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Posts Tagged ‘Affect’

Love, Limb-Loosener: Encounters in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah
by Jennifer Leetsch

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In Greek the act of love is a mingling (mignumi) and desire melts the limbs (lusimelēs) (Sappho, Fr. 130). Boundaries of body, categories of thought, are confounded. The god who melts limbs proceeds to break the lover (damnatai) as would a foe on the epic battlefield: Oh comrade, the limb-loosener crushes me: desire.

– Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet

As Carson argues via her explorations of Sappho’s poetry and other literary texts, both classical and modern, in her essay collection Eros the Bittersweet, the Greek poets portray the god of love, Eros, as limb-loosener. The god Eros belongs to a collective of winged gods of love and sex called Erotes (amongst them Anteros, Hedylogos, Hermaphroditus, Himeros, Hymenaeus, and Photos). Eros, however, is also one of the four words in Ancient Greek to describe “love”. While storge refers to familial love, philia to friendship, and agape to selfless love, eros concerns intimate and romantic love, often with sexual overtones. When E/eros (as god and as concept) is described as melting limbs and breaking the lover, it becomes evident that love, driven by the desire for the other, has the potential to rattle boundaries and cross borders. The juxtaposition of opposites (self and other, pleasure and pain, longing and fulfilment, bitter and sweet) that is inherent to love creates movement and provokes action. “Mingling” and “loosening” mark a disturbance of categories of thought, body, place, and identity.

Referencing the descriptions of eros in Plato’s Phaedrus and the philosophical dialogue staged between its protagonists Socrates and Phaedrus, Carson posits love as “an invasion, an illness, an insanity, a wild animal, a natural disaster” whose action is

to melt, break down, bite into, burn, devour, wear away, whirl around, sting, pierce, wound, poison, suffocate, drag off or grind the lover to a powder. Eros employs nets, arrows, fire, hammers, hurricanes, fevers, boxing gloves or bits and bridles in making his assault (1986, 8).

But even though potentially destructive and life-threatening, love always also possesses the capacity for transformation (expressed in the above quote through imagery of natural catastrophes and corporeal processes such as eating and digestion). As Catherine Belsey argues in Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture, love “marks the limits of human mastery” (1994, 27). Love unhinges, makes fluid, makes loose and in doing so draws attention to the perimeters of how we fashion our world and interpersonal relationships through hierarchies of power and control. At the same time, love can mark “the location of resistance to the norms, proprieties and taxonomies of the cultural order” (Belsey 1994, 6). Love can thus be delineated as profoundly active and restless, potentially undermining certain hierarchies [End Page 2] and normative orders. In reading this disturbance as creative, productive, and powerful, love emerges as a harbourer of change and innovation:

Each narrative of love expresses a compound and contradictory impulse: on the one hand, the narrative ventriloquizes cultural values, perpetuating and naturalizing patriarchal models of gender […]; on the other hand, the narrative talks back, revealing frustration, dissent, and potentially subversive responses to those patriarchal constructions. (Strehle and Carden 2003, xii)

In other words, fictions which concern themselves with love and desire – such as romance texts and love stories – are well-established in a position where they are able to interrogate boundaries and to draw back into light what would otherwise be marginal, unspoken, repressed. Love stories can pose resistance to oppressive representation and there is a transformative potential inherent in the very structure of love. The fluidity and instability of love makes it a peculiarly flexible tool for teasing out ever-changing emotions, identities, and alliances; its narratives are specially “attuned to the heteroglossia of cultural and countercultural voices” (Strehle and Carden 2003, xii). When dealing with literary and cultural texts that stem from a point of origin marked not only by their deviance from patriarchal norms (such as feminist or queer voices), but also from colonial or neo-colonial norms (such as diasporic or postcolonial voices), a focus on love and how it is put into narratives will bring to light numerous possibilities for speaking back against these oppressing structures.

I will use the arguments by Carson, Belsey, and Strehle and Carden about love as breaking down boundaries and as an agent of change as the springboard for my discussion of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013). The fact that love functions as a loosener of boundaries and crosser of borders can be applied to three aspects of the novel: space, body, and text. The construction of a specific transnational space for both Ifemelu and Obinze, the two lovers and protagonists of Americanah, are marked by geographical travel and emotional border crossing. Accordingly, the first part of the paper will analyse how the lovers, in the face of the absence of their loved one, fashion their respective spaces of home and belonging, and how both ultimately return to Lagos, where they enact their romantic happy ending. The second part of my analysis will focus on the bodily encounters Ifemelu and Obinze experience, separately and together, and how intimate sexual acts of love break down previously erected barriers. The erotic and bodily aspect of love in the novel, however, is not only portrayed as positive and empowering, but is also marked by trauma and tensions, and I will outline how Ifemelu’s body and hair become a site of contested identity. The third part of this paper will examine the textuality and language of Americanah’s love story and how its romantic trajectory ultimately escapes its conventional boundaries – geographically, digitally, and meta-textually. By focusing in turn on spatiality, corporeality, and textuality, I want to acknowledge the different affects and effects of love and what it does, as material practice, embodied experience, and as a discursive and textual construct. In the course of my discussion, I will link back to both Anne Carson’s conceptualisations of love as limb-loosener and Catherine Belsey’s examinations of love as an act of resistance, while also drawing on the (surprisingly spare) critical commentaries by scholars on Americanah specifically and postcolonial feminist theory more generally. [End Page 3]

Reading Between the Lines: Adichie and the Importance of Love Stories

All of Adichie’s work surreptitiously deals in some way or other with (familial, platonic, romantic, erotic) love. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), is set in postcolonial Nigeria and accompanies its protagonist, the young woman Kambili, on her emancipatory journey as she escapes from the domination of her violent and fanatic Catholic father. Living with her aunt, she falls in love with the young priest Amada, while also discovering her burgeoning sexuality.[1] Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a sensitive rendering of the Nigerian Biafran war, has at its centre two pairs of lovers. The novel traces the war and its traumatic consequences as it follows the fates of the sisters Olanna and Kainene and their romantic entanglements. Significant socio-historical and political questions posed in the novel are thus refracted and subverted through the love relationships of its protagonists. Similarly, Adichie’s short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), focuses not only on the politics of a hybrid, progressive African identity, but always implicates the political with the personal by tracing relationships between family members or lovers.[2]

In “Between the Lines,” a conversation with Zadie Smith in March 2014 at the Schomburg Centre New York, Adichie actually calls Americanah her “fuck-you book” (2014, 16:31), “a fuck you to another version” of herself (16:35). What she means by that is that her first two novels, especially Half of a Yellow Sun, followed the footsteps of the founders of modern African literature, epitomized by such seminal works as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)[3], engaging with questions and subject matters heavily informed by Nigeria’s colonial past, processes of decolonisation and nation-building: “With Half of a Yellow Sun I was very dutiful. For so long I have been a dutiful daughter of literature. I’ve followed the rules… show don’t tell” (2014, 16:40). In going against traditional “African” writing and in transgressing Achebe’s treatment of Nigeria’s traumatic pasts, Adichie opens up pathways for new ways of writing about African experiences. Breaking out from the single story, Adichie’s Americanah pays attention to smaller stories: it “challenges the association of Africa with trauma, torture and politics, bringing into view non-Afro-pessimist representations of Africa” (Goyal 2014, xiv).

In the same conversation with Zadie Smith, Adichie drives home this point as she argues that love and sexuality are an integral part of her stories and her characters. Tongue-in-cheek, she positions herself in the grand tradition of Mills and Boon popular romance novels, but at the same time argues that her work is anti-Mills and Boon (2014, 19:27-21:50) – with female protagonists who strive to decide themselves when and where they want to engage sexually, emotionally, intellectually with their partners, who own and actively tell their own stories.[4] In broaching and narrating love, Adichie’s novels garner a voice that deals not only with the political complexity of its Afro-diasporic characters but also their smaller, more personal stories of love, lust, and loss. In exploring constructions of love in Adichie’s Americanah, this paper sets out to show that love enables encounters between humans and the transgression of borders. As Ifemelu, Adichie’s protagonist in Americanah, says:

The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both [End Page 4] people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. (367)

According to Ifemelu, romantic love can act as an antidote for the repressive and dangerous mechanisms of racism and other systemic structures of oppression.

Routes and Roots of Love

Americanah’s love story is not stationary: its chapters travel and migrate between past and present and between Nigeria, Great Britain, and the United States. We first meet Ifemelu, the female protagonist of Americanah, when she resides in Princeton. She came to the United States on a scholarship after finishing school in Nigeria and has since lived in various American cities, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, Brooklyn, and Princeton. But already on its very first pages, the novel opens up the American space Ifemelu finds herself in: she has to leave clean, affluent, and academic Princeton to have her hair braided in Trenton, a suburb of Princeton: “it startled her, what a difference a few minutes of train travel made” (6).[5] The readers accompany Ifemelu to the hair salon, where she not only has her hair braided but where she also begins a more pervasive braiding process of weaving her story, of travelling back into time to her childhood and youth in Nigeria. These thoughts, which will span several chapters, are marked by “amorphous longings, shapeless desires” to leave America and return to Nigeria: “Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil. And, of course, there was also Obinze. Her first love, her first lover” (7).

Ifemelu and Obinze meet in secondary school and continue their relationship all the way through university, when their ways part. Theirs is love “at first sight”, playing on a romantic trope at work since Greek poets first described the “love madness” caused by Eros’ arrows. From the beginning on, then, Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship conforms to the structures of what we expect of a “proper” love story: love at first sight, being star-crossed (i.e. facing obstacles and hindrances), and the happy end. This trajectory, however, is complicated and enriched by Americanah’s engagement with space building and movement.

The correlation between love and spatial practices is frequent in the novel. In the first chapter, when Ifemelu describes her growing estrangement from her then boyfriend, black American Blaine, she says that “her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out” (9), referring to the locked-in feeling of confinement and stasis she feels. In contrast, a few pages later Obinze thinks back to the acts of love making between him and Ifemelu when they were young and her statement: “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before” (24). Not seeing the ceiling, not seeing the borders of the room, suggest an openness and fluidity that comes with love making. In the course of their relationship, Ifemelu begins to call Obinze Ceiling, the word becoming a shorthand for “what they did together, their warm entanglements” (24).

