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Family Plots

Family Plots: The De-Oedipalization of Popular Culture

Dana Heller
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    Family Plots
    Book Description:

    Family Plotstraces the fault lines of the Freudian family romance and holds that the "family plot" is very much alive in post-World War II American culture. It cuts across all genres, insinuating, criticizing, reinforcing, and reinventing itself in all forms of cultural production and consumption. The family romance is everywhere because the family itself is nowhere.

    eISBN: 978-1-5128-1680-8
    Subjects: Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Chapter 1 Introduction: Plotting the Family (pp. 1-21)

    In theNew York Timeson October 13, 1991, novelist Alice McDermott reviewed a photography exhibit entitledPleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort.Installed at the Museum of Modern Art, the exhibit featured 153 photographs, all revealing to McDermott “less about the way we live than about the dilemma that faces any artist who chooses domestic life as a subject.”⁴ A writer noted for her own attraction to this subject, McDermott directs herself to the root of the problem: in their dogged efforts to disavow the myths of happy American family life—myths that had toppled twenty years earlier with...

  6. Chapter 2 Housebreaking Freud (pp. 22-37)

    In “Family Romances” (1908), Sigmund Freud describes a “peculiarly marked imaginative activity,” a fantasy that structurally unifies normative subjectivity and social consensus, while providing a bridge between the terrain of the bourgeois private sphere and the industrialized public sphere.² “Family Romances” thus proceeds to describe the culmination of the Oedipal drama, the “latter stage in the development of the neurotic’s estrangement from his parents” through which the son struggles to accept the social privilege that is his birthright—paternal authority, or classic phallic masculinity. However, in its service as “the fulfillment of wishes and as a correction of actual life,”...

  7. Chapter 3 The Third Sphere: Television’s Romance with the Family (pp. 38-59)

    In 1946, George Nelson and Henry Wright named a new household space in accordance with the postwar imperatives of domesticity and family unity. Behind their call for “mutual respect and affection” was undoubtedly a degree of concern about the changing constitution of the public sphere and the impact of these changes on the many women who had entered the work force during the war, as well as on returning GIs in search of employment opportunities. However, Nelson and Wright’s “new design for living” constituted more than an enlightened foreshadowing of bureaucratization, economic shifts, and subsequent gender realignments. Their manual may...

  8. Chapter 4 The Culture of “Momism”: Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (pp. 60-76)

    Almost instantly after India Bridge delivers her firstborn child, a daughter, she asks: “Is she normal?” The question reverberates throughout Evan S. Connell’s finely crafted work of minimalist fiction,Mrs. Bridge.“Do you want to be different from everyone else?” She warns her son when he rebels against the use of conventional table etiquette.¹ Such warnings reflect the pathological fear of cultural difference that compels the lives of most of the adult characters, especially the female characters, of the novel. Unity, sameness, consensus, centeredness: these are the imperatives of the upper-middle-class, conservative, Kansas City social elite—the only world Mrs....

  9. Chapter 5 Rules of the Game: Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb (pp. 77-94)

    Anne Tyler’s novels pay close attention to the formal details and abstractions of the family plot. Her protagonists are often portrayed as family-centered eccentrics, men and women complexly defined by their struggles against the forces of familial attachment and separation. Tyler is a prolific and immensely popular fiction writer whose work has precipitated a considerable amount of scholarly criticism. Perhaps because she is a female writer whose audience is perceived to be largely female, the vast majority of this criticism is gender-inflected, centering on questions of female identity and feminist ideology. What’s less apparent in these discussions, however, is that...

  10. Chapter 6 Father Trouble: Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief (pp. 95-112)

    Feminism today is being widely reconceived in terms of gender studies, a field that some practitioners claim promises a more culturally comprehensive and theoretically sophisticated analysis of gendered subjectivity.² To be sure, men’s studies and lesbian and gay studies have opened major pathways for exploring the fluidity of desires and identifications, the instability of sex/gender categories. The challenges and questions raised within gender studies have helped mitigate tendencies toward feminist “essentialism,” a discrediting charge these days and one that would challenge polarizations of “female” and “male” as discrete social, psychic, and sexual categories. Theorists argue that by uncritically relying on...

  11. Chapter 7 “A Possible Sharing”: Ethnicizing Mother-Daughter Romance in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (pp. 113-128)

    Amy Tan’s first novel,The Joy Luck Club,ends with a transformative image of maternal reclamation and displacement. Jing-mei Woo, the Americanborn daughter of Suyuan Woo, recently deceased, arrives in China to be reunited with her long-lost twin half sisters. Forty years earlier, while fleeing the city of Kweilin during the Japanese invasion, Suyuan Woo was forced by lack of food and physical strength to abandon the baby girls on a roadside with hope that someone would rescue, feed, and shelter them. Years of subsequent searching turns up no information regarding the fate of the twins. Only in the 1980s,...

  12. Chapter 8 Reconstructing Kin: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (pp. 129-145)

    In “Reading Family Matters,” Deborah E. McDowell narrates the ongoing controversy surrounding a small but outstanding group of black female writers and critics’ accusations that these writers are fracturing the image of an already besieged black American nuclear family. The complaint, which has been registered in the news media and academic journals, suggests that these writers—Toni Morrison among them—have betrayed the black family by failing to shoulder responsibility for restoring to it an image of wholeness and unity. Admittedly, McDowell observes, the “family romance is de-romanticized in writings by the greater majority of black women,” whose portraits of...

  13. Chapter 9 “Family” Romance (Or, How to Recognize a Queer Text When You Meet One) (pp. 146-164)

    In the summer of 1991, during Denver, Colorado’s Gay Pride Celebration, the local PBS television affiliate broadcast “Out in America,” a panel discussion of lesbian and gay politics. One of the topics addressed was “family values,” or the gay political agenda’s lack thereof. The issue prompted Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP and one of the featured panelists, to deliver a repudiation of the “maudlin sentimentality” that characterizes right-wing glorifications of the family. “Some of us don’t want families,” he contended. “Some of us went through hell with family—you’re looking at one of them.”

    “But,” interjected Andrew Humm,...

  14. Chapter 10 The Lesbian Dick: Policing the Family in Internal Affairs (pp. 165-180)

    A primary feature of lesbian studies’ dislocation from feminist studies has been a rejection of the latter’s perceived overreliance on binary gender categories, and with that a rejection of a static, discrete analysis of “woman’s representation” in popular culture genres. Indeed, to the degree that lesbian theorists have appropriated and expanded on postmodernism’s critique of unified identity assertions, the “lesbian turn” in feminist studies presages a transgression of social and symbolic boundaries in its production of counterhegemonic models of feminine bodies, spaces, and aesthetics. And arguably it is here that “the lesbian” and “the family romance” meet to constitute a...

  15. Chapter 11 Home Viewing — Terminator 2: Judgment Day (pp. 181-194)

    These days, family romance is as close as your VCR. Without question, home video has evolved into a distinctive narrative form with its own conventions, codes, and framing devices. The logic of these devices seems to be grounded in the presumption of a domestic audience fascinated with home technologies that might allow for the limitless consumption of familial images that unify and naturalize gender relations and norms.

    I formulated these conclusions recently, while preparing remarks for a presentation on the filmTerminator 2: Judgment Day,Arnold Schwarzenegger's massively produced, top-grossing sequel to the equally spectacularThe Terminator.Unexpectedly, my home...

  16. Notes (pp. 195-222)
  17. Bibliography (pp. 223-232)
  18. Index (pp. 233-238)
  19. Back Matter (pp. 239-239)