Explorations in Melodrama through "Birth of A Nation" and Sexual Assault

A compilation of photos and reactions to the famous 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, for my English 212W class at Emory University. Further expanded by investigating Birth of a Nation's melodramatic rhetoric and applying it to sexual assault as it exists today.


  1. This is a brainstorming exercise.  We were asked to detect melodramatic rhetoric used for negative purposes as in Birth of a Nation.  Later, we were asked to revise the original story, imagining melodramatic rhetoric turned to better purpose.  The point is to develop a research topic that we are passionate enough to write about.

    Literature Review:

    Melodrama as a rhetoric is frequently used to describe or to enhance a story to make it more believable, entertaining, or poignant. “The best melodramas reflect on the cultural expectations and social constructions that forge our personal and communal identities” (Friedman, Citizen Spielberg). While melodrama is often viewed negatively, it can be used as a powerful source of rhetoric that can highlight or point out various flaws that exist within a particular topic, organization, or nation overall. Melodrama can also be used to look back at history. “[melodrama] provides a space to study cultural manifestations of early 19th-century America that were so pervasive to the society that they are nearly invisible to analysis” (Jones, Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama, ). More often that not, melodrama points out the true story: consisting of a victimized hero and a villain, and can appeal to many groups of people (McConachie, Melodramatic Formations). Its powerful rhetoric surrounds the suffering hero/heroine who we end up feeling for and cheering for, hoping that in the end, they can overcome all odds and succeed. "[film melodrama] repeatedly evokes the beauty of the suffering victim: a beauty that not only is gendered repeatedly as feminine but also overwhelms the mise-en-scene with what melodrama’s critics perceive as a suffocating feminine excess” (Carter, Sissi). As Carter states, melodrama is often feminized, as are quite a few things in our society. Femininity and melodrama tend to have a relationship in that melodrama tends to draw out more emotions; however, this does not mean that melodrama solely appeals to males. Melodrama can be used in many forms, and is frequently used to point out contemporary issues as well as historical ones.

    Melodrama can also be used to highlight the true vulgarity of sexual assault. Sexual assault is one of the most important and pressing problems in our society today. Every year, there are 237,868 victims of sexual assault, and every two minutes, an American is sexually assaulted (RAINN, rainn.org/statistics). There is no doubt that sexual assault is a prevalent issue, and it has become extremely common, especially on college campuses. This much is known. However, there is still much debate as to what is to be done and whether what is currently being done is effective in prevention. 

    There are many stereotypes that exist today surrounding sexual assault. For example: victims of sexual assault are all women. Women who undergo sexual assault are "asking for it", or that women "precipitate" a sexual assault by means of their personality (Abbey, 1996). Most perpetrators of sexual assault are strangers to the victim. All of these myths are at least partially false, and the stigma and lack of conversation surrounding sexual assault needs to be addressed in our society (Edwards, 2011). 

    So how does melodrama relate to sexual assault? Melodrama can be used as a powerful rhetoric to move viewers and to get them passionate about a particular issue. When we see a sexual assault victim truly victimized, we all feel for him/her when we see him/her truly suffering. It is clear that the "victims" in the issue of sexual assault are, in fact, the victims. These victims, most often women, are constantly judged and stereotyped as having asked for sexual assault (e.g. are wearing the wrong clothing, drinking too much, flirting, etc.). When it comes down to it, these women are the "victimized heroes", and survivors of sexual assault are true heroes. Our society, in a way, are the perpetrators and are the villains. While yes, the men who are the perpetrators of these actions deserve justice, we are not doing enough about this issue: there is still much that needs to be done. Protocols and systems that work and best prevent sexual assault on college campuses should be streamlined and mainstream. While many colleges have advocacy programs and counseling services, more needs to be done toward prevention. We need to be discussing sexual assault more in classrooms, making freshmen in college more aware of the statistics, and encouraging safe behaviors as well as providing women with the strength and support to say "no" and fight back. All of this and more needs to be done so that we can eliminate this issue and its stigma, once and for all.


    Abbey, Antonia, Lisa T. Ross, Donna McDuffie, and Pam McAuslan. "ALCOHOL AND DATING RISK FACTORS FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT AMONG COLLEGE WOMEN." Wiley Online Library. Psychology of Women Quarterly, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

    Edwards, Katie M., Jessica A. Turchik, Christina M. Dardis, Nicole Reynolds, and Christine A. Gidycz. "Rape Myths: History, Individual and Institutional-Level Presence, and Implications for Change." Sex Roles65.11-12 (2011): 761-73. Springer Science and Business Media. 12 Feb. 2011. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

    "Statistics | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network." Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. RAINN, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

    Gerould, Daniel, and Bruce A. Mcconachie. “Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre & Society, 1820-1870.” Tdr (1988-) 37.2 (1993): 181. Web.

