Jordan Peele’s Get Out is more than a horror movie. The story of a black man’s visit to his white girlfriend’s parents gone horribly wrong is also a biting, absurdist satire that captures something in the zeitgeist. For that reason, Get Out is the spiritual descendant of two other more-than-horror classics,1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and especially 1975’s Stepford Wives, both adapted from the writings of Ira Levin. But whereas those films used frightening analogies to dramatize women’s issues, Get Out cleverly addresses today’s current climate concerning race.
Let’s talk about some of the film’s key elements, and how it draws from Stepford and Rosemary. Watch out - there will be SPOILERS!
Get Out is loaded with symbols and imagery that remind us of the history of slavery and the Old South - starting with the plantation-like Armitage Estate and some older-looking costumes. The echoes visually remind us that our society’s past is ever interwoven into our present.
The first sign of something wrong occurs when the deer runs into the car. The gentle deer is linked to our protagonist. The accident is an omen of what’s to come - the innocent creature’s sacrifice. The omen is later fulfilled when, after he’s tied up by Rose’s family, Chris sees the head of the deer mounted to the wall, the dead trophy that Rose’s family would like to make of him as well.
When Rose’s mother Missy hypnotizes Chris, she uses a teacup as her weapon - the dainty cup and stirrer are symbols of civility, revealed to be hostile and aggressive. Drinking tea strikes us as a refined, harmless activity, but global conflicts and colonial dynamics have long been projected onto the trade and consumption of tea. The Boston Tea Party helped launch the American Revolutionary War.
The hypnosis gives Chris the feeling of falling. The imagery suggests the family’s ulterior motive to push him down and suppress his will. “You’ll live in a sunken place.” Within the plot, the sunken place is a visceral state of dimmed consciousness, but it’s also evocative of pushing back against forward progress. Closing his eyes here symbolizes removing his consciousness, and it makes us think of the historical withholding of education to disenfranchise black people.
The family’s housekeeper Georgina is the image of a Stepford Wife - vacant, inhuman, and strained. Then we meet the equally robotic Walter. With these characters, Peele is explicitly updating Stepford Wives. Instead of robotic homemakers, they are robotic servants. Instead of evoking dolls, they evoke slaves. Roses father Dean holds an auction with Chris’ photo, which is disturbingly reminiscent of a slave auction. The reveal that these white people are taking over black bodies stands in for white people using black people as slaves, to use them for motor skills and physical labor while retaining all power despite their own physical ailments.
After he’s briefed on how is body will be surgically taken over by the man who purchased him in the auction, Chris looks at the cotton coming out of the chair. It’s a visual reference to the Old South primary slave labor - picking cotton. Chris uses the cotton to plug his ears and resist the hypnosis, so the symbol of slavery is inverted to become his tool of escape.
Not unlike the deer antlers, the movie also starts to introduce imagery concerning movie-going and audiences. The surgery prep shows bright lights staring into camera, like on a movie set.
“You know what? Your eye, man. I want those things you see through.” Hudson wants to take Chris’s eyes, which, symbolized through his taking pictures, are a key part of his identity as an actively looking individual. It’s significant, too, that Hudson is an art dealer. This is a person who sells his artistic tastes, without really being able to see art. Hudson will now be making commercial profit off of appropriating Chris’s artistic insight.
The surgery will make Chris a back-seat driver or passive audience. Peele is suggesting that consuming entertainment can be passive or hypnotic, if we allow our minds to be controlled by whatever images we’re fed. But the flash of the camera wakes us up like the hypnotized Logan, whose real name is Andre, and later Walter, who’s long been taken over by Rose’s grandfather. Peele intends his movie to be like this flash - not an hypnotic entertainment that lulls us into submission, but a jolt that wakes us up to reality.
While the plot eventually escalates into a full-out race war, Get Out’s satire is not really targeted at overt or obvious racism in our society. Many have interpreted the movie as a commentary on a certain kind of smug white liberal mindset. Rose’s family appear at the start to be nice people, who believe they’re forward-thinking (“By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could. Best president in my lifetime, hands down.”) Yet their nervous tolerance is strained, their outlook can be oblivious and self-congratulatory, and ultimately they are uninterested in any deep understanding of inequality or any meaningful action.
Early on, we start to get a few dropped hints of what’s to come in small, off comments. Dean mentions black mold down in the basement, which will later take on a double meaning of a mold for black people. Jeremy - associated with his white signifier, the lacrosse stick - brings his hate out into the open, launching quickly into discussions of genetic makeup (“You’d be a fucking beast.”) Later, the racist obsession with Black people’s physical strength becomes even more explicit. The movie also hints at the way that black culture can come in and out of trend and be co-opted by white society when Chris asks: “Why black people?” “People want a change…some people want to be stronger, faster, cooler.” And through characters like the hypnotized Logan, it’s also touching on the pressure on middle-to-upper-class black society to assimilate into white culture.
