This article places existing discourses on Egyptian cinema, revolution, and global feminism in conversation with theories of film melodrama. The text examines the tradition of Egyptian melodrama as a site for analogizing women's liberation with national modernization in the wake of the 1952 Revolution—an analogy facilitated by the careful manipulation of melodramatic vernaculars of emotionality, and the endurance of affective cultural memory. In this context melodrama functions as a specific critical tool for understanding how popular film culture then and now organizes people politically and affectively, on- and offscreen. The article further investigates the “method of contradictions” that seems necessary to think critically about comparative melodrama at three levels of discourse: melodrama in general; the Egyptian melodramatic tradition specifically; and within melodramatic scholarship that tends to resemble its object of study.
Despite being the predominant Arabic-language film industry, widely circulated and watched across the Arab world, Egyptian cinema remains largely underexplored or marginalized in Western film criticism. In this paper I hope to place existing discourses on Egyptian cinema, revolution, and global feminism in conversation with theories of film melodrama. Through an examination of Nasser-era (1952–70) melodrama I hope to do comparative work that opens up productive contradictions between the modernity of cinema, the nation, and women. This study contributes to the growing discussion of a global melodramatic current initiated by scholars such as Agustín Zarzosa and Carla Marcantonio as well as the specifically Egyptian context of femininity and political economy.1
To begin to answer the questions that arise from this sometimes comfortable, sometimes uncomfortable collision of methodologies, this paper has three main goals. First, it examines the tradition of Egyptian melodrama as a site for analogizing women's liberation with national modernization in the wake of the 1952 Revolution, which is an analogy facilitated by the careful manipulation of melodramatic vernaculars of emotionality, and the endurance of affective cultural memory. I aim to use melodrama as a specific critical tool for understanding how popular film culture then and now organizes people both politically and affectively. I will define this intersection of politics and affect as parameters of the realm of female citizenship, critically reflecting on the scholarly work of Sara Ahmed and more recently Elisabeth Anker to understand the pervasiveness of emotional capital and the free flow of experience between individual and collective bodies, on- and offscreen.
Second, through my examination of Egyptian melodrama from this period, I will investigate what I call a “method of contradictions” that seems necessary to think critically about comparative melodrama. I will discuss contradictions, collisions, and openings that arise at three levels of discourse: in the nature of melodrama in general, in the Egyptian melodramatic tradition specifically, and within melodramatic scholarship that tends to resemble its object of study. At this point melodrama itself becomes a method for scholarship; it is a way of studying film, history, and culture that awards the same privilege to emotion and individual (often female) experience as to the more public record of linear history.
Third, I will critique the paradoxes inherent in the body of work that does the cultural historical work of relating gender and nation both globally and in the specific case of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. The image of the Egyptian woman is the image of Egyptian national modernity itself. The juxtaposition of female and national liberation and modernization has been explored by historians such as Laura Bier and Mériam Belli and scholars of cinema such as Kamran Rastegar, each providing a distinct historical intervention. They use film as one of many “historical utterances,” to use Belli's term for popular or collective media that is symptomatic of political phenomena, but are more concerned with the message than the medium.2 I am interested in the political potential of melodrama as it is used in this instance as a tool of the state, and how we might develop different layers of remembering and recounting this history beyond binary assertions of the woman-nation dichotomy. This problem will permeate my article: the degree to which women's liberation bolsters the nationalist movement but is always subordinate to it, and whether this ultimately matters in a feminist revisionist history.
“STATE FEMINISM” ON- AND OFFSCREEN
When discussing the Egyptian instantiation of melodrama in both its global and its local contexts, we should note that much of what is “legible” to global consumers of melodrama is present—indeed, we are facing issues prevalent in for example American, Indian, or Japanese melodrama that, while arising from wholly different cultural and historical circumstances, nonetheless organize, however loosely, around themes such as the clash of tradition and modernity, the role of women in society, and the condition of both filial and romantic love.