    McConachie, Bruce A. "Introduction." Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820-1870. Iowa City: U of Iowa, 1992. Ix-Xiv. Print.

    Jones, Megan Sanborn. "The Christian Melodramatic Mode." Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama. New York: Routledge, 2009. 23-47. Print.

    Cooke, Paul, and Marc Silberman. "Sissi the Terrible: Melodrama, Victimhood, and Imperial Nostalgia in the Sissi Trilogy." Screening War: Perspectives on German Suffering. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010. 81-101. Print.

    Friedman, Lester D. ""They Don't Know What They've Got There": Spielberg's Action/Adventure Melodramas." Citizen Spielberg. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2006. 63-118. Print.

  2. This scene struck me as very unusual and strange. At first, I was extremely confused why the housekeeper/maid starts ripping her clothes off; at first, she seems very distraught by Charles Sumner's actions and is upset. However, based on my interpretation, she then pretends to rip off all of her clothes and show Austin Stoneman that she had been assaulted. This both shows the "mulatto" woman as both manipulative and as taking advantage of her white owners, which I think Griffith definitely tries to ramify by the fact that she is a "mulatto": permanently viewed as trash because of her mixed origins.

    In modern day times, sexual assault is often stigmatized as being the woman's (or "victim's") fault based on the clothes she wears or the alcohol she drinks. Twisting this scene entirely, what if this was simply D.W. Griffith's belief of what the housekeeper had done, and she truly had been a victim here and had been sexually assaulted by Charles Sumner? As Kenneth Ferraro mentions in his article on Women's Fear of Victimization, one of the most recurrent findings is that women are more afraid of crime than men, worried that sexual assault is a possibility (Ferraro, 1996). Melodramatic rhetoric frequently points to the victimized hero, and women that are survivors of sexual assault could be considered victimized heroes in this case. But again, this story could always be skewed, as it might be in this scene. For all we know, this housekeeper could have been exposed to sexual assault.
  3. When I saw this header, I immediately though: "Yep, this is Lincoln's assassination". There had also been previous headers that alluded to the scene being Lincoln's assassination, such as a reference to the play: "Our American Cousin". The scenes following this header are extremely melodramatic, such as the vignette of John Wilkes Booth and the incredible build-up to Lincoln being shot. I also remember laughing with Yuchen for the sheer melodramatic nature of this scene, and also blaming the bodyguard for leaving his post!
  4. I remember commenting that Lincoln looks like a skeleton throughout this entire scene at the theatre. He looks demonic and possessed in this screenshot, but even before he is shot by John Wilkes Booth, his body looks entirely skeleton-like. Perhaps this is the nature of a 1915 film and simple black and white cinematography, but I found it very unnerving and rather creepy. This entire scene, like I stated above, is very much melodramatic in that the build-up is prolonged. In Natalie's Storify, she had a screenshot of the vignette of John Wilkes Booth and she mentions how she was laughing... I found myself illiciting the same response! The build-up is so ridiculous and very clearly paints Booth in a negative/villain-like light (or dark, hehe). But definitely by the characters' exaggerated movements and the film-making, you definitely know what is about to happen.

    The villain is definitely highlighted in this scene, and the melodramatic rhetoric that we are so familiar with comes back to bite us once again. Erica Carter summarizes this scene well when she says, "Melodramatic style as a defensive response to the trauma of historical loss” (Carter, 2010). I think this quote describes the scene perfectly. The build-up to the assassination of Lincoln in this movie is increasingly melodramatic, and it is a time in history when we were faced with a truly historical loss. As I mention in the paragraph above, the entire build-up to this scene is incredibly melodramatic and highlights John Wilkes Booth as evil in the flesh. Likewise, men are clearly the "villains" in sexual assault (sexual assault more often happens to women than men; however, it can happen to men as well). Men are often portrayed as scavengers that hunt for prey in this regard, and melodramatic rhetoric is frequently used to describe men's various actions in order to secure and "hunt" women (Abbey, 1996).
  5. I also found this scene rather strangely melodramatic as well, and also painted African Americans in a terrible light while boosting up white women. While this scene simply says that Gus wants to marry Flora, it is implied that he has bad intentions. While yes, the fact that he pursues her and is slightly forceful about it is rather indicative about his true intentions, it is entirely too uncertain how "forceful" Gus will be at the beginning that it makes Flora look like she is afraid of African Americans. Even when she first starts to talk to him, she appears immediately afraid. Even the squirrel who sees Gus in the corner seems to be frightened off by him! The fact that Flora is willing to jump off a precipice/cliff to escape him is so blown out of proportion and ridiculous. Griffith clearly shows his racism in this scene. I also wanted to point out that Flora looks like she only got slightly SCRATCHED from a fall off of a GIANT cliff! You would be dead. You would break your neck and die immediately. Or at least look severely injured.

