Monday, April 1, 2019

Unpacking Jordan Peele's "Us"

A post by Mary Fan
Hey y’all! It’s my turn on the blog again, but what I have to talk about today has nothing to do with books or my usual genres of sci-fi/fantasy – though I would argue that it’s tangentially related to both. I’m here to talk about Jordan Peele’s latest horror flick, Us. Mostly because I watched it recently and have spent way too much time overthinking and overanalyzing everything about it, and really it’s taken up so much brain space that I don’t know what else I could possibly write about. But from a broader cultural perspective, it’s also an interesting study in storytelling, allegory, and genre.

Also, it's April Fool's Day, so... hey, I'm not one of the resident horror writers, but I'm going to pretend to be one? Ah, whatever.



Theatrical release poster
Alrighty, let’s get into it, then. In the simplest terms, Us is a story about doubles. Jordan Peele came right out and said that the movie was about how we are our own worst enemies. And then there’s the title of the movie – Us. As in Us vs. Them. Except in this move, Them is a version of Us, and then things get really gnarly when it turns out that Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) had switched placed with her double as a child. Now, as someone who’s always consuming stories with wicked twists, I mentally called it from the moment little Adelaide encountered her double. But that’s not to say the movie’s predictable in any way – that was just me trying from the get-go to make sense of a movie packed with allegories, symbols, references, etc. etc. etc.

Interestingly, the Tethered, as the doubles are called, are not supernatural monsters. The movie emphasizes over and over that they are, in fact, human. They possess no special abilities (no super strength, no mystical powers, no ability to come back from the dead, nada). They die like humans – no garlic or divine powers required. What makes them, well, Them, is their behavior. They have creepy smiles, they don’t speak with words (other than Adelaide’s double), and they move in unusual ways. The one possibly supernatural element they possess is shared with their above-world counterparts – the tether that binds them. According to the movie, the Tethered were created to control people, but the experiment failed, and they were abandoned underground, forced to mimic the actions of those above, who lived blissfully unaware of their actions. Yet the mirroring isn’t absolute. Tethereds are implied to be capable of behaving separately from their counterparts. With the Adelaide switcharoo, it also seems that the control could go both ways, even though, for the most part, it hasn’t.

The last time I watched a movie about doubles, it was Black Swan (which I believe counts as horror). And of course, Swan Lake was referenced in Us as well. Tween Adelaide is revealed to have been a talented ballerina, dancing the white swan’s role beautifully while Red, as her double is called, is forced to dance a grotesque imitation. However, while Swan Lake depicts the black swan as the white swan’s evil doppelganger, in the dance scene, both Adelaides are dressed as the white swan, which I found interesting. It seems to be a deliberate rejection of the good/evil dichotomy. Both Adelaides are good, both are evil.

Original Adelaide (which I’m calling her for simplicity, even though both presumably came into existence at the same time) was innocent – just a little girl in a funhouse. But so was her double – just a little girl who had the misfortune of being born into a dark, twisted world. Then Tethered Adelaide attacked Original Adelaide and took her place. She went on to live as just Adelaide for the next 30+ years. Meanwhile, Original Adelaide evolved into Red, who organized the mass uprising in which the Tethereds brutally murder their unsuspecting counterparts. These were acts of villainy, sure, but were they evil? Tethered Adelaide, a child born into bondage and living a horrifying life, wanted freedom and privileges and took it at the expense of another child. Red, a woman in bondage and living a horrifying life, wanted the same things – and also was willing to take them at the expense of others. Double, double, toil and trouble.

Now, I wouldn’t think too hard about the mechanics of Us’s world-building, as some professional critics have (side-eye). Worrying about the logistics of a horror movie completely misses the point – this is horror, not hard sci-fi. In fact, it might not even be sci-fi. People have assumed it is because of the familiar imagery of the underground tunnels, which put in mind a million nefarious and dystopian “institutes” and because of the reference to the Tethereds being created. But nowhere does the movie explain how the Tethereds came into existence (and really, they don’t need to). No one said they were genetic clones or results of some kind of Star Trek-esque dimensional accident. For all we know, whoever created the Tethereds were a cabal of modern-day sorcerers, putting the world in the fantasy camp. Who. Cares. I know I’m not one of our resident horror experts, but even I know that the genre is about the emotional impact on the audience, not the logistics of how that impact is achieved.

I found it interesting that the Tethered were (according to Red) originally created to control “us”, but the dynamic seems to have been reversed, with “us” living our lives as we do and the Tethereds being forced to mimic them. Then Tethered Adelaide reverses the dynamic again when she kidnaps Original Adelaide and takes her place aboveground. Meanwhile, Jason is able to force his double, Pluto, to self-immolate – the only instance after the uprising of such mirroring (that I noticed).

What does it all mean? What do the Tethereds represent?

After reading a million thinkpieces and mentally turning it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re meant to represent a deliberately vague underclass (I mean, they’re literally underground). Marginalization, in contemporary American society, occurs on many axes -- rich/poor, white/non-white, male/female, cishet/queer, abled/disabled, etc. etc. ad infinitum (I could go on about intersectionality, but that would be a whole ‘nother blog post). And the movie makes it pretty obvious that it’s specifically about Americans – when asked who she and her family are, Red literally says “We’re Americans” (also – Us, U.S., duh). My take is that this is ultimately a movie about privilege vs. marginalization – in their many forms.

