevaluate the value-laden binary opposition of realism and melodrama

Melodramatic situations in realistic plays by Ibsen (Doll’s House) Strindberg (Miss Julie), situations that are similar in register or treatment to conflicts, tensions, hysterical climaxes of Holly family melodramas of the 1950s.