“May December,” Comedy, and the Ill of Moralizing Media Consumption

Image Credits: Netflix

Image Description: Still from “May December” that shows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) and Gracie (Julianne Moore) looking at each other in the mirror. Gracie is holding makeup while Elizabeth takes notes in a small notepad.

Trigger warning for discussions of child sexual abuse and the lasting effects of sexual trauma. 

Also spoiler warning. 

In a November episode of the “Las Culturistas” podcast hosted by comedians Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers, Rogers shared that he had recently seen “May December,” the latest film by Todd Haynes. While praising the film, he joked about the absurdity of it being considered in the comedy categories for the Golden Globes despite its grave subject matter. By the time the following week’s episode was released, Yang had seen the film and the pair went on to discuss it more at length. They discussed the “jarring” fact that it was classified as a comedy in arbitrary awards’ terms, in between laughing about their favorite punchlines from the film. 

Needless to say, when I finally watched the film on Netflix a few days later, I was eager to see for myself if “comedy” was really such a misnomer. After all, the film tackles the subject of pedophilia and the sensationalization of true crime within the media, and it is directed by Todd Haynes who is probably best known to this current generation as the auteur behind the intimate and heart-rending period romance “Carol” (2015). What I found in “May December” was not a didactic explication of a sensitive and unpleasant issue, but rather one of the most self-aware and darkly hilarious satires I have ever seen. 

“May December” follows the story of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a television actress who arrives in Savannah, Georgia to shadow the subject of her next film, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). Back in the nineties, Gracie became a tabloid sensation after she raped her 13-year-old employee at the pet shop she managed and was subsequently sent to prison. Now, twenty years after the scandal, Gracie and that boy, Joe (a revelatory Charles Melton) have gotten married, had children, and are about to be empty nesters when Elizabeth arrives in a flurry to insert herself into their otherwise quaint, quiet lives. The further Elizabeth prods into their relationship, the deeper the cracks become. Joe especially, who we get the impression has never confronted his trauma due to Gracie’s coercion, begins to interrogate the nature of this disturbing relationship. And Gracie, under Elizabeth’s intense scrutiny, goes to extreme psychological lengths not to let her mask of guilelessness and naiveté slip. All of this certainly doesn’t seem to lend itself to a comedic setup. 

And yet, the film packs an acerbic and keenly-observed comedic punch in the way it critiques the sensationalization of true crime figures and the entertainment industry’s inability to render these figures as human, despite their most self-serious, self-aggrandizing efforts. This concept comes alive in Elizabeth. Elizabeth embodies the many quirks and idiosyncrasies of an overly-committed actor, laughable because they are so removed from how we think normal humans should behave and interact. We watch and laugh as she adjusts her posture and hand movements in real time to mirror Gracie’s, and writes down the makeup products that Gracie uses in a notepad. This humor lures us into a false sense of security, leading us to believe that we are in on the joke that is Elizabeth’s commitment—and, by extension, Hollywood’s commitment—to mining this elusive “truth” about Gracie. That is until Elizabeth has successfully inserted herself into their lives by seducing and sleeping with Joe, which leaves Joe in a tailspin of guilt and confusion. Suddenly the silly things that Elizabeth was doing to emulate her subject are not so silly anymore, and are in fact perpetuating the same cycles of harm against those most vulnerable subjects. This conclusion would not hit as hard if we weren’t invited to laugh at Elizabeth’s methods first.

The film is also piercingly astute in showing the ways that women are capable of carefully constructing highly feminized identities, a concept that is not inherently dangerous or amoral, but which can be weaponized in dangerous pursuits. Despite Gracie’s horrid actions that suggest a deeply disturbed person, she presents herself as exceptionally youthful and girlish and has surrounded herself with a picturesque domestic life. She throws barbecues for her friends, to which she wears bright, flowy dresses. She bakes cakes for a living and speaks with a childlike lisp. These signifiers of young girlhood create such a dissonance for the viewer, who is aware of the terrible things she has done. Yet, there is something darkly comedic about the way she presents herself and the discordance she seems to have about her identity. The much-discussed line where she gazes into the fridge and says “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs” as the camera dramatically zooms in and the piano-driven score stings in the background is so baffling and unexpected, and perfectly encapsulates the highly-constructed, stilted nature of her existence. 