The literal plot of Rose’s family attempting to sell Chris’ body symbolizes a more subtle reality - a world in which white people are still happy to benefit from their privilege, and their liberal ideals are limited by their attachment to a status quo that makes them the dominant class. Both Stepford and Rosemary can likewise be read figuratively as commentaries on how society traps women. In our real life, suburban wives aren’t really turned into robots, and urban women aren’t impregnated by Satan. But in Stepford, the community pushes women to put their family’s needs first, transforming them into perfectly servile homemakers. And in Rosemary, a woman’s husband is also willing to use her to get ahead in a hyper-competitive twisted society. And Get Out beautifully updates Ira Levin’s tradition. The movie follows from Black Lives Matter in the same way that Stepford Wives embodied the slogan “Sisterhood is Powerful”.
Get Out’s Chris Washington is in many ways an update to Stepford Wives’ protagonist Joanna Eberhart. Both are sympathetic, educated characters who are aware of the social issues at hand. (“Doesn’t it ever bother you that the most important organization in Stepford is sexually archaic?”) Chris admits his discomfort to his girlfriend Rose about whether her parents will accept their interracial relationship. So our first impression of both is that they’re savvy, informed - not, seemingly, naive. Yet the absurdly sinister and corrupt situations both eventually fall in to prove that neither’s liberal urban outlook is actually paranoid enough.
Both are city dwellers transplanted to the suburbs, a place that makes them instinctually uncomfortable. And they’re both photographers. Story-wise, the camera symbolizes an original perspective, a free mind. Watching them look through the camera puts us in their point of view, so we feel attacked ourselves.
Rosemary’s Baby‘s protagonist does strike us as more naive and childlike, but she follows the same journey, too, of discovering too late the horrifying betrayal around her.
Here, like in Stepford or Rosemary, the plot is masterminded by a white male patriarch villain. Coincidentally Get Out‘s Roman Armitage even shares the first name of Rosemary‘s Baby’s Roman Castevet. A key difference though is that in those previous films the white women were victims. Here, they’re villains.
Fans of Rosemary and Stepford who spotted the similarities as they’re watching will likely anticipate one of the film’s major twist, as we start to suspect that Rose is Chris’s betrayer. She seems to have escaped her family’s issues - the rose who stands out from the thorns. But she simply understands very well how to convincingly play the progressive young liberal. Rose, like the husbands in the other two movies, feels the most pernicious villain for her cold duplicity. This gets at how political dynamics really play out on the intimate level.
In Stepford and Rosemary the betrayer crucially manages to stall the protagonists’ escape. Rose does the same when Chris is first captured. And at the end, even after he’s killed the rest of her family, she chases after him and continued to manipulate him.
In Stepford Wives Joanna believes she’s in a loving marriage with a man who respects her - and it seems to us that she is. But when her husband gets fed up with having to care for the children and annoyed by Joanna’s interest in photography, he decides he really wants an obedient housekeeper over an independent-minded wife. The scary implication is that even well-intentioned individuals can’t resist the rewards of an unequal society that favors them. Rose’s true allegiance is to her class and the privilege she is happy to enjoy.
Even the eerie music reminds us of Stepford, drawing out our fear of society’s hidden monsters.
Horror is an inherently potent genre for dramatizing social issues of the day. Scary movies build our intangible fears into physical, exaggerated monsters. Comedy, likewise, can exorcise our demons by talking about what is taboo in society. Get Out doesn’t just draw from both genres, but effectively interweaves them - even its horror aspects have darkly comic, absurdist inflections.
The far-fetched plot of a girl who attracts black men so her family can surgically turn them into robotic servants takes a cue from Levin’s blend of sinister absurdity. Stepford also used unbelievable methods of advanced surgery to heighten the satire. The robotics and plastic surgery are flippantly unrealistic. The over-the-top absurdity acts like a Trojan horse that sneaks in the incisive political critique. In all three stories, oppressing the “other” takes the form of invading and controlling their bodies. In our society, this control isn’t typically through kidnapping and surgery, but via more subtle means suching as turning “othered” bodies into objects of desire or contempt.
Much of Get Out’s explicit humor comes through Chris’ best friend, Rod. He serves as the traditional “comic relief” - yet he’s also the movie’s heart, as the only person who believes Chris. This scene in which the police laugh at his fears has a melancholy echo with the reality that black missing person cases are statistically far more likely to go unsolved. Even his funny references to the TSA build on a joking assumption that the police won’t care about helping Chris.
When Rose cries out for help, the audience knows what’s about to come next if a white police officer steps out of a car - exactly what Rose is counting on. Peele said he originally did intend that bleaker ending, to remind people who voted for Obama that they weren’t living in a post-racial world. But the director said that outrage over police shootings of black men convinced him the movie needed to counter public anger and pain with an ending that (quote) “gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling when we leave this movie.”
When Rod comes to Chris’ rescue, he serves as a comic Deus Ex Machina. Here the comedy and hope save the story from the defeats which conclude Stepford or Rosemary. Chris’s escape isn’t exactly a happy-ever-after, though. There’s still a threat implied. Underneath our progress, there is, under the surface, that lingering prejudice and antagonism. After Get Out, we might learn to be a little less naive, a little more cautiously paranoid, and open our eyes to how potently our history still informs our present.