Outgrowing Melodrama: On Todd Haynes’s “May December”

Victoria Wiet looks at “May December” as a melodrama that exceeds the genre’s ideological limits and binaries.

Outgrowing Melodrama: On Todd Haynes’s “May December”

ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after melodrama had its heyday in the mid-19th century, it began to be mocked for being obsolete. In an 1890 burlesque of Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, the play later adapted into a more famous opera, the police chief Scarpia proudly admits that, as a villain intent on “possess[ing]” the play’s titular heroine, he is a vestige of “that dark age / when curdling melodrama held the stage.” Belonging to a genre that has come to feel more campy than poignant, even villains like Scarpia can’t take themselves seriously. And yet, no matter how many generations have claimed to have evolved away from a genre besmirched for its expressive storytelling and moral polarities, melodrama has retained its power as a way for artists to represent the world and as a lens for critics to interpret what they see.

When it comes to the work of director Todd Haynes—whose latest feature, May December (2023), has been the subject of critical buzz and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay—that turn to melodrama can feel automatic, even obligatory. Reviews in The Observer and Literary Hub casually reference melodrama, the term even appearing in subheads from mainstream outlets like Rolling Stone. And melodrama has certainly been Haynes’s métier. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him, Haynes is best known for paying homage to Hollywood auteur Douglas Sirk, who turned the standard stuff of postwar weepies—women struggling against the disagreement between personal desire and societal expectations—into a skewering of social hypocrisy through disorienting camera angles and unnaturally saturated color.

For many critics, Haynes’s latest film is a continuation of this homage, with Entertainment Weekly writing that if Sirk “made a movie about sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, it might look something like May December.” But for me, an obsessive fan of Haynes since adolescence and a scholar of melodrama for nearly a decade, it felt like a stark break from the director’s Sirkean past—a break but also a breaking away.

Set in 2015, May December’s script requires Haynes to literally leave the 1950s, and the film’s visual style follows suit. Gone are the vibrant jewel tones and the meticulously recreated ’50s interiors in Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), replaced by the bleached neutrals of mid-2010s chic; even Julianne Moore’s signature red hair, a focal point in Far from Heaven, has been bleached into a pale blonde. Moore first appears on-screen in an open-plan kitchen that looks ripped from the pages of a recent issue of Architectural Digest, complete with exposed beams, a ceiling pot rack, and tall windows that draw in copious natural light.

Perhaps most meaningfully, while many of Haynes’s chosen plots trace the growing social ostracism and legal scrutiny faced by their heroines, May December is set two decades after antiheroine Gracie Atherton-Yoo became tabloid fodder for being indicted for sex with a minor and undergoing childbirth in shackles. This is, on the surface, what the aftermath of melodrama looks like: after characters have had time to cool off from the scandal and injustice that once ensnared them.

Yet the critics who see the film as yet another Haynesian melodrama aren’t off the mark. As May December continues, melodrama proves itself to still be lurking beneath the placid surface of the Atherton-Yoo home, but its narrative does not follow the typical path of exposing and eradicating villainy. Instead, May December honors the challenges of achieving melodramatic resolution when the malefactor is a woman. As Gracie and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) struggle to outgrow the coercive dynamics that shaped both of their childhoods, the film also charts a path forward for outgrowing melodrama. It means accepting that, first, there are not always clear villains and, second, that an ending without justice is not necessarily a tragedy.


Melodrama’s raison d’être is moral clarity. Literary theorist Peter Brooks connects the genre’s emergence in Revolutionary France to the search for a moral framework in a “post-sacred” universe. The stereotypical black capes and mustache-twirling of stage villains provide moral legibility you can spot from the cheap seats, but for Brooks, the genre’s emphasis lies more on figuring out who precisely the good are. Third-act plot devices—chases, rescues, and even “a full-fledged trial”—culminate in what he calls the “public recognition of where virtue and evil reside.” On occasion, a woman threatened with sexual compromise must die to prove her virtue, or at least she has to be willing to. The result is a genre rich with conventions for exposing injustice but light on techniques for envisioning better lives for survivors.

