It’s a law of nature: A white person cannot write a favorable review of Get Out without sounding like one of the white people in Get Out. Best horror-comedy-of-manners examining societal prejudice in my lifetime! Saw it in the theater opening weekend! Would have seen it in the theater three times, if I could!
It’s 2022. You know what Get Out is, and you know that it’s a good movie. Jordan Peele is one of the most acclaimed and influential horror directors of the century. (Would have named him one of the most acclaimed and influential horror directors of the century three times!) Every socially conscious horror project now has to reckon with Get Out, if only in the comps section of the pitch.
So what I will say, up front, is that Get Out is not my favorite Peele — I prefer Nope, his most Spielbergian (and specifically Jurassic-Park-ian) picture — but it is his most perfect. Every word and shot and beat is executed to its best potential. There’s big debut energy; Peele knows that you’re familiar with his name, and that it’s going to be easy to write him off as a comedian with pretensions above his station, and what he has come up with is a big, ambitious, technically impeccable artist’s statement, showing you exactly what he can do, so that you’ll never be able to write him off again.
So Get Out is a marvel in many ways, but one of the most impressive accomplishments was its across-the-board legibility. Peele was able to make a fairly risky statement — “nice white liberals” are (a) not that nice, and (b) just as complicit in white supremacy as anyone else — in a way that everyone, including a lot of nice white liberals, understood. I would suggest that there was a reason he was able to do this. Get Out, like Nope, was in many ways a riff on an earlier artist’s style, and that style was familiar enough to set our expectations. Peele was able to get his point across by speaking a language his audience knew — because, whether you realize this or not, you do know Ira Levin.
Ira Levin was not a director. He wasn’t even really a screenwriter. Ira Levin was a novelist, who wrote sharp, tense, genre-blending, often funny thrillers, and he wrote two books, in particular, that every horror fan is familiar with: Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.
Neither book is famous as a book, or as an Ira Levin project. Rosemary’s Baby is forever going to be associated with Polanski. The Stepford Wives, which was adapted for film twice (one is campy-on-accident, the other campy-on-purpose; the first is better) feels like one of those stories our culture has always had floating around — a town full of sweet, servile, dutiful housewives, all of whom are secretly robots built to replace the real women, who were murdered by their husbands. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, you’ve heard it referenced: A “Stepford wife” is an inauthentic woman. A “Stepford smile” is an inauthentic smile.
A Stepford woman is a woman who is in the Sunken Place — her selfhood has been stripped from her body, and that body is now an object, owned by her oppressors, who use it however they please. There's reason to believe that Peele not only intended the reference, he played it up: Both The Stepford Wives and Get Out begin with their protagonists leaving New York City at the urging of their romantic partners. Both have art careers they’re leaving behind in the city; both are photographers.
The list of parallels goes on — the “get out” in Get Out is a Stepford Wives scene; one of the replacements breaks down and reveals its true nature at a garden party — but you will have picked up, by now, that though “socially conscious horror comedy” was Ira Levin’s deal, his focus was different than Peele’s. Specifically, Levin was fascinated with gender, which, in the 1960s and 1970s, meant mostly affluent white women.
Both of Levin’s feminist horror stories are stone-cold classics. Rosemary’s Baby is about a woman who is raped while unconscious (her husband casually admits to raping her in the first act, although he’s covering for a more sinister entity) and impregnated with a baby she doesn’t want, while everyone in her life insists that she can’t possibly know her own mind well enough to say there’s a problem. The Stepford Wives is, well, Get Out for white ladies, with the caveat that Get Out was The Stepford Wives for Black men.
The Stepford Wives also deserves credit for being a story about anti-feminist backlash written years before the actual backlash — just as Get Out was written and shot in the Obama years, but landed harder after the election of Trump. This context is explicit in the novel: Joanna, the heroine, feels superior to the docile housewives of Stepford because she is an active “Women’s Libber,” and she won’t stop bragging about how her good-male-feminist husband lets her go to protests.
Well: He let her go to protests, past tense. After enough of them, he apparently decided to cart Joanna off to the suburbs, murder her, and replace her with a sex doll. It’s a chilling betrayal, and the fact that we catch on before Joanna makes it all the more sickening. Sexism is a very intimate oppression — not something you do to some imagined Other on the other side of the world, but to your sister, your mother, your wife or girlfriend — and when Levin is scary, it’s because he’s tapped into our fear of intimate betrayal. The moment that sticks with me most, from The Stepford Wives, is Joanna reciting random words into a tape recorder to help with someone's "speech project" while her husband putters around nearby. The man she loves is taking her voice, so he can give it to her replacement, and she has no idea.
