Ariel Powers-Schaub examines the lasting legacy of Lucky McKee’s incendiary directorial debut…
Despite being twenty years old May (2002) remains painfully incisive today, containing themes which still feel relevant for 2022. Focused on the eponymous May (Angela Bettis), the film follows her as she works at an animal hospital, sews her own clothing and makes dolls. She doesn’t seem to have many friends, but when she meets Adam (Jeremy Sisto) she tries to start a relationship with him, drawn in by his beautiful hands. Things initially appear to go well; however when he rejects her all that built-up loneliness and hurt explode, and May begins to assemble a life-sized doll of human parts.
“Sometimes, you don’t end up liking any parts at all”
It was true twenty years ago, and remains true today: women are often reduced to their body parts, like buckets of fried chicken – breasts, thighs and metaphorical wings. May is viewed – and views herself – as a collection of parts. Her mother sees an imperfection in her daughter, namely her amblyopia (also known as “lazy eye”), and can’t accept any part of her daughter that is less than perfect. As a result, May also views other people this way. She notices and comments on particular parts of those around her; for example, instead of complimenting a co-worker’s outfit or shoes, she compliments her neck. May doesn’t see why this might be off-putting, and in fact thinks this is normal behaviour. The patches on her clothing and her enjoyment of Frankenstein’s monster are not-so-subtle nods to her desire to combine perfect pieces. Instead of accepting the imperfections of others and seeing them as complete people, she muses that she sees “so many pretty parts, but no pretty wholes.”
All of May’s approval comes from external sources. Her self-worth is based on what others think of her, especially how she looks. When she was a little girl, her mother told her she couldn’t make friends if kids saw her eye patch. May internalizes this and self-isolates, which stops her from making friends and reinforces her mother’s message. This is also why she is so interested in blind children: she craves attention from people who aren’t going to judge her physical parts. That’s a misguided reason to volunteer to work with kids, but it effectively illustrates how rejected and uncomfortable May feels.
Throughout all this Bettis is incredible, nailing the combination of quirky and creepy, likable and shy: May could be our classmate or co-worker, surrounded by dolls and acting like a doll that has come to life.
At the end of the film May is so broken even her name is reduced to parts. She cracks apart the ashtray with her name on it and rearranges the letters to spell “Amy,” which is what she names her creation. It’s her last effort to rearrange the pieces of herself in the most likable way. In 2022 it’s a moment which remains incredible poignant, as women are still scrutinized by standards that reduce us to our parts and ignore our whole selves.
“You like weird” “Not that weird”
Though her trouble with her self-image has its roots in her physical appearance, May’s low self-esteem runs deeper than her skin: she worries about showing her true self to the world. This is a relatable fear for many, but for women in particular it’s often compounded by societal expectations. There can be impossible combinations of personality traits to display at just the right time for a woman to be acceptable – be smart, but not intimidating; funny, but not crass; sexy, but not slutty, and so on.
For May, we see this play out as she is trying to impress Adam. She is creative and artistic, eats messy food and drinks sugary beverages, and works a gruesome job. But when she’s going to see Adam she obsesses over her outfits: she makes her voice higher and softer, trades her glasses for contacts, and starts smoking cigarettes just because he tells her to. For a while Adam is intrigued by her eccentricity, but when he sees May enjoy his gruesome short film and she tries to show some sexual agency, he gets scared and leaves. As soon as she was ready to be more like herself, he lost the power over her and therefore lost interest.
“I love gross, disgust me”
Adam also represents another problem that’s emblematic of why women have to be constantly vigilant about their safety, including (and especially) around people they know. Adam tries to scare May, to gain power and control. His room is decorated to intimidate his sexual partners. When she reassures him that she is fine and “nothing freaks her out,” he pretends to stab her with a prop knife. He might as well have dropped a red flag at the same time, but May uses it as a moment to show how cool she is, and plays along. When she bites his lip and draws blood while they’re kissing, Adam feels threatened and removes himself. This depiction is astonishingly realistic: whilst women have many instances of playing along whilst threatened, men often leave at the first sign of threat. Culturally we’ve come a long way in the last twenty years but we still have further to go, and everyone should be encouraged to prioritize their safety.
“If you can’t find a friend, make one”
May has been either ignored or bullied most of her life, and when she received attention, she either didn’t know what to do with it or became too attached to it. She can’t be herself anywhere, so gives part of herself (one of her eyes) to her creation to have someone relate to her. It’s no wonder at the end of the film she screams “See me! All I want! See me!”.
May is a tale of revenge, but not for a single event: rather for a whole lifetime of hurt. And in the end, her revenge doesn’t make May feel any happier. For a film you could summarize as “the one where the girl cuts up her friends to make a doll” it’s incredibly impactful and insightful. It might get a little lost in conversations about the history of horror, but May is still startlingly relevant and – like its titular character – demands and deserves attention.
Want to hear more on female-led genre cinema? Check out our podcast episode on Female New Wave Horror, available now.