How Get Out positions white womanhood as the most horrifying villain of all.

The Most Terrifying Villain in Get Out Is White Womanhood

The Most Terrifying Villain in Get Out Is White Womanhood

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March 7 2017 7:31 AM

The Most Terrifying Villain in Get Out Is White Womanhood

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Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.

Universal Pictures

Spoilers ahead.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.

On a recent episode of Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast The Q&A, the host asked his guest, Get Out director Jordan Peele, about how he had conceived of the movie’s white girlfriend Rose, played by Allison Williams. In the sharp horror satire, Rose brings her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her WASPy family in their rural, stately East Coast mansion but doesn’t let them know ahead of time that he’s black. A series of terrifying events ensues, and Chris eventually learns that her family is in the business of stealing black peoples’ bodies for their fetishized physical attributes. Goldsmith wondered: “It seemed like at a certain point, there was still a chance that she might be a good person and didn’t realize that her family was doing this … I’m curious if there ever was an iteration where she was an ally rather than a foe.”

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“Nope, there wasn’t that,” Peele responded matter-of-factly to laughs in the live audience. “There was an iteration of it where … we as an audience were meant to know that she was in on it the whole time.” But no, Rose was never going to be an innocent bystander, a millennial guilty only of being nestled so deep inside that precious bubble of wokeness that she couldn’t recognize her own complicity in systemic racism. “White liberal racism” has been accurately pinpointed as the movie’s symbolic Big Bad, the villain that, when left unchecked, will destroy us all. But another undeniable facet of that beast—in fact, perhaps, the most crucial part of it all—can be whittled down even further to, simply: white women.

The most damning case for this theory is in the final scene—Rose is the last white person left, the final racist obstacle Chris has to confront in order to make it out of that suburban nightmare alive. But there are many seeds planted along the way that build to this moment. After Rose and Chris call for help following the deer crash, for instance, Rose assumes that the white cop’s gruff insistence that Chris show him his ID (even though he wasn’t the one who was driving) is because Chris is black. While Chris, obviously used to this kind of interaction with cops, is deferential and hands over his ID, Rose talks back to the cop, quipping, “This is bullshit.” The cop pauses a moment while glaring at her and then gives back the ID and lets them go. Rose’s sass toward the cop can be seen as her being a socially conscious white woman who stands up for her black boyfriend—after the incident, Chris admits that he found the moment “hot”—but the truth is that she easily could have made things worse for Chris, had the cop been less willing to take her backtalk. History tells us that had she been black, the cop probably wouldn’t have taken her comments in stride. But that’s the power she holds (and she’s aware that she holds) as a white woman.

Get Out makes her self-awareness on this front even clearer during the climactic third act, when she tries to distract Chris’ friend Rod from figuring out the family’s sinister intentions by exploiting what she imagines is his attraction to her: “I know you think about fucking me.” Even Chris plays into the white-woman–as–consummate-object-of-desire narrative, when he attributes his uncomfortable interactions with the Armitages’ black housekeepers, Walter and Georgina, to his theory that Walter has a crush on Rose and Georgina might be upset to see a black guy with a white woman. Throw in the fact that it’s Rose’s mother Missy who is able to control his mind through hypnosis, and white women, who in Get Out initially seem to be less outwardly racist than the men, are the movie’s greatest threat.

Part of the genius of Get Out is the way Peele plays with and subverts over a century’s worth of racist on-screen imagery related to white femininity. The idea of the “black brute”—specifically, the black male reduced to his physical prowess and base sexual “instincts”—was seared into the cultural imagination in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and perpetuated throughout the next few decades of cinematic history, perhaps most prominently in King Kong. In Birth of a Nation, black men (white actors in blackface) are portrayed as lazy, greedy, and worst of all, a direct threat to pure, exalted white womanhood. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Flora jumps to her death off of a cliff after Gus, a freedman, chases her there, proclaiming he wants to get married. In King Kong, the stereotype is rendered in allegory, with the animatronic monster reflecting stereotypes of black people as apes and beasts. Our introduction to him is as part of a tribal ceremony (the kind that has come to represent Western ideas of Africa) in which a young native woman is going to be sacrificed as his bride—but when he spots the blond, virtuous Ann (Fay Wray), he only has eyes and claws for her.*