We trust the people we love. We have no choice. We believe that they see us; that they support us; that they value who we truly are. If we turn out to be wrong, then they are likely too close for us to do anything about it. Even the nice white guys aren’t that nice. That’s the moral of The Stepford Wives. To which Get Out adds, some decades later: The nice white women are pretty bad, too.
One particular death, in Get Out, reliably gets huge applause in theaters. You know the one: It’s when Marnie from Girls (her name is Alison Williams in real life, and “Rose” in this movie, but come on — she is very much “Marnie from Girls” here) gets a shotgun blast to the stomach. The shooter is Chris, her boyfriend, and he’s forced to do this because she’s lured him into the middle of nowhere and betrayed him to her cabal of brain-transplanting white relatives.
The first time I heard the applause for Rose’s death, it made me a little uncomfortable. There were lots of awful white people in the movie, after all, and Chris had already killed most of them — why should the death of a young woman, specifically, be cause for rejoicing? Why not cheer when Bradley Whitford bites it, or Stephen Root?
The fact that the applause disturbed me is why it mattered. I don’t talk about this that much, because it makes me sound like I think I’m special, but though I’m white, my husband and kid are Asian — to the extent I play any role in our family’s racial cosmos, I’m the Marnie-from-Girls. Those people in the theater weren’t cheering the death of a woman; they were cheering the death of a traitor. There are lots of terrible white people in Get Out, but Rose is the one who claims to love Chris, who stands up for him, who tries to warn him against her family’s racism and diffuse tense situations. She’s the one to whom he turns for comfort when he’s scared.
“White people are racist” is not news, but “the white people who say they love you are just as racist as all the others” is genuinely scary. That’s why Rose needs to die, and why she needs to get the biggest and splashiest and most cathartic death. Like the husbands in Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives — especially the good-feminist-ally husband in The Stepford Wives, come to think of it — she is the scariest villain, even if she’s not the most powerful, because she represents the most intimate betrayal.
Rose also represents something else that I find interesting: Forty years earlier, a woman almost exactly like her — young, white, pretty, progressive, a little overly friendly with her Black neighbors — was the heroine of The Stepford Wives. Again, I do not think the resemblance is coincidental. Peele strips white womanhood of its innocence by giving us a version of The Stepford Wives in which Joanna is the villain.
Social-justice discourse online tends to clog and snarl around shifting axes of power; some of us can be victims in one context and villains in another. It’s hard to acknowledge that both the victimhood and the villainy are real, and that one does not cancel the other out. It’s hard to hold people accountable when they refuse to see their own power and cling to the idea of themselves as innocent and eternally wronged.
By invoking Joanna and making her Get Out’s villain, Peele is making a hard and potentially alienating point — what you are doing to me is what he did to you; you hold power over me, the same way he holds power over you — in a language that everyone, including the nice white women in the audience, can comprehend. You don’t get a round of applause in a movie theater by making your audience ponder something. It’s a gut thing, an emotional reaction, and that kill got the biggest emotional reaction of the film, every time I saw it. (Not quite three times! Would have seen it three times in theaters, if I could!)
Calling Get Out a riff on The Stepford Wives makes it sound like I think the movie is derivative, but that’s the opposite of what I mean. Peele is a great horror director because he clearly loves the genre. He watches horror, he knows horror, and when he references another story, it’s not to show off, or to be clever, but because that reference has relevance to his work. By riffing on The Stepford Wives only to reverse it, Peele has made both movies better — you can now read Get Out and Stepford in tandem, one landing on points the other one misses, and you will get more from both.
Like I say, it’s a perfect movie. Not the one I love most — lovable things are rarely perfect, and Nope is weird and obsessive about certain topics in ways that endear it to me — but a classic, a gold-standard, five-star example of the social thriller. I know this is running long, but I actually have a lot more to say about this movie; I see its roots in certain Key and Peele sketches, and I loved Key and Peele, too, watched every episode — but before I start on that, why don’t you come over to the couch here? I’ve just made some tea.
Get Out is available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes. The Stepford Wives (1975 — skip the remake) is streaming on Tubi.
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At my other job: I argue, controversially, that depriving young men of sex will not instantly turn them all into murderers.
Finally: I'm pleased to announce the debut of Queen of Hearts, a theatrical piece on fame, spin, and Diana Spencer's famous BBC interview. for which I co-wrote the libretto. There will be a live stream at 8 PM European time (2:00 PM Eastern time) today. You can learn more about it and watch it here.