The Female Complaint

The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture

The Female Complaint

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 41 b&w illustrations Published: March 2008

Author: Lauren Berlant

American Studies, Cultural Studies > Affect Theory, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

The Female Complaint is part of Lauren Berlant’s groundbreaking “national sentimentality” project charting the emergence of the U.S. political sphere as an affective space of attachment and identification. In this book, Berlant chronicles the origins and conventions of the first mass-cultural “intimate public” in the United States, a “women’s culture” distinguished by a view that women inevitably have something in common and are in need of a conversation that feels intimate and revelatory. As Berlant explains, “women’s” books, films, and television shows enact a fantasy that a woman’s life is not just her own, but an experience understood by other women, no matter how dissimilar they are. The commodified genres of intimacy, such as “chick lit,” circulate among strangers, enabling insider self-help talk to flourish in an intimate public. Sentimentality and complaint are central to this commercial convention of critique; their relation to the political realm is ambivalent, as politics seems both to threaten sentimental values and to provide certain opportunities for their extension.

Pairing literary criticism and historical analysis, Berlant explores the territory of this intimate public sphere through close readings of U.S. women’s literary works and their stage and film adaptations. Her interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its literary descendants reaches from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, touching on Shirley Temple, James Baldwin, and The Bridges of Madison County along the way. Berlant illuminates different permutations of the women’s intimate public through her readings of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat; Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life; Olive Higgins Prouty’s feminist melodrama Now, Voyager; Dorothy Parker’s poetry, prose, and Academy Award–winning screenplay for A Star Is Born; the Fay Weldon novel and Roseanne Barr film The Life and Loves of a She-Devil; and the queer, avant-garde film Showboat 1988–The Remake. The Female Complaint is a major contribution from a leading Americanist.


The Female Complaint is a brilliant book that brings to point how culture creates the stereotypical woman and how the marketing of this role continues to be exploited through book and film.” — Mary O’Hara, Feminist Review blog

The Female Complaint is rich with critical analysis that will make significant contributions to the ways scholars theorize American women’s relations to politics, material culture, and each other.” — Sara L. McKinnon, Rhetoric & Public Affairs

“[A] clever and insightful book. . . . “ — Alan Han, M/C Reviews

“As a key to and model for how popular culture contributes to such narratives, The Female Complaint is exemplary.” — Leslie Ellen Petty, Journal of American History

“[T]he book is not an easy read. It is, however, thoroughly rewarding and worth the time it takes to fully engage with the content. The argument, developed through a sophisticated analysis of women's cultural texts, is challenging and highly thought-provoking. . . . I will keep returning to this book as I work through its implications for understanding how to confront a world with such extreme social inequalities.” — Gerda Roelvink, Emotion, Space and Society

“As we have come to expect with Berlant's scholarship, The Female Complaint is a deft contribution to the study of American literature and culture.” — Brenda R. Weber, Contemporary Literature

“By turns sidesplitting and devastating but always revelatory, Lauren Berlant’s new book explores why we insist that what the world needs now is love, and how much we lose in the process.” — Lara Langer Cohen, Criticism

The Female Complaint advances and refines the relationship between intimacy and publicity in ways that suggestively rethink the category of individuality in late capitalism. . . . The Female Complaint is an uncannily hopeful book, finding value and possibility in a wholly nonredemptive account of convention.”
— Jordan Alexander Stein, GLQ

The Female Complaint is a tour de force, a bracing read for feminist and postmodernist students of popular culture, as well as for genre theorists.” — Linda Seidel, Journal of Popular Culture

“Berlant sounds like your smartest and bitchiest friend—and the insights just keep coming.” — Heather Love, Women's Review of Books

“Some of the most important essays on U.S. culture produced during the past decade appear in The Female Complaint.” — Shirley Samuels, Novel

“The affective pleasure of reading The Female Complaint emerges from its unwillingness to sacrifice either incisive political critique that challenges the limits of women’s culture or textured formal accounts of the powerful emotional experience its texts provide for its consumers. . . . Theoretically ambitious and cogently argued, funny and invigorating, Berlant’s text promises to profoundly reshape how we think about sentimentality, gender, and affect in American culture.” — Margaret Ronda, American Book Review

“Guiding us through a ‘women’s culture’ animated by scenes of longing for a fantasmatic commonality, an ever-elusive normativity, Lauren Berlant illuminates, in readings unfailingly subtle and wise, the psychic negotiations and emotional bargaining that women in U.S. culture conduct to be part of an ‘intimate public.’ More dazzlingly still, she addresses what the business of sentimentality works to obscure: the possibility of political agency in the face of a cultural machinery that makes us feel helpless to do anything more than affirm our ability to feel. To read The Female Complaint is to realize how long and how much it’s been needed.” — Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

“Lauren Berlant’s voice is as unmistakable as Ella Fitzgerald singing scat. By turns seductive and bracing, gentle and wise, reassuring and disorienting, The Female Complaint asks readers to take mass-mediated women’s culture seriously. By the end of this absorbing book, you will understand the importance of living better clichés, why love requires amnesia, and how banality can be therapeutic. You will also have an irresistible craving to watch Now, Voyager one more time, in whatever setting enables you to thrive, and to give this fascinating book to someone who deserves to love better, or to forgive herself for just getting by.” — Mary Poovey, New York University

“Of all the feminist cultural theorists whom I admire, Lauren Berlant is the one I consider to be the most theoretically innovative and politically inspiring. Yet this book exceeded even my highest hopes and expectations. Refusing to dodge the really searching political questions for contemporary American culture, Berlant maps the tricky terrain of the intimate public sphere. She has written a phenomenal study of breathtaking scope. I have no doubt that scholars and students will continue to debate the issues it raises for many years to come.” — Jackie Stacey, University of Manchester


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lauren Berlant is the George M. Pullman Professor of English and Chair of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, also published by Duke University Press, and The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. She is the editor of Compassion; Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest (with Lisa Duggan); and Intimacy.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

Introduction: Intimacy, Publicity, and Femininity 1

1. Poor Eliza 33

2. Pax Americana: The Case of Show Boat 69

3. National Brands, National Body: Imitation of Life 107

4. Uncle Sam Needs a Wife: Citizenship and Denegation 145

5. Remembering Love, Forgetting Everything Else: Now, Voyager 169

6. "It's Not the Tragedies That Kill Us, It's the Messes": Femininity, Formalism, and Dorothy Parker 207

7. The Compulsion to Repeat Femininity: Landscape for a Good Woman and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil 233

Overture/Aperture: Showboat 1988—The Remake 265

Notes 281

Bibliography 319

Index 347
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Lauren Berlant is the recipient of the 2019 Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Literature Section of Modern Language Association.

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4202-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4184-0
Publicity material