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Fraught Pleasures: Domestic Trauma and Cinephilia in American Culture


This project examines different ways in which people have used their profound love of mainstream American films to process experiences of trauma that take place in and around the home (including abuse, neglect, abandonment, and bullying/violence related to identity). It argues that a love of film, known as cinephilia, may contain and be motivated by painful traces of trauma that create barriers to personal growth. At the same time, the fraught pleasures that lead a person to re-enact his or her traumas by, for example, obsessively watching films, though often regarded as destructive and counter-productive, may carry within them reparative, therapeutic tools.

Popular fictional films and television shows repeatedly make connections between trauma, cinephilia, and criminality. These texts refer to widely accepted assumptions made by organizations, including the government and the educational system, that trauma survivors’ consumption of media relating to their devastating experiences will lead them to perpetuate traumas on others. This project counteracts such assumptions by examining less prominent evidence that presents trauma survivors’ cinephilia as therapeutic, including case studies by therapists who use popular films in treatment and autobiographical documentaries.

This dissertation illuminates the experiences of filmmakers and audience members who are often relegated to the margins of mainstream and academic discourse. It argues that trauma survivors constitute an oppressed group, whose engagements with media warrant (but have not received) similar research to that focused on people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. Indeed, examining trauma survivors as a group reveals uncharted intersections among people of different colors, sexual orientations, genders, and nationalities. This dissertation creates a map of several uncharted relationships: Between trauma survivors and media; between the aesthetic, the personal, and the political; between different people who share similar profound challenges; and between popular entertainment and therapeutic action.

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