Backtalk: What About “Us”?

This week, Dahlia and Amy dig into Jordan Peele’s latest horror film, “Us.” Lots of spoilers while they talk about how the film fits into genre canons, symbolism, and what can it all mean? And in Amy vs. Dahlia, an argument about the worst of adulting. There are so many terrible things to choose from, but is it paying your bills on time or having to cook yourself? Let us know what you can’t stand about being grown. Text “Adult” to 503-855-6485 to let us know what you think!

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[TRANSCRIPT]

DAHLIA: Our shows are produced by Bitch Media, a nonprofit independent feminist media organization that is entirely funded by our community. If you love waking up to new episodes of Backtalk and Popaganda, join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of The Rage. As a member, your monthly donation includes a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a special rage-inspired mug you’ll never want to put down, exclusive access to a members’ only texting group, and loads of other snazzy benefits. So, don’t wait. Become a member today at BitchMedia.org/rage.

[theme music]

Welcome to Backtalk. This is the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Dahlia Balcazar, Senior Editor at Bitch Media.

AMY: And I’m Amy Lam, Contributing Editor at Bitch Media.

DAHLIA: We start every episode with a pop culture moment. Amy, what’s yours?

AMY: My pop culture moment is when I was at AWP this past week. So AWP is this gigantic conference where a bunch of…. I almost said nerds. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Well, that’s partly true.

AMY: But it’s true! A bunch of writers get together. AWP stands for, I think, Association of Writers and Writers Programs. So, you actually get a ton of MFA students but also just writers who aren’t in programs coming because they have literally hundreds of panels about writing, about professionalization of literature, about Asians, about how to tackle themes or even forms or subject matter. But I was on a couple panels. But the highlight for me was seeing the legends Maxine Hong Kingston and Marilyn Chin do a talk where they also read some of their work and talked to each other about how they influence one another. It was so amazing.

So Maxine Hong Kingston is super legend. She published some amazing, some very like feminist Chinese American literature in the ’70s and ’80s, I think, like The Woman Warrior and China Men or China Man, I’m not remembering. And Marilyn Chin is a poet who was published I think a decade or so after her. But to see both of them and both of them still being so fucking fierce and still firm in their politics, which are, I think, were radical then continue to be radical now. And just to see elders who look like me, who look like my mother’s generation or my grandmother’s generation on a stage and being celebrated for being writers and for being so amazing at their work in the literature world, it was just so inspiring. I definitely got goose bumps.

I was so excited to be able to see them, and I had my Maxine Hong Kingston sign my journal/notebook. But she was so gracious. And they’re just both so sharp witted and continued to be so sharp witted. I was just like, I just felt like in awe when I saw them. So, that was my favorite pop culture thing to be able to see legends in the flesh and to see that they’re still doing amazing work and speaking out and just flourishing. That’s like some shit that makes me feel like I can envision a future where I am in, you know what I mean.

DAHLIA: Totally. That’s so nice.

AMY: Yeah!

DAHLIA: Also, Amy, because you were here for AWP, we got to have a shared moment for seeing Us, which is what we’re gonna talk about later.

AMY: Yes.

DAHLIA: But I also wanted to say we had, Bitch had our first BitchReads live event. We had eight writers and contributors to Bitch read pieces about rage, and it was just a really cool event, really cool to see sort of contributors from all over and people who like reading Bitch. It was just really fun. And also part of AWP.

My pop culture moment is April Fool’s-related. I almost forgot that it was a few days ago. I don’t know why. I guess because of all this AWP stuff, I was just really focused on other things, and I got got by this April Fool’s joke on The Jimmy Fallon Show.

[recorded clip plays, audience chuckling at the start]

JIMMY FALLON: You couldn’t give, you couldn’t give one little spoiler, one little hint of a little crumb is all I ask? [Audience laughs.]

MAISIE WILLIAMS: Um.

JIMMY FALLON: M’lady, just a crumb is all I’m asking for. [Laughter.].

MAISIE WILLIAMS: Um…I don’t know. Like during shooting, the final days were really emotional, saying goodbye to all of the cast. Because when I found out that Arya died in like the second episode I was…. [Audience gasps.]

JIMMY FALLON: Are you s…. What? [nervous chuckle] Are you kidding me? That’s a spoiler. [Laughter.]

MAISIE WILLIAMS: Is this live?

JIMMY FALLON: No.

MAISIE WILLIAMS: We can edit that out.

JIMMY FALLON: Are you serious?

MAISIE WILLIAMS: Yeah.

DAHLIA: I know I shouldn’t have been convinced by this because I have to say like Jimmy Fallon is not convincing at all. But when a joke just doesn’t end, I just think that makes it funnier. And so, at first I did not believe her at all. I didn’t believe that this was a real spoiler, but then in the clip, she’s like her hands are shaking.

AMY: Oh my god.

DAHLIA: She almost looks like she’s crying.

AMY: Oh my god.

DAHLIA: She just looked so upset! And it doesn’t end! And so, I was like wait, does, oh no, does Arya die? But no. I got got, so Happy April Fool’s Day. [Chuckles.]

[cutesy bells ring]

AMY: So in our last episode I had a mini-pity party because there were no reviews, no new reviews for me to read. And then you all came through! We got some new ratings and new reviews. Just wanna remind you again, if you have some time, please head over to iTunes and rate and review the podcast. It really helps us with visibility, get other people to listen and support the show. I wanna thank a user. Their name is Jomo_57, and the heading of the review is “my people!” Yes! I love that.

DAHLIA: Awwwww!