The dramatic redemption sequences, ice floes and all, abound in the epic silent dramas of D. W. Griffith, but by the time the genre evolved into interwar and postwar women’s weepies, they largely disappeared. But films like Now, Voyager (1942) and All That Heaven Allows (1955) are still melodramas; their imperiled heroines just prove their worth by other means, mostly, as film scholar Linda Williams notes, through a “pathos of suffering.” What prompts the heroine’s suffering can, in turn, redefine what injustice looks like. In Now, Voyager, a film Haynes spotlighted in his recent trip to the Criterion closet, Bette Davis’s tears refocus the audience’s sympathy on a woman who had an affair with a married man rather than the unseen wife who, like the heroine’s mother, is defined exclusively by her emotional cruelty and never given a chance to tell her side.

Melodrama’s notoriously hyperexpressive style showcases this suffering and makes virtue beautiful not just to God but to mere mortals too. On the Victorian stage, hyperexpressivity meant exaggerated poses, symbolic use of color, declamatory monologues, and emotive music, all of which reappeared in classic Hollywood adaptations of the genre (with exaggerated posing sometimes being replaced by intense close-ups). They also appear in Haynes’s tributes to this tradition but are noticeably absent in May December.

In the climax of Carol, for example, the titular heroine (Cate Blanchett) refuses conversion therapy in exchange for shared child custody, eloquently telling her husband and their lawyers, “[W]hat use am I to [my daughter] if I’m living against my own grain?” In Far from Heaven, close-ups of divorced homemaker—and frequent crier—Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her African American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) validate their feelings for each other, even though social ostracism prevents their romantic union. By contrast, Joe struggles to find the words to articulate what it means to have been seduced at age 13, and as Gracie, Moore reserves her tears for trivial matters like canceled cake orders.


Living in the 1950s, Carol Aird and Cathy Whitaker would have been deemed villains by the standards of the Production Code that governed classic Hollywood, but presented through Haynes’s sympathetic queer gaze decades later, they prove to be melodramatic heroines of the highest order, good women deemed bad by an unjust society. Gracie Atherton-Yoo is a far different kind of character. Not only would a relationship between a married thirtysomething woman and a 13-year-old boy defy the Code, but it also, rightly, remains outlawed.

Moreover, Gracie could be seen as the kind of evildoer who got away with it. Gracie and Joe ultimately marry after he comes of age and she leaves prison, and they end up having two more children, a pair of twins. May December begins with the twins looking forward to their high school graduation, and Gracie even invites actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman)—who is preparing to play Gracie in a film—into their superficially happy family life, symbolized by the large party that begins the film.

A film about Gracie and Joe isn’t without its melodramatic potential, but its affinity with the genre is of a decidedly different stripe than Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 The Price of Salt (the source for Carol) and Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959) (the inspirations for Far from Heaven). Gracie could be presented as the Bad Woman Forced into Contrition, and the film certainly plays with this trope. While doing research for her upcoming role, Elizabeth discovers a tabloid photo in which Gracie sits on trial with her hands clasped, a gesture found in so many melodramas about fallen women. Such tableaux are a trademark of melodramatic dramaturgy, and Elizabeth, hungry to excavate the melodrama of the story, creepily mirrors the pose.

But unlike the fallen women of 19th-century melodramas, Gracie has already been punished. May December opens two decades after Gracie’s imprisonment, and in order to ignite the story’s latent melodrama, Elizabeth pushes Gracie to dredge up the past. Gracie demurs. When Elizabeth joins her for a bouquet-making class, the actress explains her interest in the role: “Now here is a woman with a lot more to her than I remember from the tabloids and our cultural memory.” Gracie responds with a dismissive laugh and a blithe “Um, I don’t really think about all that.” Elizabeth is confounded, telling her fiancé over the phone, “[S]he doesn’t seem to carry around any shame or guilt.”

Gracie’s minimization of the past could be the stuff of melodrama if the narrative sought out an admission of guilt. Yet Gracie refuses—or is perhaps unable—to repent, and the movie doesn’t press as hard as Elizabeth does. In the film’s climax, a haunted Joe sits on a chair in his and Gracie’s bedroom and, in a faltering voice that matches the childlike inward curl of his limbs, he stutters, “I think there are a lot of things we haven’t talked about in a long time. Maybe ever.” This kind of bedroom tête-à-tête is standard Sirkean fare. The final act of Imitation of Life contains not just one but two such conversations, with each mother-daughter pair finally facing the realities of their respective relationships. In an anonymous hotel room, a white-passing young woman finally admits that she refuses to recognize her Black mother in her pursuit of an easier life; in a bedroom adorned with confectionary pink, a college-aged girl forces her absent actress mother to realize that she has finally become an adult.

