Terminology for the Modern Grad Student: “Grey Gardens” Edition

I was introduced to Grey Gardens, strangely enough, through the musical. In short: Ebersole is a goddess, but the music was not particularly memorable. After seeing this show, I went out and watched the Maysles documentary.

Who can say whether Grey Gardens created the “crazy cat lady” or the “crazy cat lady” invented Grey Gardens? For those who are unfamiliar, this film follows a pair of aging socialites, mother and daughter, who have fallen on hard times, both financially and mentally. Edith Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” are the cousins of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, but their lives do not approach hers in terms of glamour. Their worn couture, their delapidated mansion, all suggest that this is what wealth and women look like when both go sour. The health inspectors threaten to remove these women from their home — the estate’s stray cats and the little gifts they leave behind make the manor an eye-sore and a hazard. And, while we are on the subject of eye-sores, these women are held up as the epitome of grotesque femininity, their exaggerated flirtatiousness with the filmmakers as a kind of mean joke. To call GG misogynistic is not a stretch. You’ll want to take a shower after you see it, and not just because of all the cat feces.

If you haven’t seen the film, and you are a woman, you may feel like you’ve seen Grey Gardens because it is your personal nightmare.

That said, this “grey” cloud does have a silver lining: Little Edie, like a phoenix, rose from the ashes and created a new life for herself. She became a lounge entertainer and a camp icon, with her unconventional (to say the least) fashion choices. This “happy ending” rendition of the Beale saga is put into Hollywood terms in the HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.


Here is my proclamation: let’s replace the played-out expression of “Hot Mess” and call people and things “Grey Gardens.” It can mean both “disgusting and painful” and “kind of glamorous in a campy, decadent way” — that will be the beauty of the expression!

Exhibit A: Studying for exams has so occupied me that I haven’t emptied the litter box for days, and all I eat is tuna right out of the can. I know, it’s so Grey Gardens.

Exhibit B: Did you see how Mary Kate Olsen paired that Hanes t-shirt with a fur coat and penny loafers? Flashes of Grey Gardens, I love it.

Either way, it suggests an insistent stylishness through the lens of total battiness.

It’s gonna catch on. Wait.


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