One of Egyptian cinema's most prolific periods was the postindependence era of the 1950s and 1960s, when Egypt had succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and the British colonial powers. The Revolution of 1952 heralded a new government led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser and was followed by a period of political nationalism, escalating social change, and support for pan-Arabism, or the idea of Arab unity under one socialist state.3 In Nasser's 1962 “The Charter,” the discourse is distinctly melodramatic in its appeal to the people: “The value of a true revolution lies in its degree of popularity, in the extent to which it is an expression of the wishes of the vast masses, in the extent to which it mobilizes their forces to rebuild the future, and also in the extent to which it enables these masses to shape their own destinies.”4 I believe there is a connection to be made here with Peter Brooks's 1976 The Melodramatic Imagination and his discussion of the French Revolution's influence on the fermentation of the melodramatic mode in European theater. Brooks looks to the popular public theater of the time—a theater of melodramas brimming to excess with extremes of good and evil, purity and virtue—that would have appealed to the demoralized masses looking to escape into the catharsis of the mode. Brooks formulates that these popular masses are connected by their desire to attain the “moral occult” at the heart of their tumultuous lives, which he defines as a desire for truth and meaning in a post-sacred world.5 For Brooks the melodramatic mode is a condition of the revolution, a reflection and an expression of a political-cultural climate. This idea of melodrama as a condition of revolution is an interesting and relevant one, but, as I will discuss shortly, not necessarily one that can or should be transplanted to non-Western cultures. My interest, however, lies not in the question of “can” and “should,” but in the productive collisions that occur in the process of translation.
In Revolutionary Melodrama (2002), Joel Gordon traces in detail the Nasser era in film and history, identifying melodrama as a tool of the Revolution, and referring to this period as a benchmark for public recollection and debate that is reflected in the melodramas of the time.6 Gordon emphasizes that this period in Egyptian history is impossible to characterize definitively as positive or negative for the Egyptian people, as it was rife with binary extremes (in particular of class and gender)—a breeding ground for melodrama, indeed. Gordon's book, though something of a well-intentioned love letter to the films of the time, does not fully achieve his goal of assessing Egyptian revolutionary civic identity, as it often relies too heavily on readings of the films as culturally reflective of their circumstances. Gordon has done extensive research into the films of this period and presents valuable historical information, but not in a particularly critical mode. His chapter “Free to Be ‘Bad’: The Revolution's New Woman Onscreen” mainly discusses the popularity of the melodramas of the era with female viewers, particularly the film adaptations of novels by Ihsan Abd al-Qudus. He identifies the potential feminist intervention made by these films but fails to interrogate the complicated and gendered dynamics of who was making these politically charged statements: in this case, the hugely popular male author al-Qudus, who was later honored by Nasser himself with an Order of Merit. Gordon's labeling of al-Qudus with the pun “ladies’ man,” ostensibly for his popularity with female readers, in this case falls somewhat flat.7
We can better understand the extreme divisiveness of the Nasser era, particularly with regard to the national molding of the “ideal Egyptian woman,” in the work of the historian Laura Bier. She explains that following the 1952 Revolution, “Postindependence political and social projects, which were increasingly inclusive of women as political subjects, also produced new sorts of gendered and classed hierarchies exclusive to the process of forging a particularly Egyptian vision of modernity.”8 This sentiment pervaded public political discourse and influenced myriad public initiatives aimed at modernizing the state.9 The main tenet of this new public policy was to liberate women from the home, educate them, and create a new class of women workers and women citizens; in the words of Mervat Hatem, these initiatives heralded a period of “state feminism.”10 This institutionalized “state feminism” takes the woman out of the home and shapes her as a new ideal citizen, an exemplar of untapped potential and productivity, a symbol of the nation-building project itself. This postrevolutionary discourse was centered on new practices of citizenship and the image of the idealized “Egyptian woman,” who would be both the symbol and the site of revolution.
