I have joined for the fifth year with some other amazing bloggers to celebrate women under the auspicious blogging series titled: Fiction’s Fearless Females! For the next few weeks, three other bloggers and I will share who they believe is a fictional woman to be admired, and I will share each entry of the series on this blog. Today’s post comes from Kalie of Just Dread-Full, a superb blog that gives insightful critiques of the horror genre.
Guest post from Kalie of Just Dread-Full
Dear readers, gather around the campfire—okay, or the computer screen—as I regale you with a story. Throughout time, we’ve been entertained with tales of heroes—the Mighty Achilles, Sir Gawain, Beowulf…Spiderman, Superman, Antman, Xena the Warrior Princess…and the list goes on. I’m here today, however, to discuss a different hero—a single woman who, at a young age, was relegated to a cold, imprisoning underground lair not by any evil villain, but by her own image, staring back at her in a funhouse mirror. For years, the subterranean woman lived among her subterranean people, a group of have-nots who were tethered to those in the world above, who “lived the lives” of those above ground, albeit without all the artifacts and accouterments associated with living. Angry at her fate, this young woman grew up and devised a plan, inspired by the image on a t-shirt, that could be executed with a mere lighter and a few pairs of scissors. The woman planned not just to take over a city, a state, or a nation, but, with the help of the others who lived with her underground, to take over the world, to re-populate the world above ground with her enslaved, tethered people. She did not want fame, power, or fortune—merely justice and the warm light of the sun, for herself and those she lived among. Thus, with nothing but cunning brilliance, a few dull sheers, an eccentric family, and some kickass dance moves, a young woman and her family entered the “ordinary world,” intent on inhabiting it by dominating it.
Okay, clearly I wasn’t suited to write heroic epics, but I think you get the gist of the story I just told. If you’re a horror fan—more generally—and a Jordan Peele fan—more specifically—the story probably sounds familiar to you, because it’s the plot of the movie Us, albeit told a different way, in a different context. Us immediately captivated me when I saw it because of the way it blurs the boundaries between the seemingly binary concepts of “good” and “evil,” along with the concepts of “self” and “other.” I have written about Us before on this blog, however, and I suppose I risk, with this post, the chance of repeating myself. Luckily, I’m not just writing about the film Us, but about a specific woman in the film for this year’s installment of Fiction’s Fearless Females. Every year I join a few other bloggers for International Women’s Month, and we take turns writing about women in fiction who somehow—and often in a variety of unusual or unexpected ways—exemplify the word “fearless” – women who show extraordinary bravery in a variety of dire circumstances. Other contributors to this series include Michael from My Comic Relief, Nancy from Graphic Novelty², and Jeff from the Imperial Talker, all of whom have written/will write about other fearless females and who I have featured and/or will feature on Just Dread-full.
For now, however, let us go back to the movie Us and focus on the woman I chose for this series (and I’ll note here that I have to include spoilers to highlight why I find this woman extraordinary—if my reasoning wasn’t evident in my opening story). Anyone who’s seen Us knows that the fantastic Lupita Nyong’o plays two parts in the story: she is both Adelaide Wilson, a perfectly normal wife and mother living above ground with her family, and she is Red, her disheveled doppelganger who appears, one day, with a slightly altered version of Adelaide’s family. After all, everyone in this story has a doppelganger.
We learn, eventually, that the miles upon miles of empty underground space around the world holds these hidden doppelgangers—replicas of human beings who live a weird sort of jittery life in which they emulate the gestures and mannerisms of their human match above ground, but they do so in what looks like a mixture of a classroom and a science lab—a space with no sign of stimulation or comfort, where the doppelgangers interact as best they can, appearing, as it were, to be slightly “monstrous” versions of their corresponding humans (if, that is, monstrosity is defined by a disheveled appearance and affective idiosyncrasies).
But that’s the trick of this film; at the beginning of her movie, Red and her family are clearly threatening to the Wilsons. They appear, by all means, to be the “scary antagonists” of this incredibly unique horror film. Only as we learn Red’s true story, and the corresponding story of Adelaide, do we realize that perhaps the lines between hero and villain—even between hero and anti-hero—aren’t that clearly drawn. Perhaps the real bad guys are absent in the diegetic narrative, and in the entire debacle that unfolds in the film. Ultimately, the film Us seems to assert what Jack Halberstam so wisely observed—that there is not a distinct binary relationship between “human” and “monster,” and that monsters should not be read as the binary antithesis of humanity. After all, in some ways, both Adelaide and Red are monstrous, but both women—and I argue, especially Red—ultimately emerge as brilliant and heroic in their efforts to gain a normal, free, untethered life.
