Inside or outside? This seems to be the overriding question at the heart of the genre question at the center of today’s readings. On one side, Jean Feuer’s essay on soap opera defines them through reading the text itself, looking at the contradictions as similar to the inherent contradictions to the filmic melodrama. On the other side, Jason Mittell feels more specious about such a textual reading of genre, assuming that readings of genre are problematic without site specific analysis of production. He argues, “Although historical work usually does not engage in such theoretical abstraction or interpretive idealism, many genre historians still posit large-scale shifts or master narratives of a genre” (6). He argues the essential issue is the idea of relying on the text as opposed to the forces outside, that they end up taking much larger issues than supported by the categories.
I’m one of two sides about this. On one, I totally recognize something that Feuer is going toward an excess that does define Dallas and Dynasty and others, and I recognize some of the relational issues to Sirk and Ophuls. But is not excess the defining factor of the 1980s? Is there any stylistic relation to the Michael Jackson MTV videos noted by Mittell, or heck, this opening sequence from the pilot episode of Miami Vice (male melodrama? Cop melodrama?).
But what is Feuer ultimately arguing for? Her response is quite clear in this regard: “The emergence of the melodramatic serial in the 1980s represents a radical `response to and expression of cultural contradictions” (16). In a way, Feuer’s analysis is itself a more limiting question than I think Mittell gives it credit for. She leads with one question which is: why do people interpret these films so differently in terms of their politics? Where perhaps Feuer loses her place is her turn specifically to genre, when other Hollywood films (a) are ideologically incoherent and (b) might carry cinematic excess? To this, Feuer contends, “Melodrama, in problematising questions of spectatorship and gender, demands reader-response based modes of analysis such as psychoanalysis” (8), but I think essentializes in the same way that Mittell finds problematic.
I think the major question is this: what would a Mittell-style, site specific discursive analysis look like, and what would its findings be? I assume one then might start analyzing the history of Metromedia and 20th Century Television, which produced the show, and looking at the show’s creator, Aaron Spelling, and how different her 1970s shows, which were not Lear-esque, sitcoms, and tracing their ideological valance (Charlie’s Angels is certainly an ideological minefield), and then understanding the development of the night time soap opera through various practices. It would go on the maybe understand how the use of visual excess could form a capital prestige for audiences that “legitimated” their watching of a soap opera (much in the way the masculine visual codes of 24 “legitimate” the soap opera narrative underneath, as Prof McPhereson argues). For Mittell, however, genre must be obvious, which is how/why he places it at the sites of production—it must be an operational use (by producers, consumers, advertisers, and the texts themselves) recognizable at any moment.
But this brings me finally back around to my defense of Feuer. I don’t think Feuer is saying Dynasty and Dallas are melodramas—I think she would emphatically call them soap operas. Her use of the melodrama seems to be using one text to explain another, and the similarities allow her to use one theory to explain the productive ideological valence of another set of texts. So the real question at the center of this debate is really this: if someone doesn’t use the word melodrama in the creation of a text in the woods, does it actually exist?