Movement becomes one of the most important factors in Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship as they move away from each other and lose contact (the reasons for which I [End Page 5] will discuss in the next section). Ifemelu makes her home in various American cities, takes lovers that are white American (Curt) and black American (Blaine), while Obinze moves to Great Britain where, under great duress, he tries to gain legal status and is deported back to Nigeria after a failed attempt at a sham marriage to an Angolan-Portuguese girl called Cleotilde. The spaces both find themselves in are marked by a multitude of affects and relations and both engage in attempts to fashion their belongings abroad. Ifemelu struggles to reconcile her Nigerian identity with the American spaces of femininity and friendship offered to her:

She was standing at the periphery of her own life, sharing a fridge and a toilet, a shallow intimacy, with people she did not know at all. People who lived in exclamation points. […] People who did not scrub in the shower: their shampoos and conditioners and gels were cluttered in the bathroom, but there was not a single sponge, and this, the absence of a sponge, made them seem unreachably alien to her (156).

With time, however, she adapts and finds joy in the acts of mapping her American geography, “[s]he hungered to understand everything about America, to wear a new, knowing skin right away” (166). Obinze in London, in turn, works various jobs at cleaning or moving companies and lives a shadowy, restricted existence in the metropolis: “He would walk fast on the pavement, turned tightly into himself, hands deep in the coat his cousin had lent him, a grey wool coat whose sleeves nearly swallowed his fingers” (281). He is swallowed up by the grey and hostile urban topography, where he is regarded as foreign and not-belonging, “his existence like an erased pencil sketch” (318). The fear and trauma of being an illegal migrant as well as the consecutive exportation becomes deeply inscribed into Obinze’s relationships to space and to others. When he returns to Nigeria, he becomes a wealthy business man but marries a woman he does not love, and feels not moored but “as if he could float” (44). Both in London and Lagos he experiences a multiple sense of place and alienation. He only can truly “come home” when he is reunited with Ifemelu, who returns to Lagos years later.

As Sara Ahmed argues in her essay “Wiggle Room,” the act of adjusting to spaces is an act of meaning making: “Sometimes to create space we have to wiggle about. You know those moments when you try and fit in a space that is smaller than you are” (2014, n.p.). By distorting the rooms and spaces, be they social categories, gender assignments, or the skins we wear, we enlarge them, we make them fit. This act of fitting adjusts spaces but it can also make them fill up and spill over: “We might in spilling out of the rooms we have been assigned, in our struggle with an assignment, mess things up” (2014, n.p.). In this transgressive move of messing things up, one can locate an act of resistance and appropriation. Looking at both Ifemelu’s American spaces and Obinze’s London experience and their homecoming, I argue that both in some way spill over the rooms assigned to them. Their returns to Nigeria (one voluntary, one forced) mark both successful and failed engagements with space, but also pose a comment on the structure of love and desire. Many critics have expressed a “sense of disbelief that Ifemelu would choose to go back to Nigeria (and not under duress of any kind)” (Goyal 2014, xii), and within the novel, Ifemelu is faced with the same doubt: “Everyone she had told she was moving back seemed surprised, expecting an explanation, and she said she was doing it because she wanted to, puzzled lines would appear on foreheads” (16). The return to Africa seems to not sit well with a novel that [End Page 6] explores transnational and diasporic identity. But instead of reading the return home as a failure, I think it is much more interesting and fruitful to see it as “an exploration of blackness that does not highlight injury or trauma, but focuses on romantic love, hair, and nostalgia” (Goyal 2014, xiv), love being the key word here.[6] The story of Americanah ends happily, reuniting Ifemelu and Obinze in Lagos.

Adichie plays with the usually normative and rigid borders of social categories and national spaces as well as the conventional, conservative plot structures of the love story, and in doing so she makes them wider, more porous. In desiring and in realising her desires (returning to Nigeria, returning to Obinze, having a happy ending), Ifemelu wiggles free and spins “herself fully into being” (586).[7] This movement underlines the argument from the beginning of this article: love has the inherent potential for movement, for change. In performing the love story with all its obstacles and resolutions, and in swapping Nigeria with America and then back, divisions are made fluid. Conceptions of original or authentic “homeland” and of “away” are being questioned and complicated – “And this was Nigeria, where boundaries were blurred” (483) – as continents are travelled, cities rediscovered, and oceans and borders crossed.[8] The seemingly binary opposition between routes and roots is cancelled, as both Ifemelu and Obinze find home in each other. It is no coincidence that the last words of the novel are “Come in” (588) and that Ifemelu invites Obinze to cross the threshold into her house. The intimacy and the romantic, sensual happy ending proposed by Americanah here does not seem static or terminal at all.

“Multi-boned, multi-ethnic”: Erotic Encounters, Corporeality, and Self Love

Besides the affective spatiality performed in the novel, the locus of the body is another contested point of contact in the web of love that is spun within the text of Americanah. How corporeality and love are intertwined is made abundantly clear when the text of Americanah dwells on the moments of “entanglement” between Ifemelu and Obinze. When they first meet as teenagers, they are drawn to each other like magnets, and of their first encounters Ifemelu says: “[S]he was jolted by a small truth in those [Mills and Boon] romances. It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge” (69, 70). Here, the bodily, sensual experience felt by the two lovers brings to mind Carson’s extrapolations of love as limb-loosener, as twisting and unhinging the joints of your body. In both referencing the very conventional and kitschy Mills and Boon romance stories Ifemelu reads as a young girl and simultaneously asserting an authentic embodied experience of love and desire, the novel gives weight to what is elsewhere perceived as light (entertainment): the act of love between two people. When Ifemelu and Obinze meet again after years of absence, the sex is described as “seamless desire” (551) and “an awakening” (551) which un-numbs the body.

But bodily encounters, if painfully and violently enforced, have the reversed, opposite effect. When Ifemelu undergoes a traumatic episode of sexual assault, she closes herself off from the world and from Obinze. Early on during her time in Philadelphia when she is still a newcomer in America, Ifemelu struggles to find a job. Following a newspaper advertisement for a “personal assistant”, she finds herself confronted with a white American man, a tennis [End Page 7] coach from Ardmore, who forces her to be sexually intimate with him in exchange for money. Ifemelu undergoes the ordeal and afterwards falls into a deep depression, cutting off her friends, her family, and her long-distance boyfriend:

She could not bear the thought of touching her own body […], wishing she could reach into herself and yank out the memory of what had just happened. […] She was bloodless and detached, floating in a world where darkness descended too soon. […] She felt herself sinking, sinking quickly, and unable to pull herself up (190-192).

The sexual violation of her body not only brings with it depersonalization disorder symptoms and disgust but also causes a detachment from the world around her. Only years later, sitting at her kitchen table in Lagos, she tells Obinze what happened to her and starts the reparative work of talking through her trauma: “She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in her chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hands in his” (543). In the silence that follows their words, she feels “safe” (543). Obinze’s love for Ifemelu enables her to pull down the walls she had built around herself.

Romantic love in Americanah, then, is closely connected to self-love. This is mirrored by what Ifemelu feels from the very beginning of her relationship with Obinze: “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size” (73). Self-love and the problems that come with it in the novel play out in a space marked by restrictions put upon the black female body. As Gayatri Gopinath has observed, femininity and womanhood are often used “as primary markers of an essential, inviolable communal identity or tradition” (2003, 138). The female body becomes a symbol and marker for how national borders are drawn. Both Ifemelu’s weight and her hair are contested sites, not only regarding the politics of how women should look and behave like, but also for the more personal question of self-care and interpersonal relationships.

On the first pages of the novel, while she waits on the Princeton Junction platform for her train to Trenton, Ifemelu ruminates on the shape of her and of other women’s bodies, recognising that “‘fat’ in America was a bad word, heaving with moral judgment like ‘stupid’ or ‘bastard,’ and not a mere description like ‘short’ or ‘tall’” (6). Coming to America, she had learned to avoid that word, but when a man in the supermarket verbally harasses her, the word comes back to her: “She said the word ‘fat’ slowly, funnelling it back and forward, and thought about all the other things she had learned not to say aloud in America. She was fat. She was not curvy or big-boned; she was fat, it was the only word that felt true” (7). The stranger in the supermarket had wanted to offend her, but instead “prodded her awake” (8) to rethink her American space and eventually return to Nigeria. In admiring another woman who wears a mini skirt, and in being content in her own large body, Ifemelu argues back against white Western ideals of femininity and respectable female bodies. That her relationship to Obinze, however, adds to that act of self-love, becomes clear later in the book when she has returned to Lagos. When meeting after years of being apart, Ifemelu is self-conscious about her body size but reassured when Obinze calls her beautiful: “Oh, no, Ifem, you’re not fat. You’re being very American about that. What Americans consider fat can just be normal” (531). What is being made visible here are the different national stances towards [End Page 8] female bodies, and the always harmful notion of others dictating how a (black) woman should look, dress, and behave. Instead of merely relying on male reassurances, Ifemelu throughout the novel engages in processes of critically questioning these notions, continuously advocating for a “multi-boned, multi-ethnic world of women” (219), a multifaceted politics of beauty.

In drawing attention to the tensions of conflicting attitudes towards the black female body, Adichie sheds light on the legacy of colonialism and its essentialist position towards African sexuality and corporeal difference. She connects her protagonists’ sexual encounters and their physicality with broader and deeper running discourses on national identity and alterity – as Judith Butler would argue: “Discourses do actually live in bodies. They lodge in bodies; bodies in fact carry discourses as part of their own lifeblood” (Butler, Meijer and Prins 1998, 282). In complicating “normal” or “neutral” embodiments, Americanah “wittily undermines American perceptions about Africa” (Goyal 2014, xi). Another aspect which links to the self-empowering strategies of the body and of loving oneself is the conversation about hair opened up in the novel. As mentioned above, in the opening pages, the reader accompanies Ifemelu to a hair salon, where she gets braids in preparation for her return to Lagos.[9] The question of black hair – weaves and braids and afros – and its unruliness is taken up time and time again during the novel; it is a sign of the deeply entrenched assumptions that constitute blockages and hindrances in the dynamics of black female corporeality, sensuality, and sexuality. As Adichie says in an interview with the Guardian: “Hair is hair – yet also about larger questions: self-acceptance, insecurity and what the world tells you is beautiful. For many black women, the idea of wearing their hair naturally is unbearable” (Kellaway 2013, n.p.). In finding support via the internet and the blogosphere, Ifemelu learns to accept her hair; in cutting off the straightened, relaxed, smoothed and burnt part of her – “something organic dying which should not have died” (251) – that conforms to society’s expectations of her, she releases her fractious hair. Accompanying that material act of cutting and releasing is a speech act stating that she “simply, fell in love with her hair” (264), and, I would argue, herself.

