Being Melodramatic: THE MAGDALENE SISTERS as a Contemporary Melodrama

25 March 2011

In film, a melodrama is a subcategory of the drama genre, and it explores the hardship of humanity.  More pointedly, the melodrama looks into moral issues as they pertain to ordinary people.  A melodrama typically centers on conflict, usually a highly emotional, ethical conflict, which forces characters into come face-to-face with their own morality, or confront morality as it exists in society.

There are standards for the melodrama, meaning qualities that define this particular film genre.  First, melodramas primarily follow a female lead.  In large part, this is why melodramas are often referred to as “women’s films”; theoretically, films about females are more likely to appeal to female audiences.  Additionally, the female lead in the melodrama is victimized; the melodrama’s narrative will handle the female lead as though she is a victim of some wrongdoing, oppression, handicap, or restriction.  This victimization links with the moral and ethical conflicts erupting in the narrative.  The melodrama also must contain secrets and dramatic complications that intensify the emotional weight of the film.  Lastly, the melodrama typically has twists, chance meetings, and unexpected plot turns to build the drama and suspense, as well as continue to intensify the film’s emotional impact.  When these ingredients come together and simmer in front an audience for roughly two hours, the result is a touching, passionate, enthralling film; one that, for audience members, requires several tissues for sobbing, sweet and salty snacks for endurance and consolation, as well as a bathroom visit afterward to compose oneself.  This is more than a drama; this is a melodrama.

Even though melodrama is a subcategory of drama, to complicate things further, there are also subcategories of melodramas.  And one subcategory of melodrama is the “fallen woman” film. In a “fallen woman” film, the female protagonist’s sexual transgression violates a social rule, thus society exiles the woman.  Old Hollywood relished this subcategory of the melodrama.  In classic “fallen woman” melodramas a woman falls victim to the consequences of her sexual transgression and is exiled by in the film’s conclusion, meaning she is either killed or condemned in the end.  In Old Hollywood, exiling the “fallen woman” ensured audience members, particularly the female audience members whom the film targeted, would see the “fallen woman” as an example of what happens to ordinary women when their behaviors were seen as sexually promiscuous or adulterous.  Thus, the Old Hollywood’s take on the “fallen woman” melodrama promoted society’s restriction of female sexuality, favoring society’s condemnation of the “fallen women.”

This is not always the way the “fallen woman” melodrama works in the contemporary film industry; filmmakers revised their notions on how society views female sexuality and updated the genre.  Take, for example, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997/2012).  That is a “fallen woman” melodrama with a strong female protagonist, Rose (Kate Winslet), who has premarital sexual relations with her fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane), and then falls for a man below her social class, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and has sexual relations with him.  Instead of condemning Rose, the film sympathizes with the precarious position she is in, as a young woman in the early 1900s.  Yes, she is punished for her out-of-wedlock sexual relations with a man from a lower class (Jack)—her punishment is his death right in front of her eyes—, but she is not killed or denounced in the film’s conclusion.  Instead, in a startling reversal from yesteryear, she exiles herself when refusing to give her real name to the steward onboard the Carpathia.  And, in her self-inflicted exile she lives a happy, prosperous, free life.  As evident in Titanic, the contemporary melodrama typically rallies against the outrageous expectations placed on women to create a superwoman, of sorts, who defies society’s rules and bravely triumphs in the exiled wilderness.

This week’s film, The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullen, is another contemporary “fallen woman” melodrama which helps redefine the genre.  This film, set in Ireland during the 1960s, follows four teenage girls who are sent to the Magdalene Asylum for their sexual transgressions.  Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a family wedding, and when her father finds out about it he sends her away to the asylum.  Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone), and orphan, enjoys flirting with the boys.  Even though she never had any sexual encounter, those who run the orphanage send her away from her coy, boy-crazy behavior.  Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who is renamed Patricia by the nuns in the Magdalene Asylum, has a baby out-of-wedlock.  After she is forced to give her son up for adoption, she is sent away because of her sexual transgression.  Lastly, Harriet (Eileen Walsh), who the nuns at the asylum call Crispina, also had a child out-of-wedlock and that is likely why she was sent to Magdalene Asylum.  However, Crispina is also emotionally and psychologically unstable.  It is unclear what exactly caused her to end up in the asylum; the narrative never reveals the exact circumstance surrounding her admission.   While there, the four girls are tortured, worked to the bone, and chastised by the nuns and staff.  Crispina is the object of the most punishment because her emotional and psychological instability makes it difficult for her follow the asylum’s strict rules.  In addition, she is sexually abused by the priest in the asylum, worsening her instability.  Eventually, Margaret is freed by her brother, and Bernadette and Patricia escape the grounds.  Sadly, Crispina suffers a breakdown, brought on by the unconscionable treatment inflicted upon her in the asylum, and is transferred to a hospital for the mentally insane.

