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  • Clint Eastwood and Male Weepies
  • Tania Modleski (bio)

I think it was Playboy's posting of the 10 worst chick flicks that clinched it for me—the decision to do a project on male weepies. According to the Playboy editors, the research necessary for them to complete their task was the most excruciating torture mankind has had to endure, making, they say with great cultural sensitivity, Abu Ghraib look like Club Med. Never mind that many of Abu Ghraib's victims could very well have been forced to look at images from videos and magazines like Playboy as part of their torture or that the photos taken by the soldiers forced inmates to assume stock porn images ripped from the pages of today's men's magazines. Watching those obscene women's films brought human suffering to a whole new level for our heroic Playboy editors. I could just weep for them.

And that is the point.

It is my contention that in many male weepies (or male melodramas), real men do not cry, or at best they shed only a few hard-wrung tears; others do the crying for them—usually women and people of color. I am therefore not so much interested in those films like Field of Dreams (1989) which are frankly melodramatic and, for instance, in the case of Field of Dreams, position the spectator as a little boy; rather I want to examine those movies featuring a strong, stoic type whose sorrow lurks under the surface but who is wept over by other characters and by the audience. Who better to turn to in considering the melodramatic potential of such a character type than the iconic figure of Clint Eastwood? In what follows, I will be analyzing certain aspects of Eastwood's relatively recent films. One of my main interests lies in the reaction of melancholy spectators/critics/reviewers who project their "cinematic grief" onto the heroes of the films, and most of all, [End Page 136] onto the figure of Eastwood himself. (Indeed, we shall see that reviewers and critics of Eastwood films continually slide between talking about Eastwood characters and Eastwood the man.) Above all, I am hoping to revive an interest in the writing of those feminist scholars—and one in particular—whose path-breaking work on melancholia, one of the most popular subjects in contemporary theory, was lost before it was given its due.


Melodrama—the polite term for "weepies"—is a capacious genre indeed. Some critics even use the term to denote the entire film output of Hollywood. In light of confusion and in some cases conflict over the definition of the genre, it would seem necessary to give a brief history of the term and its vicissitudes.

In the past forty years or so, melodrama has been associated with films about family crises, particularly the 1950s films directed by auteurs like Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, and with the type of film dealing with women's issues—a.k.a. "the woman's film." Central to the woman's film are situations involving loss—of children, for example, in the subgenre known as the maternal melodrama—and giving rise to feelings of pathos. Feminists have done much to rehabilitate this genre which has historically aroused derision in many film critics who have labeled them "masturbatory fantasies." Steve Neale reminds us, however, that in the first half of the twentieth century, roughly, the term melodrama "was used and defined in ways parallel . . . with terms like 'thriller,' 'chiller,' and even action-adventure" (180). The kinds of melodrama Neale cites would seem to be polar opposites of women's films and family melodramas. The former are oriented toward the outer world, and feelings and emotions get expressed through action, often violent action. In the latter, feelings are directed inward—external pressures are exerted on the characters, who often feel trapped in their claustral worlds.1

Common wisdom would have it that the genres associated with thrills, chills, and action (which are, not surprisingly, often labeled as masculine) are lacking in the sentimental feelings so characteristic of the woman's film. In Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (2002...


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