Theme and variations

I focus here on The Female Complaint not because it is Berlant’s most recent book (it is not) or her best book (though it may be) but because in it she has so much to say about what makes women such agile practitioners of criticism at the present time.[1]Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). The book maps the intimate twists and turns by means of which genre as a mode of cultural creation and interpretation becomes indistinguishable from genre as a shaping force in lived experience. Since “femininity is a genre with deep affinities to the genres associated with femininity,” it makes sense that for Berlant women would be skilled in the genres (both literary and lived) of romance and (particularly heteronormative) sentiment — writing them, reading them, and living them. But it turns out that even though The Female Complaint is mostly about those especially feminine genres, women have a knack for genre theory as well — for what Arnold would have called criticism — because genre is the stuff of which women, like criticism, are made.

Virginia Jackson on Lauren Berlant at LARB

Virginia Jackson’s recent piece on Berlant’s criticism beautifully draws out some of the things that were striking me about Lili Loofbourow’s tv and film criticism, which, too, is so often about genre and women’s relation to it. The premise of The Mindy Project, one of the first shows Lili wrote about for Dear Television, is that Mindy Kaling’s character is a woman raised on women’s genres, who interprets the world through them and who constantly performs them. Her writing on The Mindy Project is one of the first places I saw Lili describe the collocation of gender and genre:

If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places in film (besides indie movies, and usually not even there) where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority. One result of this is that the Mindys of the age — which includes, I think, a hefty percentage of early-thirties American women — have developed a viewing practice that precisely opposes the aforementioned over-generalizers: where the latter see sameness everywhere, the former have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them.

Mindy is one such expert. For Emma Bovary, connoisseurship of female genres is a source of disappointment and ultimately misguidedly melodramatic suicide (Andreas Huyssen’s gloss on this move in “Mass Culture as Woman,” which I felt compelled to teach this term in my Novel seminar, is pretty undeniable), but for Mindy, it’s a disappointment-management system in the way that melodrama is a disappoint-management system in The Female Complaint.[2]Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62. The disappointments of genre create space for making the disappointments of gender livable. Even for Emma, female genres are an attempt to manage the disappointments of gender: a stupid husband, a tedious town, an unwanted child, and no escape. As Jackson glosses the situation:

The thing is, genre is a heartbreaker. The plaintiveness of The Female Complaint and the cruelty of Cruel Optimism (2011) both turn on the turn that genre takes when its utopian promise breaks down, when our experiments in living can’t remain or become experiments in genre, since, as Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” If that generic expectation is too starry-eyed, genre will fold up its fragile tents: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”; “Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”[3]Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

References

1 Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
2 Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62.
3 Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
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