Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Different, except in a Different Way: Marriage, Divorce, and Gender in the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Different, except in a Different Way: Marriage, Divorce, and Gender in the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage

Article excerpt

Part of the appeal of Hollywood's comedies of remarriage is that they seem to escape tautological explanation. These films reflect on the Depression economy, marriage, gender, even sex, while refusing to take a neat stand on anything. It's not that the films aren't saying anything about these issues-it's that they are saying too much. In this article, I will look at the discourse between the comedies of remarriage and culture and try to map the contradictions in both in relationship to gender.

The alternate transgressions from and valorization of marriage in Hollywood's romantic comedies are part of a discourse that has been ongoing in America since the nation's birth. Thus, Victorian and modern notions of marriage and gender exist side by side in the comedies of remarriage. For this reason, it is more useful to trace the history of marriage, divorce, and gender in the United States to see how those notions inflect romantic comedies than it is to consider the films only in relationship to their specific historical period.

Too often critics of romantic comedy debate whether or not romantic comedies are profeminist; whether the maintenance of the status quo (marriage) at the end of the films indicates an embrace of conservative values; or whether the play with gender that makes up the body of the films overrides their traditional endings. I would argue that the genius of these films lies precisely in their contradictions-- they manage to display radical transpositions of gender even as they invoke alternately modern, post-Victorian, and Victorian notions of marriage and family.

Totalizing accounts of the genre that try to locate it within one political camp or another overlook the value of the texts' own indecision. The contradictions that inhere in the comedies of remarriage spoke eloquently to a nation that hadn't reached any consensus about the status of gender in society, or the proper way to approach marriage.

I reject the formulation of an "American unconscious," which Bruce Babbington and Peter William Evans invoke to explain the genre's popularity, because this notion overlooks the very thing that makes these multilayered films so successful-that culture is never of one monolithic mind but a texture of millions of individual ideologies. beliefs, and values. I agree with Babbington and Evans, however, that there is another half to this polysemic equation: "Hollywood cinema is not . . . a simply monolithic, oppressive and conservative force, but . . . a multi-leveled and contradictory phenomenon capable of producing from within its contradictions works of art that are worth our constructive as well as deconstructive meditation" (vi). Neither Hollywood, as the structuring agent of these texts, nor film audiences, as interpreters, ought to be construed as monolithic. Rather, both are multifaceted entities influenced by a long history of discourses around gender and marriage.

In short, through this article, I attempt to step away from those theories of romantic comedy that totalize the genre or its audience as politically radical or conservative or that periodize these films as reflecting a brief historical interval. Considerations of gender should foreground not only the "New Woman" but also the Depression-era man, and issues of gender and economic context should not be decoupled in discussions of the genre of remarriage.

Marriage and the Family in History

According to Glenda Riley, discussions of divorce too often presume the loss of an earlier, utopian state of marriage. On the contrary, the history of divorce in America does not support such nostalgia. Puritan settlers first introduced divorce to the American colonies as early as the 1600s. It is worth noting, however, that the Puritan stance toward divorce, like popular views some 300 years later, was always inscribed within a firmly held belief in the importance of the family. According to Riley ( ), colonial Puritans believed that sound marriages were essential to the good of the individual and the community. …

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