However, as Bier and others have argued, attempts at national modernization could only succeed with widespread popular support. Thus, female liberation was necessary to the national cause only insofar as the state required new citizens. The problem, of course, was the matter of intention: modernization turns women into appropriate “national subjects” for the sake of the nation and not for any inherent interest in women's causes.11 Women's liberation supports and reinforces the nationalist movement, but is problematically secondary to it. What I argue is that there are multifaceted layers of inversion of public and private at so many levels of these discourses, and melodrama becomes the means of translation and mediation of these shifting dynamics.
In Popular Egyptian Cinema (2007), Viola Shafik provides a thorough history and critical evaluation of the Egyptian popular film industry, noting that it is not an exclusively “national” cinema. From its origin in the 1920s it has been defined by the melting pot of Egyptian racial, religious, national, and community-based identities that characterize the industry's artists and workers. Moreover, popular Egyptian films experienced veritably unrivaled distribution and circulation throughout the Arab-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East.12 That said, we can somewhat ironically juxtapose this non-national quality of the industry with the nation-building project that coincided with one of its most prolific periods, the postindependence era of the 1950s and 1960s. As discussed above, the Revolution was followed by a period of political nationalism, escalating social change, and support for pan-Arabism. Indeed, many of these films, most famously Henry Barakat's The Open Door (El Bab el maftuh, 1964) and Salah Abouseif's I Am Free (Ana hurra, 1958), dramatize the Revolution itself in proper melodramatic fashion through the juxtaposition of public-political turmoil (the events of the Revolution) and private-experiential struggles (familial and romantic conflict).
I discuss these films in the context of melodrama specifically, rather than popular cinema in general, because melodrama is formally and thematically critical to a discussion of women and nation in Nasser-era Egypt, for reasons both global and local. Whether returning to Peter Brooks's seminal connection between the melodramatic mode and the political unrest of the French Revolution or discussion of the subversively modernist style of Douglas Sirk in Hollywood cinema, the link is consistently one in which melodrama is used as an aesthetic tool for political expression, an object popular with the public that through overt displays of emotion and visual or thematic excess is both relatable and pointedly critical of the socioeconomic status quo. This is as true in Egyptian cinema as it is in countless other filmic traditions, yet the specificity of melodrama in the Egyptian context lies in its historical pervasiveness in Egyptian popular cinema, in the thematic resonance of the “love marriage” that is at the heart of the woman-nation discourse, and in the industry context in which women and women's film have been influential since cinema's inception (though this remains less true today, as the industry has been dominated by men since the 1980s).
For example, the film credited as the first Egyptian film, Laila (1927, dir. Wadad Orfi and Stephan Rosti), is undeniably a melodrama. Laila is an innocent village girl seduced by a man who leaves her pregnant and disgraced: a “fallen woman” plot familiar across national cinematic boundaries (for example in D. W. Griffith's Way Down East  or Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy [Naniwa ereji, 1936]). Kay Dickinson, in her article on the peculiar historical presence of Laila (the film print has been long lost, yet it is often referenced and indirectly documented), writes mainly of the film's star and producer, Aziza Amir. Dickinson notes that Amir is a historical feminist figure responsible for initiating the project, starring in it, and partially directing it.13 The film was a popular success, but Dickinson suggests that Amir has only recently been recognized for the full impact of her contributions to the industry by Arab feminist researchers, citing the fact that she has only been written about by male scholars within a greater anti-imperialist narrative as evidence that women were used to buoy this nationalist discourse.14
Returning to the revolutionary and postrevolutionary eras, this oversight of significant female influence in the film industry is again a symptom of nationalist historical narratives. It is not a matter of complete erasure, but rather of sublimation beneath the nationalist cause. Joel Gordon provides this 1966 statement from Gamal al-Laythi, a former free officer who left the army for film production and distribution:
Any film that serves a political, humanistic, national or social cause serves our new society, and is by intent a socialist film. However, one must place this aim within a framework of a good, stimulating cinematic story. Because if the public is to like the film it must be able to both absorb the content and be entertained. There are people who believe that a socialist film should be nothing but speeches and preaching, but in my opinion such films serve no socialist cause…. It is necessary that when we see such a film we walk away happy, so that we may accept our lives with enthusiasm and joy.15
These words echo those from Nasser's earlier-cited “The Charter,” in which he declares that a successful mobilization of the masses lies in the popularity of the movement, such that the interests of the state and those of the people are one, while furthermore explicitly underlying a Brooksian notion of the relationship between melodrama and revolution. However, such readings again enforce the invisibility of female experience, perpetuated by the melodramas of this era that tend to use female characters as vehicles for expressing the traditional melodramatic motifs of innocence and victimization insofar as they allegorize the nation but not the women themselves.
