Melodrama is a word with at least three distinct meanings and there has been a tendency in critical debate to slip from one context to another in using the term.

First, melodrama refers to a specific theatrical genre that emerged in Europe, especially France and England, during the late eighteenth century and became extremely popular during the nineteenth century. The term was originally used by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) to describe his play Pygmalion (1770). Rousseau wished to distinguish between the staging of his own production and the popular Italian opera, using the term "mélodrame" to describe a form of drama where music would accompany the spoken word to embellish and accentuate the emotional content of the dialogue. While Rousseau's dramatic innovation was a short-lived phenomenon, it eventually provided the name for a new and popular theatrical genre that emerged as a consequence of licensing legislation introduced for the regulation of theater in the two countries. A further distinction began to be made during the late eighteenth century between the licensed, "legitimate" theater that was legally able to stage plays and the "illegitimate," popular theaters where the spoken word was not permitted. It was in such theaters that a new form of entertainment started to emerge that combined music, dance, drama, and older folk entertainment forms such as pantomime, circus, and harlequinade in ever more sophisticated and spectacular forms. Thus the melodrama was born.

At a narrative level, the melodrama of the period was marked by its concern with complex and sensational narratives involving devices such as mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, stolen inheritances, star-crossed lovers, and the eternal struggle between good and evil, often represented by the virtuous poor being oppressed by decadent aristocrats and, increasingly during the nineteenth century, by the heartless industrialist. Although the licensing acts that contributed to the emergence of melodrama were repealed during the final years of the eighteenth century in France and the early nineteenth century in England, melodrama's popularity was such that it became perhaps the most ubiquitous of theatrical forms during the nineteenth century, developing, during the course of that century, an increasingly sophisticated formal language. Elaborate staging techniques, including the development of technological innovations that enabled rapid scene changes, the use of revolves and pulleys (to produce the effect of parallel action and scenes) and, above all, the use of spectacle became central features of theatrical melodrama. All of these narrative, stylistic, and technical devices, well established by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, clearly influenced the development of early narrative cinema, which drew very clearly on the established and popular theatrical genre of melodrama. The work of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), for example, is clearly indebted to theatrical melodrama; indeed, several of his films, most notably Orphans of the Storm (1921), were adaptations of popular theatrical melodramas.

Second, melodrama and "melodramatic" are terms that have a popular, common-sense usage as pejorative descriptions usually relating to a specific performance or narrative style regarded as artificial, excessively emotional, unrealistic, or anachronistic. This use of the term sees melodrama as formulaic, sentimental, old-fashioned, and inferior to "serious" drama; it is often equated with soap opera. This value judgment regarding melodrama has frequently been applied to cinema aimed at a female audience and/or films featuring female protagonists. There is a clear yet problematic link made in such usage between excessive emotion, sentimentality, and the feminine or feminine concerns. This is an issue that many feminist film scholars have discussed, most notably Christine Gledhill, Pam Cook, and Laura Mulvey, all of whom have noted that ostensibly male critics and directors have designated the many so-called "woman's films" of Classical Hollywood as melodrama and as a consequence have diminished the female point of view and the concerns that such films attempt to address. Stella Dallas (1937), for example, and Mildred Pierce (1945), both regarded as "maternal melodramas," tell stories of mothers who struggle to achieve financial and social acceptance and security primarily for the sake of less than grateful children. Now, Voyager (1942), Dark Victory (1939), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) are archetypical examples of the woman's film as melodrama, with their suffering heroines, themes of lost or unrequited love, and overt emotional appeal. While such films at points perhaps have lacked critical respectability, they have been consistently popular with audiences and closely associated with a group of female stars who continue to epitomize a very particular stylized and emotional performance style associated with film melodrama. Successful actresses such as Joan Crawford (1904–1977), Bette Davis (1908–1989), Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990), Lana Turner (1921–1995), and Jane Wyman (b. 1914) consolidated their careers starring in such films. Likewise, a succession of directors became associated with the woman's film, including George Cukor (1899–1983), Max Ophuls (1907–1957), Irving Rapper (1898–1999), John Stahl (1886–1950), King Vidor (1894–1982), William Wyler (1902–1981), and Mervin LeRoy (1900–1987).

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