One of the key things to know to appreciate the movie (this is, also, by far the biggest spoiler) is that Adelaide and Red, who look like twins because they’re both played by Nyong’o and are, in fact, doubles, are also each other; Adelaide is actually Red and Red is actually Adelaide. We are led to believe, at first, that when young Adelaide (later Red) enters a funhouse at a boardwalk amusement park in California and sees her double—a twin, but not an exact reflection, staring back at her in the mirror—the double takes her underground, but the original Adelaide manages to escape, albeit with the trauma of the experience haunting her. For some time upon “returning” above ground, Adelaide does not talk. A scene of a therapist speaking to Adelaide’s parents implies that as a child, after the event, she received therapy for her trauma and loss of speech, and eventually the therapeutic nature of dancing allowed her to regain that speech, deal with the trauma (to an extent), and live a normal life as an adult, with a husband and two children. That is, initially, the story that the narrative provides us.
However, at the end of the film, the audience gets let in on exactly what transpired below ground, and we realize that it was never Adelaide who emerged. Rather, her “double” (doppelganger, “tethered,” etc.) kidnapped “the original Adelaide” as a child, trapped her in the underground world and emerged above ground to take her place. Red (the “replacement Adelaide,” the simulacrum) must become Adelaide, and Adelaide acts differently and stops speaking because it isn’t Adelaide who comes back. Perhaps, then, to an extent, that is the horror of the doppelganger, who is, in this film, quite literally a “body-snatcher.” You can be the parents of the doppelganger, the children of the doppelganger, or the doppelganger’s lover, and there’s no way to know that the person you think you know on a deep, personal level is or isn’t really who they say they are. And yet, in this film, the catch for me was that there was nothing particularly horrific about the beautiful wife and mother, Adelaide Wilson, secretly hailing from an underground lair. Why be afraid if we cannot tell the difference anyway? Clearly Adelaide served her role well as a wife and mother. The observation raises the question, then, if the “doppelgangers” are the scary “others” in the film, what, really, is the difference between self and other? As a sidenote, if it’s not been made obvious already, when I say “Adelaide,” I try to refer to the child who originally lived underground but emerged in Adelaide’s place and grew up to be Adelaide Wilson. Red is the woman who originally lived above ground, gets kidnapped, and starts a bloody revolution to free herself and the others who live underground.
And it is a revolution, if we take up the dictionary definition that a revolution as a “forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system.” That’s the thing with Red—whose name, interestingly, bears what was historically the symbolic color of the communist party: She and her family are presented as formidable weirdos at the start of the story, but her dismal life underground bespeaks to her obvious oppression, and an oppression, no less, brought on by humans. We don’t really know how the “tethered” doubles came to be or why they’re relegated to underground lairs, but the mis en scene gives us some pretty good clues. First, there are walls of rabbits in cages. Though it appears that that the tethered are being fed raw rabbits, the image of rows full of cages with animals brings to mind animal-based scientific laboratory testing, which may not always be insidious but which generally has a negative connotation, especially when not the animals but the presence of the encumbering cages are foregrounded. To that extent the rabbit in the film is both means for understanding and metaphor—we understand because of these carefully constructed rabbit cages that the “habitat” for the tethered was probably created by humans, but the rabbits in bare cages seem like metaphors for the tethered themselves, who live in spaces that look like bare hallways and classrooms—another clue that this is a very human-made situation. Indeed, if rabbits are metaphors, and rabbits are often tested on, then it seems possible that the tethered were re-created in the name of “science”—perhaps, specifically, scientific testing that couldn’t be done on “humans.” We never know, but part of the fun and fascination of the film is the speculation it allows and the sparse but careful clues it provides. I am starting to think that a hallmark of films I love is that they give you enough to fill in the gaps, but not enough to fill in the gaps with any degree of certainty. Myriad “backstories,” “prequels,” or other explanatory narratives could be made to explain the tethered, but we can’t know which one, for sure, although we can probably eliminate some guesses.
