Exploring Audience Identification with Grey Gardens

Image of wooden door with green growth
Modified from a photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie lived in the Grey Gardens house in East Hampton, New York, where the Maysles Brothers recorded the documentary Grey Gardens in 1973. This film documents their life as it is, featuring all of the squalor and chaos that surrounded the duo. The house itself is falling apart, having decayed without the two women being able to properly care for it on their own. Within the house, the rooms are filled with garbage and old knick-knacks as well as wild animals that have made their way inside as needed repairs were left unaccomplished. These factors create a rather untidy environment, but the women embrace it. Though the Beales face criticism from some viewers for their dire living conditions, there are other viewers who nonetheless identify strongly and affectionately with the Beales. In particular, the Beales strike a chord with viewers who have a high tolerance for difference and even eccentricity. While some viewers are turned off by the Beales and their squalid living conditions or the exaggerated ways in which they act, there are also those who take pleasure in the documentary Grey Gardens because they see aspects of themselves in the Beales and identify with the pair.

One of the divisive issues surrounding interpreting Grey Gardens is the claim that the Beales over exaggerate their actions due to the presence of the Maysles’ camera. Some even claim that the Beales are mentally unfit to consent to be filmed (Goodman 16). The film critic Walter Goodman, in particular, said that the Beales were put on exhibition by the Maysles in a grotesque fashion for their merciless camera. Goodman believes the Maysles exploited the Beales for financial gain and fame rather than respecting the women’s privacy, as the Maysles recorded the squalid conditions in which the Beales lived and the eccentric ways in which they acted (15). However, it is important to consider that the Beales are simply expressing themselves in the way that is most natural to them: performance. As the documentary demonstrates, Little Edie was a model and wished to be a professional dancer while Big Edie was a professional singer. Performance has always been the way in which the Beales express their true desires and emotions, and this remains true in the portrayal of the duo in Grey Gardens. As the philosopher Michael Abbott argues, even though the reality the viewer experiences in the film is indeed one that is performed, “that does not render it unreal” or less truthful (117). As highlighted by John David Rhodes, a film studies scholar, Big Edie has no interest in participating in the social activities and games that her family, an aristocratic family in the United States, would have taken part in (85). Instead of playing games such as bridge, she favored singing and dancing, much like her daughter Little Edie. Singing and dancing, however, are viewed as activities associated with the lower classes and hence déclassé for the Beale women. Due to this, there was a rift between Big and Little Edie and the rest of their family, as they did not conform to upper class expectations for acceptable behavior. Rather, the Beales took singing and dancing as their primary way of enjoying and expressing themselves. Often reflecting on the past and her dreams of performing as a showgirl in New York, Little Edie showcases her natural tendency to perform when she does a dance for the Maysles in the foyer of the Beale’s home (1:13:48). During this dance, Little Edie asks where the Maysles have been all her life, revealing just how much she enjoys being able to perform for an audience. This performativity, thus, is central to Little Edie’s identity, and as such it must be considered that her performance for the Maysles’ camera captures a core part of who she is and is not an affectation.

It is also through the performance for the Maysles’ camera that both Beale women are able to defy the society that has “abandoned them” (Abbott 119). The Beales have been abandoned in the sense that they no longer have the wealth and influence that they once had, and they don’t conform to the expectations for women of their social class, which were present at the time. They are comfortable with the squalor in which they live, embracing it because at least they can be themselves within their home’s four walls. As such, the Beales are looked down upon by some viewers and dismissed as eccentrics. They are willing to show the world how they truly live, and this unapologetic honesty is something that can be surprising to some viewers. Considering the conditions in which they live, the Beale’s self-confidence makes some viewers uncomfortable because these viewers are unwilling to present themselves publicly as anything other than conforming to social norms and expectations. Those, however, with a greater sense of tolerance for those who are different, or who are outsiders themselves in some sense, tend to identify with the Beales in an affectionate way.

Furthermore, there are viewers who identify with the Beales because of the fact that they are so different and yet have no shame in expressing who they are to the public. One group that is able to identify with the situation of the Beales—as Rosanne Carlo, a queer and rhetorical studies scholar, highlights—is those people who are queer. Queer people are different from what society expects and have failed, in some sense, to meet social norms and therefore disidentify with or reject normative ways of being and seeing (Carlo). Because of the failure of queer people to live up to heteronormative demands, there is a sense of solidarity, as Carlo highlights, that creates an attraction to others who are also different, consequently offering queer viewers the chance to appreciate the Beales more deeply. For instance, the Beales live in a mansion in East Hampton, which carries the connotation of wealth and exclusivity. The Beales, however, do not conform to aristocratic ideals, living in a squalid, run-down mansion filled with feral cats and wild racoons, which Little Edie feeds (53:29). The fact that Little Edie feeds the racoons means that the Beales are aware of their presence; moreover, the two women do not try to get rid of them. Instead, the Beales embrace the wildlife and accept racoons into their home, which is extremely unusual, as most people would try to rid their home of wild animals. This expresses how the Beales are unflinchingly themselves, with no desire to conform to what society, their family members, or their neighbors expect of them. Little Edie, especially, serves as a “poster child for nonconformity,” as she creates her own outfits from old castoffs and sings and dances with dreams of performing in New York again—despite the fact that she is in her late fifties and well past the peak age for most professional dancers (Carlo). Even in the face of being seen as abnormal, the Beales express a willingness to be utterly themselves, which serves as an inspiration queer people, who much like the Beales, fail to meet the social norms and conventions. In this, members of the queer community have a strong sense of solidarity with the Beales and their outlook, while also admiring the Beales, who serve as an inspiration to be true to oneself. The Beales also serve as a symbol of empowerment because they truthfully convey the essence of their lives on film for all the world to see without fear of negative judgment. Thus, queer people can connect with and admire the Beales, while those who have a high tolerance for those who are different—for instance, allies of the queer community—can identify with the negative social judgments the Beale women face, instead of simply dismissing them as eccentrics.

