This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.
The American documentary Grey Gardens, directed by the Maysles brothers, is a celebrated landmark of its genre. The viewer enters the life of Edith “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Beale. The peculiar couple lives in a dilapidated mansion by the sea, an estate called Grey Gardens that is surrounded on both sides by the summer homes of the wealthy. The house stands in gothic decay as the two members of high society have been living for several decades with dwindling funds in increasing squalor and isolation (together with innumerable cats and raccoons). The film is interesting on many levels: from its pioneer aesthetic known as “direct cinema” to the topic of social descent experienced by these two formerly upper-class women. But it is all the more intriguing when viewed through the lens of psychoanalysis.
What makes Grey Gardens so fascinating to watch is the intense mother-daughter relationship that unfolds in front on the camera and becomes the major topic of the film. Big Edie and Little Edie, far from living together in harmony, are entangled in a bewildering and highly ambivalent relationship that is much more determined by their interpersonal obsession than by the difficulties that arise from their precarious economic situation. In repeated screaming matches, they complain of a better life without the other, even though they are obviously inseparable.
The daughter, in particular, forcefully embodies the full ambivalence of this love-hate relationship. The 56-year-old Little Edie casts her 82-year-old mother as responsible for all the missed opportunities in her life (e.g., she claims all potential sexual partners were rejected by her overly controlling mother). Even though Little Edie insists that she will leave the isolated mansion to finally become a dancer in the city, we soon come to realize that what hinders her is not the lack of such an opportunity, but rather an unconscious dimension of her own persona.
Freud’s psychoanalytic thoughts into mother-daughter relationships provide some insight. In “Femininity,” he writes of a powerful attachment of the pre-Oedipal girl to her mother, which in the course of her sexual development comes to an end and makes room for an attachment to her father.
This step in development does not involve only a simple change of object. The turning away from the mother is accompanied by hostility; the attachment to the mother ends in hate. A hate of that kind may become very striking and last all through life; it may be carefully overcompensated later on; as a rule one part of it is overcome while another part persists.
Freud claims, that the hostility against one’s own mother is something characteristic in the development of women in general (and something that does not apply to men, who in some sense already in their Oedipus complex desire the opposite sex, and insofar as they do, they do not break in such radical ways with their mothers). In a Freudian reading, the obsessive and ambivalent attachment of Little Edie to her mother could than be explained as an unresolved conflict rooted in her earliest childhood experiences.
Luce Irigaray puts forward a harsh critique of the Freudian conception of femininity. In her close reading of his lectures, Irigaray deconstructs the underlying presuppositions of Freud’s theories on gender and sexuality, especially the central notion of penis envy, through which his theory of female sexual development reveals itself of being unconsciously “phallocentric” — it is able to define women only in terms of lack, absence, or default. In Speculum of the Other Women, Irigaray uses the psychoanalytic method to read Freud’s language carefully to turn the tables and put the father of psychoanalysis on his own couch:
What is the relationship of that “envy” to man’s “desire”? In other words, is it possible that the phobia aroused in man, and notably in Freud, by the uncanny strangeness of the “nothing to be seen” cannot tolerate her not having this “envy”?“
The connection among the gaze, woman’s sexuality, and the uncanny (das Unheimliche) is essential for Irigaray’s analysis — an insight that allows us to grasp conceptually another aspect of the discussed film: the somewhat subtle erotism that is at play when the two male filmmakers (and we, through the lens of their camera) enter the secret overgrown mansion of Grey Gardens to gaze at Little Edie performing strange dances on the front porch. We then watch her taking sunbaths on the balcony and look at her odd outfits. But almost always, these images have an uncanny undertone that can be understood to thrive on the fear of feminine sexuality and/or the mother-daughter relationship present in the filmed situation.
Irigaray gives us a hint about what is going on here, when she talks about the “strange disquiet felt about the female genitals. The woman-mother would be unheimlich not only by reason of a repression of the primitive relationship to the maternal but also because her sex/organs are strange, yet close; while ‘heimisch’ as a mother, woman would remain ‘un’ as woman. Since woman’s sexuality is no doubt the most basic form of the unheimlich.”
This interpretation of the uncanny dimension of Grey Gardens is substantiated by a recent comedic adaptation of the documentary. In the episode “Sandy Passage” of the mockumentary television series Documentary Now!, actors Fred Armisen and Bill Hader portray Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy, respectively. The fact that these two actors are men is not arbitrary. Rather, it should be taken as a hint that what we are actually dealing with here is a male phantasy.
After restaging the original scenes with surprising accuracy, the mockumentary leaves its template’s storyline, and the subtle strangeness and oddness of the original is pushed to its extreme to surprisingly funny effect. The fake documentary turns into a splatter film in which Big Edie and Little Edie lure innocent men into their house, imprison them in the basement, and consequently kill them in a bloody ritual. The crucial point is this: the mockumentary works — it is absurd, funny, and comical — exactly because it exploits the sexual undertones that are already subliminally present in the original.