By refusing to be a ready-made product for desire or consumption, Ifemelu, then, moves exactly against the harmful mechanisms Adichie cautions against in We Should All Be Feminists: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” (2014, 27). Instead of shrinking herself, Ifemelu expands herself and the rooms she moves in through negotiating her body, sexuality, and her desires. The erotic and embodied aspects of love performed by Americanah open up conversations about race, consent, sexuality and free will. Reading the female black body and identity within and simultaneously against discourses of oppression and discipline (patriarchy, (neo-)colonialism) means to inspect and appraise expressions of love as inherently connected to identity constructions and subversions. Love can function as a tool to re-appropriate and to rebuild certain power relationships. By regarding love as empowering tactic, cultural and literary representations such as Adichie’s Americanah harbour the potential to destabilise stereotypical and restrictive orders and advocate new ways of speaking about relationality, affiliation, and alliance. [End Page 9]

“Desire moves, eros is a verb”: Love and/as Text

Having discussed love in Americanah with relationship to space and to body, I now want to turn to the third category: textuality. The textual architecture of the novel is built around different linking devices, focal points, and temporal levels. As delineated above, the chapters alternate between Ifemelu and Obinze’s perspectives and always reach back into the past, consciously drawing parallels and correlations between both lovers’ developments. One of the structural linking devices employed by the novel is the hair salon Ifemelu travels to in the first chapter. This hot, noisy, and female space serves as the point of departure for Ifemelu’s “time travels” (see chapters 1, 3, 9, and 18). Thinking back to her roots (her childhood and her mother), the decidedly feminine space of the hair salon becomes a meeting point for various female genealogies (49). Another linking device is the blog Ifemelu starts after having lived some years in the States. The blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, and connects the different themes and story parts to each other. Blogging anonymously, Ifemelu creates a safe space where she can talk about her experiences relating to racism, sexism, and (female) black politics of resistance (topics include Michelle and Barack Obama, WASPs, or Beyoncé). Her call to “Un-zip yourself” and to open up conversations mirrors how Angelika Bammer, Minrose Gwin, Cindi Katz, and Elizabeth Meese (1998) regard cyberspace as “a frontier through which we enter a nonspace, the space that isn’t ‘really’ there. It is a safe space, which the actual, material spaces in which many people live is not.”[10] Through blogging, she “writes herself into existence” and counters “the silence that she feels defines her in America” (Isaacs 2016, 179).

Communication via different channels and the obstruction of that communication play an important role in the fabric of Americanah’s romance text. The two lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, once separated by the Atlantic, call each other on the phone, send each other letters, voicemail messages, and later emails. Similarly to the way the blog and the hair salon function as linking devices, the emails Ifemelu and Obinze exchange after their estrangement propel the text from one place and one focal point to another. New media, like emails, Facebook, and the blog, create intimacy and convergence; a possibility of connection and closeness that is open and multi-branched, multi-directional: Ifemelu interacts with her readers; she quickly composes emails to Obinze on her phone only to afterwards delete them again; Obinze stalks Blaine (Ifemelu’s ex-boyfriend) on Facebook and roots through her blog’s archives to clandestinely “keep in touch.” The expression of keeping in touch is a curious one, where the digital space enables touching and contact: “They had kept in touch, she and Ranyinudo, throughout the years. At first, they wrote infrequent letters, but as cybercafés opened, cell phones spread, and Facebook flourished, they communicated more often” (17). As Camille Isaacs contends, Americanah uses these channels “to constitute peculiar spaces of access to both homelands left behind and the host cultures” (2016, 174). I would argue, however, that the specific textual architecture the novel displays not only links different focalisations or geographic places of belonging together, but makes another argument about the text’s love story and its affective dimensions.

With regards to the relation between love and language, Catherine Angel posits, “The desire to speak desire is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture. As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement. It undoes the perceived straitjacketing. Unlaces the [End Page 10] corset, winds down the hair” (2012, 205). The dynamics of love as acted out by Ifemelu and Obinze (their desire for each other, represented by reaching out, keeping in touch via words) create processes of sense-making and bridge geographical as well as emotional distance. Obinze says of his email writing: “He began to write to her about his time in England, hoping that she would reply and then later looking forward to the writing itself. He had never told himself his own story […] Writing to her also became a way of writing himself” (461). Desire for the other produces action, language, creation. Love becomes a story to be told, a narrative: “Desire moves. Eros is a verb” (Carson 1986, 17). Love is a site which acts as a starting point for, as I would argue, text and textuality: “As Socrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you” (49). A story begins with love entering; it initiates the processes of the creation and production of story, flows of narrative and textuality are induced by the advent of eros. Love enables communication: “Desire in Western culture is inextricably intertwined with narrative, just as the tradition of Western fiction is threaded through with desire” (Belsey 1994, ix).

The love story of Americanah punctures silence; inhabits the gaps – and thereby engages in actions of breaking down or melting away distance and difference. Perhaps the most significant example for how the textuality and language of Americanah’s love story escapes boundaries and loosens borders is the second blog featuring in the novel. This blog, titled The Small Redemptions of Lagos, is both Ifemelu’s blog once she has returned to Nigeria in the last chapters of the novel, but it is also blog that actually exists on the internet under the WordPress address https://americanahblog.com. While this can clearly be regarded as a marketing strategy for the publication of the novel (the blog entries were mediated and managed on Adichie’s Facebook profile by her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, cf. Guarracino 2014, 21) and to heighten impact and circulation, the blog, which is still online and features entries from August 27, 2014 to November 2, 2014, is also a metatextual continuation of Americanah’s text, which escapes even the confines of the lovers’ happy ending. During the story in the book, the blog functions as a self-identificatory tool for Ifemelu to settle back down in Nigeria and to speak to Obinze. The “real-life” continuation on WordPress features, among others, blog entries on Nigerian politics, Ebola, African politicians, and infrastructure (“Problem and Solution”), hair care, skin care, and vaginal care products (“The Aruidimma Centre”), and lipstick, fashion, and beauty (“Style”), all written by the first-person author figure of Ifemelu.

There is also, however, a category called “Ifem & Ceiling”, Ifemelu and Obinze’s nicknames throughout the book. As Serena Guarracino has argued, the novel’s characters “keep expanding beyond the finished confines” (2014, 21) of the text, and I argue that the blog also writes forth the love story beyond the happy end of the novel. The blog entries in the “Ifem & Ceiling” category continue writing the love story into the future, beyond the “Come in” of the novel, describing their shared everyday life: “Ceiling is different here in Enugu. He’s lighter, he jokes more, he is less silent. But I sometimes see his face fall and I know he’s missing [his daughter] Buchi” (“Ifem & Ceiling 2”). They also describe little connections and touching points: “So, we support the same Charity. We started supporting the same Charity at about the same time without, of course, knowing what the other was doing. #Lovenwantiti #truecompatibility #mostromanticcoincidenceever” (“Ifem & Ceiling 7”). The love story moves out from its confines between the covers of the book and displaces the oppositions between fiction and metafiction, text and metatext. Thus, the blog outmanoeuvres the reader and defies all desire for control and closure. With this strategy of [End Page 11] empowerment, the lovers’ voices of the text, in the text and also outside of it, do not cease to speak.

Conclusion: “It’s just a love story”

Having examined the interrelation between love and space, body, and text in Adichie’s Americanah, I would like to argue that the novel showcases the transfiguring, transformative momentum of love in the context of postcolonial transnational writing. The love story engenders not only creative textuality, but also subversive configurations of space and of feminine corporeality. Tracing the relationship of the two lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, the above discussion has illuminated the different effects and affects of the love story. Spatially, the text exists between Africa, America, and Great Britain, but the romantic happy ending, a stock characteristic of every love story, complicates one-sided conceptions of national borders and belonging. Regarding the sexual and erotic components of love, I have traced the corporeal tensions Ifemelu has to negotiate as she experiences both traumatic and reparative intimacies. Textually, the novel similarly escapes constraints as the love story wilfully extends beyond the frame of the book into the open and multi-directional digital space of the internet.

In writing against oppression and against the restrictive powers of the norm, Americanah engages in an empowering act of giving voice to the formerly silenced, of providing wiggle spaces for alternative identity constructions. The novel as a transnational love story tries to take first steps in subverting certain ingrained divisions by dissecting and diagnosing social, cultural, political, and emotional patterns. Americanah is a text which seeks to un-bind boundaries, to unsettle settlement and to deal in all things human: love and romance are powered by the motion of meeting, of encountering and touching each other. In Americanah, love stands for fluidity and fractiousness – sometimes ugly, painful and twisted, but always disturbing boundaries. It is culturally contrapuntal: it functions as a site of resistance and resilience for oppressive ideologies. Instead of stasis, the novel argues for flexibility and for overcoming divisions and boundaries. As Anne Carson argues:

Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive (1986, 30).

The boundary is a place at which something may begin, may become present; it acts as a starting point. Love exists because of boundaries but also in the boundaries. Love can “whirl” binary oppositions, it constitutes a playground for the struggle with other systemic relations of power, for interpersonal affiliations, as national and transnational meeting points. Love stories, like Americanah, might be “only” love stories, but as such they are important:

Don’t we all in the end write about love? All literature is about love. When men do it, it’s a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it’s just a love story. So, although I wanted to do much more than a love story, a part of [End Page 12] me wants to push back against the idea that love stories are not important. I wanted to use a love story to talk about other things. But really in the end, it’s just a love story. (Adichie, interviewed by Brockes 2014)


[1] For a more in depth discussion of Purble Hibiscus, see, for example, Marta Sofia Lopez’ “Creating Daughter-lands: Dangarembga, Adichie, and Vera” (2007).

[2] For further readings of the interconnections of the personal and the political in Adichie’s earlier work, see Manisha Basu’s “Loving and Leaving: The Ethics of Postcolonial Pain in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus” (2012) or Susan Z. Andrade’s “Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels” (2011).