This symptom of postrevolutionary cinema is manifest in a truly prolific number of films made by a familiar faction of filmmakers and actors: namely the directors Henry Barakat (Girls of Today [Banat el yom, 1957], Hassan and Nayima [Hassan wa Nayima, 1959]; There Is a Man in Our House [Fi baitina rajul, 1961), The Open Door) and Salah Abouseif (Sleepless [La anam, 1957], The Empty Pillow [El wessada el khalia, 1957], I Am Free); the actress Faten Hamama (The Open Door, Sleepless); and the novelist and screenwriter Ihsan Abd al-Qudus (I Am Free, Sleepless, The Empty Pillow, There Is a Man in Our House). These films mark only a modicum of the collaborations between this group and others during this period, all of which experienced popular success at the box office.16 The plots of the films are varied, but more often than not they feature a young heroine on the brink of breaking from her traditional family and embracing her “modern womanhood,” in search of love but also civic identity and inclusion. With the exception of some films set in the country (for instance The Curlew's Cry [Doa al karawan, 1959], a Henry Barakat and Faten Hamama collaboration about the rape of rural girl), these films overwhelmingly are set and filmed in the streets of Cairo. The settings often juxtapose the cramped and baroque interiors of apartment living, which delineate the realm of family and its impositions of tradition, with the openness and freedom of Cairo's city streets, where modernization is visible.
The films that I discuss in more detail here, The Open Door and I Am Free, are particularly important to the Nasser era for three reasons: they epitomize the abovementioned characteristics of the subgenre, they were hugely popular with audiences and have experienced second lives in television and other distribution markets, and, most importantly for my purposes here, they directly dramatize the recent past of the revolutionary period itself. Both films feature remarkably similar and familiar melodrama plots: young women from wealthy, traditional Cairo families struggle with their ideals and desires, and are in love with radical revolutionary men who convince them that they should escape the binds of tradition and be free to love themselves, their men, and especially their country.
In The Open Door, Laila is a young woman who can only find the strength to transcend her familial and societal binds by throwing herself into nationalist political protests—also the case for I Am Free's Amina, who does the same after determining that liberation is not attained through personal means (a social life, personal desires) but through political activism. I Am Free ends with the staunchly anti-marriage Amina finding herself in love, married, and quite literally in prison, locked up for her political activities. (However, the film includes a shot of her marriage contract, clearly dated only several days before the arrival of the Revolution on July 23, 1952; after this point the viewer would infer that Amina and her new husband would both soon be released.) These juxtapositions of messages relating to love and freedom rather perfectly encompass all of the complex contradictions that arise from the conflation of woman and nation, through a melodramatic vernacular that is simultaneously translatable and tied to the specificities of the time and place of Nasser-era Egypt.
Situated within this climate of (con)fusion of nation and gender is where I would like to move into a critique of the feminism at work in these films, as it relates to the formation of a more global melodramatic current and the ongoing complex practice of formulating feminist histories. Many of the Nasser-era melodramas, such as the abovementioned works by Henry Barakat and Salah Abouseif, are overtly feminist projects that not only set stories of female education, professionalization, and love marriage against the climate of the 1952 Revolution, but equate the two—meaning, they portray female liberation as explicitly necessary and conducive to the goals of the Revolution.
