In common with the Hollywood melodrama, the woman's picture's characteristic themes involve moral dilemmas and conflicts associated with sexuality, home, and family, commonly set in a middle-class milieu and played out in stories of the fates of individuals. However, the woman's picture departs from the melodrama in two key respects: in the focus and trajectory of its narrative concerns and in its rhetoric. Within the setting of the family, issues that may be seen as of particular concern to women are explored, while at the same time a typical plotline of the woman's picture carries the story from a woman's desire, through her transgression of "appropriate" codes of female behavior and consequent temporary happiness, through to retribution for her transgression and her renunciation of desire and final capitulation to dominant moral codes. A key point of distinction between the Hollywood melodrama and the woman's picture lies in the fact that in the latter the story is told from the perspective of the central female character, inviting identification with the dilemmas she faces and sympathy for her eventual fate—hence the woman's picture's notorious tearjerking propensities.
If the classic Hollywood woman's picture is a sub-genre of the Hollywood melodrama, it also has subgenres of its own. According to Mary Ann Doane, they include the medical melodrama, in which a traumatized or disturbed female character tells her story to a sympathetic (male) doctor (for example, Possessed , 1947); the maternal melodrama, whose plot centers on a mother-daughter relationship and which is typically narrated from the mother's point of view ( Mildred Pierce , 1945); the love story, which focuses on impossible choices, misunderstandings, and consequent loss endured by a woman in love ( Letter from an Unknown Woman , 1948); and the paranoid gothic woman's picture, in which the central character is troubled by fear and suspicion of the motives and behavior of her husband ( Secret Beyond the Door , 1947).
Defined thus as a particular set of themes and rhetorics, and comprising its various subtypes, the Hollywood woman's picture enjoyed its high point during a relatively limited period of time, mainly during the 1940s. The two film versions of Imitation of Life , Fannie Hurst's (1933) novel about a white woman, her black female friend, and their respective daughters neatly bookend the genre's classic era. While the plot of John Stahl's (1886–1950) 1934 adaptation centers on the kinds of issues that were to become the hallmark of the classic maternal melodrama, narrative viewpoint in the film is relatively unfocused and no clear point of identification emerges. On the other hand, the plot of Douglas Sirk's (1897–1987) 1959 remake edges away from maternal issues and moves towards concerns that dominated the 1950s family melodrama, which typically centers on, and constructs points of identification with, wayward adolescents (as in Vicente Minnelli's [1903–1986] Home From the Hill , 1960).
For a while, then, the woman's picture enjoyed a high profile in Hollywood's output, and during this period a number of Hollywood's foremost directors made at least one "weepie." Some of these directors are not associated with melodrama, nor indeed with female-centered plots of any sort (for example, Alfred Hitchcock [1899–1980], whose paranoid gothic woman's picture, Rebecca , was released in 1940). Others include Sirk, whose key contribution as a Hollywood director was to the family melodrama rather than to the woman's picture, but whose Sleep, My Love (1948) is also very much in the paranoid gothic mould, and George Cukor (1899–1983), best-known for his strong female characters in musicals and romantic comedies, who directed the woman's pictures Gaslight (1944) and AWoman'sFace (1941). No Hollywood director made a career or a reputation directing woman's pictures, though; this was a reflection, undoubtedly, of the low esteem in which "women's weepies" were held in their time.
If the lifespan of the woman's picture was short, the genre had its predecessors as well as its successors. The capacious genre of melodrama has been a staple of popular cinema from its beginnings, and many of the earliest films featured female-centered plots or dealt in some way with "women's issues": motherhood (in D. W. Griffith's The Eternal Mother , 1912), for example, and doomed romance (in Frank Borzage's celebrated 1927 tearjerker, Seventh Heaven ). Moreover, into the 1920s, a number of female directors specialized in pictures of this sort, most famously, in Hollywood, Lois Weber (1881–1939), whose often controversial social problem melodramas tackled such "women's issues" as divorce, child abuse, and birth control ( Where Are My Children? , 1916; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle , 1917). However, while the female desire-transgression-renunciation plot was already a feature of many such films, their viewpoints and identifications are diffuse by comparison with those of the 1940s woman's picture, and their attitudes towards female transgression more unremittingly punitive.
In the 1950s and later, by contrast, the intensely female-centered plots and rhetoric that distinguish the classic woman's picture disappear, giving way, in stories of familial relationships, to films about the "generation gap" (as in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause , 1955), disturbances and dysfunctions within the family (for example, Ray's Bigger than Life , 1956), and plots centered on male characters (as in Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow , 1956), about rekindled love between a married man and an old flame, told from the man's point of view. At the same time, the themes and rhetoric associated with the woman's picture largely migrated from cinema to television, in particular to social problem dramas and the soap opera. Where woman's picture themes still figure on cinema screens, they increasingly surface in films that are generic hybrids, such as Thelma and Louise (1991), which constructs a female-centered narrative viewpoint but within the conventions of a characteristically male-centered genre, the buddy movie. And to the extent that the family melodrama survives on the cinema screen, it has tended not to be female-centered in terms of either plot or rhetoric. Examples include Terms of Endearment (1983), Ordinary People (1980), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
Where the woman's picture endures, it does so in the shape of the maternal melodrama. But even here, in films about the eternally troubled relationship between mothers and daughters, the woman's picture's distinctive characteristics are diluted. Such films may seem uncertain in their address, as, for example, in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), whose narrative viewpoint alternates, at times vertiginously, not just between mother and daughter, but between other characters as well. Alternatively, their plots lack believability in a contemporary setting: in Stella , a 1990 remake of King Vidor's 1937 Stella Dallas , for example, the protagonist's self-sacrificial renunciation of her daughter seems unnecessary, even ludicrous. Perhaps because it explores new territory by placing black women at the center of both plot and narration, however, Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985) revives and renews many of the features of the classic woman's picture.