(Author’s Note: This was originally written for Metrograph’s publication in 2019, but when they revamped their still barely functional site, it got deleted.)
“That’s very gay,” my mother told me with a knowing look. A wry smile — or was it a smirk? — grew across her face, like she laughed at a joke she herself had told, a joke she thought both of us were in on. This was her response when I told her I had watched Grey Gardens for the first time. I was 14. I had jumped up in the air, clasped my hands together, and I told her I loved it. I had meant it earnestly, and was unconcerned with its status as cult camp object. The enthusiasm that colored my delivery could have been called, at that time, “girlish,” but I had always shown such enthusiasm for things I loved. And yet, this felt like the first time my mother had wanted to call a spade a spade. Sure, such signs may be read as tell-tale, as cultural identity markers for young queer men, but it made me uncomfortable and resentful because I wasn’t completely in on the joke she thought she told, It cut to the bone, or more accurately, the heart, where shame hid.
Too frequently, I admit, my descriptions and characterizations of my mother and my relationship to her are unflattering. I make a point to use the word “tempestuous,” or to invoke Gwyneth Paltrow, quipping that my mother and I had to, several years ago, “consciously uncouple.” My father’s death changed everything. For our relationship, it was like a volcanic eruption, and it’s hard to see one another clearly while it’s raining ashes. Our dynamic is so damaged that my whole life, from adoption to present, feels sort of fragmented, like the most persistent and tangible memories are the unpleasant, abusive, stressful ones, when I know that they’re hardly the only memories I have.
If the options are to compartmentalize those experiences, to forget them wholesale, or to forgive and heal (he said, scoffing), I have chosen to search, in desperation, for companionship in film. Can the dysfunction in mother/child relationships spell hope, provide catharsis, or offer solutions? I rummage like a raccoon for such depictions, to feel less alone. My interest in queer representation on screen is mostly academic, but it’s for personal reasons that I ransack art and culture for queer mother/child dysfunction. It’s a more meaningful representation of oneself — and all of one’s ugliness, beauty, elegance, folly, and humanity — than a stock fag in a superhero movie would be.
I am, in a sense, bound by that relationship to my mother, regardless of the distance I get from her, emotionally and geographically. Bound like chain or like leather. A sense of feeling trapped by both having so much of my identity defined by that relationship, and by the idea that if I don’t find something to unlock what it means, I’ll never be free of it. I’ve thought that such tempestuousness was tameable via fiction, in Lady Bird or in Mommy and I Killed My Mother. That cinema alone could salvage everything.
My constant search for “representation” is like picking at a scab, or like finding the pleasure in the pain of our relationship. It’s a stuckness. Isn’t that what Little Edie feels in Grey Gardens? Stuck in the dilapidated house? Stuck constantly vacillating between defining herself for herself and finding that her identity is inextricable from her mother’s? Even as she is describing her “best costume for today,” she invokes her “Mother Darling,” a term that contains as much vitriol and frustration as it does love. The costume isn’t just for the cameras; it’s for her mother, too. “Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono, so we had quite a fight,” Little Edie says. Said to one of the cameramen, she speaks in a volume just above a whisper, her outfit worn in defiance. And yet, despite her desire to wear something outside her mother’s wishes, her actions are nonetheless still in relation to Mother, a Chinese finger trap that binds her when she most wants to get away. She says it again, and again, and again, even when they aren’t in the same room, or interacting. Is her outfit still so revolutionary if it’s inseparable from Mother? Does that dim its revolutionary power or amplify it? Maybe Mother is necessary to summon that ungovernable strength. And even when Mother isn’t there, she’s there. A state of mind. A specter of Little Edie’s past, present, inevitable future. Little Edie opines, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”
Absence leaves its mark on these stories, a stain of blood beneath what was thought of as a fresh coat. (Coat, like a coat of fur, like a furious feline in Pajtim Statovci’s novel My Cat Yugoslavia, in which mother and son across narrative threads and time never meet, but are locked into one another’s history.) Ink bleeds, through and into. There are ink stains in the main titles of “The Joy Luck Club,” based on the novel by Amy Tan, about a group of four women, born in China and now living in San Francisco, whose daughters all negotiate their own senses of self in the shadows of their mothers and the Chinese-American diaspora. It was a text my mother, who is white, gravitated towards, and one I only recently came to watch. Was my indifference subtle disinclination, a decision made unconsciously, in relation to its connection to my mother? It was my mother that taught me to love film. Do I search for us on film because it was once our shared language?
June’s (Ming-Na Wen) prologue describes the tale of a woman and the swan she will give to her daughter, and the woman in the tale says to the swan:
“In America, I will have a daughter just like me, but over there, nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there, nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there, she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow. She will know my meaning because I will give her this swan, a creature that became more than what was hoped for.”
Who is this daughter? Is she herself or is her self shaped only by the history and trauma of her mother? Is she molded by her mother or is she self-taught who to be and how to survive? Is there such a neat delineation?
The film begins with June taking the place of her mother, Suyuan Woo (Kieu Chinh), at the eponymous Joy Luck Club, playing mahjong with her mother’s best friends. Taking the place of. Possession. The pain and pleasure of a mother/child relationship is supernatural. Forgiveness is nebulous like a ghost. Stories about mothers and their children are ghost stories then, right? Living those stories is a haunting. Even in the case of adoption, any identity feels like a costume or possession, even more so. Race complicates my relationship with my white mother. We talked about my adoption, yes. But we never discussed its implications. It’s felt as if she’s never attempted to understand who I was in that context, to consider that the queer Asian child of adoption is in a state of constant liminality. This keeps me in a state of anxiety in spaces that are too white, or too non-white, or too straight, as if I will never be enough, not queer enough, not “of color” enough, not white. It has me searching in the movies for a version of myself.
“Their connection to each other had more to do with hope than joy or luck,” June explains. Hope is a ghost, too.
The emotional potential and marginality of women characters cause queer men to feel identification with them, almost as a reflex. That identification with Little Edie or any of the daughters of The Joy Luck Club is self-lacerating, and necessarily so. That frayed nerve is where I can make sense of, if not solve, the relationship.
Towards the end of the film, Little Edie and Big Edie sing together. (“To keep in harmony,” the two warble.) It’s a brief reprieve from the perpetual tension between them. It’s one of the few moments where a connective tissue presents itself undamaged. Soon after, they launch into an attack again. Like that’s the only way they know how to love. The daughters of The Joy Luck Club wrestle emotionally and psychologically with their mothers and with themselves. But instead of finding pat, neat, tidy forgiveness or sentimental understanding, they find a language that makes sense of their pain and love, even if it doesn’t fix what’s fucked up. In songs or ghost stories, something shared, like pain and pleasure, or trauma and forgiveness, bleeding into one another, the hope that it’s enough to unravel a heart.