There is, then, little question that at least the habitat for these “doubles” was made by humans. Are the tethered captured at birth and forced to live underground, or are they more like clones, somehow created from the of DNA every human being at birth and then relegated to the subterranean? Do the details even matter? The point is, the “tethered” seem to be the creepy doubles of unknowing humans and, possibly, the byproduct of a cruel science experiment. One cannot help but argue, then, that Adelaide (“Adelaide”) who originally lived underground but devised a method of escape through a portal in a theme park funhouse is a “fearless female” who saw the hopelessness of her fate and made concrete actions by changing it, by imprisoning a look-alike and blending herself into the above-ground world. (This trope is weirdly little mermaid-y, but without the presence of sparkling undersea kingdoms. And on the mermaid note, Adelaide and Ariel share one commonality: both, when the emerge above ground, cannot speak comprehensibly to other humans. Hmmm…hmmm…hmmm…). It may seem “selfish” from a banal reading, but Adelaide’s act is an act of desperation, an act of brilliance, and an act of bravery. Who, after all, would dare to spend their whole lives practically enslaved and then “sneak in” to the world of the “free,” nonchalantly blend themselves in, learn the language, and live a life that they had little concept of when they were below ground (in this case, surrounded by bare classrooms and animal cages).
And despite how fascinated I am by Adelaide Wilson, the oppressed who was presumably born into the underground fate and managed to escape it through a mixture of careful maneuvering and pure aggression, “Red,” who is presented as the monstrous other, who’s been living underground for years when the film opens, is the one who fascinates me more. For Adelaide makes a difficult decision (perhaps) and takes serious risks when she frees herself and becomes “part of that world,” but Red is the character that the film would have us think is the “monster” and yet—yet, yet, she’s fighting to get some different version of her original life back, and in doing so, she joins all the doubles together, executes a complex plan, and leads what is commensurate to an underground worldwide revolution in which those—doppelgangers, doubles, clones (?)—can escape their enslaved fate and live out the free—or “free”—lives that we all prize so highly, especially in this country. To that end, Janis Joplin is wrong, and freedom’s not just another word for “nothing left to lose” (take that, my Bobby McGee). Adelaide Wilson, now free and vacationing in a summer home with her family, has everything to lose because she’s free, and “Red,” who was kidnapped and forced to live underground by Adelaide so many years ago, is willing to come back and take it.
The implication of the film is that every human on earth has an underground double, or a tethered, because there’s a lot more space underground than we think (and the tethered, it appears, live in more crowded confines than those in the ordinary world do). To that extent, the tethered people are Red’s world, and Red is leading not just the equivalent of a worldwide revolution, but, insofar as these two groups of people have been separated their entire lives with, in the case of the above-grounds, little to no knowledge of the other, she’s leading a revolution that is not like a takeover from outer-space, albeit one that comes from the other direction (which is, I suppose, another parallel worth considering, especially in the wake of Peele’s most recent film, Nope). And she successfully orchestrates this complete takeover—for, by the end of the film, we see the tethered holding hands and forming a line above ground, like the “hands across America” image that we’re shown earlier in the movie—a lot of people above ground have died, and it appears the tethered, all over the world, are winning or have won. And yet, we can’t call them evil. It is not malice, or killing for the sake of killing, that they do. It is a retaliation for a sort of colonization, for the tethered, to some extent, are subjugated the way a colonized person might be. They are not just assimilated but are, instead, simulations, but they are (perhaps) assimilated simulations whose actions are extremely controlled and who are denied practically any external phenomenon, let alone useful resources.
But in her powerful retaliation Red, in a sense, ignites the apocalypse, which is bloody and traumatic and scary for many humans who probably had no direct knowledge of the oppression of those underground, but is, still, a revolution—a complete takeover to escape a life of horrific oppression and to have the chance to live a decent existence, with buildings and plants and sidewalks and sun, above ground. It is even more important to consider, I think, that Red was born above ground and has planned all this while living below it for years upon years, being somehow, peculiarly, tethered to Adelaide above ground so that she enacts a lot of the gestures Adelaide enacts, but without the external world to interact with. (This movie could also be interesting, I think, from a phenomenological perspective). She has virtually nothing except the other tethered and some scissors that were left below ground as if they were classroom tools. And yet, she successfully organizes the entire takeover of humanity—but not out of some act of malice or evil. Because the only way the tethered can escape the bondage (at least, we infer) –the bondage of the underground, the bondage of being tethered to those above and being forced to imitate their gestures and interactions—is to kill their doppelgangers.