[3] Things Fall Apart has since become the most widely published/read work of modern African fiction and has cemented Achebe’s position as the father of African writing. The novel writes back to “the vision of Africa as a land of savagery and darkness, the distorted reflection of the continent depicted in the work of writers like Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary” and has become the cornerstone in the project “of recuperating notions of African culture and heritage” (Krishnan 2014, 11).

[4] This echoes what Adichie argues for in her published TED talk on feminism and its discontents, We Should All Be Feminists: “The idea that sex is something a woman gives a man, and she loses something when she does that, which again for me is nonsense [sic]. I want us to raise girls differently where boys and girls start to see sexuality as something that they own, rather than something that a boy takes from a girl” (33). We Should All Be Feminists follows Adichie’s own processes of unlearning the restrictive and oppressive perceptions of how gender is woven into the fabric of social, cultural and political structures and constitutes an invocation for gender equality.

[5] The confrontation of different spaces with each other is a thing that Americanah excels in. The opposition never stays binary and clear-cut, the text rather teases out the geographical differences and similarities to de-essentialise conceptions of “Western” and “African”. Princeton is wealthy but also bland, smelling of “nothing”. Trenton is hot and sticky and dirty, but also marked by the feeling of connection and sisterhood, however stilted, Ifemelu experiences with the hairdressers. As Yogita Goyal argues, “Americanah takes on the charged questions of race, travel, and migration, it shows how black Atlantic concerns and American conceptions of race are reshaped and transformed in relation to the postcolonial state and its own itineraries of hope and despair, migration and return” (2014, xvi).

[6] It would be interesting to compare Americanah with other contemporary reinventions of the immigration novel, such as the recently published Behold the Dreamers (2016) by Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue or Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013), as all deal with cultural dislocation and the idea of original “home” and “exile” in a globalized twenty-first century world of interconnectedness and alternative spaces of belonging.

[7] In returning, Ifemelu also becomes the eponymous Americanah – a word which signifies someone having left and then come back, demarcating a hybrid in-between identity: “They roared with laughter, at that word ‘Americanah,’ wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke” (78). [End Page 13]

[8] An article forthcoming in November 2016 in “Diaspora & Returns in Fiction,” the 34th issue of African Literature Today (edited by Helen Cousins, Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo, and Ernest N. Emenyonu), called “Negotiating Race, Identity & Homecoming in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah & Pede Hollist’s So the Path Does Not Die” by H. Oby Okolocha, will discuss this as well.

[9] The hair salon acts as a place of female community and a meeting point, just as much as the online community of HappilyKinkyNappy.com which Ifemelu finds through a friend. It is a natural hair community “done with pretending that their hair was what it was not, done with running from the rain and flinching from sweat. They sculpted for themselves a virtual world where their coily, kinky, nappy, woolly hair was normal” (263). In engaging with both these communities, Ifemelu not only takes part in an act of self-love, but also an act of loving other women. Americanah thus clearly articulates a feminist ethics of care, which can especially be found in Ifemelu’s female friendships and alliances.

[10] For a more in depth and detailed discussion on gender and cyberspace, see Mary Flanagan’s influential piece on “Navigating the Narrative in Space: Gender and Spatiality in Virtual Worlds” (2000). [End Page 14]

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. Print.

—. Half of a Yellow Sun. London: Fourth Estate, 2006. Print.

—. The Thing Around Your Neck. London: Fourth Estate, 2009. Print.

—. Americanah. London/NY: Anchor Press, 2013. Print.

—. “The Small Redemptions of Lagos.” Web. Accessed 11 June 2016. https://americanahblog.com.

—. We Should All Be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate, 2014. Print,

Ahmed, Sara. “Wiggle Room.” Feminist Killjoy. 28 September 2014. Web. Accessed 11 June 2016.

Andrade, Susan Z. “Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels.” Research in African Literatures 42.2 (2011): 91-101. Print.

Angel, Catherine. Unmastered. A Book on Desire, Most Difficult To Tell. London: Allen Lane, 2012. Print.

Bammer, Angelika, Minrose Gwin, Cindi Katz, and Elizabeth Meese. “Part 3: The Place of the Letter: An Epistolary Exchange.” Making Worlds; Gender, Metaphor, and Materiality. Ed. Susan Hardy Aitken, Ann Brigham, Sallie A. Marston, and Penny Waterstone. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998:161202. Print.

Basu, Manisha. “Loving and Leaving: The Ethics of Postcolonial Pain in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.1 (2012): 67-86. Print.

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Brockes, Emma. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Don’t we all write about love? When men do it, it’s a political comment. When women do it, it’s just a love story.’” The Guardian. March 21 2014. Web. Accessed Jun 11 2016.

Butler, Judith, Irene Meijer, and Baukje Prins. “How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Signs 23.2 (1998): 275-286. Print.

Carson, Anne. Eros: The Bittersweet. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1986] 2000. Print.

Flanagan, Mary. “Navigating the Narrative in Space: Gender and Spatiality in Virtual Worlds.” Art Journal 59.3 (2000): 74-85. Print.

Gopinath, Gayatri. “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion.” Uprootings / Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Ed. Sara Ahmed, Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier and Mimi Sheller. Oxford/New York: Berg, 2003. 137-156. Print.

Goyal, Yogita. “Introduction: Africa and the Black Atlantic.” Research in African Literatures 45.3 (2014): v-xxv. Print.

Guarracino, Serena. “Writing ‘so raw and true’: Blogging in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.” Between 4.8 (2014): 1-27. Print.

Isaacs, Camille. “Mediating Women’s Globalized Existence through Social Media in the Work of Adichie and Bulawayo.” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 17.2 (2016): 174-188. Print.

Kellaway, Kate. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘My new novel is about love, race … and hair.’” The Guardian. 7 April 2013. Web. Accessed June 11 2016.

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Krishnan, Madhu. “Negotiating Africa Now.” Transition 113 (2014): 11-24. Print.

Levine, Caroline. “‘The strange familiar’: Structure, Infrastructure, and Adichie’s Americanah.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 61.4 (2015): 587-605. Print.

Lopez, Marta Sofia. “Creating Daughterlands: Dangaremba, Adichie, and Vera.” Journal of the African Literature Association 2.1 (2007): 83-97. Print.

Okolocha, Oby H. “Negotiating Race, Identity & Homecoming in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah & Pede Hollist’s So the Path Does Not Die”. ALT 34 Diaspora & Returns in Fiction. Ed. Helen Cousins, Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo, and Ernest N. Emenyonu. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. James Currey. The University of Rochester Press, New York, 2016: n.p. [Forthcoming].

Smith, Zadie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Between the Lines: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Zadie Smith”. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 19 March 2014. Web. Accessed 11 June 2016.

Strehle, Susan and Mary Paniccia Carden, eds. Doubled Plots. Romance and History. Jackson: University Press of Mississipppi, 2003. Print.

[End Page 16]

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Regimes of Affect: Love and Class in Mexican Neoliberal Cinema
by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

The recent rise in the study of affect and emotions within different paradigms of cultural studies opens many questions relevant to the study of Mexican and Latin American cinema.[1] It has led to the reconsideration of a series of cultural paradigms, most notably melodrama,[2] as part of networks of aesthetic configuration, audience engagement and political agency. However, the enthusiasm that naturally accompanies an emerging critical paradigm has led to a consistently optimistic understanding of affect and emotion either as a category with strong hermeneutic potential or as a practice that in itself functions as a tool of emancipation or, at least, as a way of reading and thus resisting the tyrannies of the political. In this study, I want to use the case of Mexican cinema to suggest a critique of that optimism, one that raises the question of the historicity of emotion and its relationship to the complex social networks of the contemporary. My primary suggestion is that, while emotions may seem a zero-degree approach to culture, insofar as all humans experience and perform them, the unequal access to the structures of representation and consumption of feelings create distinct regimes of affect that replicate rather than question existing ideological, racial, and class separations. This point echoes the warning raised by Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg in their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, where they state that “this promise of affect and its generative relay into affect theory must also acknowledge, in the not yet of the never-quite-knowing, that there are no ultimate or final guarantees– political, ethical, aesthetic, pedagogic, and otherwise– that capacities to affect and to be affected will yield an actualized next or new that is somehow better than ‘now’” (9-10). I would even push this point further and contend that a considerable part of the cultural infrastructure that manufactures and deploys structures of feeling is bound to ever more globalized and privatized cultural industries. Accordingly, affect and emotion in the contemporary world should be engaged by considering their irrevocable relationship to capitalism in general and neoliberalism in particular.[3]

Mexican cinema provides a good vantage point to explore this idea because of the way in which the neoliberal process led the country’s mediascape to transition from hegemonic post-revolutionary national culture– which successfully appealed citizens and consumers across class lines– to a cultural industry clearly demarcated by class lines.[4] Up to the late 1980s, Mexican media consumers in urban areas were exposed to more or less the same cultural offerings. The primary medium was television, which was fundamentally controlled by Televisa. Its telenovelas ruled the ratings in primetime hours to the tune of 50 to 70 percent of the audience, mostly because of their ability to successfully construct narratives that appealed to the national identity and the cultural specificity of spectators across the social board (Mazziotti 47-51). The consumption of cinema was mostly in decay as a result of disastrous interventionist policies from the State in the 1970s (Mora 150-88), but cinema attendance remained considerable thanks to a government-regulated fixed ticket price. One may add other policies, such as the ban on rock concerts established in the wake of the Avándaro festival in the 1970s and the strict control that Televisa and a group of radio stations exercised in the distribution of popular and pop music (exposure in the Televisa show Siempre en domingo was a prerequisite to commercial success). Because of the dominance of Televisa on the one hand, and of the overwhelming presence of the State in the distribution and exhibition of cinema in the other, Mexican media products had secure control of the tastes and consumption of a wide-ranging national spectatorship.