The feminist messages of these films may be bold manifestations of an evolving social climate, but their implications are indeed more complex. Viola Shafik, for example, offers a criticism of this heavy-handed progressivism, noting that the alignment of nationalist and feminist liberation in fact flattens any expression of the individual female experience in service of the nationalist agenda. She explains that these films fail to give credit to “individual independence and self-determination,” and furthermore “exclude polysemic identities,” offering the example that motherhood and women's liberation are often constructed as in opposition.17 Hamama's “revolutionary schoolgirl” is undeniably a capable, passionate character who would fall into the category of “strong” women to whom twenty-first-century feminists might look in order to recover and reclaim femininity from periods of historical oppression under patriarchy. A problem arises, however, when the “strong” woman is merely a straw woman, ventriloquized by the very system from which we endeavor to reclaim her.
As Dickinson points out in her discussion of Laila, there is a tendency in industry histories as well as film narratives to either overlook or repurpose the role of women. With the critical discourses surrounding The Open Door this phenomenon exists as well: the role of women critical to the film's production is not so much ignored as unexamined. Specifically I am referring to the adaptation of the screenplay from Latifa al-Zayyat's widely read and successful novel of the same name, and the influence of the star image of Hamama. Al-Zayyat was a novelist, activist, and professor, yet in Joel Gordon's critical assessment of The Open Door her role is minimized, especially compared to the aforementioned praise that he heaps upon I Am Free author al-Qudus.18 As for Hamama, Gordon devotes much attention to her prolific career without truly interrogating her influence on the industry.
Shafik, however, introduces the interesting question of how to theorize Hamama's star image from a critical perspective. She cites Christine Gledhill's work on stardom as a point of reference for understanding the interplay of melodrama, myth, and modernization in the Egyptian context. Gledhill asserts that the star is the physical manifestation of Brooks's “moral occult” at the heart of melodrama: the ordinary person made extraordinary, whose everyday battles are given a fantastical moral weight, which then imbues the star with mythical qualities.19 Shafik confirms that the star image of Egyptian actresses such as Hamama saturated newspapers, gossip magazines, and advertisements in ways similar to actresses in the classical Hollywood period that Gledhill describes, but she insists that the reading of a star image in the Egyptian context is more complex than can be explained by Gledhill's formulation. Though Egyptian film stars contributed to the “imagined community” of female identification that melodrama perpetuates, modernization affected the population at very different rates depending upon circumstances of environment, ethnicity, class, and gender, rendering it difficult to translate theories of star image to a non-Western context without further ethnographic research.20
I will revisit this topic of translating theory in a later section, where I investigate alternative points of entry for the feminist viewer in the process of formulating a global melodramatic current, and the potentially productive collisions located therein.
MELODRAMA, CULTURAL MEMORY, AND PROCESSES OF HISTORY MAKING
The binary formulation of women and nation has dominated scholarly work on the history and films of the Egyptian revolutionary period. Once this connection has been made and interrogated, however, we are left with questions of how to make sense of a period of history and cinema that so overtly asserts its own identity. Can alternative readings of, or interventions into, “state feminism” be found?
One current reexamination is by Kamran Rastegar, who provides a more nuanced look at the transactional relationship between cinema and memory, specifically in the context of wounds and trauma born from conflict in the Middle East. He utilizes basic formations from cinema trauma theory, such as the idea of cinema itself becoming memory, but ultimately moves away from the psychoanalytic structures that frame these readings.21 He instead theorizes an idea of “gendered memorialization” that he applies to the process of gendering the cultural memory of the Egyptian anticolonial struggle.22 Most interesting for the purposes of this paper is his claim that postindependence cinema that promotes a state feminism is actively “occluding” the memory of women's experiences during this time.23 This form of cinematic memorialization effectively washes away the various individual traumas of a time of political upheaval and replaces these experiences with an idealized allegory that, as with any allegory, is reductive.