    This scene is one of the most melodramatic in the film. It also is very relevant to the topic I am researching (sexual assault). This scene implies that Gus wants to rape Flora, and in melodramatic rhetoric, he is seen as the villain. As Friedman states in "Citizen Spielberg": “The heroes and heroines of melodrama suffer for our sins; their torment caused by the intolerance, rigidity, and repressive codes of the conventional social order establishes and confirms them as innocent victims worthy of our compassion and admiration. Thus, melodramatic characters attain moral status chiefly through their suffering. We are forced to share their perspectives, feel their pain, and understand their plight”. We clearly feel for Flora during this scene and see her as a compassionate and admirable hero for diving to her death and avoiding the terrible plight of rape. Likewise, we feel for women who are sexual assault survivors and upon hearing the word survivor, we immediately dub them with a higher moral status for overcoming their suffering. This quote perfectly exemplifies both this scene and the sexual assault that exists in our society today.
  6. This header is so dramatic! "Sweeter opal gates of death"? Did she really need to die in this scene? Ehh... I'm not so sure. Yes, she was being pursued by a mad black man who wanted to rape her, but I don't think that warrants jumping off a cliff. Maybe that's just me though.
  7. I found this to be one of the most gruesome/shocking scenes of the film. Leaving Gus on a "mulatto's" doorstep with "KKK" written on a sheet of white paper with a skull and bones crossed out? A very bold statement, after having painted Gus in a very negative light by having him pursue Flora and then finding him guilty, killing him in the process (guilty of what exactly?). It definitely points out Griffith's racism and his support of the KKK.
  8. In this scene, Lynch is trying to force Elsie to marry him after she goes to plead for Dr. Cameron's release (he had been arrested). She faints as a result, and in further scenes is gagged and breaks a window, alerting the world of her predicament. Her scenes of struggle not only are very melodramatic, they paint women in such a helpless, "damsel in distress" way that is incredibly insulting to women. She needs to be rescued by the great, big strong men of the KKK. It was hard to watch, honestly, seeing women portrayed as this weak.

    Women who are sexual assault survivors also have a huge stigma as being weak and being "unable to put up a fight" when confronted with sexual assault. While it is true that only 15.8% of rapes are reported and this statistic has not changed much since the 90s (Wolitzky-Taylor, 2011), this does not mean that rape does not happen; it means that women are often afraid to report it due to fear in others not believing them or of the consequences they/the rapist will receive (Schwendinger, 1974). Women are portrayed poorly in this scene by being viewed as weak (as Elsie is) and as the victimized hero. While sometimes melodramatic rhetoric can help emphasize and point out an issue (as in sexual assault), I think in this scene, Elsie is viewed as entirely too much of a victim of a potential sexual assault and does not appear strong at all, which does not alleviate the stigma of the "damsel in distress".
  9. This screenshot shows the Camerons struggling against Lynch's militia attempting to break down the hut where the Camerons are hiding. Again, the militia is entirely black, showing black people as violent and unjust. Also, the great "saviors" of the day are the KKK, who along with Ben Cameron, are able to save the Camerons. So basically, the KKK are the heroes time after time in this story. Clearly, this film was made in a time where racism was still very prominent, and Griffith's political views clearly come into play here. While this film is meant to show, quite literally, the "birth of a nation", it is very one-sided. Then again, is history one-sided? I digress. Anyway, this scene shows the literal fight of black vs. white, and the prominent imagery is very clearly showing this as well.
  10. This header shocked me a little. Combined with the image below, it shows people finding peace under the "gentle Prince" in the "Hall of Brother Love in the City of Peace". Peace has been achieved and all is well because the blacks have been defeated and the KKK have prevailed. I wasn't expecting religion to play into this movie at all, but this 3D-esque image shows not only tremendous film technique for 1915, but really shows Jesus as the peacemaker and as the guider of the people. And this would be fine, if the scene weren't filled with white people now that all of the blacks and "mulattos" have been exiled. Christ being the "pop-out" image during this scene also really adds to the melodrama of the film, and ends it on a note that leaves you feeling slightly uneasy. At least, it does for me during this day and age. Even back then, the film was extremely controversial though. I wonder what the general reception to this scene was, and how Catholics and Protestants alike felt about it. Something to chew on.

    The image below can appeal to a range of audiences, whether religious or not. Melodrama has the ability to attract many different types of people. McConachie states: “Different types of melodrama appealed to a range of audiences, from elite males to urban workers and business-class women, by the time of the Civil War. And these 19th century Americans took their melodramas just as seriously as most citizens today take their adventure programs and soap operas on television” (McConachie, Melodramatic Formations). The cinematography and rhetoric that is used in this scene clearly appeals to many different viewers (both positively and negatively). Likewise, sexual assault not only arises passion in women: many men are also hugely passionate about sexual assault awareness and prevention. These issues appeal to everyone, not just a specific class of people, as does this final scene in Birth of a Nation.