What Is Epistemic Relativism? How May December Plays With Concepts Of Truth & Reality

December 4, 2023 - Movies

WARNING: SPOILERS ahead for May December.


  • Elizabeth and Gracie, the main characters in May December, are complex and unreliable due to their hidden motivations and concealed information.
  • Elizabeth’s method acting approach leads her to believe she can understand and control Gracie, but she fails to grasp the truth of Gracie’s character.
  • Epistemic relativism, the idea that truth is relative to one’s knowledge and context, shapes the dynamic between Elizabeth and Gracie, highlighting Elizabeth’s failed understanding of her subject.

There are many themes and symbolism in Todd Haynes’ May December, especially regarding the psychology and motivations of the main characters. Both Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a famous actress, and Julianne Moore’s Gracie, an infamous tabloid subject, conceal much more information than they give off, making them intensely nuanced and unreliable characters. As May December plays out, Gracie and Elizabeth seem to have more in common than they initially thought, even outside of Elizabeth’s obsessive education of Gracie that blurs the lines of her own identity.

Elizabeth is introduced in May December as a celebrity figure in the small coastal town outside of Savannah, Georgia where Gracie and her much younger husband Joe (Charles Melton) live. She seems to fool everybody around her into believing she’s a kind and compassionate person underneath her celebrity. Elizabeth simultaneously uses the allure of her fame to get inside access to Gracie’s past and personality through a series of manipulative tactics. Gracie eventually starts to become annoyed with Elizabeth’s lingering but tolerates her toward the end of May December in order to maintain a pristine image of how she’d like Elizabeth to portray her in her movie.


May December Ending Explained

The multifaceted ending of Todd Haynes’ May December finds Portman’s Elizabeth contemplating the truth of Moore’s controversial Gracie character.

Epistemic Relativism Is The Idea That Truth Is Relative To Access & Scope Of Knowledge

Elizabeth’s mother wrote an important book on the philosophical subject

As Gracie shows Elizabeth how she does her makeup in a scene from May December, they talk about what their mothers do. Elizabeth says her mom wrote an important book on epistemic relativism while Gracie’s mom gave her a baking recipe. This moment demonstrates how Elizabeth was likely born into a world of privilege that Gracie might not have had, which instantly hints at the different lifestyles that each has lived. It also points to Elizabeth’s inflated self-worth and confidence that she can enter Gracie’s life, spend some time with her for a few days or weeks, and come to understand her from her “brilliant” method acting process.

In layman’s terms, epistemic relativism essentially acknowledges that the things people consider true in their lives are directly reflected by, and limited to, their scope and access to knowledge. According to PhilPapers, “Epistemic relativism is the position that knowledge is valid only relatively to a specific context, society, culture or individual.” It denounces the notion of objective truth, as everyone’s concept of truth is determined within a limited context. To this effect, what something can be true to one person and untrue to another, or two contrasting things can be true to two separate people or groups based on their external conditions.


Monarchs, Mirrors & Method Acting: May December’s Symbolism Explained

May December contains layers of visual and thematic symbolism that center around a key concept of self-reflection and how difficult our truths can be.

How Epistemic Relativism Shapes The Dynamic Between Elizabeth & Gracie

Elizabeth believes she can discover the truth in Gracie’s character

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) taking notes while Gracie (Julianne Moore) puts on makeup in May December

Screenwriter Samy Burch could have chosen many subjects for Elizabeth’s mom to have written a book about, but she landed on epistemic relativism. The concept is actually one of the most subtle and constant themes of the dynamic between Elizabeth and Gracie in May December, as the entire point of Elizabeth’s visit is for her to discover the “truth” of Gracie’s controversial character. Elizabeth attempts to reduce Gracie as the subject of her study, much like a pseudo-psychologist trying to arrive at a diagnosis. Elizabeth believes she can break Gracie down to a science while Gracie is defiant of the idea that Elizabeth could actually understand her.

Gracie is in so much denial to the point of delusion in May December, making it nearly impossible for her to access the truth of herself. Elizabeth believes she has authority and control throughout the film, but lacks the sway or empathy to access Gracie, resulting in an imitation game she calls method acting. In the end, Gracie actually seems to have been in control of how much access to her inner world Elizabeth was given, especially based on the reveal that she and her son George talk every day. This frustrates Elizabeth who believes she’s found something “true” by the story’s end. However, her truth is relative to the access and scope of what Gracie has chosen to offer her, meaning that through the lens of epistemic relativism, Elizabeth could never fully understand Gracie despite her best efforts.


May December True Story: The Real-Life Crimes & Scandal Of Mary Kay Letourneau Explained

Todd Haynes’ upcoming Netflix drama May December is based on the chilling real-life love and crime story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.

Why Elizabeth Will Cross Moral Boundaries To Achieve Something “True” In Her Acting

Elizabeth masks her empty core with a self-important image

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry playing Gracie in May December

Elizabeth places “truth” over everything as part of her method acting approach, which to her justifies taking advantage of Gracie and Joe, even if that means making their lives worse or more complicated. She is incredibly analytical and is an expert at mirroring Gracie’s behaviors, but as the multiple takes in May December’s last scene imply, Elizabeth had missed a key component in her “understanding” of Gracie, which is empathy. This realization completely undermines her method acting “process” and proves that the “truth” she was claiming to look for in Gracie was entirely observational and limited to her analytical perspective.

  • May December Poster

    May December

    Release Date:

    Todd Haynes

    Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton


    113 Minutes

    Drama, Romance

    Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik

    Gloria Sanchez Productions, Killer Films, MountainA


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