On the topic of allegory, Kay Dickinson (among others, such as Rey Chow) has criticized Fredric Jameson's theory of reading third cinema through the lens of allegory, citing the reductive nature of this formulation and the resulting fetishization of cultural objects in the service of expressing national identity.24 Dickinson, in discussing Egyptian cinema, asks how we might handle a film or group of films that actively deploy allegory rather than passively create an opening for the viewer: in other words, films that equate women and nation as part of a message of national modernization such as the Nasser-era melodramas. She connects allegory to the practice of veiling, always a point of contention for global feminism: “Allegory, like veiling, opens up the opportunity for that which should not be recognized to enter into the public sphere in an accepted form of disguise; in a strategically compromised mode, it ushers the private into the public.”25
To begin to answer this question I think we can look to the idea of “the medium is the message.” In short, we can look to melodrama itself as a critical tool for mediating the disconnect between the (private) female experience of cultural liberation during the postindependence period and the (public) manipulation of this experience to support a nationalist agenda. In this sense melodrama is a tool for mediating private and public, and I would argue a more useful one than allegory. It is less a veiling than a translation, and a flawed one at that, far less direct than the dualistic structure of allegory. It opens instead to polysemic possibilities, prismatic feminist perspectives—it is here that we can begin to look to processes of making history from memory. The unique role that melodrama plays in this process is exactly in this mediation between private and public, wherein melodrama becomes a method, as I will discuss further in the following section.
To return to women and nation, we have established through critiques like Rastegar's that films such as The Open Door and I Am Free, while on one level progressive, are ultimately problematic in their reliance on women's liberation to bolster the nationalist movement, while implicitly keeping the former subordinate to the latter. This is especially evident in I Am Free in Amina's “confusion” about the meaning of freedom, namely that freedom does not mean dancing and dating and living a life outside the home as she thought, but rather devotion to the cause of freedom for the nation. The didactic nature of the allegory deployed by a patriarchal system seems in this case to counteract the surface-level assertions of feminism, yet at the same time there must be an alternate way of viewing these films. How can we read them outside the labels of “feminist” because they promote female liberation or “not feminist” because they do so in the service of nationalism? One way in which to escape this confining binary is to employ melodrama as a method in all its messiness and contradictions, its emphasis on private versus public female experience. From this entry point we can perhaps think of the Nasser-era melodramas less in terms of the patriarchal system that is producing them and recognize that they function independently of their creation, serving as nodes that connect the women who watch them, providing a network of feelings and shared collective experience that draws from the interiority of female life. The idea of a “rhetoric of feelings,” as I refer to it, may sound indistinct or formless, but this is a categorical decision. To borrow a term from Krista Lynes, we are dealing with “prismatic” media as a means to develop alternative histories and modernities.26
Theorists such as Raymond Williams have expressed a new interest in everyday life and the “ordinariness” of culture, and these basic concepts open doors for revisiting the past and investigating nonlinear, fragmented histories in a variety of fields, from queer to feminist to postcolonial studies. Williams for example says that the “making of every society is the finding of common meanings yet made and remade in every individual mind.”27 This speaks to both the liminal space of culture and the wide scope of its influence through circulation of media at local, national, and global levels. In this sense culture becomes an organizer of the national imaginary, particularly in the wake of modernity, bringing people from the country to the city where mass culture emerges and the institutions of mass culture yield economic and political influence. In the wake of Egyptian modernization, the notion of the everyday and the ordinary pertains less to the individual and more to a broader concept of public citizenship—the free education and services newly offered, the films and songs widely consumed, the urban spaces renewed and frequented, the food received via state subsidies. These state-provided pillars of public life are inseparable from any feelings and emotions that would contribute to a notion of female citizenship in Egypt at this time, whether individual or collective.
Now the question becomes one of how these methods of thought and their subsequent productions of culture exist and are used in the public political realm. Sara Ahmed and Elisabeth Anker each write about the power of emotions and emotionality, both the affective bonds that they create and the political discourses that they shape. Ahmed tells us that “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachment.”28 This connection between the individual and the collective body animates her work as she examines how emotions articulate public life and contribute to the social-political imagination, creating their own “affective economies.” In this sense the history of emotions as she explains it is both political and politicized. The value of emotion is traditionally ignored or understudied and considered low on a hierarchy in relation to thought and reason, which corresponds to analogous hierarchies of good and bad emotions, leading Ahmed to formulate a theory of emotions as a power dynamic. A key point to take from Ahmed's assessment is that emotions are subject to hierarchies of power in terms of who is feeling them, but also that they carry with them connotations of power themselves, the consequences or potentials of which are innately political.