During the 1990s, this longstanding mediascape was subject to wide transformations due to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies in the cultural realm and the expansion in the commercial offerings of television and cinema. On the one hand, the monopoly of the State in the distribution of cinema came to an end with the gradual privatization of COTSA, the government-owned distribution agency, as well as of many of the production funds created in the 1970s (Saavedra Luna). This favored the emergence of three private exhibition companies that dominate the Mexican market to this date –Cinemex, Cinemark and Cinépolis– and the creation of a Mexican private production sector favored by tax credits and subsidies provided by the State. On the other, audiovisual offerings were diversified by the growth of cable and pay television in the 1990s, which, in turn, broke Televisa’s stronghold in the production of content. This allowed for Mexican audiences to access US media products such as situational comedies and serialized dramas, which became very popular with the middle and upper classes. Taken together, these phenomena resulted in the creation of two distinct media audiences separated by a paywall. The middle and upper classes, able to pay cable subscriptions and movie tickets priced at three times the rate of the Mexican minimum wage,[5] developed a cultural taste focused on romantic comedies, sitcoms, alternative music, and other products resulting from the importation of US cultural products, while the working classes unable to afford such products remained tied to telenovelas, popular music genres such as norteño and cumbia, and other genres available to them at no extra cost. Film sociologists like Ana Rosas Mantecón have spoken of “new processes of urban segregation” and of the undermining of cultural diversity to represent the way in which film exhibition reorganized itself in the wake of these processes, highlighting the correlation between cinema consumption and the urban middle and upper classes. In Consumers and Citizens, his well-known analysis of the impact of neoliberalism in Latin American culture, Néstor García Canclini showed that “the most salient feature of the restructure of markets is the segmentation of publics” (119), which, at the time, he identified with the possible “cultural formation of a democratic citizenship” (122).

In hindsight, it seems that Rosas Mantecón’s diagnosis is more accurate than García Canclini’s. The diversification of audiences in Mexico created separate spheres of cultural consumption drastically segregated by class. For the purposes of my argument here, this economic segregation resulted in the formation of differentiated “structures of feelings,” to use Raymond Williams’ celebrated notion. Williams himself warned of “the complex relation of differentiated structures of feeling to differentiated classes,” which could only be read by recognizing the fact that they are not “reducible to ideologies of these groups or to their formal (in fact complex) class relations” (134). Williams resolves this conundrum by suggesting a methodology aimed at “defining forms and conventions in art and literature as inalienable elements of a social material process” (133). Echoing these ideas, the study of affect and emotion in contemporary Mexican cinema needs to account for the way in which certain films embody the transformations of lived experience and social aspirations brought about by neoliberalism. Historically, melodrama was a cultural form, which allowed Mexican audiences the negotiation of social inequality through narratives that tied emotion and love to social redemption. This is the case, for example, of the Pepe el Toro trilogy (1948-1953), which used melodrama (in films entitled Nosotros los pobres and Ustedes los ricos, emphasizing the issue of class) to narrate the way in which its protagonist painfully overcomes poverty and tragedy in the path to a final redemption. Telenovela became in Mexico another vehicle in which affect and emotion allowed audiences the embodied experience of class overcoming. One can remember here another trilogy, the María series (1992-1994), in which actress Thalía performs three different characters (María Mercedes, María la del Barrio and Marimar, with each name being the title of a respective telenovela) from different varieties of the lower class (a homeless girl, a girl from the slums, and a girl from a coastal town in the interior) who end up marrying a man from the upper class and thus attaining a social status that was consistently denied to them by other characters. Narratives like this helped Mexican culture use love stories to negotiate the fundamental tension between a national culture based on the horizontal camaraderie famously theorized by Benedict Anderson and a visible class divide that represented the failure of the promises of Mexican modernization. The wide appeal that both Pedro Infante vehicles and telenovelas such as Thalía’s María series had resulted not only from the lack of diversity in cultural offerings, but also from the way in which narratives of love and affect galvanized social identities in a way that trumped class difference through melodramatic allegories focused on the formation of the couple (for example, love stories between rich and poor characters).

While this “structure of feeling” remained central to the cultural experience of the Mexican working classes, as attested by the enduring success of telenovelas in the contemporary media landscape, the cultural products made available by neoliberalism generated an alternative narrative of class, one which provided middle and upper class audiences with the fiction of a central role in a new, modern Mexico and which systematically excludes lower classes from its imagination of the social. As I have described elsewhere,[6] I believe that the emergence of the romantic comedy in Mexico is a central example of the consolidation of this new structure of feeling. The earliest representative of the genre in post-1988 cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s Sólo con tu pareja (1991), already showed elements that radically departed from the hegemonic structure of feeling that ruled Mexican culture in the 1980s. The film depicts the emergence of a love relationship between Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a jingle writer and serial womanizer, and Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez), a flight attendant in the process of learning about her fiancé’s infidelity. The film’s central conceit is constructed upon a prank played on Tomás by a nurse with whom he slept. The nurse switches his blood tests at the hospital and makes him believe he has AIDS. It is until the very end of the film, when he and Clarisa decide to commit suicide together because of their respective problems (the disease and the fiancé’s infidelities) that the nurse comes clean and Tomás and Clarisa decide to be together. The remarkable aspect of this film for my argument is not so much the plot, but its formal decisions: most of the film takes place in indoor spaces, which, in turn, allows the plot to develop in a decidedly middle-class space that puts under erasure the social diversity of the city. A similar choice is exercised a few years later by the most successful Mexican movie of the late 1990s, Sexo, pudor y lágrimas (Antonio Serrano, 1998), a comedy of errors involving two couples and two characters that destabilize them, fully staged in two apartments of the upscale neighborhood of Polanco.[7] David William Foster has commented, apropos of this setting, that the luxury apartments give “access to a panoramic view of the city, with the effect of ‘owning’ or ‘controlling’ the city as an important correlative to the financial status of the apartment’s residents” (40). Both Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, like many Mexican movies that will follow their model through the 2000s, construct their love stories upon the erasure of the social conflict and class diversity that defines contemporary Mexico City.

This type of movie exists and produces a language of affect that pertains exclusively to the middle and upper classes because the class segregation in media consumption practices became formally articulated by the adoption of aesthetic and ideological elements proper to the myth of the middle class in neoliberal Mexico. As MacLaird puts it, “[t]hese films can be as transition films, grounded in PRI-era production practices while also breaking into new thematic territory by looking at sexuality among upper-middle-class couples in the context of Mexico’s changing consumer culture, in contrast to the economic plights of the working class and more traditional representations of Mexican culture” (48). Following this argument, one should note that in the two aforementioned movies, the main characters portray the social ideal that sociologist Richard Florida famously termed the “creative class,” that is, people who attain social status and centrality through “a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit” (8). Florida’s argument when he defined the notion–he has since redesigned the concept in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis–[8] was that these highly educated professionals were at the center of a new structure of economic development. Reading this notion against the grain, one could argue that, in the middle of the neoliberal process, it represented a social ideal that allowed late capitalism’s turn to immaterial labor to be allegorized as a social virtue and it did the same for late capitalism’s erosion of both labor-based forms of the middle class (i.e. unionized labor) and the old professional-managerial class (doctors, lawyers, and the like). This is why the protagonists of Sólo con tu pareja are a publicist and a flight attendant, while the six characters in Sexo, pudor y lágrimas are a writer, a photographer, an advertising executive, a model, a zoologist, and a “free spirit.” The structure of feeling that they construct is based on the aspirations of the middle and upper classes to achieve the promise of individual success brought forward by neoliberalism. It is the type of cultural product that appeals to people educated in Mexican private universities– where being a major in communications and international relations was in vogue in the 1990s.

Movies like Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas belong to a heyday period of the global romantic comedy, where love stories provided narratives of isolation that deflected the anxieties of middle classes threatened by the uncertainties of neoliberalism. One can remember here two parallel films produced at more or less the same time in the United States and Great Britain, respectively. The first one is You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1999), where Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), a bookshop owner, falls in love with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the owner of a corporate bookstore chain that mirrored the rise of Barnes and Noble at the time. The movie functions on the basis of the tension between the old-fashioned romantic coupling embodied by Kathleen and Joe (through which Ryan and Hanks revisit their celebrated screen coupling in Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993)) and the at times astonishing acceptance of the advance of corporate capitalism upon the ways of lives of the middle class. As Aimée Morrison convincingly argues, “[a]cknowledging the seemingly inexorable advance of global brand capitalism at the expense of local enterprise, You’ve Got Mail aims to carve out a new and compelling arena of personal agency, to foster connection, understanding, compromise, and romantic love in times that do not seem to provide for these fundamental pleasures” (55-56). The other film is Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), where William Thacker (Hugh Grant), the owner of a small travel bookshop, and Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), a movie star, fall in love. We see in this film a similar conundrum to that of You’ve Got Mail: the representative of a pre-neoliberal “authentic” way of life (bookshop ownership in both cases) ultimately accepts the advancement of US-centered global capitalism, respectively embodied in a CEO and a movie star.[9] One could say that the way in which these two movies normalize the advancement of neoliberalism through the love story is parallel to the way in which romantic comedy operates in Mexico (it is not coincidental that both movies were released months after Sexo, pudor y lágrimas). The difference in Mexico, which makes its romantic comedies even more striking, is that the reflexive work on the problematic elements of global capitalism is not even there. In both Cuarón and Serrano’s movies, neoliberalism is not a problem but a given and accepted fact.

The ability of the Mexican romantic comedy to create a structure of feeling adequate to a middle class that isolates itself from the remainder of society lies in one of its central structural elements. In The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy, Celestino Deleyto points out that the genre “proposes an artistic transformation of the everyday reality of human relationships by constructing a special space outside history (but very close to it)” (30). Deleyto’s analysis consists of affirming that this space allows romantic comedy to isolate its ideologies of love and gender from certain immediate social pressures. However, one could go beyond Deleyto’s analysis and suggest that it is this very ability to semi-isolate its characters from the historical that makes the romantic comedy such an apt genre for the expression of creative class ideologies in neoliberal Mexico. We can take as an example Cansada de besar sapos (Jorge Colón, 2006). In this romantic comedy, protagonist Martha (Ana Serradilla) is a graphic designer who decides to “shop” for a new relationship on dating websites after she learns that her boyfriend is a cheater. While this plot is in itself unremarkable, the movie is quite symptomatic of the close relationship between love and neoliberalism due to key formal choices. First, by making the protagonist a graphic designer, it falls squarely in line with Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas in the elevation of the creative class to the status of object of desire. One can note, for instance, that the “wrong” person for Martha is a businessman, while the man that will ultimately become her object of affection is an actor. But the point is that Martha and her lifestyle are a clear example of Deleyto’s formula of the “space outside history (but very close to it).” The possibility of using a graphic designer as a central character comes from the rise of professions related to flexible and immaterial labor in narratives of social ascendancy and in emerging corners of the neoliberal Mexican economy. The very existence of a publicity industry to accommodate characters like Martha or Sólo con tu pareja’s Tomás, just to mention the ones relevant to the movies discussed here,[10] results from the same expansion of media that allowed the emergence of neoliberal Mexican cinema in the first place. However, it is as important to note how inaccessible that social ideal is, even to people in the traditional middle classes. As economist Enrique Hernández Laos shows, people with degrees in communication sciences and other fields identified with the creative class faced daunting realities of unemployment in the 1990s (and one could safely suspect that it is still the case today), given the fact that the production of professionals in those fields did not match the creation of work opportunities (106). In Deleyto’s language, Martha as a character exists in a place very close to history, insofar as her lifestyle reflects historical transformations of the middle class, but her ability to focus on her love life is made possible by her being in a “space outside of history” that isolates her from the economic insecurity that accompanies the ideal of the creative class in the real world.

