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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 55.4: Kendra Marston
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Postfeminist Melancholia as Politically Conditional? Postscript to “The World is Her Oyster”

Kendra Marston

The article “The World is Her Oyster: Negotiating Contemporary White Womanhood in Hollywood’s Tourist Spaces” arose from my PhD project, which examines a broader moment in popular cinematic representation in which the narrative trajectories of melancholic white women are used to explore the excesses of late capitalism and a fracturing within the perceived viability of the American dream. For female protagonists like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love and Francis Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun, previous investments in upward mobility, career advancement, bodily discipline and lasting romantic union are recognized as imposing limitations upon the self and contributing to a profound sense of melancholia and existential inertia. Such investments have been much discussed within feminist analyses of postfeminist media culture, yet are problematized in a number of recent Hollywood films (not limited to the travel romance genre) as a source of anxiety for the white, middle-class heroine in a manner that speaks to fluctuations in the related ideological project of neoliberalism. While the protagonist’s experience of mental distress and her ability to work through the melancholic state differs from genre to genre, the rationale behind her burden bears important similarities across a number of diverse films. To provide some examples, these may include the collective works of Sofia Coppola, horror film Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), and even Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), which utilizes a white woman’s depressive episode through which to provide a commentary on excess consumption and the moral decay of the Western world. For these privileged female characters, adherence to the individualistic, competitive and consumer-oriented ethos of neoliberal postfeminism thus culminates in what Lauren Berlant terms a feeling of “cruel optimism,” the sense that “conventional good life fantasies” have constituted an impediment to personal contentment and in fact are undergoing a process of erosion.[1] Female agency and empowerment become sources of ambivalence in these films, with the discontent expressed in relation to neoliberal postfeminist paradigms of femininity perhaps prefiguring a more recent resurgence of interest in feminist politics. While these shifts in mediated forms of feminism may not always constitute a radical departure from the models of femininity that Elizabeth and Frances endeavor to flee from, it is nevertheless the case that a feminist identity is not the object of disavowal for young women in the West that it once was.

One of the defining arguments of this article is that melancholia, an emotional state that can operate as a form of cultural capital and has historically been associated with creative giftedness, is here used to reframe American whiteness as “benevolent and benign” in the wake of controversial US foreign policy decisions. Melancholia in the travel romance is linked to a crisis of faith in previously idealized forms of femininity, but also a crisis of faith in the systems that have produced these idealizations. The travel romance thus becomes a fantasy tale and a utopian vehicle through which a female protagonist learns to invest in alternate forms of femininity and in the process is able to modify the US image abroad. The transcendence of the melancholic state is therefore thoroughly individualized yet holds important contemporary social relevance in relation to the negotiation of white hegemonic power structures. The association of melancholia with race and class privilege in these Hollywood films speaks to the emphasis on an affluent and enabled female subject in both postfeminist and neoliberal discourse,[2] as well as to the (increasingly untenable) fantasy of a “post-racial present” in which race is no longer deemed a significant factor in social, political and economic inequality. What is elided in these films are aspects of how neoliberal governmentality and postfeminist discourse affect non-white or working class women differently, with such stories typically framing encounters with these less centralized characters as primarily a means of psychic alleviation for the white protagonist. In this manner, films like the travel romances represent forms of postfeminist melancholia in which the afflicted subject is aware that while she can ascend the career ladder and participate in consumer capitalism, she cannot transform what Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls the logic of white, patriarchal possession.[3] Such characters, however, are often unable to decentre their experience to see, hear or otherwise relate to those who are racialized as non-white or who do not share their class position. This is perhaps especially observable in Coppola’s films, where the heroine’s propensity for melancholic introspection aids in the creation of a poetic and romanticized cinematic mood that thoroughly depends on the overt centralization of a youthful, white protagonist and her detached experience from daily social life. While Liz and Frances do engage with the citizens of foreign countries, these encounters are fantasy ones in that the people are represented as living outside the system of global capitalism and therefore exist as embodiments of the values that the heroine herself perceives as lost.

