The real reasons Get Out was the most profitable film of 2017: White absolution and toxic masculinity

‘Get Out’ makes white people feel good and plays into classic sexist tropes about masculinity.

Image: Daniel Kaluuya as “Chris” in Get Out

*spoilers*

Get Out is a delightful, genuinely scary “social thriller,” as its director Jordan Peele calls it, that cost $5 million and grossed $172 million. It is 2017’s most profitable film, according to TIME. That’s because Get Out does what every good horror movie should do: it pinpoints something about our culture that makes us feel really uncomfortable and then it makes us feel better about it, all while confirming a moral structure we already agree with.

Horror movies (at least the good ones) have always been “social thrillers.” Alien movies are actually about immigration. Killer robots represent a fear of science and technology. Vampires are about STIs. Zombies are the things we turn into when capitalism eats our brains. In the classic structure of a slasher film, our cultural bugaboos are killed in order: the black guy is killed first, then the biggest slut, then all the other sluts, and only the virgin with a golden heart survives. We learn: run away from immigrants, trust authority figures (never scientists!), keep it in your pants, and you’ll probably survive the terrifying world we live in.

Get Out is fascinating (and brilliant) partly because it makes itself accessible to white audiences. Despite the fact that the movie is about racial tension in America and ends with the violent murder of a whole bunch of white people, plenty of its profitable dollars came from white audiences. It tells a story to white liberals that starts by confirming our anxieties about being good allies. We see the characters that represent us behaving in ways that we have behaved (Should we not tell every black person we meet that we voted for Obama?), and we squirm in our seats. Almost as quickly, though, the film soothes those anxieties. As those same characters start to go far beyond the scope of anything we would do, we no longer see ourselves in those characters. Sure, we might be awkward at parties, but we’re not brain-stealing white supremacist scientists making zombies out of black people! Phew. The evil white villains are killed very dead by the end of Get Out. White folks can cheer! The bad white people are gone. The good white people can leave the movie theatre and keep being awkward at parties.

This feel-bad-feel-better cycle wouldn’t have worked quite as well if Get Out had stuck with its original ending. You know that moment when our hero Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is on the road with a nearly-dead Rose (Allison Williams) and a police car pulls up? And you’re just sure it’s going to be the white cop from earlier in the movie? But instead it’s Rod (Lil Rel Howery), our lovable TSA agent come to rescue his friend to physical safety and comedic relief? In the original script, the movie ended with the white cop arresting Chris as you would expect. In an interview with Tracy Clayton in the Buzzfeed podcast Another Round, Peele explains that his concept began during the Obama era when many people held the illusion that having a black president meant we were living in a post-racial world. As the movie was being made, news coverage of the deaths of black men by white cops was priming a more “woke” audience who could get the message and still be rewarded with a happy ending.

I thought about my own response to the movie (totally obsessed, went to see it several times, brought all my friends) as a well-meaning white person. How would I have felt if Chris had barely escaped the evil zombie-making scientist white supremacists only to be captured by a white authority figure? I probably would have felt blamed and implicated, my on-screen avatars living to oppress another day. I would have seen my discomfort with my own white guilt confirmed and expanded without the catharsis of my hero’s rescue. I probably wouldn’t have gone back to see it twice and brought all my white friends with me to see it again. The aspirational ending I saw made me feel so much better.

And this is, I think, part of what was so brilliant about this film. As uncomfortable as it definitely should make us, absolving white guilt through horror catharsis it is a brilliant way to get the film in front of a more diverse audience and call white people into the conversation. Pandering to people in power is annoying (if not rage-inducing), but it’s the people in power who need to get what it’s like to not be in power. The magic of film—especially delightful, witty popcorn films like Get Out—is that they can cultivate empathy across barriers like race, class, gender, and power.

This happens through a simple film technique called alignment. In the mild hypnotism of watching a movie, we enter the world of the protagonist. We see what Chris sees (sometimes even through his camera). We know what Chris knows, we feel what Chris feels. We don’t need a treatise on micro-aggressions, we actually kind of experience them. Of course a movie can’t entirely represent a person’s or a group’s experience, but stories can do something no explanation ever has: give a person someone else’s perspective. We’ve had enough practice empathizing with white men on big screens — representation matters.

As groundbreaking as it is, however, Get Out is still a classic horror film, so its catharsis must exist within a moral structure we already understand: patriarchy (what else?). Quick quiz: What makes men weak? a) girlfriends b) their emotions c) their mothers or d) all of the above? The answer is d) all of the above! Chris’s almost-fatal flaw is his love for Rose. She seems nice in the beginning, but turns out just like the rest of ‘em: a manipulative lying slut who will steal your life if you let her. If Chris hadn’t let his feelings about his mother’s tragic death or his feelings for Rose have any impact on him, he never would have entered this white supremacist Cabin in the Woods.

In his interview with Another Round, Peele explains that the reason the plot includes Chris loving Rose is that he needed a reason not to “get out” when his instincts tell him to run. As far as I can tell, that’s the only reason the relationship is in the script. While I highly doubt Peele is a misogynist human, it’s also highly likely that he’s subconsciously absorbed some of the deepest lessons of patriarchy, as we all have.

Psychologist Terrence Real has pointed out that “the very definition of manhood lies in ‘standing up’ to discomfort and pain […] As a society, we have more respect for the walking wounded — those who deny their difficulties — than we have for those who ‘let’ their conditions ‘get to them.’” It’s hard to think of any male protagonists who aren’t members of the walking wounded. When Chris makes the fatal mistake of letting his pain “get to him,” he must violently regain his manhood by murdering the fuck out of everyone in the film. Golden hearted female virgin survivors usually do more running away and getting rescued than murdering in their films. The contracts are different: men who show emotion, sensitivity, or vulnerability in contemporary films must buy back their masculinity by committing violence.

We all participate in patriarchy and white supremacy because that’s the air we breathe, though we certainly experience these realities in different ways. Movies like Get Out can, at least, help us feel with each other right at the heart of our cultural sore spots. What better place to explore and explode our social anxieties than in a bloody horror film where all the bad people die horrible deaths and our hero survives to fight another day?

Julie Peters is a writer and yoga studio owner in Vancouver, BC. She has an MA in Canadian literature from McGill University and writes about poetry, yoga, pop culture, and mythology from a feminist perspective. She has a bi-weekly column for Spirituality and Health Magazine, and her first book, Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses: Meditations on Desire, Relationships, and the Art of Being Broken was published by SkyLight Paths in 2016. Learn more at www.jcpeters.ca.

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