I always hated when people would say, of my friends who died of alcoholism or addiction, “they must die so that others can live,” but it would appear to be the sad paradox of recovery that seeing enough people die of addiction or alcoholism convinces the recovering alcoholic to stay away from that stuff, and there’s a similar sad paradox of existence in this movie, insofar as that paradox is implied by the word “tethered” which means to tie with a rope or chain and restrict movement. These underground beings are restricted by the invisible ropes that tie them to their comparatively privileged doubles above ground. For killing the “above-ground” beings seems to break the rope, the chain, and then (not wholly unlike the proletariat taking over the bourgeoisie and forming a new world order in communist theory) the tethered, who have been tethered their whole lives, are set free. Red and her family only seem like monsters through the myopic view of the diegetic humans in the narrative. The situational irony of the film is that we know more than the human characters, so we understand that, no matter how fundamentally “bad” violence is, it’s tenuous and inconsistent to consider the tethered “monsters,” when the real monsters are probably the people who created and/or trapped them to begin with, and who aren’t featured in the diegetic narrative but are part of the above-ground beings, the normate humans.
When Michael and I discussed what we would write about for “Fiction’s Fearless Females” this year, I originally considered a few other females, and Michael’s point provoked some thought within me: “Fearless” does not necessarily mean “heroic.” The word hero, after all, as the introduction to this piece implies about fictional heroes, is deceptive, contested, and can as easily be applied, by dominant cultural ideology, to colonizing imperialists as it can to actual revolutionaries. To that end, I guess I make two claims, here: If Red’s bloodshed negates her heroism, she is still about as fearless as a female can be with her decision to take over a (still male-dominated, normate-dominated, resourceful) world with a group of oppressed people and a pair of scissors. But, we could argue that she is heroic in addition to being fearless. In Homerian Greek myth the “heroes” went to war over the kidnapping of a single woman, Helen of Troy, because of that woman’s status and beauty. War and its corresponding notion of “heroism” has been used for the acquisition of power, possession, and status, practically since agrarian culture sprung up and “war” so-called, became a thing. A woman who is kidnapped, forced to a tethered non-existent existence underground, and leads a revolution to gain her freedom and the freedom of others is, in this case, still a killer, but we might categorize her motivations as “just,” and beyond that, clearly she’s not just fighting for her own freedom. She is the one being down there, the only one, who has lived above ground at all, and she’ll use what she knows and risk her life to free them all. Whether or not she is a “hero”—a word that is unimportant, anyway, in noun form—there is certainly something heroic about her.
There’s so much you can do, conceptually, with this movie, and I can’t try to do it all right now, but I’m interested in two concepts, predominantly: the first is the doppelganger, which is often considered an evil twin or a harbinger of doom in fictional literature, and which indeed appears to be so in this film. The doppelganger is also a metaphor for “self-seeing”—as worded by one website—and to this end, of course, the whole film could be read and has been read as a metaphor of seeing our more malevolent natures and emerging from them. It’s a good reading—one, I think, that Peele even hinted toward—but it’s one of many ways, only, to read the film.
The other thing I keep thinking of is Baudrillard’s simulacrum, which I know little to nothing about (I’ve never read Baudrillard) but which I googled when I was writing this piece. What is interesting about the world of the tethered people is that, in many ways, it’s the antithesis of a simulacrum. If a simulacrum is a near-exact or completely exact representation of an original, but one that, to Baudrillard, represents the truth or the hyperreal, than the world of the tethered is nothing like the world above. Perhaps, then, it is the opposite of the real or the hyperreal because it’s a sort of non-simulacrum or an antithetical simulacrum. The beginning of the film, for example, shows people riding carnival rides above grounds, and beings moving awkwardly in abandoned hallways below ground, somewhat imitating the practice of riding rides, but without the excitement and pleasure of an amusement park ride to experience. The subterranean is nothing like the world above; it lacks almost every type of phenomenon that the world above has. So the world below cannot really be considered a simulacrum, but to some extent, the doubles can be. What happens when you replicate a human but deny them the things that nurture humanity? What happens to the simulacrum when it breaks, when only a part of the set-up is an exact replica, or when you put the replica into and environment that is antithetical to its needs? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and perhaps they are more philosophical than they are practical, but we could say this much: if the simulacrum represents the hyperreal, then the doppelgangers in Us are certainly about as alive, as real, as hyperreal as one could imagine. And through cunning and courage, they release themselves from their horrendous fate, led by Red, this week’s fictional fearless female.
March 17, 2023 at 2:05 pm
I really had a blast with Us and can see how it invited you on such a journey of reflection. I now also learned what a Baudrillard’s simulacrum, so thank you for that haha!
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March 18, 2023 at 5:55 am
I had to look up the term Baudrillard’s simulacrum too! 😉
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March 24, 2023 at 5:13 pm
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