Loving with a Vengeance
Women's narrative pleasures

by Jane Feuer

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 28-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

Tania Modleski. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982), 140 pg.

Tania Modleski's study of three forms of women's popular narratives — Harlequin romances, gothic novels, and TV soap operas — seems to me a work of major significance not merely for women's studies or popular culture but for film studies as well. Since JUMP CUT readers might overlook it, I hope in this review to indicate its relevance to current debates in film theory. The author undertook the study

“out of concern that these narratives were not receiving the right kind of attention. I try to avoid expressing either hostility or ridicule, to get beneath the embarrassment, which I am convinced provokes both the anger and the mockery, and to explore the reasons for the deep-rooted and centuries old appeal of the narratives. Their enormous and continuing popularity, I assume, suggests that they speak to very real problems and tensions in women's lives. The narrative strategies that have evolved for smoothing over these tensions can tell us much about how women have managed not only to live in oppressive circumstances but to invest their situations with some degree of dignity” (pp. 14-15).

In this way the author takes on and manages to modify some tendencies in feminist criticism that heretofore have circumscribed a serious consideration of women's mass culture. Arguing against the view taken by Ann Douglas that Harlequins appeal in a purely escapist fashion to feminine masochism, Modleski avoids the elitist position of condemning women who enjoy these works. In arguing against the now dominant Laura Mulvey position that all narrative pleasure is male pleasure, she counters convincingly that soap operas represent a specifically female form of narrative pleasure. All of this is accomplished within a work that combines theoretical sophistication with a firm sense of political commitment and clarity of prose style.

In a theoretical introductory chapter (which also attempts to trace the historical lineage of the three genres under consideration) Modleski stresses the need for a method of "reading" feminine rage under the surface of seemingly hegemonic texts. She rejects out of hand the Frankfurt school position that only high art, as "the last preserve of an autonomous critical spirit," can contain liberating elements. Instead, she favors Fredric Jameson's idea that mass art often contains many specific criticisms of everyday life, working upon real anxieties that must have some effective presence in the mass culture text in order to be effectively "managed" or repressed. She links this to the Althusserian notion that we are all inside ideology.

As have many other feminist theorists, Modleski turns to psychoanalytical theory in order to "read" the resistances in Harlequins, Gothics and soaps. She also uses literary aesthetics — specifically narrative analysis and reader response theory — as part of her "contribution to a psychology of the interaction between feminine readers and texts” (p. 31). In contrast to Laura Mulvey, Modleski believes that women's mass culture narratives relate to a feminine form of narrative pleasure, as reflected by the female Oedipal saga delineated in Gothics, and, especially, in soap operas as "the one visual, narrative art uniquely adapted to the psychology of the woman in the home.” In all three forms, women are involved in “reading” men's reactions.

Her approach to Harlequins reveals the benefits of taking a “serious" approach to popular narrative, employing the tools of literary analysis rather than taking the works at face value. For what Modleski discovers by examining the dynamics of the reading process for Harlequins is that the selfless “disappearing act” seemingly required of both heroine and reader has beneath it an outlet for feminine (if not feminist) rage. Popular culture texts tend to be elusive not in their complexity but rather in their simplicity. Their complexity lies not in the deciphering of the meaning of the text but rather in the deciphering of the psycho-cultural dynamics of the reading process.

Modleski has hit upon an ingenious solution to the interpretive enigmas posed by Harlequins: she pretends they are “real” novels. By applying forms of literary analysis, for example the notion of point of view, she is able to make the discovery that there is a relation between the narrative point of view and a presumed reader response. It is required that Harlequins be written in the third person, a production exigency that would seem to diminish reader identification with the heroine. However, narration takes the form of what Roland Barthes calls “personal narration” in which “I” could be substituted for "she" without a change in meaning. Thus a close identification of the hopes and fears of the reader with those of the Harlequin heroine becomes possible.

However, Modleski discovers, at crucial moments in the narrative when the women's appearance is noted, the narration retreats to “apersonal” third person narration causing a split between the reader and the woman. Modleski relates this to John Berger's ideas that a woman's way of seeing in our culture must be schizoid. At the same time that she exists as an object of sight for men, she must continually survey herself from a male point of view.

Evidence of this doubled perspective is also apparent in Modleski's approach to the overall reading dynamics. In the Harlequin formula, a young, innocent woman becomes involved with a handsome older man whose behavior towards her — contemptuous and often brutal — confuses her. Yet it does not confuse the reader because the reader has "retrospective illumination" from her knowledge of the Harlequin formula. Unlike the heroine, the reader is able to read back from the formula ending in which all misunderstandings are cleared away and the hero reveals he has loved the girl all along. The reader may identify emotionally with the heroine without suffering her confusion.

Modleski finds, in this distancing the potential for expressing strong revenge fantasies upon men for the way they treat women (the heroine exhibits quite a bit of hostility toward the hero for the way he treats her) while at the same time easing women's guilt at their anger (we know he loved her all along), Modleski relates this reader response to psychoanalytical theories of hysteria and feminine masochism. She reverses the usual psychoanalytical approach which posits that women's anxieties about rape (the manifest content) conceal the desire to be taken by force (latent content). Modleski finds that in romance fantasies, the desire to be taken by force (manifest content) conceals anxiety about rape and longings for power and revenge (latent content).

Modleski concludes that rather than condemning Harlequins, we should condemn the social conditions that have made them necessary. In this way she avoids the "blame the victim" approach which in condemning mass fiction (which Modleski certainly doesn't see as an unqualifiedly positive force) also condemns the women who enjoy them. In fact, she shows that the process of reading Harlequins is not one of passive escapism but actually demonstrates an active process of reading. This kind of interpretation is similar to the growing number of studies which reveal the mental activity involved in the deciphering of "classical Hollywood narratives” and represents a salutary corrective to “hypodermic” theories of mass culture which posit that ideologies are "injected" into the subject's consciousness with no active participation on her part.

