By Olivia Blackmon
Jordan Peele’s Get Out turns an outdated horror narrative on its head to offer a brilliant critique of the liberal racism that we so often ignore. Get Out’s victim is not a white woman walking solo down a dimly lit city street, but rather a Black man entering a well-to-do white suburb. Moreover, the racism in Get Out is not perpetrated by neo-Nazis. The villains are not the “alt-right.” They are middle class liberals. If you are a CC student, these people might be your neighbors; they could be your family. The film’s villains do not consider themselves racist. If anything, they would label themselves allies – “good” white people. They want you to know that they would vote for Obama a third time if given the chance. But their micro-aggressions add up and it quickly becomes clear that far more harm than good is being done in their suburb.
Peele draws from the 1975 cult film, The Stepford Wives, to demonstrate how racism operates among “good” white people. In The Stepford Wives, suburban women are appreciated only for their physical attributes and their childcare and cleaning abilities. They are reduced to these qualities by their husbands and the independent functioning of their minds is deemed unnecessary. All Stepford husbands eventually replace their wives with “fembots” that enjoy domestic labor, have no control over their bodies, and have no capacity for complex thought. The town’s feminist movement is crushed and the last freethinking woman in Stepford is murdered by her look-alike fembot. This reduction of women to less-than-human objects is paralleled in Get Out, where white characters place value on Black bodies but not on Black minds. The protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is envied by white characters for his physical abilities, athletic potential, and style, while his artistic ability and professional success are ignored. By appreciating Chris for his physical build and aesthetic alone, white characters erase his individual experience and personhood. Ultimately, Chris’s body is commodified and sold so that a white man might experience new physical potentials by using his body as an avatar. As white people attempt to control Chris’s body, his mind is condemned to a “sunken place,” a reference to the numbing and paralysis felt by Black citizens of “post-racial” America.
All the while, victims in both The Stepford Wives and Get Out wonder if their experiences are real or just products of their own paranoia. Those with power gaslight those who demonstrate dissent and force them to question their sanity. The victims struggle so hard to “get out” because systemic and systematic sexism and racism are so pervasive and overwhelming that it can become unclear how to separate fact from feeling. The Stepford Wives emphasizes this idea in its closing scenes. Fembots stroll through the supermarket having trivial surface-level conversations while the next victim arrives in town, ultimately sending the message that the system is stronger than the individual.
Unlike The Stepford Wives, which has been criticized for it’s less than encouraging ending, Get Out offers the audience a sense of hope and relief. The police lights in the final scene were enough to suggest that in a real life situation, Chris would have been taken to prison if not shot as soon as the cops arrived. If the audience is aware of this reality, why not exchange that ending for a positive one that gives the audience a hero? This is exactly what Peele did (however, it has been rumored that there are multiple alternative endings that have not yet been released) (Whitney). We are left with the question: How can “good” white people, or white people who claim to be allies, be trusted if they do not make efforts to understand the experiences of people of color?
By Judy Fisher
The dangers of liberals who deny and perpetuate racism have been a popular topic of discussion recently, in part due to Jordan Peele’s new horror film Get Out. The film focuses on the widely-believed, modern myth of the elimination of racism, which can be attributed to, among other things, the rise of implicit, subtle racism, coupled with the idea of “progress” being defined in a linear, forward-moving framework. As described by Rosalind Delmar, “The present is treated as the culmination of the past and as relatively ‘advanced’ compared to that past.” (28) This construction of progress is exemplified in the perspectives of white people who consider the racism of 100 years ago as decidedly ‘worse’ than today’s manifestations of racism.
Interestingly enough, Peele was partially influenced by Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film The Stepford Wives, based on a novel by Ira Levin, which has been critiqued for its narrow focus on white suburbia without acknowledging aspects of race, sexuality, class, and so on. In The Stepford Wives there is mention of a black family moving into their suburban neighborhood and how that is natural because of how “liberal” they are despite the lack of diversity. There is also a short depiction of this normative heterosexual black couple in the grocery store at the end of the film. From the perspective of marginalized people this is a sad attempt at including black people to seem more progressive. As described by Charlotte Bunch on the lesbian experience within heterosexual spaces, “Since unity and coalition seem necessary, the question for me is unity on what terms? To unify… requires more than token reference to queers” (222). Here Bunch advocates for the hearty inclusion of marginalized voices in dialogues about liberation, without which, she warns, everyday bigotry is more easily perpetuated.