Ahmed is an important figure for recognizing the pervasiveness of emotional capital and the free flow of experience between individual and collective bodies. Anker's recent work continues in this tradition while connecting more explicitly to theories of melodrama and its role in an increasingly public and political discussion, in accordance with the shift toward a rhetoric of feelings.29
To return once more to the specific context of applying this methodology to Egyptian melodrama, I would like to point to the historian Mériam Belli's work on the Nasser era. She describes the “chimera” of trying to re-create a history of this time using alternative historical sources such as oral histories obtained through her own interviews.30 She considers herself part of the tradition of theorists following Pierre Nora's impetus toward histories that privilege individual as well as collective experience, while acknowledging that there is a contradiction inherent in these accounts (and accepting this contradiction). This notion of contradictions is necessary to forming a prismatic feminist history of this period, wherein there is a “spectrum of experience” that evaluates the historical in light of the personal, rather than the other way around. Belli claims, “The accent here is on the present tense of experience, the past tense of remembering, and the interconnectedness of both past and present.”31 This fluidity and acceptance of contradictions leads me to my final section, in which I apply this method to film in order to move toward the possibility of a global melodramatic current at work at the intersection of women and nation and the political potential available therein.
MELODRAMA AND THE METHOD OF CONTRADICTIONS
Melodrama shapes narratives of gender, nation, history, and memory. Across genres, borders, and history, melodrama persists as a mode of the senses, eliciting our emotions and shaping our experience of the world around us. It is a critical tool, a framework, a method. Whether it is the second-wave feminists reclaiming the women's picture (Mary Ann Doane, Laura Mulvey), the cultural-historical reevaluation of the films of Douglas Sirk (Barbara Klinger), the revisiting of early cinema as symptom and product of the sensationalized world of modernity (Ben Singer), or the aesthetic analysis of neo-transnational melodrama from auteurs such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wong Kar-Wai, Todd Haynes, or Pedro Almodóvar (Pam Cook)—one link that connects each of these objects is the pervasive modality of melodrama.32
However, I would like to eschew the overgeneralizations and embrace instead the contradictions of melodrama—to begin to think about the implications of a global melodrama, the possibility and impossibility of it. What is unique to melodrama as a mode is that it is simultaneously global, in terms of cross-cultural legibility and the perpetuation of particular tropes and aesthetics, and local, existing in very specific regional traditions that are not easily translatable. I explore the idea of “melodrama as method” as a means of potentially answering these questions of cultural legibility and specificity—to test the idea that to talk about a global melodramatic current is to talk about the work of melodrama, the potentialities that flow between the public and the private, the affective or sensorial and the political.
After engaging with the specificities of the melodramatic political discourse of Egyptian popular cinema of this period, how then do we transition into situating this knowledge into an understanding of a global melodramatic current? I believe that the answer lies in an attempt to understand one cultural instance of an interaction between melodrama and modernity in relation to “other” modernisms and feminisms, each with its own cultural-historical specificities, yet potentially linked by global rhetorics of entrapment, freedom, and desire.