The way she enforces the gender presentation of her daughters is funny, too. Commenting on the bravery of her younger daughter for wearing a dress that shows her arms, getting her older daughter a scale as a graduation present. These are things that, while frustrating and unsympathetic, I also found to be incredibly funny because of how specific and relatable they are. This childlike feminine ideal seems to be something that Gracie uses as a form of protection and self-preservation, a concept that she imparts on her children like so many of our mothers do. But as the film continues to unfurl, it becomes clear that Gracie also uses this aggressive femininity as a weapon. The two times that she outwardly characterizes herself to Elizabeth—first stating “I am naive,” then, “I’m secure”—she does so when she feels that Elizabeth is getting dangerously close to figuring her out or understanding her pathology. But Gracie’s true sinister nature is never more evident than when Joe tries to broach the topic of his trauma with her, when he suggests for the first time that maybe their relationship isn’t a balanced one, and maybe he wasn’t able to make those kinds of decisions as a 13-year-old. Gracie feels threatened by this and asserts that Joe was the one in control the whole time, deploying her naiveté, her helpless girlishness, to undermine Joe’s pain and reinforce her own innocence. Again, this moment wouldn’t land as hard as it does if the film didn’t go through the effort to make us laugh at Gracie’s relentless assertion of femininity.

While Gracie uses her naiveté as a weapon, Joe’s naiveté is something that has been imposed upon him, a direct result of his relationship with Gracie. Because of this, he could easily become a pitiable, one-note character who is only defined by his trauma and doesn’t rise above the complex psychological intrigue of Elizabeth and Gracie’s entanglement. Yet, Joe’s storyline is portrayed with such delicacy, to a degree that is almost uncharacteristic of the rest of the film. The film lays his trauma bare, but it also imbues him with plenty of humanity that serves as the film’s beating heart, a reminder that the world isn’t all cynicism and manipulation. I was so endeared by the passion he had for raising butterflies, the care he showed them and the excitement he exhibited when explaining the process of raising them. I was heartened by the love and tenderness he had for his children and his desire to always put them first. Crucially, the film at no point makes a joke out of Joe or his trauma. In fact, Joe’s character arc—from a man who has very little agency in his own life to a man who begins to recognize the conditioning he has been under and starts to emancipate himself—is perhaps the only thread in the film that is presented completely soberly, with no morbid irony or unexpected punchlines. Charles Melton’s performance remains sincere, beautiful, and heartbreaking throughout, and the film steadfastly makes no jokes at his expense. But a cursory glance at the discourse online surrounding this film’s categorization as a comedy would lead you to believe otherwise. 

After the Golden Globes nominations came out in early December, many people on the internet were quick to express their exasperation at the film appearing in the comedy category, alongside films like “Barbie,” “American Fiction,” and “The Holdovers”. To many, this seemed like an undermining of the film’s themes. Audience confusion and outcry about “category fraud” are nothing new when it comes to awards season (during this same awards cycle, many people were similarly questioning why FX’s “The Bear,” a show about the difficulty of finding one’s purpose in the aftermath of immense grief, was considered a comedy). It is becoming increasingly difficult to categorize films and television shows through this strict comedy/drama binary when so many of our best modern filmmakers are interested in blurring genre lines and subverting generic conventions. In general, film and television lovers seem to have a mutual understanding that awards categorizations are extremely arbitrary and aren’t the final word on the quality or category of a piece of art. But the discussion around “May December’s” categorization took on a particular tenor, one of moral outrage and righteousness. Many people seemed particularly perturbed that the film could be considered a comedy when it was about such an unambiguously awful and amoral thing like child sexual violence and abuse. That perturbation then morphed into a more intense anger at the very notion that a film concerned with such subject matter could contain anything humorous at all.

I could absolutely see the argument against “May December” being categorized as a comedy. It is such a complex, confusing, discomforting film, and follows a clear dramatic structure. However, the insinuation that there is nothing funny about the film and that the viewer is somehow missing the point for finding it funny is, well, missing the point. Not only is the film’s humor intentional on the part of Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch, but, as I’ve hopefully illuminated, it serves a crucial function in making the film a compelling watch and a scathing piece of satire. 

