The Impact of Melodrama on Audience Feelings and Emotions
In literature and theater, a melodrama (/ˈmel·əˌdrɑ·mə/) is a work with exaggerated, sensational events and characters. It is highly emotional, focusing on exciting but over-the-top situations that are designed to encourage emotional responses in the audience. Strong characterization is not a feature of melodrama; rather, characters are assigned stereotypical or simple roles, often in “good versus evil” situations. The genre gave life to the widely used term melodramatic, used to describe something overly dramatic or emotional. For example, if your friend was crying hysterically about breaking her new sunglasses, you’d probably tell her she was “being melodramatic.”
The term initially arose from a combination of the Greek Melos, meaning “song”, and the French drame meaning “drama,” to represent its presence in theater. Originally, they were a type of musical theater, combining speech and song together on the stage. They were especially popular during the Victorian era, whose readers relished sensational characters and plotlines. In today’s media, melodrama isn’t musical, but its goal remains the same as it always has to stir the emotions of its audience.
THE IMPACT OF MELODRAMA ON AUDIENCE FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS
One aspect of melodramas that encourages viewers to cry is their narrative structure, which encourage both emotional intensity and the viewer’s feeling of helplessness. Melodramas typically have omniscient, communicative narration (Bordwell 1985). Their narration is omniscient in the sense that the viewer’s knowledge of the fictional world is not limited to any one character, but includes information from several characters. Communicative means that melodramas provide the viewer with a great deal of the information relevant to the story events. Melodrama’s omniscient, communicative narration has the effect that viewers often learn about narrative events before characters learn about them, which can create situations in which we anticipate a character’s reaction to learning this information. During that time, we can reflect on the consequences of this knowledge and direct our attention to the character’s reaction; these activities increase both emotional intensity and the salience of our helplessness to affect the film’s narrative.
Stella Dallas (1937) is one of the most frequently discussed melodramas in film studies, and it illustrates how the genre conventions of melodrama reflect the factors that contribute to crying. The film stars Barbara Stanwyck as a workingclass woman, Stella Martin, who marries a wealthy man, Stephen Dallas. Soon, they have a daughter, Laurel. Although Stella aspires to participate in an upperclass lifestyle, she is unable to fit in with Stephen’s social circle; she and Stephen eventually divorce and share custody of Laurel. Years later, Stella accompanies Laurel, now a teenager, to a fancy resort.
The Impact of Melodrama on Audience Feelings and Emotions
After being mocked by Laurel’s friends, Stella comes to realize that her unrefined ways are preventing Laurel from fully assimilating into upper-class society and enjoying its benefits. Because Stella wants Laurel to have every possible opportunity, she agrees with Laurel’s father that the girl should live full time with him and his new wife. Laurel refuses to accept this because she loves her mother so much, so Stella misleads Laurel into thinking that she wants to be free of the burdens of motherhood. The film’s final scene occurs some time later, at Laurel’s wedding. We see Stella standing outside a building in the rain, looking in through a window at Laurel, who is presumably securing a promising future by marrying a young man from a prestigious family
Although sad situations are those most commonly associated with crying, a situation need not be sad to produce emotional tears. People might cry when confronted with harsh criticism, public humiliation, or extreme frustration. Children frequently cry when scared. Positive emotions are also cited as a cause of crying, as reflected in the common phrase “tears of joy.” People often report crying tears of joy at their children’s weddings or graduations. Similarly, beauty pageant winners and Olympic medalists often cry when they win their respective competitions. Crying may result from a wide variety of emotions or a mixture of different emotions.
Perhaps we describe artworks that make us cry with vague terms such as “emotional” or “moving” because it can be difficult to identify which specific emotions or combination of emotions caused us to cry. One situation that may lead us to cry is the experience of a beautiful work of art, such as a masterfully composed symphony. Miceli and Castelfranchi (2003) call this “aesthetic” crying. Following Kant (2007), they attribute this reaction to a listener’s sense that they perceive exceptional beauty, but are incapable of fully appreciating and expressing the emotions they feel in its presence.
Melodramas, more than other genres, encourage the perceived helplessness and intense emotion required to make viewers cry. Film viewers are obviously helpless to affect the undesirable situations portrayed in melodramas, which is a key factor in their ability to elicit tears. One might wonder why viewers do not cry at every film, since they are always in a similar helpless state. The reason is that even though film viewers cannot change the narrative events in any film, they feel helpless only if they want the narrative to head in a different direction. We do not feel helpless if things are going well for characters we like.
When obstacles arise, we know from our viewing experience that protagonists are typically capable of overcoming them, whether at the moment or further along in the story. However, unlike most popular genres, which have active protagonists, melodramas have passive or ineffectual protagonists (Nowell-Smith 1977). These characters are blocked from taking coping action by aspects of the film’s fictional world (Grodal 2001), and thus viewers cannot trust that the characters can deal with their problems themselves. Crying’s social functions bolster this effect.
Melodramas often use close-ups of a character’s crying face, which not only elicit viewer emotions directly through emotional contagion (Plantinga 1999), but also communicate to the viewer that the character perceives themselves as helpless to cope with a situation. The character’s tears thus increase the viewer’s sense that the situation cannot be improved without someone else’s intervention and because the viewer cannot intervene, his feeling of helplessness intensifies. We are more likely to feel helpless when watching melodramas then other genres due to these typical features of the genre.
In sum, melodramas make us feel helpless by portraying sympathetic characters in undesirable situations, thus encouraging us to hope that the situation will change. In many other genres, characters have or develop the capability to overcome such obstacles, lessening our worry that the characters will suffer bad outcomes. Melodramas, in contrast, emphasize their characters’ inability to change their unfortunate situations. Because we do not like what is happening to the characters, but cannot intervene to improve things, we feel helpless, making us more likely to cry.
In conclusion, melodrama is a genre that never fails its main goal of bringing out a strong emotional reaction in the audience. From its beginnings on the stage to its presence in film and television today, melodrama provides sensational and embellished plotlines that viewers love to indulge in
Kilgarrif, (Ed.) The Golden Age of Melodrama (pp 213-235)
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Nicoll, A. (1973) English Drama 1900-1930: The Beginnings of the Modern Period. Cambridge University Press
Rahill, F. (1967). The World of Melodrama. Pennsylvania: State University Press