We cannot simply apply Western melodrama theory to other contexts, but we can utilize certain critical methods that are overarching—the idea of using melodrama itself as a critical tool, a lens through which to read constructions of cultural identity—while noting the mistranslations and contradictions. As Christine Gledhill writes, melodrama is an “industrial mechanism” that, rather than reinforcing boundaries, actually encourages disputes and dissolutions between them, so that these “crossings” can become “productive sites for cultural activity.”33 It follows then that her main argument asserts the primacy of historical-cultural specificity in discourses on genre to account for the various transatlantic and cross-gender iterations of the mode. She is calling ultimately for a fluidity in understanding genre.34
Gledhill's writing anticipates various qualities of melodrama that are manifest, for example, in what I call “the problem of naming” that has surrounded melodrama in both its Western and non-Western instantiations. In the unbounded nature of melodrama across film genres and in its inability to be defined even within individual cultural contexts, there emerges a paradox inherent in the melodramatic mode—its simultaneous globality and localness, its transplantations coupled with its untranslatable specificities. In the aptly titled piece “Melodrama as Method” (2013), Anupama Kapse describes melodrama in similar terms as Gledhill, calling it a “connective tissue” linking different genres and film cultures.35
In the case of Egyptian melodrama I would like to call attention to the manifestation of various qualities of melodrama that exist at the fusion of the “crossing space” and the “impossible translation” that are present both in the nature of melodrama itself as well as in scholarship on melodrama, for it is at the site of this collision where we find the potential for opening a cross-cultural discourse. Contradictions, to a certain degree, are inherent to melodramatic modes of expression. Melodrama is the space, after all, where pathos and action coexist, dramatic irony flourishes, and mixed messages thrive. The very public perception of melodrama is a contradiction—it is seen simultaneously as high modernism and low camp, stylistically and thematically conventional and subtly subversive, defined by both excessive expressivity and internality.
These arguably globally legible qualities are as present in Egyptian cinema as in the films of Douglas Sirk, but I am more interested in the points at which these similarities at first appear to occur, but ultimately do not. One such example is the topic of love and marriage, which constitutes a large portion of the corpus of Hollywood melodrama. Indeed many a Hollywood and Egyptian melodrama alike end in a marriage or similarly traditional heterosexual coupling, but the connotations of romance and the institution of marriage itself mean very different things in, for example, Lauren Berlant's reading of romance as a means to curb American women's political potential, and the idea of the love marriage as politically subversive in an evolving Egyptian social context.36
With this in mind I refer to the final scene from I Am Free, in which Amina marries her revolutionary lover while the two are both in prison for their political activism. The scene ends iconically with an image of Amina, alone, walking upstairs back to her prison cell. This scene illustrates two of the levels of contradiction that I have mentioned: in melodrama itself and in the act of mediating different melodramatic traditions. The scene typifies the quintessential “dubious” melodrama ending in that there are extreme mixed messages—it is hasty and incongruous with the previously stated values of the character. The steadfastly anti-marriage Amina, after seeking freedom from her overbearing family through education and employment, decides that freedom itself is not enough—one has to do something productive with one's freedom. So she finds herself, despite all of her revolutionary effort, married and in a literal prison rather than an allegorical one.
What might this method of contradictions mean for us at the level of scholarship? There is support for the idea that melodramatic scholarship mimics its object—Kapse, for example, actively uses melodrama as a method for doing film theory and history, using it to “account for the personal in the academic.”37 How then might we begin to think of contradiction as a method unto itself? When do comparative approaches produce new ideas, and when is there a missed or impossible translation? Viola Shafik keenly points out (similarly to the argument that Kapse makes when trying to consider Peter Brooks in the context of Indian cinema) that Laura Mulvey's explanation of melodrama does not translate to an Egyptian context, insofar as a Mulvey-esque critique of problematically separate gender spheres would come across as Orientalist in many non-Western contexts where gendered spheres are a result of “bourgeois social formation” rather than “regional cultural practices.”38
We can extend this to Lauren Berlant as well, insofar as her theory that romance serves to amputate women from the public realm does not apply to the “state feminism” at work in the Nasser-era melodramas, in which the love story is not a diversion but is actively conflating love and politics, in fact utilizing it to encourage civic engagement. It is therefore interesting to read Berlant in this context inasmuch as the translation is missed, but nonetheless raises the question of how to understand global structures at work in melodrama as related to analogizing women and nation. The contradictions are inherent in melodrama, as they are inherent in Berlant's formulation of an “intimate public space,” and these contradictions or collisions allow us to make a different kind of translation—not one in which Western theory is globalized and applied elsewhere, but one in which difference is acknowledged and made productive. It is the emergence of these mistranslations and the repurposing of traditionally held views on melodrama that provide potentially valuable insights into the field of melodrama studies as it contributes to reception, the formation of affect, and the potential for melodrama to constitute meaningful or productive discourses cross-culturally.