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In both of those films, the black male is felled by his lust for a white woman—Gus is tried and then lynched by the KKK, while Kong is shot down by planes from the top of the Empire State Building. To white viewers in those times, the movies reinforced real-life fears of miscegenation before giving them happy, triumphant outcomes. Get Out grounds similar circumstances in a modern-day context, but reveals the true horror to be inflicted on black people. It exposes those ingrained prejudices for the pervasive micro-aggressions they exist as today, like when Chris is subjected to one racist interaction—couched as a compliment—after another at Rose’s parents’ off-kilter garden party. (Is sex really better with a black guy?, one older woman asks Rose after squeezing his arms and chest.) Or when Rose’s brother Jeremy says that with Chris’ “genetic makeup,” he could be a “beast” at mixed martial arts. (Chris calls the sport “too brutal” for his tastes.)

In the film’s last act, Rose’s deception is revealed, and it turns out that she’s been luring black men (and at least one woman, as evidenced by Georgina) to her parents’ home so that her family members can inhabit their bodies and reap the “benefits” of their “natural” physical attributes. While her parents and brother are just as complicit, it’s Rose who we spend the most time with in these last moments—the scene in her bedroom, in which she listens to the theme song from Dirty Dancing while daintily eating dry Froot Loops out of a bowl and drinking milk out of a glass with a straw so that the colors don’t mix, underscores not just her supreme level of whiteness, but her basic Becky-ness. (Now that she thinks Chris is being taken care of by her parents, she’s onto the next one—searching the web for “top NCAA prospects.”) Later, as she lies bleeding out from her gunshot wound and Chris hovers over her with his hands around her neck (conjuring up images of Othello strangling Desdemona), a devilish smile cracks upon her face, as if she is getting pleasure from Chris proving that he is indeed a brute. As what appear to be police lights appear, Rose feigns pleas for help. She’s not just a psychopathic racist; she’s also a canny manipulator of the subterranean, systemic racism in the world at large. And this makes her easily the most insidious, terrifying character in the whole film.

The famous last line of King Kong is telling: “It was beauty killed the beast.” Chris joins a long historical line of black people, both real and fictional, who have had their lives threatened or complicated by white women’s lies and/or the cultural perception of white womanhood as unfailingly virtuous and true: the legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the Scottsboro boys, Emmett Till, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, LeBron James (recall that infamous Vogue cover with model Gisele Bundchen that reminded many people of King Kong), Odell Beckham Jr., every black person alive during the 2016 election. Even Kanye West, who has his own fair share of issues to be sure, has routinely been subjected to criticisms predicated less on his actions than on his own proximities to white womanhood (King Kong imagery is also a theme he himself has occasionally employed), particularly when it comes to his years’ long feud with Taylor Swift. As Very Smart Brothas’ Damon Young wrote last year when a dispute arose over whether Swift was aware ahead of time that West planned to include a line about her in his song “Famous”**:

…What Taylor did is a form of what Darth Susans have been doing since America’s inception. Using the inherent empathy and benefit of the doubt her White womanhood allows her to possess—plus the reflexive need to protect and preserve the sanctity of said White womanhood at all costs—to throw a Black person under the bus if necessary and convenient. In 2016, Darth Susans get people fired. In 1916, Darth Susans got people lynched.

In that Jeff Goldsmith interview (and other interviews elsewhere), Peele doesn’t explicitly state that white womanhood is the monster in Get Out, but he does hint that in crafting the character of Rose he was indeed relying on our assumptions about how racial dynamics play out in Hollywood and real life: “I knew in my heart that anybody who’s seeing a movie in a wide-release in America, would have to think, There’s no way Universal Studios would allow the one good white person in this film to also be evil!

The final subversive trick of Get Out, of course, is that “beauty” doesn’t kill the “beast”—Chris makes it out alive, if now mentally scarred forever. We’re used to seeing black people die first in such movies, but Chris takes his place within the horror canon as an inverse of the Final Girl. The Final Girl is almost always a white woman (and usually a brunette) who manages to defeat the monster and save herself. She is often young and virginal and definitely not a mean girl. We’re supposed to identify with her and wish for her victory. She is who Allison Williams would play if this were a typical slasher film made by a typically white filmmaker—but this is not, and it was not. She is the villain, an exact incarnation of the horror of being a black person in America.

*Correction, March 7, 2017: This post originally misspelled Fay Wray's first name.

**Correction, March 13, 2017: This post originally referenced an allegation that Swift lied about a conversation with West. Because accounts of that conversation are disputed, the article was revised.