In some fundamental ways, the travel romance constitutes a recycling of old Hollywood formulas in which a white female protagonist undergoes a transformative experience through an engagement with Otherness. Pat Macpherson, for example, discusses the flight from the white picket fence scenario that occurs in films like Bye, Bye, Birdie (George Sidney, 1963) and Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961), exploring the significance of such narratives in relation to second-wave feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the sexual revolution.[4] What is important, then, is to explore the contemporary contextualization of such recognizable formulas, keeping in mind that modern texts are typically more cognizant of certain representational limitations given the challenges posed to white, patriarchal power structures over the decades, and that, as Ruth Frankenberg points out, whiteness is not a transhistorical construct.[5] What the cyclical nature of such formulas demonstrates is that the melancholic white woman of Hollywood cinema does not disappear, but rather “updates” herself in relation to shifting political, social and economic anxieties. Having said this, the whiteness of Hollywood has come under intensified criticism this past year, perhaps most notably at the 88th Academy Awards. It remains to be seen whether calls for more diversity in the hiring of key personnel and the types of stories being told will mount significant challenges to the types of characterizations seen in films like the travel romance, and in the industry more generally, or indeed whether this criticism will be in any way sustained. It is worth noting that television over the past few years seems to have offered a larger variety of complex female roles. Viola Davis, relegated to a bit part as Julia Roberts’s supportive best friend in Eat Pray Love, stars as the morally ambiguous lead in the ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (2014- ). Dominican American actress Dascha Polanco, friend and fellow mop demonstrator to Jennifer Lawrence’s titular character in Joy (David O. Russell, 2015) has a far more substantial role as Dayanara Diaz in the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013-). Orange is the New Black is perhaps worth a mention here, for while it employs some of the tropes associated with the melancholic white woman narrative of popular film, it does endeavor to undercut the centrality of white, middle-class prison inmate Piper (Taylor Schilling), a New York PR executive who was originally sold as the “face” of the series. Kathleen McHugh points out, for instance, that by having each episode focus on the unique backstory of individual prisoners, the show emphasises how Piper’s self-perceived civility “utterly depends upon the civil, racial, and economic privileges and protections that exist ‘outside’ of that self.”[6]  

A difficulty in exploring representations of postfeminist melancholia in Hollywood cinema are the complications involved with describing women as “melancholic” given the historical gendering of emotion and neuroses as a form of biopolitical power. In the travel romances, it certainly seems the case that Elizabeth and Frances are afflicted with a specifically gendered form of melancholia that enables them to adopt a position of privilege and specialness within foreign countries. Yet, it is also apparent that the white woman is not always able to transcend the melancholic state. This may render her a tragic yet romanticized figure, as occurs in Coppola’s cinema, or she may entirely fail to recognize her investment in neoliberal postfeminist discourses as flawed and in need of renegotiation and commit attendant acts of cultural violence in her desire to retain the benefits of such an investment. If there is typically an underlying anxiety within these narratives relating to “crisis capitalism” within the US as arising from a problematic culture of greed and aggression, then it is possible for the female protagonist to be presented as suffering from inappropriate forms of melancholia and so become a type of social scapegoat. The idealization of postfeminist melancholia, then, is politically conditional, with the failure to recognize problematic forms of white entitlement likely to result in characterizations more in keeping with the historical association of women with psychopathology and madness.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), to name one example, contains a number of elements that are recognizable from the travel romances. The protagonist Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) has lived her life adhering to a competitive, individualistic ethos in the pursuit of a selectively defined ideal of success, including the cultivation of glamorous femininity and tasteful displays of conspicuous consumption. Unlike Elizabeth and Frances, Jasmine does not work and does not decide of her own accord to invest in alternate forms of femininity, but rather is forced to when she loses her wealth and becomes homeless following her husband’s incarceration for fraudulent business activities. As in Eat Pray Love, New York is implicated in promoting “unhealthy” values of upward mobility and ambition, with Jasmine’s decision to travel to San Francisco and visit her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) posited as a potential turning point at which the protagonist may come to realize the error of her ways. Blue Jasmine does not romanticize its lead character’s encounters with the inhabitants of San Francisco and demonstrates an awareness of the class violence inherent within neoliberal rhetoric, even as it largely eschews the racial politics of the play from which it is derived—Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Yet, what the film does is do is individualize, psychologize and gender the failures of neoliberal governmentality so that a story ostensibly about investment fraud becomes a story about the fraudulent construction of the feminine self. Jasmine’s failure to strike an appropriate balance between her production and consumption responsibilities allows for a neoliberal and postfeminist female ideal to become a temporary symbol of ideological homelessness, with this film (like the travel romances) also unwilling to provide a broader critique of the entrenched power structures at the heart of such social divisions. Hollywood cinema, therefore, privileges treatments of certain types of melancholia, with these treatments containing political dimensions that not only make it necessary to question as to who gets their feelings of burden recognized within media culture, but also to what purposes and why.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 2-3.

[2] Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, eds., Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 2.

[3] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[4]Pat Macpherson, “The Revolution of Little Girls,” in Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society, eds. Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda C. Powell, and L. Mun Wong. London: Routledge, 1997. 283-97.

[5] Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[6] Kathleen A. McHugh, “Giving Credit to Paratexts and Parafeminism in Top of the Lake and Orange is the New Black,” Film Quarterly 68.3 (2015).

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