The film is, without a doubt, a “fallen woman” melodrama, and clearly hits every standard set down by the genre.  The most obvious of these standards is The Magdalene Sisters has female leads and each of those women is depicted as a victim.  These four girls are victimized by an oppressive society that fears female sexuality to their point that it enslaves those who step outside the lines.  Also, the film is rooted in moral conflict.  On the surface, the girls are sent to the Magdalene Asylum because, like Mary Magdalene, the namesake, they have committed sexual transgressions that they must be punished for and repent.  Looking deeper, the film is also exploring the hypocrisy of morality in society.  The nuns, whose asylum is run like a concentration camp, are considered moral authorities because of their vows to the Church; yet, their autocratic management of the young women in their charge is appalling, highlighting the ethical flaws in the moral fiber of those who parade themselves as morally superior.

Other standards within the melodrama genre The Magdalene Sisters satisfies are the unexpected plot twists and dramatic complications, both intensifying the emotional force of the film.  An example of an unexpected plot twist is when Katy (Britta Smith), a staff member who oversees the girls as they perform laundry services, abruptly becomes fatally ill.  Katy, the once strong and feared guard, bleeds from the nose and mouth, is bedridden, and depends on the girls, namely Bernadette, to care for her in her final days.  Bernadette treats her with the same cruel, cold care Katy showed her.  Although Katy begs for Bernadette’s compassion, Bernadette refuses and tells Katy to “hurry up and die.”  Bernadette’s merciless treatment of Katy reveals how emotionally vacant this young woman has become in the asylum because of all the abuse inflicted upon her.  This melodramatic plot twist is both disturbing and tragic.

Moreover, Crispina is one of the strongest examples of dramatic complications in the film.  Because of her instability, she falls victim to scrutiny time and again.  When the girls are forced to jog naked in front of the nuns for entertainment, the nuns single Crispina out as “hairiest,” causing her significant emotional humiliation.  In fact, her nickname, Crispina, means “curly haired,” and Crispina has poker-straight hair.  While Crispina brags with pride that the nuns bestowed upon her a special nickname, she does not understand that the name refers to her pubic hair; thus, the nickname is another way of publically mocking Crispina in front of everyone.  Furthermore, Crispina is sexual abused by the priest in the asylum and contracts a disease from him.  Crispina is depicted in such a way the audience cannot help but feel protective of her.  Therefore, when she is repeatedly mistreated throughout the film, with complication after complication, the audience’s emotional intensity escalates.  Pulling these emotions out of viewers is a hallmark of the melodrama genre.

Chance encounters are also key in The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative.  It is by chance that these four young women happen to end up at the same asylum at the same time.  Margaret and Bernadette are unwilling to accept their fate in this institution, and each girl’s determination feeds the other’s, keeping the fire alive in both women.  And, in the end, when Patricia and Bernadette escape, is it by chance that they come across Bernadette’s cousin entering the hair salon.  If they had not come across her the two would likely be sent back the Magdalene Asylum and punished severely for their attempted escape.  Finally, it is also by chance that Bernadette runs into the Magdalene nuns after her escape.  Although the film cuts off before revealing whether she confronted the nuns or walked away, the encounter clearly sparked painful and traumatic memories for her, made clear through a montage of graphic images presenting in quick-cuts.

Like Old Hollywood’s “fallen woman” melodramas of yesteryear, The Magdalene Sisters fits all the standards of the genre.  However, unlike those films of yesteryear, Mullen refuses to exile his “fallen women.”  The ending of The Magdalene Sisters provides a brief statement about what happened to each girl after her time in the asylum.  Margaret became a school teacher, but never married.  Rose (Patricia in the asylum) remained a devout Catholic, found the son she was forced to give up for adoption, and had more children.  Bernadette married and divorced three times.  And, tragically, Harriet (Crispina in the asylum) dies at age 24 of anorexia.  Aside from Harriet, who, sadly, was pushed over the edge, all the girls moved on.  They all found life after Magdalene Asylum.  Although their experiences will undoubtedly remain with them, and the ramifications of the abuse they endured surely marks their lives daily, the film does not end without making it clear to the audience that the women carried on; they stayed within society and led lives of their own free-will, exiled from nothing.

Like Titanic, The Magdalene Sisters sympathizes with the “fallen women’s” sexual transgressions.  Perhaps, using the evolution of melodramas over the past 80 years as evidence, society’s disapproval of female sexuality has progressed to a disapproval of forbidding female sexuality.  While that last statement is, in large part, a generalization, there is a clear transition in the focus of a melodrama for contemporary audiences.  No longer are melodramas a simple tool cinema offers society in oppressing female sexuality.  On the contrary, melodramas now promote a society that accepts and even sympathizes with the sexual females.

A Magdalene Asylum

Teenage girls in a Magdalene Laundry

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 25/03/2012.

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