The impulse many viewers seemed to have of recoiling in the face of the film’s comedy is emblematic of an emerging trend in modern audiences—particularly young people, whose main platform for film criticism tends to be TikTok—who expect media to be simple, not just in content but in morality. The advent of mindless media, like YA romance novels that are all tropes and no stakes, or lowest-common-denominator movies that bank only on expensive set-pieces and flashy star cameos, has led audiences to expect things to be easy. Easy resolutions to conflict, easy answers to moral quandaries, easy-to-root-for characters. Modern audiences want to be told how to feel, and to feel comfortable that what they’re watching is “good,” not qualitatively, but ethically and morally. There is a desire for an almost Hays Code level of moral unambiguity: “bad” characters must learn and grow by the end, or otherwise face narrative retribution for their misdeeds. Even when there is a crowd-pleasing favorite featuring a kind of unredeemed “bad” character (like another divisive 2023 release, “Saltburn”) it is usually because so little humanity and nuance is grafted onto those characters that it leaves the realm of real-life moral accountability. “May December” forces the audience to confront a very human kind of villainy, one which cannot be easily explained, enjoyed, or pathologized, and one which rarely becomes punished. 

This emphasis on simple moral answers has yielded a staggering lack of nuance in the popular media of today. The irony is that Haynes and Burch directly satirize expectations of moral firmness in media with the ending of “May December.” By the end, it is revealed that Elizabeth is not starring in the prestigious adaptation of Gracie and Joe’s story, but the “mindless” version of the story, in a (what we can imagine to be) straight-to-TV movie. The TV movie ages up Joe to soften the horror of their age difference, and the dialogue is heavy with tawdry double-entendre so that this scene plays out less like an abuse of power and more like a straightforward seduction. This is the kind of bastardization of a true crime story that is still so prevalent in the genre, and the kind of fast, easy, less morally-dubious storytelling customary of direct-to-streaming films.  

There is one gargantuan entity at the center of “May December” that I have not yet mentioned: Netflix. Throughout the film’s release and subsequent discourse cycle, I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason people pushed back against the film as a comedy, and were so put off by its lack of a firm moral declaration, had anything to do with the fact that it was released on Netflix. I can imagine that its presence on this platform attracted many at-home viewers who may not have sought it out if it were released in theaters. 

The streaming model, which was largely structured and popularized by Netflix, is an inherently isolating, individualized system of media production and consumption. It lends itself to watching a film or television show alone, or in very small company. It also facilitates this almost automatic consumption, due to the fact that this model is predicated on rapid and near-constant content output and an algorithmic recommendation system. Todd Haynes is not a mindless filmmaker, and comedy is not something that is best experienced in isolation. But when an audience used to being presented with easy-to-digest content is suddenly presented with an incredibly challenging film, with no fellow audience to bounce off of or gauge a reaction from outside of the internet, it’s less surprising that they would leave confused and frustrated when other people’s experiences of the film differed so greatly from theirs.  

Discrediting the humor in “May December” and placing a strict, oversimplified moral code on it is an exercise in poor media literacy. It disregards what the film is at its core: a story about the futile nature of trying to excavate a simple, easy “truth” from a person or a relationship that is so elusive and carefully constructed. Much like Elizabeth tries to mine the truth of Gracie’s existence, the one simple explanation for how she could commit such a monstrous crime, audiences are desperate for this film to give them the easy answer. We want to know if there is any such “why” to what Gracie did. We want to know what really happened in her childhood. We want to know how Joe really feels about his life. We want him to have a moment of catharsis, to escape his abusive relationship. But unlike how real-life criminals and victims are presented in Lifetime movies or true crime documentaries, more often than not, these questions don’t really have answers. Haynes and Burch don’t use humor to avoid these questions. In fact, the intentional obscuring of these questions is where some of the film’s darkest and most ruminative material lies. They do use humor, however, as a way to elude simple, moralistic character beats and instead force the viewer to confront the messy and inscrutable aspects of human behavior. 

So back to the question of if “May December” warrants being classified as a “comedy” by the Golden Globes. I would brush up against it being nominated as a comedy, but that has more to do with the thorniness of trying to neatly delineate the false binary of “comedy” and “drama,” a futile and reductive exercise. Not to mention that “comedy” is, famously, very difficult to define. Trying to pin down a film that so deliberately eschews generic categorization is, again, futile and reductive. Haynes and Burch offer a salve to the wave of mindless, moralistic media by forcing us to sit in unease and confront those uncomfortable, sometimes unspeakable, human contradictions. Some viewers may have preferred something similar to Elizabeth’s film, a tawdry distillation of a highly taboo story into something overly simplified and easily consumable. But the comedy is what gives “May December” its edge, and makes it more biting than any other piece of media scrutinizing the commodification of true crime. The film doesn’t present comedy just for comedy’s sake. “May December” uses humor to emphasize the friction that is inherent in these characters’ pursuit of truth in a world that rewards absurdity and artifice.

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