But May December’s bedroom conversation takes a decidedly different path. Whereas Sirk’s tight close-ups seem to force self-exposure from its subjects, Haynes’s keeps their distance. While the camera sits closer to Joe, perhaps because he is actually seeking truth, the over-the-shoulder shots that capture Gracie’s reactions place her further away and in semidarkness.

The camera cuts in closer when Joe moves to the bed and tries to get his wife to revisit the past for the sake of his own dignity, but Gracie evades the close-ups that attempt to create clarity out of the moral ambiguity that enshrouds her. The line that should finally prompt revelation from Gracie—“If we’re really as in love as we say we are […] shouldn’t I be able to talk about this with you?”—actually has the opposite effect. Just when Gracie is overcome with emotion, her eyes glistening and facial muscles contorted, she abruptly leaves the close-up as she gets up from bed. The editing similarly trades intimacy for alienation, with the scene cutting to a wide shot taken from the unfamiliar position of the right side of the couple’s bed. Gracie retrieves control by leaving the room, away from both the camera and the conversation: “‘If we’re really as in love as we say …’ I … it’s graduation.” For Gracie, this is no time for one of those melodramatic third-act reversals that save the victim-hero and dispatch the villain.


Because it does not deliver the catharsis it promises, Gracie and Joe’s conversation raises and answers the most salient questions the film has around the enduring utility of melodrama. If we, as spectators, want revelation and contrition from Gracie, why do we want it? Should we want it?

For Joe’s sake, we should. The film’s sympathetic portrayal of Joe’s growing awareness of his own victimization, played by Melton with a poignant combination of awkwardness and courage, persuasively argues that he, at least, deserves answers. Joe is painfully stunted in his development, a thirtysomething father of grown children kept in a juvenile position by a woman who, more nagging mother than loving wife, chastises him for his beer-drinking before a cookout and demands that he complete household tasks as he slumps in front of the TV. The monarch butterfly larvae he keeps, the film’s central visual motif, are a clear metonym for Joe’s own liminal state.

But Joe ultimately doesn’t need concrete answers from Gracie to move forward with his life; he just needs the courage and self-awareness to ask for them. The morning after the inconclusive tête-à-tète with Gracie, he releases one of his freshly pupated butterflies from the confines of its cage into the open sky. He doesn’t sit with his wife at graduation, and as his children—the basis of his enduring union with Gracie—walk across the stage and into independence, Joe walks beyond the fence he had been standing behind, his tears finally transforming into a smile.

If Joe doesn’t need answers to outgrow his melodramatic relationship with Gracie—he just needs to want them—then should we, the audience, still insist on them? Because she has already been punished by the law, resubjecting Gracie to the mechanisms of exposure risks feeding a misogynist culture that derives entertainment from exposing errant women and demanding new and improved proof of their contrition. As the cipher for the audience’s investment in melodrama, Elizabeth seems to think that asking questions can help to counter this culture—or, at least, she knows that’s the right thing to say. When Elizabeth calls Gracie a woman with “a lot more to her than I remember from the tabloids and our cultural memory,” she echoes a current media trend that reappraises the villainesses of 1990s culture, from Tonya Harding to Anna Nicole Smith. Yet her pursuit of truth leads her to perform her own melodramatic violations, including making Joe feel exploited after they sleep together.

Given the destructive impact of Elizabeth’s inquisitiveness, it makes sense that Gracie would want to maintain the protectiveness of illegibility. In contrast to Elizabeth, the trifecta of Haynes’s directing, Samy Burch’s screenplay, and Moore’s performance restores Gracie her “complexity” without either excusing her actions or perpetuating further violations. It does so by engaging another impulse of melodrama: the return of the repressed.


