Lights, Camera, Action: The Politics of Melodrama

From 9-11 to presidential elections, global drama can often feel like a movie. But as Elisabeth Anker explains in her new book, melodrama is all too real—and it’s a powerful force in our political lives.

Elisabeth Anker, assistant professor of American studies and political science
Elisabeth Anker, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Political Science
September 10, 2014

By John DiConsiglio

The images of 9-11 are seared into our collective consciousness: A clear September sky erupts in flames as planes hurtle into the World Trade Center. The towers collapse in a hail of smoke and debris. Thousands of loved ones are lost. An insidious villain claims victory. A wounded but determined hero vows to rise from the rubble and fight for freedom.

To many observers, 9-11 seemed to have all the elements of a movie script, and according to Elisabeth Anker, assistant professor of American studies and political science, it’s no coincidence. In her new book, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke University Press), Anker suggests that melodrama, a genre we associate with pulp paperbacks and Hollywood potboilers, has become a persistent and influential force in political discourse. The framing of world events—from a politician’s histrionic language to TV’s explosive images—can be as melodramatic as an action blockbuster. Leaping from the silver screen to our real lives, Anker says melodrama can captivate nations, embolden leaders and even change the course of world events.

Q: First things first, let’s define some terms. What is melodrama?

A: It’s a genre that we associate with books and movies. And it’s a global phenomenon, from Hollywood films and Bollywood videos to telenovelas and Nigeria’s Nollywood. Melodrama often has three standard characters: villain, victim and hero. It offers an intensely emotional narrative that travels from victimization and injury to heroic redemption. It can make people cry for the suffering of others, and make them cheer a hero to victory. So you can see how this translates into our political stories: There’s a grievous crime that causes innocent people to suffer, but the victims’ injury is righted, the villain gets punished and the hero saves the day. That melodramatic framing of events appeals to us because it's reassuring. It gives us a way to explain all the ways that we feel powerless or vulnerable after an event like 9/11.

Book cover for "Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom" by Elisabeth Anker

Q: In your book, you argue that the elements of melodrama are so powerful that we apply them to our political discourse. How exactly does that happen?

A: In the case of a 9-11, we are using this simplified and emotionally wrought moral narrative to make sense of what was an incredibly complicated, frightening and ambiguous event. We, the good guys, were attacked. They, the bad guys, attacked us. The nation gets a lot of moral power from being the victim. And it justifies a militarized understanding of heroism. There’s also a particularly American narrative to this melodrama: the idea that the villain wants to take away our freedom. In the U.S., where freedom is such an important constitutive idea for how we understand our nation, that’s what hits home. Think about President Bush’s first words to the U.S. after 9-11. He said, “Freedom was attacked by a faceless coward and freedom will be defended.” He’s invoking the language of freedom, which is then followed by a heroic response. That signals to us that we are in the realm of melodrama.

Q: Is this a calculated effort by political leaders? Or do we create our own melodramatic stories?

A: A little of both. It’s not like there’s a cabal of media producers and elites across the political spectrum who decide to employ melodrama. Melodramatic narratives are so culturally available to us from decades of film, television and literature that we latch on to them very easily. Still, in the post-World War II era, melodrama genre conventions have become increasingly popular in political speeches and discourse because they are often successful in galvanizing national sentiment behind the proposals of whoever is in office.

For example, look at FDR’s speeches after Pearl Harbor. We don’t hear a lot of emotional tones in his voice. He didn’t use descriptive adjectives. He wants to appear objective and rational. Bush, after 9-11, is very different. He talks a lot about moms and dads, friends and neighbors. He pulls at our heartstrings, and describes the attackers through a moralized language of good and evil that Roosevelt didn’t use. This language resonates for us now, where it might not have 60 years ago. Bush is harnessing a message that he thinks we want to hear. Melodramatic discourses have ended up legitimating a lot of policies in the war on terror. But we have seen this in the past too, from Reagan describing the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” that legitimates Reagan’s cold war security strategy, to Truman using the language of melodrama in the “Domino Theory” to justify state intervention in Greece and Turkey. These presidents employ melodrama to justify expansions of state power by claiming they are necessary and heroic acts to protect virtuous victims and fight for freedom.

Q: But 9-11 was a game changer. Why?

A: I would say it was an intensification of trends that were already ongoing. In many ways, 9/11 was the perfect storm for all of these melodramatic elements. It seems so clearly to be an act of evil-against-good, so it very readily absorbs melodrama as a way of making sense of horrific events. But it also occurs at the height of the greatest media era of all time—and visual imagery is a very important aspect of melodrama. There was a horrifying spectacle of terror that everyone watched live. You saw planes fly into buildings, and the buildings collapse. Throughout the coverage there were so many pictures of people who were injured, and cinematic-like close-ups showed the deep, intense emotions in their faces. It’s visual proof of good and evil.

Q: It sounds like we, the public, are manipulated by melodrama. Should this make us mad?

A: I am not sure I would say we are manipulated by melodrama, since many of us find it appealing for a host of complex reasons. So the response may be less to get mad and instead to spur us to be self-critical. We should be more aware of why certain things appeal to us. In my classes, I ask students to think critically about how thoughts and actions can come from outside influences. I ask them to think about the political narratives we use to make sense of complex events, and encourage them to scrutinize how they understand our roles as political agents. If we want to resist melodrama, we first have to recognize its powerful allure and understand why we find it so compelling.