Transgressive Tears: Performance and the Melodramatic Unruly Woman

Date of Award

August 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Steven Cohan

Second Advisor

Roger Hallas

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation employs the methodology of performance studies to theorize the melodramatic unruly woman and analyze her impact on theories of the melodramatic mode. It borrows from and expands Kathleen Rowe’s concept of the comedic unruly woman, troubling her exclusionary view of comedic female unruliness. In order to locate the unruly woman within film and television melodrama, it frames both mediums in terms of their seriality. Each chapter takes up a star (a film star in chapters one and two; a television star in chapters three and four) and serially reads her performance across a body of her work. I demonstrate that, when star performance is used to read melodrama in this way, the performative and unruly nature of melodrama’s roles of good and evil becomes clear. In doing so, I question the ability of melodramatic bodies and voices to indicate essential identities and, by extension, secure melodrama’s morally legible universe, thus revising Linda Williams’s theory of the melodramatic mode.

Chapters one and two use film stardom to frame the work of Barbara Stanwyck (chapter one) and Bette Davis (chapter two) as serial texts. These chapters elucidate the interpretative benefits of reading film stars across their select filmographies. When one reads stars across their films in this way, one can surmise a set of acting that they use from role to role. These acting strategies provide a template that allows one to reconsider the virtue affirmed at the end of their individual films. Chapter one takes up Barbara Stanwyck and her pre-Code fallen woman films as a case study that deconstructs the sanctity of melodramatic virtue. It argues that Stanwyck utilizes a repeated set of performance traits to play her characters. These strategies reveal that melodramatic virtue is a set of performative mannerisms that her characters enact in service of their unruly desires. These acting strategies allow for a reevaluation of the inherent goodness of one of Stanwyck’s most virtuous characters: Stella of Stella Dallas (1937). Chapter two reads Davis across a selection of her post-Code bad girl roles in order to demonstrate that melodramatic vice can also be classified as unruly mechanism rather than an essential trait. Davis’s repeated use of a set of acting strategies makes evident that, rather than signifying her characters’ inherent morality, vice can be understood as a set of intentionally disruptive performances. Her performance strategies permit a reconsideration of the binary that separates Davis’s “bad girls” (as exemplified in Leslie Crosbie of The Letter (1940) from her “good girls” (as exemplified in Charlotte Vale of Now, Voyager [1942]). These chapters thus destabilize the sanctity of melodramatic virtue and vice and indicate their fluidity.

Chapters three and four turn to serialized television melodrama to argue that, in contrast to recent theories of the melodramatic mode, serialized television melodrama provides a new energy for deconstructing rather than securing the moral legibility of the melodramatic mode. When one reads television stars across the duration of serialized television melodramas, their characters’ unruliness comes into focus such that their moral status (and, in turn, the moral legibility of their series) becomes less clear over time, not more so. This reconsideration allows one to resist the confirmations of virtue that occur at the end of episodes, seasons, and series. As chapter three demonstrates with its analysis of Julianna Margulies’s performance of Alicia Florrick across The Good Wife (2009-2016), reading serial television melodrama in this manner can problematize the sanctity of a Manichaean role considered foundational to signaling virtue within the melodramatic mode. Margulies’s performance of Alicia, which elucidates the constructed nature of the Good Wife role and the unruly way Alicia deploys it, permits one to see that the supposedly Good Wife who opens the series is not that dissimilar from the supposedly Good Wife who opens the series is not that dissimilar from the supposedly Bad Wife who closes it; she was always unruly. Chapter four concludes the dissertation with a consideration of Tatiana Maslany’s performance of multiple characters across Orphan Black (2012-2017) in order to reinforce the project’s thesis: using star performance to read beyond individual scripts and characters brings an unruliness into focus that troubles the sanctity of melodramatic identity and, as a result, melodrama’s moral legibility. Although Maslany’s characters are defined in terms of their differing class positions, ethnicities, and moral statuses, Maslany uses a similar set of strategies to play them, indicating their shared unruliness. This mutual unruliness facilitates a reconsideration of their differences and collapses the binaries that divide them. It demonstrates that the difference between melodrama’s binarized roles is often a matter of inflection. Through these four interrelated case studies, then, this dissertation analyzes how the unruly woman operates in a genre other than comedy and to what effect.


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