Additionally, though the Beales lead eccentric lives, there are still many aspects in the film with which a range of viewers can identify. In particular, the close mother-daughter relationship between Big and Little Edie offers a chance for broad audience appeal for parents and their children. In my own life, I assist my mother quite often. Especially more recently, I have been involved in helping to take care of my mother because of the numerous medical procedures that she has needed, such as hip replacements. As such, I can relate to Little Edie in the sense that I too am partly responsible for helping to take care of my mother. Like me, the artist Guy Kettelhack, who reflects on Grey Gardens after having viewed it four times, suggests that his own caregiving relationship with his mother provided meaningful context for him to dive more deeply into the documentary, even though his mother is less outwardly “wackadoobydo” than the Beales. After having experienced some failure in New York City, similarly to Little Edie, Kettelhack returns to his mother’s home to help care for her and the house, finding that the two of them are able to create their own little world. Kettelhack’s testimony serves to further humanize the Beales because offering loving care to an aging parent offers common ground for many viewers, myself included.

It is necessary to consider a deeper analysis of the lives of the Beales—beyond the squalid living conditions presented directly on-screen—to understand why many viewers experience a deep affinity for them. Considering that the Beales’ desires to perform for an audience reveal a core aspect of who they are, their performance for the Maysles’ camera captures their essence as opposed to showing them feigning enjoyment. While some viewers are uncomfortable with the complete honesty and openness with which the Beale women present themselves, others have an admiration for this utter giving of the self. Though the Beales are different, they readily acknowledge and embrace the fact that some viewers may not see them in a favorable light, which highlights another reason why viewers identify strongly with the duo’s pride in being who they are. Members of the queer community, in particular, admire the Beale’s willingness to break away from normative societal expectations and to be themselves, while allies of the queer community are able to connect with the Beales because allies stand in solidarity with those who are targeted and discriminated against. Queer allies also accept the Beales for being so different because they recognize that the women are being true to themselves. Finally, there is potential for common ground that viewers, namely Guy Kettelhack and me, are able to find between the lives of the Beales and our own lives due to the parent-child bond and our firsthand experiences of caring for an aging parent. Nevertheless, there will always be some viewers who dismiss the Beales as eccentrics or worse. These viewers resist the fact that they could share any similarity to those whom society deem as outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, which highlights the fact that at a minimal level of tolerance for those who are different is required to appreciate the documentary film Grey Gardens.

Works Cited

Abbott, Mathew. “Grey Gardens and the Problem of Objectivity: Notes on the Ethics of Observational Documentary.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind vol. 13, no. 2, 2019: 108–122.

Carlo, Rosanne. “Entering Grey Gardens, Exploring Queer Identifications with the Beales.” The Writing Instructor, March 2015, http://parlormultimedia.com/twitest/carlo-2015-03.

Goodman, Walter. “‘Grey Gardens’: Cinéma Verité or Sideshow.” New York Times, 22 Feb.

1976, pp. 15–16, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/02/22/archives/grey-gardens-cinema-verite-or-sideshow-cin-ma-verit-or-sideshow.html.

Grey Gardens. Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer, and Ellen Hovde, Portrait Films, 1976.

Kettelhack, Guy. “Guy’s Return to Grey Gardens: Hole in the Wonder Bread, 16 years later.” Blogger, 4 August 2018, http://guykettelhack.blogspot.com/2018/08/guys-return-to-grey-gardens.html.

Rhodes, John David. “‘Concentrated Ground’: Grey Gardens and the Cinema of the Domestic.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 47, no. 1, 2006: 83–105.

Discussion Questions
  1. What is Connor Todd’s central claim? What is his purpose in making this argument?

  2. What textual features does Todd use to establish his ethos, appeal to his audience, and make his argument? For example, look at his description of the love and care he offers to his aging mother and his use of a one-word quotation from Guy Kettelhack.

  3. Do you find Todd’s conclusion convincing? Why or why not? How do Todd’s ethos or his pathetic and logical appeals impact your assessment?