The “space outside history” thesis also explains the way in which these movies create middle-class fictions that effectively render the working classes invisible. In Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, this was achieved by locating most of the action in apartment buildings and indoor spaces. Cuarón’s film goes from Tomás’ apartment building to a cantina to the Latin American tower at the end of the film, and the only time when we actually see the city, it is at night, when the population of the city is not present in the streets. Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, as I mentioned before, takes place mostly in an apartment in one of Mexico City’s most expensive neighborhoods. In Cansada de besar sapos, the procedure is developed further. Early in the movie, we can see that Martha’s apartment is located in Mexico City’s historic center, thanks to a shot that points to a colonial church tower. Her building has a colonial façade, but her apartment is a postmodern loft with designer furniture: the type of creative-class arrangement one might expect from an idealized publicist. The point is that the urban space where the movie takes place (old colonial streets, bohemian cafes) does not correspond with the reality of Mexico City, a place ruled by chaos and with considerable class diversity. As Frederick Aldama puts it when pointing to this startling representational choice, the location “is packed near suffocation with folks from all walks of life, as well as street vendors hawking their wares […] Colón’s camera cleans and Europeanizes the place in its fairy tale depiction of Mexican Yuppie life” (91). Rather than just sidelining social diversity, the “space outside history” fully erases it. The aspirational world of the Mexican romantic comedy is not only one that identifies love with the near impossibility of economic success via the access to the creative class, which is allegorized by the ideal couple formed by a publicist and an actor or by a publicist and a flight attendant. It also frames that ideal in a representational economy of Mexico where the lower classes have no significant role.[11]

The three movies mentioned so far are part of a paradigm of filmmaking that structurally incorporates neoliberal ideologies of success and social advancement, where romantic and economic success result from individual achievement and/or pre-existing privilege. These movies had considerable success, too: Sexo, pudor y lágrimas was, at the time, the highest grossing Mexican film in the national box office, and Cansada de besar sapos had a very successful run in the 2006 Christmas season. This success shows that the core audience of Mexican film (those who are wealthy enough to pay for box office prices, and susceptible to the appropriate genres available in pay TV and the like) identifies at least partly with the regime of affect constructed by such movies. This is not to say that the segregation of structures of feeling is neat, or that the audience is unaware of it. In fact, as the neoliberal economic promise eroded from the weak recovery after the 1994 crisis, commercial Mexican cinema began to question the representational economy of its own regime of affect. Thus, Mexican filmmakers gradually questioned this narrative by producing romantic films addressed at the middle classes, but where social inequality is central to the plot. The most iconic example of this type of work is Amar te duele (Fernando Sariñana, 2002), a “class-clash film”[12] to which I will devote the remainder of this article.

Amar te duele tells the story of Renata (Martha Higareda), a wealthy high-school student, and Ulises (Luis Fernando Peña), an urban popular-class youth with aspirations to become a visual artist, as they fall in love and face the social challenges produced by class divisions in Mexico City. As expected, Renata’s friends and parents strongly oppose the relationship, while Ulises faces his social group’s increasing resentment, as well as accusations of forgetting who he “really” is. The movie’s tension builds around the insurmountable obstacle of social class, leading to a final scene where Renata’s wealthy ex-boyfriend (Alfonso Herrera) accidentally kills her when she tries to leave Mexico City with Ulises. The movie takes place in the neighborhood of Santa Fe, on the western edge of Mexico City, a prime example of the social dynamics of neoliberalism in Mexico. Santa Fe is currently the location of Mexico’s corporate expansion, an area that headquarters the offices of a large array of national and transnational businesses. But it is not only a place of economic expansion: the neighborhoods surrounding Santa Fe constitute some of the poorest zones in Mexico City, which were built there because parts of these areas were in fact landfills. This contrast is an essential part of life in this area of Mexico City: to reach the corporate areas of Santa Fe, one must drive through some of the poor ones, while the sudden emergence of such a concentration of wealth is, for the inhabitants of the old neighborhoods, a stark reminder of their marginalization. Furthermore, Renata and Ulises meet in Santa Fe’s mall, Mexico City’s largest, where working-class youths sometimes spend time regardless of the harassment of private security officers. Framed by this social contrast, Amar te duele is unique within Mexican commercial cinema, a film that successfully appeals to the logic and aesthetics of the romantic comedy while attempting a commentary on the social inequalities brought about by neoliberalism.

The movie’s success follows the blueprint established by Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, right down to its soundtrack in which Natalia Lafourcade, a successful singer-songwriter, performs the title song.[13] The twist here is that, rather than looking for the young professional audience summoned by singer Aleks Syntek in the soundtrack of Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, Amar te duele makes use of Lafourcade’s success with high school and college students by populating the movie with all her hit singles, including Busca un problema and En el 2000 from her 2000 eponymous debut album. In this, Amar te duele is one of the first major manifestations of middle-class youth as a clear marketing target for Mexican cinema.[14] This audience was, in 2001-2002, a clear target for many media enterprises: besides musical acts like Lafourcade, young middle-class people were the subject of telenovelas such as Clase 406, a high school soap running at the time of Amar te duele’s release. The emergence of a high school and college-aged audience is not surprising, given that multiplexes, particularly those located in malls, are a significant component of young people’s social geographies. Timothy Shary has shown that Hollywood’s interest in teenagers is related to the “disposable incomes that they enjoy spending on entertainment” and to the fact that “today’s children become the consumptive parents of tomorrow” (1). Perhaps more importantly, Shary argues that the multiplex was directly responsible for the emergence of landmark youth films, including Grease (1977) and Sixteen Candles (1984), allowing teenagers to become a sought-after demographic insofar as they are important denizens of the social spaces that include multiplexes.

This social phenomenon is equally true in Mexico, where high school students vastly populate malls on weekday afternoons and college students do the same on the weekends. However, it took nearly a decade to translate this social phenomenon into film production, perhaps owing to the filmmakers’ unwillingness to compete with Hollywood action movies. Mexican romantic comedies did not quite appeal to these audiences, given that, from Sólo con tu pareja onwards, their subjects were largely urban professionals in their late twenties and thirties. Amar te duele is amongst the first major attempts to lure this audience, whose profitability had already been demonstrated by Televisa productions like Clase 406 and El juego de la vida, a 2001 soap opera based on the soccer team of a private high school.[15] Interestingly, both of these telenovelas are centered on the life of private school kids, not unlike Renata and her friends, helping them resonate with audiences located in parts of the social scale higher than their core audience, which replicates the segregational logic of structures of feeling outlined above. By luring audiences through Lafourcade’s music and its protagonists’ youthful looks, Amar te duele clearly sought a segment of an audience made visible by those Televisa productions and previously unexploited by film. The main indication of this technique’s success came a few months later, when the movie was selected as “audience favorite” in Mexico’s MTV Movie Awards, a show that grants awards, mostly, through high school and college-age viewers’ votes.

The languages developed by the Mexican romantic comedy clearly frame the film’s aim for the youth market. Ulises’ artistic aspirations are one of the significant elements of Amar te duele in light of my discussion, given that his class location is underscored by his incapacity to become part of the creative class. The film presents Ulises as a talented graffiti artist, an activity that, in Mexico City, is usually criminalized and identified with gang activity. In one of the scenes in which Renata becomes attracted to him, we see Ulises narrating a comic book story he conceived, set in a world where “all men are equal.” In another scene, Ulises and Renata tour an art school where he shadows the instructors. Here, Ulises tells Renata that he has tried to enroll in the school, but cannot afford it. At first sight, this is one of the film’s most important social commentaries: the absolute lack of mobility of a popular class whose labor situation is precarious, as illustrated by the fact that Ulises’ family income comes from a street market stand with unpredictable sales. However, it is also quite telling that Ulises shares the same ideals presented in the romantic comedy’s portrayal of the Mexican middle class. While Ulises wants to go to art school, his ultimate goal is to write comic books, a trade as closely related to the culture of the creative class as advertising (we can remember here that Alicia, the main character of Ladies’ Night, a film mentioned in a prior note, is a comic book artist). He does not lack the technical talent: the graffiti work the film attributes to him is first-class. As Ana León-Távora and Itza Zavala Garrett underscore, one of the tensions in the movie, represented through the trope of adolescence, is the one established between belonging to a social group versus individuality (85). The ultimate failure of the couple’s formation in this film is directly connected to the failure of both of them to assert their individual values vis-á-vis their social class. What is telling is that Ulises’ redemption is considered impossible because he has no access to a realm in which he can use those talents in the context of a profitable economic activity. His incapacity to access art school is as much a sign of the exclusionary nature of the creative class as of its portrayal as a desirable social space.

