“Warrior”: a Hyper-Masculine Melodrama

Movie trailers are notoriously bad vehicles for judging the quality of a film, but for my money, few trailers have been such a poor indicator of the film’s ultimate reception as the one for 2011’s Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor). Upon its release, the film garnered great reviews, and an Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte. With the public, though, Warrior’s even more popular, with a devoted fanbase that ranks it on lists of most-underrated movies. The trailer doesn’t inspire a lot of hope, though—its enumeration of the film’s narrative looks so over-the-top, so contrived, so melodramatic.

In pop culture, “authenticity” is a mark of great art, while “artifice” is the domain of the low-brow. The melodrama, with its overwrought pathos and narrative excess, is treated like one of the most “artificial” genres. Its form and function have even lead some people to declare the genre dead, like Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. “Has the age of irony killed off the melodrama? Have we as a culture become too cynical and smart-assed to accept—yet alone embrace—the operatic emotions, heavy-handed plot twists, and sweeping character arcs endemic to melodramas?” Even the most popular contemporary genre auteurs, like Nicolas Sparks and Tyler Perry, distance themselves from the label.

There’s a new Nicholas Sparks movie out, accompanied by an ejaculatory profile in GQ magazine. Can you believe Nic Sparks does such charity work as funding a Christian private school to the tune of $10 million? Who ever heard of a rich guy using his money to advance the cause of fundamentalist Christianity? Alongside details like these, Sparks advocates for the artistic merit of his chaste, tight-jeaned odes to the imagined values of heartland America by saying “The characters in my books begin and end with authenticity, which is the difference between drama and melodrama.”

So, while melodrama is a genre that’s produced great works in the past, today it’s discussed as a trifle. Critics deride it and even its foremost practitioners argue that they don’t have anything to do with it. However, melodramas aren’t just known for improbable narratives and arch-drama. According to film theorist Linda Williams, “Melodramas are deemed excessive for their gender- and sex-linked pathos, for their naked displays of emotion.” In short: for their femininity.

Narrative conflicts are usually centered on family dynamics, impossible romance, maintaining the sanctity of the home—the most feminine space. Melodrama, according to scholar Christine Gledhill, “had a visible generic existence in the family melodrama and its lowly companion, the woman’s film.” When Sparks says that his paint-by-numbers stories of lovers torn asunder by tragedy, or kept together through Herculean feats of devotion, are “authentic,” he’s arguing that they aren’t just what Ann Douglas calls “soft-core emotional porn for women.”

Warrior is interesting because it’s one of the most beloved films of the 2010s while being a family melodrama. It’s escaped the stigma that the genre typically receives—despite its improbable narrative, countless people laud its authenticity. Like a traditional family melodrama, Warrior deals with family dynamics and aims to make its audience cry. Where Warrior departs from genre tradition, though, is with its hyper-masculinity. Continue reading