The privileged, the above-ground “us,” go about their lives blissfully unaware of the horrors belowground. They have no idea that their actions directly impact the marginalized Tethereds, the movie’s “them”. But just being unaware doesn’t exonerate them. One of the movie’s most horrifying implications is that Adelaide’s courtship with and marriage to her husband, Gabe, led to Red’s rape by Gabe’s double, Abraham. Some theorize that Adelaide repressed memories of her belowground origins, which makes sense given her apparent confusion when the Tethered family attacks. If that’s true, then Adelaide had no way of knowing that sleeping with her husband was leading to Red’s rape. Adelaide can’t be blamed. But that doesn’t mean Red didn’t suffer. (If Adelaide actually remembered that she was born a Tethered, then things become even more horrifying.)

Viewed through this lens, it’s a powerful message about how unware the privileged are of their own advantages. For most people, privilege is an invisible thing bestowed upon us by chance. Someone who’s born, say, able-bodied and poor doesn’t think about the former as being an advantage of any kind. The focus is on how the latter is a disadvantage. The characters in Us demonstrate this behavior, most apparently through Adelaide’s bougie white friend Katie, who is unsatisfied with her life despite being very well off. Meanwhile, despite their ignorance, the actions of the privileged directly affect the lives of the marginalized. The aboveground “us” makes a move, the Tethered is forced to make the same move. The CEO makes a business decision to save money by closing unprofitable stores. The worker making minimum wage loses their livelihood, their stability, and possibly their health.

Meanwhile, the Tethered, the marginalized, don’t seem aware of their own potential power until Red leads them in an uprising to kill and replace their counterparts. It’s an act of desperation, and it comes at great cost to both sides – as with any revolution. All that red imagery, from the Tethereds’ outfits to the bloodshed to the Adelaide’s candy apple, is both ominous because of its association with blood and horror and telling because it’s the color of rebellion.

Toward the beginning of the movie, a red-and-gold Frisbee lands on Adelaide’s beach towel, perfectly aligning with one of the blue dots and literally replacing it – foreshadowing of events to come as Tethereds attempt to replace their counterparts. All the talk about replacement brought to mind the white supremacist chant of “You will not replace us” during the 2017 Charlottesville demonstration, with “you” being the marginalized people of color and “us” being white people (especially white men). Horror has always served allegory for societal fears of its time. Us seems to be a statement about how the privileged fear losing their status and being replaced, representing the worst nightmare of those born to power.

One part that seemed particularly poignant was when Red, confronting Adelaide about their encounter as children, said, “You could have taken me with you.” Adelaide chose to save only herself – at the expense of Red – which she was able to do purely because of chance. Then she abandoned and/or forgot all her peers still trapped below, entrenching herself in her new privileged life. She’s a self-made woman, and her actions are reminiscent of many-a “self-made” person who never acknowledge the lucky circumstances that allowed them to rise above, and indeed look down upon others like them who weren’t blessed by some twist of fate. Yes, she seized the opportunity when presented to her, but she didn’t create that opportunity to begin with. Events didn’t have to unfold as they did – when she encountered Original Adelaide, she could have tried to escape with her, instead of chaining her below.

Red, meanwhile, doesn’t only seek her own revenge, but is determined to bring freedom to all the Tethereds.

All this seems also to be a statement about forgotten American history. This is a nation built on genocide and enslavement, but the privileged like to forget that part and talk only about exploration and triumph. But just because you forget or abandon something doesn’t mean it goes away. The Tethered were the results of a forgotten and abandoned experiment. Long after their creators forgot and abandoned them, they remained and continued suffering.

The movie both embraces and challenges slasher-film tropes. You could watch it as a fun, gory home-invasion flick about creeps that stab people with scissors. Yet by the end, if you’re paying attention, you’re left thinking about your assumptions. Imagine if the Tethereds, instead of displaying disturbing behavior, were relatable and well spoken, and the aboveground people, instead of being normal middle-class Americans, were depicted with the excessive opulence. And Red was the POV character. The Tethereds still rise up, and they still kill those with power. You wouldn’t have a horror movie. You’d have a dystopia in the vein of The Hunger Games. Us challenges the audience to consider who they find sympathetic.

Are the Tethereds evil? The film primes the audience to think so -- they're out for blood, after all. But so were the French revolutionaries who beheaded aristocrats for the crime of being rich. When it comes to actual body count, Adelaide and her family seem to rack up more than their Tethereds. One side is fighting for freedom. The other for survival and status quo. Which is... how any revolution works, really.

Anyway, there’s far more that could be discussed in a movie as rich as Us, but I’ve already gone on for far too long. This is a film that was created to be talked about, to be analyzed, and to send a message. As for what that message is – we can only speculate at this point. My take is above. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear about your take in the comments.


Josh Pritchett said...

I agree. This movie is terrific and terrifying. Like Get Out, Peel has created another thought provoking horror film in the tradition of Frankenstein. That's something else I thought about, how like Red is like the Frankenstein Monster. The wanting to avenge itself on it's creator for abandoning it. I grew up being a horror film fan, but gave up on American horror movies because they were an endless slasher film festival. Peel's movies are scary, make one think, even if one needs to suspend logic to see the bigger picture of what he wants to say.
Mary's review is excellent and really gave me more to think about as I think about it in the future.

Mary Fan said...

Awesome, thank you for reading!!!

Arion said...

Great post! Seems like we've both seen Jordan Peele's movies. I love horror as a genre and I think he definitely has a unique style. If you want to check out my blog and read my opinions about films and comics, please feel free to do so:


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