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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Sentimental education

Examining two centuries of women’s culture, literary theorist Lauren Berlant finds a chronicle of female fantasy and disappointment.

Before Oprah Winfrey and Sex and the City came Dorothy Parker and The Bell Jar. And before that, the operatic tearjerker Imitation of Life, Gone with the Wind (in print and on film), and Uncle Sam Needs a Wife, a 1925 citizenship training manual for newly enfranchised female voters. And before all of these, Godey’s Lady’s Book, filled with poetry, stories, and hand-tinted fashion plates. Launched in 1837, it became the country’s most popular women’s magazine by the start of the Civil War and took to calling itself the “queen of monthlies.”


Berlant’s Female Complaint is about “a love affair with conventionality,” she says. “And you know love affairs—they’re pretty ambivalent.”

Godey’s was there at the beginning, says literary theorist and cultural critic Lauren Berlant: it and similar magazines created women’s culture, the loose set of ideas and attitudes embodied not only in women’s magazines but also in talk shows, sentimental fiction, “chick flicks,” and melodramas of every medium. Women’s culture, says Berlant, was the nation’s first mass-media “intimate public,” a term she uses to describe the social umbrellas that unite strangers through shared race, religion, nationality, class, sexuality—or most any category of existence.

As social structures, intimate publics involve “a scene where people feel emotionally attached to people they don’t know and maybe wouldn’t like or couldn’t identify with in any other way,” she says. Moreover, Americans who belong to intimate publics that have historically endured injustice and coercion turn to their group for “a space of legitimacy that isn’t sanctioned by the dominant public,” argues Berlant, who joined Chicago’s faculty in 1984, with a PhD from Cornell University. “When people don’t feel like they enjoy the privileges of belonging to a general culture, they engender other kinds of places where they can feel de-isolated, sanctioned, held, and where they can learn about how other people survive it. So you have African American publics, hip-hop publics, disability publics, the women’s public sphere.”

The last is the focus of Berlant’s most recent book. In The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2008), Berlant, Chicago’s George Pullman professor of English, examines the history and conventions of women’s culture from the 1830s to the present day. The book is part of her “national sentimentality” trilogy, a project charting “the emergence of the U.S. political sphere as an affective space of attachment and identification.” Berlant’s first installment in the series, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 1991), analyzed the law and its relation to social belonging from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Written second, the trilogy’s third volume, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke, 1997), argued that, beginning with the Reagan Administration, private intimate behavior supplanted civic acts as a measure of ideal citizenship.

Berlant first conceived The Female Complaint two decades ago, when she realized that Erma Bombeck, the late-20th-century newspaper and magazine columnist who satirized suburban family life, was “writing the exact same sentences” as Fanny Fern, a mid-1800s humorist who skewered marriage and middle-class domesticity in her weekly New York Ledger columns. Both women drew large and loyal readerships: Bombeck’s books were best sellers, and Fern became the nation’s highest-paid newspaper writer. Berlant found it “depressing” that two women living 150 years apart would churn up the same struggles, “but I was also curious. It meant something wasn’t changing.” Her curiosity yielded a 1988 Social Text article, “The Female Complaint.”

The article conceptualized what she calls female complaining: a mode of self-expression that simultaneously protests “patriarchal oppression” and concedes its inevitability. “What’s interesting,” Berlant says, “is that from its origins women’s culture has a big critique of male dominance, both in the political sphere and at home, but it also wants something like the good version of that normativity to be the condition of happiness. It’s like Julia Roberts at the end of Pretty Woman saying, ‘I want the promise.’” But time and again women find that promise to be fantasy. “In subordinate populations’ intimate publics, the presumption is that the general world is not organized around their flourishing,” Berlant says. “So hip-hop culture is about police, and women’s culture is about being disappointed in love and with children and at work.”

In The Female Complaint, Berlant returns to the “discourse of disappointment” in 19th- and 20th-century women’s culture, analyzing it through close study of literary, theatrical, cinematic, and political works and histories of psychoanalysis and liberal public theory: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Show Boat; Imitation of Life; Now, Voyager; Landscape for a Good Woman; The Life and Loves of a She-Devil; and Uncle Sam Needs a Wife. Most of those works have been remade, or else adapted to the screen or stage. “If people are returning to something many times, it means it has a story to tell that isn’t finished,” she says. In her book’s preface, Berlant asserts that the “unfinished business” relates to an unresolved question—“the desire for and cost of feminine conventionality.” Women return to the same stories, she says, “for a re-encounter with the problem of survival.”

Parsing texts with African American characters and themes—among them Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Show Boat, and Imitation of Life—where suffering is not only gendered but racial, Berlant argues that women’s culture, primarily a white, liberal, bourgeois phenomenon, “borrows black pain to produce a sense of importance and legitimacy.”

The book also addresses the ambivalence in women’s culture about overtly engaging in politics—“a world of risk and loss”—and the conflicted relationship between sentimental feminine culture and feminism. Dorothy Parker, for instance, helped found the Algonquin Round Table of (mostly male) wits and wags. A Communist and civil-rights activist, she broadcast anti-Fascist opinions in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and protested Sacco and Vanzetti’s executions. Her left-wing politics earned her a Hollywood blacklisting and a thick FBI dossier. “And then,” Berlant says, “she wrote all these love poems and films”—most famously, 1954’s A Star is Born—“about broken hearts. On one hand she’s a classic female complainer, and on the other she’s a completely political person.”

Berlant’s next book, already under way, picks up the thread of ambivalence and self-contradiction. Called Cruel Optimism, it is about individuals’ continued faith in “promises that have worn away”: upward mobility; meritocratic rewards; restorative national politics; a fulfilling, conventional intimate life. “People are experiencing a greater and greater sense of precarity,” Berlant says. “It’s a dark book.”