This dialogue is one that Jordan Peele emphasizes in his film. During an interview with the New York Times, Peele stated:
The liberal elite who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.
This acknowledgement is specifically directed towards a liberal, white audience because they don’t see the way racism thrives in everyday life, for example in micro-aggressions, and because they benefit from white supremacy. Charlotte Bunch explains this through a parallel experience with heterosexuality: “Since lesbians are materially oppressed by heterosexuality daily, it is not surprising that we have seen and understood its impact first—not because we are more moral, but because our reality is different” (223). We need to acknowledge that violence and oppression can result from good intentions in the same way they do from bad intentions.
It is important that allies and liberal elites acknowledge their role in perpetuating violence, as acknowledged in Jordan Peele’s film. It is arguably even more important that marginalized people hold themselves and those within their communities accountable. As written by the Combahee River Collective, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us” (269). It is important for us to acknowledge the incredibly liberating things that we can do when we hold each other accountable. Simultaneously, we must be aware of the devastating things that humans can do to each other in a society. When asked what scared him the most in his interview with the New York Times, Peele stated, “Human beings. What people can do in conjunction with other people is exponentially worse than what they can do alone. Society is the scariest monster.”
By Spencer Spotts
In August of 1955, fourteen-year-old black teenager Emmett Till had been visiting family in Mississippi when Till was accused by two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, of whistling at Bryant’s white wife, Carolyn Bryant, at a local store. A few days later, Till was abducted by Milam and Bryant, brutally murdered, and then disposed into a river. In court, Carolyn had elaborated that Till had made “verbal and physical advances towards her.” Even with sufficient evidence against Milam and Bryant, they were still found not guilty. However, more than sixty years later, Vanity Fair reports that a new book by Timothy Tyson includes a 2007 interview with Carolyn in which she admits to lying about Till’s verbal and physical advances. While the case of Emmett Till has been analyzed for decades by critical race scholars, there is obviously a temptation to re-interpret and re-analyze the Till case now. However, I advocate that we carefully engage in our “new” analyses, because if theories from critical white studies are applied, we can understand the case of Till – including the recent explicit claim of guilt by Carolyn – as anything but “new” or “shocking.”
Evoking the work of Patricia Hill Collins, the initial case of Till’s death relied heavily upon a history of controlling images about black men, and in particular, their sexuality – especially in relation to white women. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain that early images of black male slaves depicted black men as “never overtly sexual” and that any “potential to be a sexual and economic competitor was minimized by portraying him as an object of laughter” through the use of blackface (171). However, Delgado and Stefancic later note that during the Reconstruction period, “sexuality denied to uncles and mammies found a crude outlet in a new stereotype of the recently freed male Negro as brutish and bestial…ready to force sex on any white women” (171). This new controlling image was originally used by white supremacists (be it white jurors or the KKK) during this time period to justify any violence enacted upon black men. It continued to inform how white people conceptualized themselves through blackness, and through an Other that plagued white American subjectivity and law even fifty years later, when Till was murdered.
Furthermore, Till’s death and court case effectively functioned to uphold Carolyn’s whiteness. Even Tyson, the author of the new book The Blood of Emmett Till, writes that the case “went a long way toward ruining her life.” Regardless of what has been theorized prior to the 2007 interview, Carolyn has now openly admitted to her role in the murder of Till, and yet her innocence is still protected and prioritized. Thomas Ross writes in “Innocence and Affirmative Action” that “the ‘innocent white victim’ triggers at some level its rhetorically natural opposite, the ‘defiled black taker’” (28). Ross argues that the existence of whiteness and its innocence relies on blackness and “the unconscious racist belief that the black person is not innocent in a sexual sense” (31). If we apply the history of controlling images about black men’s sexuality as noted by Delgado and Stefancic, the deconstruction of innocence rhetoric by Ross, Carolyn’s comments, and more importantly, Tyson’s writing of Carolyn, we should not be surprised but instead further warned about the power, strength, and seeming immortality of controlling images and their formative roles in the construction of white subjectivity.