Ulises and Renata’s relationship works insofar as they are exceptional representatives of their respective social classes. Everybody else in their social worlds expresses a clear conformity with the existing social divisions. Renata’s sister Mariana (Ximena Sariñana) consistently asserts her class position by speaking in English in front of servants so that they don’t understand what she is saying, or by dismissively rejecting Renata’s love for Ulises. Interestingly, Renata’s driver echoes this view: after he picks her up from her first date with Ulises, he tells her that the “young man is not good for her.” Ulises’ social circle is hardly better. The film presents his best friend Genaro (Armando Hernández) as having criminal tendencies, ranging from his dealings with a shady group of people in the neighborhood to his organizing an attack on Renata’s school to get back at her former boyfriend, who had attacked Ulises in a previous scene. In the only encounter between the two groups, Ulises’ friends organize an excursion to Renata’s school to beat up her former boyfriend and her friends in retaliation for their previous attack on Ulises. The fact that this excursion is disproportionally vicious shows that interclass dialogue is not possible in contemporary Mexico:  the scene validates stereotypes of poor people as violent, which are held both by the wealthy characters and by members of the intended audience. By constantly asserting the insurmountable nature of class in Mexico, Amar te duele operates both as social commentary (by allegorizing the social inequality brought about by the social order behind Santa Fe) and as contradiction to the traditional narratives of melodrama and telenovela, in which people from different classes are allowed a happy ending, both romantically and economically. Sariñana’s film allows no space for a redemptive narrative based on the idea of romance overcoming social odds. Even though Renata’s death is dissonant in terms of genre convention, it is quite consistent with the film’s critique of the new social structure. The point to highlight is the way in which Sariñana translates the aims of his social cinema as represented, for instance, in his preceding movies, Hasta morir (1994) and Ciudades oscuras (2002),[16] into a language more attuned to the new commercial realities of cinema. Still, in doing so, a problematic concession becomes apparent: while the film presents Ulises in a sympathetic light, it shows other urban popular youths in a less favorable way. The movie consistently criminalizes Genaro and, in contrast with Ulises’ soft-spoken, sensitive personality, his demeanor is strident. Similarly, the story presents La China (Daniela Torres), Ulises’ former girlfriend, as violent and intolerant to Ulises’ middle-class friends, a mirror of the attitudes shown by Renata’s former boyfriend. Perhaps more tellingly, Ulises’ brother, Borrego (who, like La China, is only identified by a nickname), has Down Syndrome, a plot element that showcases Ulises’ good heart when he takes care of him, while questionably using a genetic disorder as part of the representation of the lower class (a false notion, of course, because Down Syndrome manifests itself across economic and ethnic lines). By framing his drama within the conventions of the neoliberal romantic comedy, Sariñana’s social commentary must reconfigure itself in representations of the working class addressed to the middle classes who have a view of the poor as diseased, criminal, or morally bankrupt.

In the meantime, a final point regarding the film’s work within the conventions of romantic cinema must be made: the importance of space as a site of affect. Renata and Ulises create a bridge between social classes that proves impossible to sustain, and their relationship unfolds in social spaces redefined by their relationship, reminding us of Deleyto’s arguments on romantic comedy spaces. The scene in which Ulises narrates his comic book to Renata takes place under a highway bridge, a space ridden with graffiti and removed from the safeties and comfort of middle-class spaces. This space becomes meaningful when Ulises invests it with his story, which the director represents by splitting the screen in different squares, occupied by Renata, Ulises, and the comic book characters he imagines. The original space is thus erased, allowing for the emergence of a new space fully constructed by Ulises’ dreams and ideas and by his emerging love for Renata.[17] Another use of space stems from Ulises and Renata’s appropriation of class-specific locales. One of their first dates takes place in the Chapultepec Forest, a site typically identified with Mexico City’s working class, while their first interactions occur in the Santa Fe mall, an upper-class commercial venue. The use of photography in the mall scenes is revealing. Whenever Renata and Ulises interact in this space, the image turns black and white and the narrative pace slows down, adding a contemplative and peaceful feeling to those scenes. The sound replicates this sensation by suspending the buzz of daily mall activity with a piece of music that overtakes the action’s background. From the outset of their relationship, Ulises and Renata develop the ability to confer new meanings on city spaces in different ways by projecting their subjective interaction onto the visual aesthetics of certain crucial class-specific scenes. This interaction with space fades towards the end at the bus station where the final scene develops. The violence that would ultimately and irreversibly end their relationship ultimately overtakes this particular site.

In its many uses of space, Amar te duele deploys a crucial convention of romantic comedy, its subjectification through the affective interactions of the protagonists with a different effect. Unlike Sólo con tu pareja or Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, in which the characters’ perspective effaces Mexico City’s social interaction, Ulises and Renata never fully erase the social meanings invested in the spaces of their relationship. In a great analysis of the film’s space, Joanne Hershfield contends that one can analyze what I have called “the space outside history” through Foucault’s notion of heterotopia to understand youth culture in a way that “rejects the fixity of geographic location” (154). I would expand this point by arguing that the heterotopic gesture of youth culture in Amar te duele (which Hershfield identifies with the comic book scene mentioned above) ultimately fails, because there is always in the film a reminder not of geographic, but of social fixity. In a particular scene at the mall, after a date, Renata decides to purchase a t-shirt for Ulises to replace the one that she ruined during the date. The fact that Renata nonchalantly purchases an item of clothing clearly beyond Ulises’ economic reach brings back to the story the class difference between them, after an interaction that seemed, for a moment, to have erased it.  Therefore, even though Ulises and Renata construct their own spaces and move between urban geographies, that heterotopic gesture does not suffice to truly overcome the class difference.[18]

Beyond its appropriation of the urban, youth culture in Amar te duele may be read as a site of critique of the inequalities of neoliberal modernity and as the portrayal of a generational stance against the notions of development advocated in the 1990s.[19] Renata’s family, a clear beneficiary of the neoliberal model of development, represents the lifestyle pursued by the professional upper classes. They live in a mansion clearly isolated from any sense of neighborhood, protected by 24-hour security, designed, like many of Mexico’s upper-class houses, as a bunker against any outside intrusion. When Renata’s father learns of her relationship with Ulises, he plots to send her to Canada, hoping that a trip to a “more developed” nation will help her avoid the “folly” of crossing class lines.[20] While romantic comedies tend to idealize the self-referential cultural space of the middle and upper classes, Amar te duele’s appeal to youth issues provides it with a language to weave a more critical fiction by allowing urban popular classes a space of cinematic representation alongside the wealthier sectors of society. In other words, while most commercial movies engage either the working classes or the upper sectors, Amar te duele stands apart in its representation of both social groups.

The parallel careers of the two main actors are telling in this sense: Higareda, a light-skinned young actress with large appeal to the middle classes, goes on to play wealthy characters in movies such as Niñas mal (Fernando Sariñana, 2007), in the role of the unruly daughter of a powerful conservative politician, and 7 días (Fernando Kalife, 2005), in which she plays a girl that becomes part of a scheme to bring the band U2 to play in Mexico. Most recently, she was the protagonist of Te presento a Laura (Fez Noriega, 2010), yet another romantic comedy which she co-produced. On the other hand, Peña’s most significant roles have mostly been portrayals of urban popular youths, in films such as De la calle (Gerardo Tort, 2001), where he plays a street kid who gets involved in cocaine trade to feed other homeless children.[21] Most recently, Peña has moved out of the middle-class cinema circle from Mexico City and into US-Mexico border trends of social cinema, playing a struggling working-class kid in Mexican-American director Alex Rivera’s sci-fi immigration allegory Sleep Dealer (2008), and a violent Mara gang member seeking redemption in Victorio (Alex Noppel, 2008). As one could expect from these trajectories, Higareda’s films have enjoyed considerably larger box office success than Peña’s. Their parallel careers are emblematic of the ways in which the need to appeal to middle-class audiences has led to a class compartmentalization of cinema that replicates urban social structures of exclusion. It also shows the ways in which commercial cinema, which mostly focuses on middle and upper-class subjects, and so-called social cinema, which tends to represent issues of the urban popular classes, occupy altogether separate paradigms in the new cinema’s economy.

Amar te duele is iconic for being perhaps the only commercially successful movie to cross this divide in formal and narrative terms, and for doing so in a cultural register that, unlike telenovela or the old-regime film melodramas, seeks no appeal whatsoever to working-class audiences. It is decidedly a film marketed to middle and upper classes, although it replicates some conventions (such as the rich-poor relationships) with distinguished histories, but also a film in which self-awareness of the enclosed culture of the upper classes is used as a critique of the new privileged subjectivities of post-1990 romantic comedy, rather than a celebration. Thus, in focusing his film not on the urban professional class benefitted by neoliberalism, but on youths born and raised within the Mexico constructed by it, Sariñana finds a site to critique Mexico’s paradigms of modernity. Still, this critique has limits, and Sariñana himself has been unable to replicate his stance on class issues: Niñas mal and Enemigos íntimos, his following movies, take place fully within the social spaces of the middle and upper classes and ignore the working class altogether.

To conclude this essay, I would like to return to the questions I raised in the first pages in light of my discussion of Amar te duele. The dilemma that this film posits is that, even though it shows considerable self-awareness of neoliberalism’s class divide, it remains a film closely invested in a regime of affect dissociated from working-class audiences. The film’s very title (a wordplay between the title’s literal meaning, “Love Hurts You,” and “Loving you hurts,” which in Spanish would read “Amarte duele”) connects it to recent scholarship on the importance of love for the reading of the contemporary. As sociologist Eva Illouz points out in her recent book Why Love Hurts, “[h]eterosexual romantic love contains the two most important cultural revolutions of the twentieth century: the individualization of lifestyles and the intensification of emotional life projects; and the economization of social relationships, the pervasiveness of economic models to shape the self and its very emotions” (9).[22] While Illouz’s main aim in this particular book is to discuss the creation of new structures of domination of women by men, her insight on heterosexual romantic love is also a powerful tool to understand the way in which love as a cultural discourse reproduces class divides. Her two “cultural revolutions” are indeed relevant to a film like Amar te duele: Ulises’ love for Renata runs parallel to his attempt to “individualize” his lifestyle through comic books, resisting the injunction to work in the family’s small business, a small and precarious clothing shop in a street market; and its main obstacle is precisely the “economization of social relationships,” which is why Renata is punished with a murder inflicted by none other than the class-appropriate boy she was supposed to date in the first place. If, as Illouz argues, social suffering is “mediated by cultural definitions of selfhood” (15), the “hurting” in the film’s title unfolds in Ulises’ case not so much in connection to his love of Renata, but in his inability to achieve the notion of selfhood that would allow him to establish a definitive relationship with her. If anything, Amar te duele is not only a romantic dramedy focused on the impossibility of loving across class lines, it is also a mise-en-scène of the lower class’s inability to conform to the social idea of the creative class as developed by Mexican neoliberalism’s culture.


