May (2002), directed by Lucky McKee, begins by shocking the audience with a scene showing the titular character crying out in pain, a hand covering her bleeding eye socket. This made me expect an explanation for this by the end of the film, and I found myself trying to figure out what could possibly lead to this conclusion as I continued watching. It made me curious as to what the film was going to be about or how it was going to progress. The film does well in keeping the audience guessing until it is time for the reveal.
Right after the shocking opening scene, the audience is first shown May’s childhood and how she was an outcast because of her lazy eye. Then, her birthday comes, and her mother presents her with a doll in a glass case, Suzie. At this point, most people would assume that the film would start being conventionally horror and be a doll-comes-to-life movie, but instead, we are presented with something that is more like a romantic comedy until May’s character reaches her threshold and things really get twisted.
One of my favorite things about May was its weirdness. It may have seemed like we were just watching a socially awkward girl’s love story, but we always had the sense that things were not quite normal and that the story wasn’t that simple. May never scares you outright, but it certainly is a film that leaves disturbing elements that accrue in your thoughts – like May’s fascination with body parts and violence – making you always just the right amount of creeped out as you watch the film, until it delivers horror that is more familiar when May decides to go on a murder spree.
“If you can’t find a friend, make one,” May’s mother said to her early on in the film, and this pretty much drives the story, though we only realize this towards the end of the movie. I liked that. For me, I had a hunch that May was going to make her own doll after Suzie was destroyed and May’s fascination with body parts started to have some sort of purpose in my mind, but I liked that the film brings back her mother’s line and everything fits together like puzzle pieces. As an audience member, I enjoyed looking back and having that eureka moment, while also experiencing nervous anticipation for how May was going to make her new doll.
“IF YOU CAN’T FIND A FRIEND…”
I want to talk about May’s strangeness. All her life, May has always been the outcast. She has always been the Other. Whether it was because of her lazy eye or her idiosyncrasies, she was always viewed as weird. She’s queer. In “The Monster and The Homosexual,” Benshoff talks about queerness and how it can be “a narrative moment, or a performance or stance which negates the binarisms of the dominant hegemony.” (Benshoff, 2002) This isn’t just about sexuality (though May also tackles this), but it highlights the fact that there are attitudes and oppressive assumptions that prevail due to the existence of a dominant ideology in society. What then fits into the dominant ideology becomes normal, and what does not, experiences marginalization.
In the film, we always see May being rejected by society when they see her weirdness, and one of the scenes that hit me was when Adam rejected May. Society is intrigued with deviant things just as Adam was intrigued with May, telling her that he “liked weird.” However, we see that this only lasts to a point until the lip-biting incident. When May questions his rejection, saying that she thought he liked weird, Adam replies with, “Not that weird.” Here, we see how queerness can “set in motion a questioning of the status quo.” (Benshoff, 2002) Where is the line? What constitutes normal-weird and too weird? In Adam and May’s case, it seems that fetishizing weirdness (as in Adam’s video) is okay. It objectifies queerness and looks at it from a distance, the way normality would. Yet, when it becomes real and gains an active presence that bites back (no pun intended), queerness is suddenly threatening to the status quo, and it is shunned.
Another part of the film that questioned the status quo was Polly, May’s co-worker, a woman who loves women, who relentlessly pursues May until they start a relationship. Their relationship turns the status quo around since homosexuality is not in line with the typical Hollywood heterosexual romance narrative, and May doesn’t seem to make such a big deal about the relationship developing, opposing patriarchal heterosexism and treating it as normal. It also doesn’t attempt to present May or Polly as playing either the “man” or the “woman” in the relationship. When audience members end up thinking that maybe May was “only going through a phase” and would seek out Adam again, or if they end up confused and expect either Polly or May to play the “man” or “woman” in their relationship, we see that these reactions come from the influences of a heteronormative society. We then question these assumptions and take a closer look at the construction of the dominant ideology that dictates what normal and abnormal are.
Queerness has been ostracized for a long time now, and we see this in how May cannot seem to find a friend in the movie. She desperately tries to connect with the people around her and have people love her for who she is, in all her weirdness, but she ends up wounded by society again and again – and so following her mother’s advice, she decides to make her own friend.
As she creates a whole new doll using the different body parts she was fixated on throughout the movie, we are reminded of the story of Frankenstein’s monster. “The monster is no longer separate, he is quite simply ourselves; it is a magnified image of ourselves.” (O’Flinn, 2002) Amy, her new doll, contains all the feelings that were bottled up in her throughout the movie. Creating Amy did make May a monster that murdered people, but we also see that May has put a lot of herself into making Amy – her fixations, her pain – so much so that Amy becomes a reflection of May.
In the end, we see that May is a new kind of Frankenstein story that challenges normativity. It takes a familiar story but adds twists to make it something new, and we are presented with something we are creeped out by, but a story that we may also sympathize with (especially for anyone who has felt like an outcast before). May gouges out her own eye and begs Amy to look at her by the end of the film, but she might as well have been speaking to the audience, asking for sympathy. Perhaps in taking a queer perspective, the audience could also find a way to think critically about what constitutes “weird” in society and develop empathy for those who have experienced oppression from the dominant hegemony.
Harry M. Benshoff, “The Monster and the Homosexual.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)
Paul O’Flinn, “Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)