The repressed often appears embodied in an individual character. Consider, for example, that archetypal modern melodrama, AMC’s Mad Men (2007–15). Five episodes into the first season, a janitor named Adam Whitman (Jay Paulson) shows up at a Manhattan ad agency, seeking a reunion with the half brother he thought died in the Korean War. The charismatic Don Draper (Jon Hamm), audiences learn, was once a farm boy named Dick Whitman. More than a lost brother, Adam serves as a reminder of the crimes Dick had to commit—going AWOL and committing false impersonation—to become a successful ad man with a house in Westchester. More indirectly, he also serves as a reminder of the intercoastal agricultural poor, marginalized by the US economy’s shift to commercial and financial capitalism, a system that allegorically requires Adam to die so that Don can get rich.

Gracie’s backstory returns in a more diffuse way, but once you notice it, you see it everywhere. At a boutique where Gracie’s daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu) is trying on dresses for graduation, Elizabeth asks Gracie why she married her first husband. “It was a different time. My father used to say, ‘You’re either leaving this house in a veil or in a box.’” This line underscores an important fact: despite the wide-legged jeans and casual loose curls faithfully reflected in the shop mirror, Gracie, aged about 60 in 2015, was born in the 1950s.

Suddenly, everything clicks into place. The first shot of Gracie shows her making a cake against the backdrop of her sleek modern kitchen and living room, but the next shot, taken from the opposite angle, reveals a dining area that looks like it could be the set of an early Mad Men season, complete with printed wallpaper and damask valences. And with its tufted headboard and Hollywood regency bedtables, Gracie and Joe’s bedroom looks like the Drapers’ Westchester bedroom drained of color and sensuousness. Not to mention that Gracie’s recurring character motif, making cakes, is precisely the one creative outlet allotted to Moore’s character in the 1950s portion of The Hours (2002).

Gracie is trapped in the same postwar patriarchal norms that shaped the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Nothing has been replaced, only reupholstered. In a recent interview with Sight & Sound, Haynes noted that Moore interpreted Gracie as having “princess syndrome, an intense need to be rescued by a young, virile man.” Becoming a pet shop supervisor gave Gracie a way to escape her “sheltered” upbringing and life as a homemaker, before young Joe, a fellow employee, became her prince. The irony, as their home’s weirdly dated decor reveals, is that she has not actually escaped these norms, and both she and her family continue to suffer.

Immediately after Gracie tells Elizabeth about her father’s injunction against premarital sex, Mary enters the frame in a sleeveless dress. Gracie’s brutally backhanded compliment about her daughter’s courage to show her upper arms despite the pressure to be thin—“You’re different than me; you’re a modern woman”—sends Mary back to the dressing room to try on a dress with long sleeves. A scene later, a canceled cake order thrusts Gracie into a tantrum, and, most importantly, we witness the codependence she subsequently forces on Joe, making him just as trapped as she is.

By figuring the return of Gracie’s repressed 1950s upbringing, May December gives the audience moral clarity about Gracie as a character without perpetuating a misogynist culture that can only allow women to be pathologized villainesses—“[T]hat’s probably a personality disorder,” Elizabeth’s fiancé says of Gracie—or redeemed heroines. Her actions are not excused, culpability instead distributed more diffusely. By using melodrama to show how being stuck in the past perpetuates coercion in the present, Haynes finds a new purpose for a genre that might seem otherwise locked in by what he refers to as “today’s identity politics culture.” In contrast to melodramas like La Tosca, in which Scarpia’s villainy provides a powerful indictment of how the police can perpetuate rather than protect women from sexual violence, Gracie’s story confounds a culture that, in Haynes’s words, “wants to know who’s good and who’s bad.”

At its best, melodrama has been a powerful tool for grappling with injustice, in part because of its investment in diagnosing “who’s bad.” Yet, because of the self-validating thrill audiences feel in being able to respond to melodrama’s call to condemn villainy, it can be hard to outgrow melodrama and move toward the better, more just world the genre claims to desire. May December helps to break that cycle by showcasing how coercion, injury, and maladaptive behavior can be perpetuated without each party neatly fitting into the binary of “oppressor” or “oppressed.” In such circumstances, melodrama can serve a new purpose by revealing what histories have created that behavior.

Without recognizing those histories, we cannot outgrow them.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Wiet is an assistant professor of English at DePauw University whose essays and reviews have appeared in Public Books, Politics/Letters, v21 Collective, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book about how the theater influenced Victorian novels’ representation of sexual diversity. 


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