[1] For a sampling of this rise in the context of Latin American studies, see Moraña and Sánchez Prado. In the specific context of cinema, the most notable contribution to this date is Podalsky, The Politics of Affect and Emotion in Contemporary Latin American Cinema.

[2] See particularly Sadlier, which offers an important reconsideration of melodrama in various quadrants of the region’s cinema.

[3] I should acknowledge here that the definition of affect and emotion in cultural theory are by no means consensual. Some critics use both interchangeably, while others, like Sieworth and Gregg, articulate a wider notion of affect that embodies not only emotions and feelings, but also a Spinozist idea of the body as an entity that affects and is affected. For the purpose of this essay, I will stay on a notion of emotion and affect more narrowly bound to the question of feelings such as love, but it is important to note that this limitation is merely heuristic and not conceptual.

[4] I have developed this argument extensively in my book Screening Neoliberalism: Mexican Cinema 1988-2012. For the sake of space, I will restrict myself in the article to describe the relevant processes of change in Mexican cinema, but interested readers may find in my book more substantial data and analysis regarding these processes. Readers may also consult Misha MacLaird’s excellent book Aesthetics and Politics in the Mexican Film Industry, particularly chapters 1 and 2.

[5] When the first Cinemark complexes opened in Mexico in 1994 and 1995, tickets were priced between 36 and 45 pesos, while the daily mínimum wage ranged between 14 and 16 pesos. In 2013, that gap is not as dramatic, but attending the theater remains a very expensive proposition: a ticket costs somewhere between 50 and 70 pesos, while the mínimum wage stands at 64 pesos a day.

[6] See Sánchez Prado, Screening Neoliberalism, Chapter 2.

[7] As MacLaird documents, the producer of Sexo, pudor y lágrimas was inspired by Sólo con tu pareja and by Cilantro y perejil (Rafael Montero, 1997) when deciding to shoot a romantic comedy (48). It is also useful to remember that Cilantro y perejil, a romantic comedy about a middle-class couple facing potential separation, was the first co-production between the State and Televisa’s film arm, Televicine. The fact that the first collaboration between the two historically dominant entities in film production is a romantic comedy provides telling evidence of the centrality of the genre in the new mediascape.

[8] The updated version of the “creative class argument” is found in the revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition of Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class. I opt instead to cite the original argument because it  better frames the ideals set forward by Mexican cinema. I must clarify here that, for me, the creative class is not necessarily an existing entity –particularly in Mexico, where neoliberal capitalism and immaterial labor have manifested themselves in uneven forms, compared with the United States. Rather, the “creative class” in Mexican cinema is a social ideal that allows the middle class to embrace the narrative of individual achievement as neoliberalism undid the collective protections created by the post-Revolutionary regime. To read about the actual middle class in Mexico during the neoliberal period, see Gilbert, Mexico’s Middle Class in the Neoliberal Era.

[9] For a good reading of Notting Hill in similar terms, see Wegner, who argues that the film allegorizes in the relationship the tension between the global and the local embedded in the advancement of capitalism in a way similar to the theorizations of global capitalism gurus like Thomas Friedman (322-23).

[10] Other examples in mainstream Mexican movies with considerable box office success include the protagonist of Fernando Sariñana’s Todo el poder (2000), a documentary filmmaker, the upper-middle-class protagonist of the second story in Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñarritu, 2000), and the protagonists of the very successful comedy Ladies’ Night (Gabriela Tagliavini, 2003), who are all employees in an advertising firm. The examples are very extensive, and part of my claim here is that this creative class is in fact the protagonist of the affect regime constructed by the type of commercial Mexican cinema addressed to middle and upper classes.

[11] This pattern also exists in drama movies. I have discussed in a different article something that I call the “neoliberal sublime,” present in highly aestheticized films that use temporal disruption to represent failed love relationships. For the purpose of the present discussion, the films I study in that article– Sobreviviente (Jesús Magaña Vázquez, 2003), Eros una vez María (Jesús Magaña Vázquez, 2007) and Amor, dolor y viceversa (Alfonso Pineda Ulloa, 2008)– all construct “spaces outside history” that allow all characters to be middle and upper class and that fully erase the visibility of the lower class. See Sánchez Prado, “El sublime neoliberal.”

[12] I take this term from Timothy Shary, who identifies the genre in American cinema of the 1980s. The contentions that Shary develops about youth cinema in the US in the 1980s foreshadow my analysis here. Shary identifies both youth romance and class-clash romances as central to 1980s film culture. This coincides with post-2000 Mexican cinema because there are parallels in the way in which class difference becomes crucial due to the pitfalls of neoliberalism in both settings, and due to the rise of the multiplex as a central space for film viewing both in 1980s America and in 1990s Mexico.  See Shary, Generation Multiplex for the latter point.

[13] Sexo, pudor y lágrimas is the first post-1988 Mexican movie to use the movie soundtrack proactively as a marketing tool. In that case, the eponymous song, written by Aleks Syntek, allowed the film unprecedented exposure on media such as MTV and radio. In Amarte duele, music is also an important device to demarcate class differene. As Frederick Aldama shows, “In Amarte duele Sariñana and his sound designer use music to distinguish the presence of nacos (a pejorative term used to describe working-class Mexicans), such as Ulises, and the fresas (the wealthy elite), such as Mariana (Ximena Sariñana) and Renata (Martha Higareda). Music here works to emphasize what the film already achieves: dividing different groups of people in artificial and destructive ways” (40-41).

[14] Perhaps the only other major precedent is La primera noche (Alejandro Gamboa, 1998), a Televicine production that sought to capitalize on cinema the success it had attained with telenovelas aimed at the youth market. The film follows Mariana (Mariana Ávila) in her sexual and emotional awakening. While following some of the conventions of the romantic comedy, the movie is not as strongly linked to neoliberal aesthetic as Amarte duele, mostly because it remained tied to the languages developed by the telenovela. The movie, however, was successful enough that two sequels (with similar names but different plots and characters) were released in 2002 and 2006, respectively.

[15] One can remember here that female soccer leagues are hardly a pursuit in Mexico’s private school circuit, and that the appropriation of female soccer is not related to an actual reality (in Mexico, soccer is mostly regarded as a male sport, although some strides have been made to allow women more spaces to play), but to the popularity that female soccer has in US schools.

[16] Hasta morir is focused on a young man trying to escape criminal networks in Tijuana, while Ciudades oscuras is a film about members of Mexico City’s social underground and their chance encounters. Both of these films stand in stark contrast, both representationally and ideologically, with the predominantly middle- and upper-class universe of Sariñana’s more commercially successful works.

[17] For a detailed and very suggestive analysis of the comic book scene, see Hershfield 153-54.

[18] If one brackets the youth topic for a moment, a good contrasting film is Maid in Manhattan (Wayne Wang, 2002), a romantic comedy that narrates the love relationship between Marisa (Jennifer López), a hotel maid, and Christopher (Ralph Fiennes). This relationship is rendered possible because of the initial invisibility of their class difference, given that Christopher mistakes Marisa for a socialite when she is trying on a dress. The initial separation takes place when the misunderstanding is cleared and the final reunion is achieved when her son pleads with Christopher, convincing him (using the telling example of Richard Nixon) that you can lie for a higher purpose. Beyond the film’s political revisionism, it is worth noting that Marisa, like Ulises, is defined by her individual exceptionality, which is shown by presenting her as more professional and enterprising than her fellow maids. The final closure of the relationship is connected to the presumed social climbing of Marisa, via a major promotion to management. Thus, the film shows neoliberalism as a viable path upwards, providing the exact opposite allegory as Amar te duele.

[19] Of course, I am not claiming here that all youth cinema is critical. As Jorge Ramírez Suárez’s (¿Ya lo hiciste sin?) Amar (2009) shows, the topic of youth has recently been domesticated into relatively critical presentations of sexual initiation within the context of the middle class. In other cases, youth has been taken even further than the class critique of Amar te duele. Gerardo Naranjo’s Drama/Mex, for instance, presents a very critical stance on the superficiality of affective engagement in the realm of the privileged upper-class adolescents, while Voy a explotar also represents a teenager whose decision to date an unruly young man is a way to rebel against her powerful politician father. Another example is Horacio Rivera’s Limbo (2009), in which a young boy’s accident gives him a more critical perspective on his middle-class life, which he observes from limbo. Through this conceit, the protagonist, Isao (Fátima Díaz), encounters characters victimized by life in contemporary Mexico. A meaningful issue in this movie is the fact that Isao is gay and that he is played by a young female actress, subverting the coming-of-age masculine discourse of youth cinema. A final relevant example is Fernando Eimbcke’s Temporada de patos (2004), a successful, minimalistic feature that focuses on the tedium and absurdity of middle-class life, as experienced by three youths during a power outage. The film’s black-and-white photography distills the characters’ empty lives and explores the minutiae of their subjectivity, resulting in a subtle critique of over-mediatized youth.

[20] It may be noted here that family crisis is becoming a common topic in more recent cinema. For instance, Rodrigo Ortúzar’s Todo incluido (2009), which, incidentally, features both Ana Serradilla and Martha Higareda, centers on the family of a professional man, played by Jesús Ochoa, as it goes on vacation to an exclusive resort in order to reconstruct its family dynamics. Also, Sariñana’s latest movie, Enemigos íntimos (2008), tells the story of two middle-class people, played by Demián Bichir and his daughter Ximena, whose battle against cancer highlights the decaying structure of their family.

[21] It should be noted here that Joanne Hershfield uses both Amar te duele and De la calle as paradigmatic examples of youth cultures creating heterotopias in the urban space. In both cases, she privileges Peña’s character as the agent of this creation. In the light of my argument here, one could supplement her argument by pointing out that the lower-class individual’s ability to do this is imagined in a way thoroughly consistent with the creative class ideology, in that the characters’ exceptionality is what allows them to achieve something that no one else in their social position can.

[22] Illouz’s previous work, represented in her books Consuming the Romantic Utopia and Cold Intimacies, have been of great influence to my understanding of romance in contemporary Mexican cinema. I find that her work on what she calls “emotional capitalism” is one of the best critical and theoretical tools to study the relation between love and capitalism.

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