It is in her discussion of soap operas, however, that the author's willingness to treat feminine narratives as complex formal and ideological structures yields the greatest rewards. Modleski believes that soap operas constitute a uniquely feminine narrative form. Their lack of closure, multiple identification, and emphasis on the "reading" of facial expressions in close up — to name several prominent features of soap operas as narrative — constitute the subject/spectator as an ideal mother whose sympathies go out to "all her children."

There is one exception to this — the character of the villainess. The most autonomous type of woman on soaps, the villainess provides an outlet for feminine anger. Moreover, the conditions of reception for soap operas correlate with the rhythms of woman's work in the home. She partly argues against Raymond Williams' concept of "flow” — the idea that TV programs are parts of a whole and that shifts from one programming type to another should not be seen as interruptions. For Modleski, the flow within soaps as well as between soaps and other daytime programming units (e.g. game shows)

"reinforces the very principle of interruptability crucial to the proper functioning of women in the home … What Williams calls the 'central television experience' is a profoundly decentering experience."

Modleski believes that the narrative form of soaps, which "makes anticipation of an end an end itself", invests pleasure in the central experience of women's lives: waiting.

Arguing against critics who see soaps’ formlessness as ideologically complicit with dominant ideological structures, Modleski suggests that the "process without progression" implied by soap opera's lack of closure should not be taken in an entirely negative light, since it may provide a basis for new forms of feminist art. She finds a positive value in the possibility that soap operas may have the force of a negation of the typical (masculine) modes of pleasure in our society, in line with other popular texts which break with the illusion of unity and totality promised by the "classic realist narrative." Soap operas are anti-progressive:

“In direct contrast to the typical male narrative film, in which the climax functions to resolve difficulties, the 'mini-climaxes' of soap operas function to introduce difficulties and to complicate rather than simplify the characters' lives” (p. 107).

Soap operas also tell us a lot about women's fantasies, the most powerful one being that of a "fully self-sufficient family." Rather than condemn this fantasy as politically reactionary, Modleski believes that the longing for community can be progressive as well. The spectator is longing for an alternative to her own isolation in the nuclear family. The author concludes that soaps allay real anxiety and satisfy real needs and desires, even though the soaps may distort them. Modleski concludes that at present, the anti-feminist right is addressing these needs; however, the left cannot afford to ignore them.

While Tania Modleski's work on soap operas will surely be the starting point for all future studies of the form, I find that in its pioneering effort to stake out the territory, she has tended to reduce both the differences among soap operas and the extent to which the form has evolved over the past ten years. This reflects the major limitation of the book as a whole: the relative absence of any detailed textual analysis. Specifically, I would suggest that some soap operas — GENERAL HOSPITAL, for instance — have moved away from the uniquely feminine narrative pleasure in their efforts to capture male viewers.

GENERAL HOSPITAL took the lead in introducing adventure and suspense plots with exterior settings, chase scenes and traditional male heroic types (the gangster, the adventurer, the spy). By making a "tragic hero" of Luke Spencer, GH has unbalanced the multiple narrative structure by coming close to having a "protagonist" in the usual linear sense. On the other hand, a soap opera such as ALL MY CHILDREN has remained, narratively speaking, more within the scope of feminine narrative pleasure, even as it has introduced younger characters and more "trendy" plot lines. Another way of putting this would be that GENERAL HOSPITAL has broken with the "theatrical" model for soap operas and become more "cinematic" in its handling of space, time and character types. The consequence has been that Hollywood codes for masculine pleasure have been blended in to the "feminine" soap opera narrative structure. Examples include the use of stock character types (Luke — the macho adventurer; Heather Weber — the archetypal film noir spider woman); the increasing complexity of cinematic vocabulary (including an increase in long shots which fetishize the female body); and the introduction of linear plot lines into the non-linear soap opera narrative. These new "masculine" structures, however, have not replaced GENERAL HOSPITAL’s multiple-focus narrative. Rather, they've been added onto it.

Instead of being merely "feminine" narratives, soap operas seem to me to be sponge-like structures capable of absorbing narrative patterns from a variety of sources. Their essentially "feminine" nature may have been a temporary historical phenomenon. On the other hand, we have seen the blending of soap opera structures into the most macho of TV formats, the cop show, culminating in the hybrid HILL STREET BLUES. Since Modleski's study is primarily synchronic, she can't account for these diachronic changes, which would modify but not negate her ideas. Network television’s merger of masculine with feminine narrative strategies should provide a forum for the study of their interaction and possible mutual accommodation.

Loving with a Vengeance connects with an emerging current of scholarship in popular culture which tries to mediate between the Frankfurt School’s condemnation of all mass culture as tools of the dominant ideology, and the Journal of Popular Culture’s approach, which fails to see the political ramifications in its wholehearted endorsement of these texts’ mythic pleasures. Following Richard Dyer, whose pivotal article "Entertainment and Utopia" she quotes in an "Afterword," Modleski sees these mass-produced fantasies for women as providing a "Utopian" escape into another world, one very different from the alienated one of advanced capitalism, although sharing many real world problems. However, also agreeing with Dyer, she points out that these fantasies are incomplete, offering only those Utopian ideals that capitalism itself promises to meet. Popular feminine texts do not, for example, question the myth of male superiority or the institutions of marriage and the family, although they do provide outlets for women's dissatisfactions with those conditions. As Modleski states in the concluding paragraph of her book:

It is useless to deplore the texts for their omissions, distortions, and conservative affirmations. It is crucial to understand them: to let their very omissions and distortions speak, informing us of the contradictions they are meant to conceal, and, equally importantly, of the fears that lie behind them.