Call for Comments: I Can Cry If I Want To, or, Sentimentalism and Popular Culture

(Repost! This is a repost of an earlier posted blog that was lost in a server crash and upgrade)

From Hannah: A few weeks ago, I found myself in the theater watching the newest film in a long line of sentimental Christmas films: Last Christmas. Based solely on the previews and genre, I knew the film would try to make its audience feel. Halfway through the film, I was (rightly) sure of how the film would end. That didn’t stop me from crying throughout the last fifteenish minutes. Film critics have commented on the film’s use of sentimentalism (positively and negatively). Thomas Floyd’s Washington Post review reads, “‘Last Christmas’ eventually reveals itself as a warmhearted story of trauma, survivors’ guilt and reinvention. The refugee status of Kate’s family adds another layer to her identity crisis, though the film’s attempt to examine anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of Brexit falls flat. In these sentimental moments, ‘Last Christmas’ labors to turn the genre on its head and say more than your typical feel-good holiday flick.” Richard Roeper endorses the film by referencing the ultimate sentimental Christmas story (A Christmas Carol): “Even on my most Ebenezer of days, I wouldn’t have been able to resist this sentimental journey.” Nicholas Barber was less than impressed, claiming, “There aren’t many comedies which are so nauseatingly sweet and sour simultaneously, but watching this one is the equivalent of scoffing an entire yule log in one sitting with vinegar instead of brandy cream,” but admitted “Its visuals are so twinkly and its sentiments are so mushy that some people will see it as a holiday treat.” Erin Shelley ends the review of the film with a question: “The music, the story and all that charm from the characters make Last Christmas a sentimental trifle, but is that a bad thing this time of year?”

And that’s the question I really want to talk about on this episode. Sentimentalism (the idea of pulling on your heartstrings, to the point that you produce excessive emotion like crying in a movie theater over a film) is constantly scoffed at. In fact, the critique of this type of writing has been around for a long time — just look at complaints about the genre of the eighteenth-century genre of sentimental novel or Dickens’s contemporary critics who complained about his sympathetic but doomed figures. Or think of how Marianne Dashwood is critiqued in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for feeling too much. And sure, there are a lot of writing that is melodramatic, blatantly what you might call emotionally manipulative, or even just laughable. (Think about Nicholas Sparks or yet another movie where the dog dies as extreme examples.) But why are we so ready to dismiss works that could fit under this category? 

So I want to think about the history of sentimentality, both in terms of its philosophical and a narrative strands of thought. I also want to think about when works that capture or produce feelings — even what might be an excess of feeling — can be positive. What are the affordances of this genre? What are its limits? And what’s so bad about crying in the movie theater or at the end of the novel, anyway? 

From Mav: I think there’s a sense of vulnerability to the idea of admitting we enjoy sentimentalism. When Hannah first brought this up, my gut was to think perhaps it was a gendered thing… we tend to denote sentimental movies as “chick flicks” and sort of perpetuate the whole idea that “emotions are for girls” or whatever. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think perhaps there’s an intense vulnerability to the idea of feeling emotional IN PUBLIC as you would be in a movie theater. After all, as much as we might use the term “sentimental” as derisive criticism, the truth is, sentimentality has been a major media selling point for generations. Uncle Tom’s Cabin took much negates criticism in the 19th century for being “too sentimental” but on the other hand Lincoln himself noted that it was so popular that it basically started the US Civil War. We keep writing books, songs and movies that use it, there must be a reason. 

I’m thinking about an assignment I give my students when I teach classes about comics or superheroes. I give them a collection of essays from the book Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life that talks about why people find fictional superheroes meaningful. This is usually the first week of class. When I assign it, I say something along the effects of “as a warning, these personal essays. Some of them show quite a but of emotion. One in particular is the kind of thing that might make you cry, if you’re predisposed to crying at sad stories. If you do cry, that’s ok… it just means you’re human. If you don’t cry, that just means you’re dead inside.” The kids just laugh at me. But then when they come back the next class they all say stuff like “oh my god, I tried to read that at work… and then I got to ‘Dented Hearts: A Story of Iron Man’ and I was just balling my eyes out and I had to stop before my coworkers saw and then read it later in my dorm. And then I showed my roommate and my boyfriend and they cried too!” And this always happens. It doesn’t matter if the student is male or female, cis or trans, gay or straight. I’ve had that comment made from nerds, jocks, and ROTC students. Everyone cries… everyone is embarrassed in front of casual acquaintances… and everyone wants to share that feeling with someone they love more deeply… in private.

So is sentimentality something that we enjoy because it puts us in touch with our most vulnerable feelings but we are uncomfortable with the intimacy that occurs when those feelings are shared with those we don’t care to share them with? That would make sense. It’s about intimacy. But why only sentimental intimacy? We certainly don’t react the same way to a titilating sex scene in a movie. Maybe you don’t want to watch it with your parents, but I don’t think people are quite as embarrassed to admit they were turned on by 50 Shades of Grey, the Notebook, Mo Betta Blues, Ghost, Wild Things, Watchmen or Love and Basketball anywhere near as much as they want to admit that they cried during Up, Savannah Smiles, Sophie’s Choice, Million Dollar Baby, Shape of Water, Rudy, Shane, Bambi, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Logan (and if you didn’t your heart is made of stone, you monster). Why is that? And if everyone does it, then like Hannah says, why are we so quick dismiss the power and importance of the feeling?

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