Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Elizabeth Freeman reviews Reattachment Theory

Lee WallaceReattachment Theory: Queer Cinema of Remarriage. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020. 247 pp.

Review by Elizabeth Freeman

30 September 2020

Lee Wallace’s crisp, thoughtful book Reattachment Theory makes the bold claim that gay marriage is neither the dull straitjacket disdained by queer theorists nor the respectable twin of straight marriage championed by its mainstream advocates. Rather, she argues, lesbian, gay, and queer relationships have had an abiding influence on how we think about and practice supposedly straight marriage in the United States since at least the eighteenth century. According to Wallace, queers, ever influential on culture in ways that often eventually implicate policy because homosexuality is at once personal and political, have offered much to straight couplehood. Our contributions include emotionality, fantasies of celebrity, alternate possibilities for domesticity and fidelity, sexual substitutions and equivalencies, and, centrally, “the persistence of attachment beyond its origins in couple love” (p. 24)—something like polyamory or, I’d add, what contemporary activists call relationship anarchy, where there is no hierarchy between friendships and romantic connections. Wallace works these claims through a thorough review of the literary and cultural criticism on gay marriage and the marriage plot, most centrally an engagement with Stanley Cavell’s theory of marriage in the Hollywood comedy of the 1930s as “remarriage,” or a recommitment to couplehood after a period of the conflict and spirited debate associated with divorce. If Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) associates the rise of comedies of remarriage with the middle-class acceptance of divorce in this era, Wallace asks, importantly, how the acceptance of gay marriage might change the marriage plot, gay and straight, in gay- and lesbian-themed melodramas from the 1990s through the mid-2010s[1]. She demonstrates that in this filmic genre, the very porousness, multiplicity, and temporal evanescence of attachment—the way our desires and sense of connection to people fluctuate and permutate—moves from the domain of a homosexuality unsanctioned by law or culture, and toward the truth of the couple form itself. Riffing on Cavell’s original title Pursuits of Happiness, she declares marriage now “betokens the uncertainty of happiness rather than its promise” (p. 25).  This is certainly one reason I cry at weddings. Yet Wallace holds out hope that marriages can be capacious, sustaining, and outward-turning.

This well-researched, clearly argued, beautifully written, and brave book has few flaws. I did find myself wanting as rigorous an engagement with melodrama as a filmic genre as both Cavell and Wallace give the genre of comedy. Cavell associates the rise of the remarriage comedy with the advent of the talking film, which could feature witty, fast-paced repartée between husband and wife in a way that intertitles could not. So I wondered: How do the technological innovations pertaining to the melodrama calibrate the relationship between attachment and reattachment? Conventionally, melodramatic films are understood as marked by overemotionality: a typical feature of the melodramatic film (the “weepie”) from the 1940s onward is emotional fixation on a person, place, historical moment, or scenario[2]. Classical melodramatic films tend to index this fixation temporally, with lingering close-ups, tears that fall slowly, shots of domestic “still lives,” a sense that in states of high emotion, plots freeze while music, feelings, settings, and characterology swell—all aspects of what became technologically possible in the 1940s and beyond. How, then, do the stylings of attachment in melodrama, particularly contemporary melodrama, break or reorient this kind of fascinated psychic arrest such that the relationships portrayed in them can admit precarity and turn that into capacity? I suppose this is a readerly plea for what gay marriage, in Wallace’s spirited defense and expansion of its meaning, has given straight marriage: more. 



[1] See Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

[2] See Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington, Ind., 1987), and Dana Luciano, “Coming Around Again: The Queer Momentum of Far From Heaven,” GLQ 13, nos. 2–3 (2007): 249–72.