The Member of the Wedding (1952) – Ace Long Review

If you haven’t seen this movie and want to, you can watch it for free here.  Let me know if the link breaks and I’ll take it down.

The Member of the Wedding
Starring: Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, Brandon De Wilde
Written by: Edna & Edward Anhalt
Novel & Play by: Carson McCullers
Directed by: Fred Zinneman
U.S.A., 1952

Discovering this movie was a bit like reading Hamlet for the first time.  Like Hamlet, Frankie Addams is a pensive, awkward, disconnected young person, prone to making long speeches, who can be frustratingly impulsive, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed, but who also has a knack for hitting on profound truths about the human condition.  Her story works on multiple levels.  On the one hand, it is a fairly familiar story about the adolescent search for belonging.  But it also works as a story about peculiarly queer forms of alienation and desire.

Perhaps most obviously, Frankie’s wish to be included in her brother’s wedding suggests various non-normative forms of sexual desire: incestuous, same-sex, and polyamorous.  The first two aren’t really dwelt on, but Bernice does lecture her about the inappropriateness of wanting to be in a wedding with two other people.  “Two is company; three’s a crowd,” she says.  She also invokes the story of Noah and the ark: “Two by two, he admitted them creatures.  Two by two.”  Though Bernice resists moralising, this story is a reminder of the heteronormativity embedded within Christian tradition.  “You shall take with you seven pairs of every clean animal, a male and his female, and two of the animals that are not clean, a male and his female,” God commanded Noah.  There was no room in the ark for same-sex pairings, threesomes, or unpartnered animals.  And, unfortunately, the same logic has often been applied to human beings, with gay, polyamorous, and even celibate lifestyles treated with varying degrees of disdain and revulsion.

However, there is no indication that Frankie’s desire to be with Janice and Jarvis is sexual.  Indeed, twelve-year-old Frankie seems unaware of the existence of sex – and uncomfortable every time it is hinted at.  She gets angry over the teenaged girls telling “big lies about grown-up people”.  She speculates about what Barney and his girlfriend do when they go off alone together, but the best answer she can come up with is, “I think maybe they smoke or something”.  This kind of discomfort towards sex is, of course, common among young people, and it also reflects Frankie’s fear of exclusion.  The teenaged girls’ sexual knowledge is threatening to Frankie because it is a secret they share that she is excluded from.  And sex, itself, can be seen as one of the most exclusive acts there is.

Still, Frankie’s conflicted attitude towards sex may also resonate with many aces, as may many of Frankie’s experiences.  Frankie seems to have no desire to be in a romantic relationship; when Bernice counsels her to find herself a boyfriend her own age, Frankie asks, “What would I do with one?”  She seems uncomfortable with normative gender expression, preferring an androgynous style of dress.  She also seems to have a sense of herself as not quite “normal”, wondering if she will grow into a “freak”.  Her feelings for Janice and Jarvis can even be seen as a form of asexual desire.  As Bernice puts it, Frankie’s problem is that she has fallen in love, not with a person, but with a wedding!

Like many aces, Frankie is unpartnered and has no desire for a partner.  Yet she still craves love and belonging.  Attaching herself to a married couple seems to be her strategy for achieving those things, a way to build a family without forming sexual or romantic attachments.

However, I don’t want to romanticise Frankie’s relationship with Janice and Jarvis or to gloss over the heteronormativity that underpins her feelings towards them.  Frankie’s love for them is less about either of them as individuals than about the idea of them as a couple.  She seems similarly fascinated by the idea of Barney and Mary as a potential couple, and by the marriage of Bernice and Ludie, whom she never even met.  And this idea holds as much power as it does largely because of the way her society idealises heterosexual marriage.  To Frankie, who feels powerless and purposeless, Janice and Jarvis represent everything that is most privileged in society: whiteness, heterosexuality, gender conformity, young adulthood, able-bodiedness.  In “breaking into” their wedding, Frankie is seeking to access that privilege, end her isolation, and become a member “of the whole world”.

This may be the queerest aspect of the film.  Frankie denies being jealous of either her brother or his bride, but she is clearly envious of both of them.  To her, they represent all the belonging she lacks and so desperately craves.  A lack of belonging is, of course, a common sentiment, especially among adolescents.  But it is also a major part of queer experience, ace experience, and the experience of other underprivileged groups.  It’s the experience of being marginalised, of being pushed off to the edges of society.  We might say that Frankie could have belonging if she only embraced the other marginalised people in her life: her black housekeeper Bernice, her younger cousin John Henry, and her ageing, widowed father.  But, instead, Frankie chooses to identify with the privileged group.  She believes that if she claims them as her own, they will do the same for her, bringing her with them into a world of perfect belonging.  And she is cruelly disillusioned when she realises that, in fact, they do not want her.

Some may see the ending, where Frankie seems to be embarking on a new relationship with Barney and Mary, to be a sign that she is growing up and coming closer to achieving her dreams.  Personally, I’m not so optimistic.  For one thing, Frankie is repeating the pattern that has already failed for her of falling in love with a heterosexual couple.  She attaches herself to Barney and Mary the same way she did Janice and Jarvis, taking it for granted that they will want to share all their life’s adventures with her.  I see no reason to think this relationship will go any better than the one with Janice and Jarvis, and I suspect it will end similarly: with Frankie once more disillusioned and heartbroken.

Moreover, Frankie’s attachment to Barney and Mary seems to go along with a rejection and moving on from under-privileged experiences: from blackness, singleness, androgyny, childhood, old age, disabledness.  She has little time for mourning her dead little cousin or missing her ageing, one-eyed housekeeper; her mind is all on the adventures she will have with her young, athletic, and talented new friends.  Whether Frankie’s story turns out well for her or not, one cannot help thinking about all the “leftover people” with their broken lives who cannot move on so easily.

Frankie’s story is, of course, uniquely her own, but it also reflects the experiences of many other people, including ace people.  In a society that holds up monogamous heterosexuality as the highest good and offers few options for those who do not want sex, Frankie’s desire to give her life meaning by attaching herself to a married couple is not as outlandish as it might initially seem.  And, like Frankie, many aces know both the joy of finding our people and the heartache of being excluded.

3 Stars; 4 Aces

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