Thesis: Celluloid Love: Audiences and representations of romantic love in late capitalism (2017)
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Supervisor: Dr Shakuntala Banaji
Benjamin's doctoral research analyses contemporary North American romantic films and the meanings brought to and made from them by socially and economically diverse audiences in London. It does so in the context of a historicised and ideologically alert account of connections between biological, psychoanalytic, anthropological and sociological theorisations of romantic love and its screen depictions. In particular, his audience-led textual analysis of discourses of Euro-American romantic love is driven by an engagement with three claims: First, that neoliberal or late- capitalist individualism has engendered a "crisis of romantic love" which has reshaped the social and personal promises of coupledom and intimacy. Second, that popular film, the prime contemporary medium of representation for romance, cynically portrays this supposed crisis in an effort to capitalise on audience fears; and third, that audiences of these films experience the "crisis”, fashioning their romantic identities and practices in its shadow.
Methodologically, the study involved a reflexive and recursive textual analysis of five North American films: Blue Valentine, (500) Days of Summer, Don Jon, Her, and Once. Using these films, Benjamin carried out 36 group interviews with 87 inhabitants of the multicultural Borough of Hackney, in East London, the results of which then fed into and informed his readings of the films. Subsequent thematic coding of group interviews revealed overlapping areas pertinent to the project: Technology, class, gender and coupledom. Findings include the suggestion that both romantic films and their audiences in Western Europe are currently adapting strategies, practices and ideas of romantic love and relationships to a new environment of precarious intimacy, technological mediation, and anxiety over economic, professional and personal stability.
Benjamin's analysis concludes that while intersections of class, race and gender continue to inflect audience experience and meaning-making, the current romantic environment that audiences are navigating - and that romantic films purportedly represent - is indeed markedly different from that of the last century. However, claims about the crisis of romantic love are not only greatly exaggerated, but usually also erroneously conflate the pain, anxiety and frailty of contemporary relationships and intimacy with a narcissistic, ego-centric definition of love as a form of consumption.