I’ve done a lot of thinking about the movie Get Out, and I think I have some smart things to say about it. But there’s one thing I always thought was amazing about the movie (SPOILERS!) and that for the longest time I couldn’t quite put my finger on how they did it. Despite its central plot involving a woman (SPOILERS! SPOILERS SPOILERS!) using her feminine wiles to lure her boyfriend nearly to his zombified slave death, the movie never once comes off as misogynist. Only recently did it occur to me how Jordan Peele accomplishes this.
For the first two acts of the film, the camera aligns Rose primarily with Chris, and less so with her family. So it goes up until that key moment (literally and figuratively) where Rose, descending a staircase, opens her hand to reveal the fob that would have enabled Chris to escape.
This marks the end of a brief transition—following the reveal of the photographs of Rose with her other victims—during which Chris has known but still hoped to deny the truth about her loyalties. Up until that moment, the movie has situated Rose as a buffer between Chris and the rest of the Armitage family. Now that buffer is suddenly gone. Her family surrounds him as she observes from the background, gated off from the main action by the staircase banister. Then, once he has been subdued, she moves into their space, tying up her hair in a ponytail to transform herself from bohemian Rose into preppy “Ro Ro.”
Basically, for as long as Rose’s nature is ambiguous, her connection to her creepy family is also ambiguous. As soon as she is revealed to be evil, however, her loyal good-daughter status becomes apparent. At no point after this transition are we allowed to forget that she is acting as part of a well-established team. She is not a dupe; she has agency; she is responsible for her actions. But she is not acting alone.
This sets Get Out apart from much public discourse about how white womanhood operates as a tool of racist oppression. The narrative tendency otherwise in this context is to place focus on the white woman as an independent actor. For example, in 2016 the exact percentage of white women voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump quickly became common knowledge. The percentage of white men who voted for Donald Trump, meanwhile, was never widely discussed. Similarly, a lot of people could tell you the name of the white woman who in 1955 claimed a black child had whistled at her, leading to his death. Fewer of those people could give you the names of the two white men who actually kidnapped, tortured, and murdered Emmett Till. When Amiri Baraka allegorized the story nine years later in his play Dutchman, the white (now Jewish) woman herself became the murderer.
Of course, nobody imagines that the percentage of white male voters who cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2016 was lower than 53%. (It was 63%.) Very few if any people would claim that white women are the primary drivers of white supremacy. The most common justification for why white women have become such a focus of anti-racist discourse is that we already know these things about white men, yet are asked to assume better of white women. But even where the racist actions of white women are contextualized in a broader discussion of white supremacy that includes white men, almost always this occurs as a preface that builds to a focused attack on the white woman herself. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of the narrative trajectory Jordan Peele gives us in Get Out.
Becky and Karen
One reason these stories tend to work out this way is that this structure offers a certain rhetorical impact. Over the centuries, whiteness (like maleness, like cis-heterosexuality) has built up armor that makes it difficult to attack directly. Apparent weaknesses can be found in that armor, however, where whiteness intersects with oppressed or marginalized identities. The most immediately forceful attacks on whiteness are those that trade on misogyny, or homophobia, or classism, or anti-Semitism, etc. Either they go after white women, white gays, “white trash” and so forth directly, or they use the language of those isms to make a more generalized attack (as, for example, in the term “white fragility,” which is basically a coded way of calling white people pussies; or the tendency of black nationalists in the 1970s to call white men “faggots”). None of this need be intentionally strategic—it’s just an automatic effect of attacks finding apparent weak points in the armor.
“Becky” and, more recently, “Karen,” are two of the most obvious recent examples of this phenomenon. Your first clue is that these figures have no named white male counterparts. Your second is the degree to which these figures manifest well-established sexist stereotypes. Becky is shallow, clueless, materialistic, vapid, and sexually attractive in a way that breeds resentment (whether by black women as “Becky with the good hair,” oppressive icon of white beauty standards; or by straight men as the vacuous hot girl who won’t fuck you, close cousin to the incels’ “Stacey”). Karen is shrill, shrewish, entitled, also materialistic, and having passed the age of 35 is sexually uninteresting and probably frigid.
Defenders of these terms will note that they originate among black women as a part of their anti-racist discourse, and suggest that they only become problematic when coopted by white society. But even if the terms originate among black women, the sexist stereotypes that give them force do not. Rather, white supremacist heteropatriarchy has put these tainted weapons directly into the hands of black women by making “true” womanhood contingent on whiteness (answering Sojourner Truth’s rhetorical “Ar’nt I a Woman?,” as María Lugones has pointed out, with a flat “no”). The result being that black women, in having their racist/sexist oppression aggravated by the persistent message that only white women can be real women, wind up venting onto racist white women in the language of misogyny.
None of this is to say that racist white women aren’t terrible, or that white fragility isn’t a thing, or that white supremacy doesn’t use the supposed frailty of white women’s bodies to justify its violence. It’s just that white supremacist patriarchy is also weaving all that material into well-established sexist narratives to focus righteous anti-racist rage on Carolyn Bryant, and away from Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.
Why does this matter for anti-racist work? Because structurally, all of this is an interfactional trap. What appears to be a weakness in the armor is actually a mechanism for redirecting attacks in the direction of the attacker’s would-be allies. This trap works on multiple levels:
- By making white women into the poster children for white supremacy, it grants cover to the white men who actually benefit most from intersectional structures of oppression.
- It uses a criss-cross effect to grant misogyny an anti-racist alibi, while an inverted set of narratives grants racism an anti-sexist alibi (Becky and Karen do have a black male counterpart in the caricature of the Hotep, which invokes stereotypes of black ignorance to critique Afrocentric sexism). Remember when that guy threatened to release stills from Iggy Azalea’s alleged sex tape if she wasn’t more respectful of Black Lives Matter? Or have you noticed the proliferation of “Karen” memes that actually have nothing to do with black people?
- In marrying anti-racism to misogyny, it gives people an excuse to dismiss anti-racist arguments out of hand. See, for example, certain pundits’ responses to the sexism of the Karen meme.
- In isolating white womanhood as the problem, it contributes to a broader discourse that invalidates white women’s struggles against patriarchy by falsely reducing “white feminism” (sometimes just “feminism”) to a uniform and uniformly racist movement.
- In all of this, it demands that people choose between caring about how white women (a) are oppressed under patriarchy, or (b) contribute to and benefit from white supremacy, then pits those two camps against each other to distract them from what might be their common struggle against white supremacist heteropatriarchy.
The trap is well baited, and exceedingly easy to fall into in one way or another (whether by attempting to fight racism with the rhetorical force of misogyny, or by rejecting that anti-racist struggle for its association with misogyny). But what Jordan Peele shows us with Get Out is that the trap can be evaded—it’s entirely possible to critique white womanhood as an element of white supremacy without drawing on or reinforcing sexist power structures. What’s more, once the narrative structure of this argument becomes apparent, you don’t have to be Jordan Peele to do it. You just have to make sure your story doesn’t draw its power from isolating white women as the primary problem.
Other posts in this series: