The Social Cut | Us, Women

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The Social Cut is a monthly column by Rishika Aggarwal that critically analyses various media shows, movies and documentaries, from an intersectionalist feminist standpoint.

Partway through Jordan Peele’s supremely unsettling new horror film, Us, Adelaide Wilson – played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o – turns to her husband and makes the declaration that emphasizes her role as the protagonist of the film.

“You don’t get to make the decisions anymore!”

Peele’s second feature film – and second foray into the world of horror – Us is not only a cinematic achievement, it is a step forward in the portrayal of women and characters of colour (specifically, black people) in cinema and horror in particular.

In writing his story, Peele eschews the dichotomous trope that horror films so often fall prey to – the depiction of women as either Madonna or whore. Instead, Nyong’o’s dual roles of Adelaide and Red fall into the grey area that women rarely inhabit in this genre – each has understandable and perhaps even sympathetic motives, and by the end of the movie, the audience cannot tell on whose side they are meant to be on.

Red and Adelaide are undeniably connected, sharing a rich and complex history that stems from a single moment in their childhood. Their moral trajectories rely on each other to a greater extent than those of any of the characters with their respective doppelgängers. Indeed, though the reasoning Red and her cohort of reflections calling themselves ‘The Tethered’ is obvious enough early on in the movie, more often than not, one gets the sense that the name is also derived from the connection that Nyong’o’s two characters share.

Us follows the reveal of a set of shadowy figures that are nearly identical in appearance to the protagonists the film has already introduced the audience to. Yet these figures are neither twins nor a supernatural version of the characters’ alter ego – instead, they are threatening reflections, shadows of the protagonists that were knowingly created by the same social order that has protected the people they emerge to terrorise. Abandoned in a vast system of underground tunnels for some unknown reasons, they have surfaced because, as Red puts it, “We want to take back our time.”

Adelaide and Red respectively take on important roles as the moment of reunion comes closer. Adelaide is the prophet, plagued by an inexplicable sense of unease as she reluctantly accompanies her family on a holiday to Santa Cruz and the beachfront that is the location of her deepest childhood trauma. Each coincidence takes on a greater meaning, until, as Adelaide puts it, “It feels like there’s this black cloud hanging over us.” She is the first to sound the alarm, the one who realises that there’s something wrong when an unknown family appears on her doorway, while her husband looks for a more benign explanation. More, she is further the one that takes the lead when it comes to fighting back against the doppelgängers – in one scene, she matter-of-factly points out that she has the highest kill count of the family.

Red, on the other hand, is an underground leader. Powerfully, she is the only one of the major Tethered figures who can speak (for a reason that we find out later), and she is the orchestrator behind their emergence into the world aboveground. Brought up in the darkness to Adelaide’s light, she emerges as a revolutionary. The Tethered, as she puts it, are “Americans,” a nation of their own, and she is its figurehead. It’s a powerful position to see a woman, especially a dark skinned black woman, hold.

Ultimately, the two women (because for all that they are reflections, they are also individuals of their own) are entangled in ways none of the others are to their counterparts. They are the pinnacle of the nature vs. nurture debate, as the climax of the movie reveals.

They are each other – the young Red having knocked out and taken the real Adelaide’s place when they first met at the age of 8, in the mirror-filled funhouse on the very beach they both now find themselves in. Red is Adelaide and Adelaide is Red, inseparable no matter Red/Adelaide-the-revolutionary-leader tries.

For all that Peele’s movie is a look into the darkness each one of us carries within ourselves, it is also a movie about the trials and triumphs of a single woman. It is an intimate horror that evolves into a far-greater one.

In Adelaide and Red, Peele has created a pair of constantly compelling characters – they are no longer the trope of the damsels in distress, or the besieged women forced to defend themselves that is so common in horror movies. Instead, they are fleshed out, complex characters. They are grey characters, and with this greyness, Peele opens not only a new world for black-led horror, but also for female-led horror – a fact made ever more poignant that his next horror movie, a remake of the horror classic Candyman, has Nia DaCosta, a black woman, directing it.

Rishika Aggarwal is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective.

Featured image: The Ringer