AMY: And it says, “Every time I see a new episode of Backtalk, I’m so excited to get a little piece of feminist media that articulates both the rage and appreciation that I often feel living in this world. While getting real about different issues, Dahlia and Amy are able to bring humor and authenticity into their discussions, and I feel I have this community of “rage cheerleaders—” Yes, us. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Yay!

AMY: —“to escape to when things get rough.” Yes. Thank you so much for that review. That I think we say this often, but it’s like you do a podcast. You know, our lovely producer, Cher, does a great job making us sound coherent. And then we put it out in the world, and it’s like, Okay, who’s listening? What do they think about it? So, when we get feedback like this, it really heartens us, and it actually helps to encourage us. You know how the reviews are often like, “Thank you for helping us get on with the world and surviving hard times or whatever.” But honestly, when I read reviews like this, it encourages me to keep doing the podcast and to keep my own spirits up. So, I really can’t thank you all enough for taking the time and writing reviews and rating the show.

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: My new favorite mainstay of Backtalk episodes is Amy vs. Dahlia, which is where Amy and I argue about something very important.

AMY: Very, very important.

DAHLIA: In our last episode, we were arguing about scammers because we had just been reading and watching a lot about Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos. And then also we were talking about Billy McFarland, the faux entrepreneur scammer behind the Fyre Fest. And we asked the Backtalk audience who is—what did we actually—oh, the best scammer. Who is the best scammer?

AMY: The best worst scammer, yeah.

DAHLIA: The best worst scammer. I’m actually really surprised, but Amy I/Elizabeth Holmes won by one vote.

AMY: Wow. No, that’s good ‘cause I do think, I mean partly I was like, Elizabeth has to win, right? [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: No, I really thought, I really thought Billy MacFarlane was gonna win. So, Elizabeth Holmes won by just one vote. We also asked, “Did we miss any other obvious classic scammers”? And I really like—

AMY: There were good answers.

DAHLIA: It’s like five people wrote Trump here [laughing] in the answers.

AMY: True. Correct. [Chuckles.] What were some of the other ones?

DAHLIA: Bernie Madoff shows up here three times. Anna Delvey, who is this socialite— or no, not a socialite, a scammer socialite who stole a lot of money from people. That’s really…. Oh, Rachel Dolezal is also here on this list. That’s what we have! [Laughs.]

AMY: This is like a really good obscure one that somebody mentioned: Victor Lustig who sold the Eiffel Tower twice in the 1930s. So, thank you for obscure scammer history. [laughs] We should start a segment, obscure scammer history segment, where we teach you all about—

DAHLIA: People would love that.

AMY: [Laughs.] Yes! So, thank you all for voting and chiming in on that Amy vs. Dahlia.

So, our latest Amy vs. Dahlia, I was thinking to do this because it’s the beginning of the month. And it made me think about all the shit that we have to do as grown-ups at the beginning of the month. So, our new argument is what is the worst thing about being an adult? What is the worst thing about adulting? I mean there are so many terrible things about adulting, and I don’t think we realize this when we’re kids ‘cause we’re so eager and excited to grow up so we could do things like eat cereal for dinner and eat ice cream for breakfast.

DAHLIA: [Chuckles.]

AMY: I can’t tell you that how excited I was eat ice cream for breakfast when I moved [laughing] out of my parents’ house! And then when I finally did eat ice cream for breakfast, I was like, this is not that fun!

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: I was like, I’m gonna have like a sugar high and then a sugar crash, and then I won’t have much energy for the rest of the day. I think I did it like twice in my adult life. It was a very disappointing. [Laughs.] So this is an argument about what is the worst part. And I’ll go first. What I think is the worst part about adulting is paying bills on time. So, it isn’t even just the paying bills part. Like I get that we all have to do it. But for me, it’s the on-time part that fucks me up.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: And I think that doing homework as kids and as college students was kind of like you know, doing homework and turning it in on time or doing assignments and turning them in on time was practice. But this time as an adult, if I don’t turn in my “homework,” my money homework on time—

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: I get punished very severely. Like the amount of times that I’ve had to call credit-card companies and be like, “Oh you guys, I was really busy. I’m sorry I was late paying my bill,” and try to get my fee reversed, I’m surprised that I have such a good credit score ‘cause I’ve done it enough times where I’m like, what the fuck is wrong with me? I mean even with autopay I still pay shit late sometimes. I don’t know [laughing] what’s wrong with me. But I think that it’s just really hard, and I think there needs to be more grace periods for some of us who sometimes have mental health shit, and it’s hard to just get out of bed sometimes. But paying bills on time is just one of the worst things about being an adult ‘cause it’s really your own responsibility. And then if you don’t do it on time, then you get punished, and you have to pay more money into that bill.

DAHLIA: Yeah, you’re in trouble.

AMY: I know. It’s like I need an assistant for all my menial tasks. So, that is my vote for the worst part about adulting. What is yours, Dahlia?

DAHLIA: I love eating, but it’s so hard to—Oh my god. I just can’t even say this without feeling like such a whiner.

AMY: No, ‘cause I feel the same way.

DAHLIA: Like you were saying earlier, Amy, the kid who’s like, oh my god! I can’t wait till I’m a grown up, and I can eat pizza for all my meals and I can ice cream breakfast, so that is me, except I never stopped. I thought that was fun, and I never stopped doing that. So, I would say, oh god. When I turned 30 I really was like, oh god, what am I eating? Like do I eat vegetables ever? Like what do I put in my body? And just like you were saying, Amy, it’s the beginning of the month. Also it’s the, well, we’re recording this at the beginning of the week. And you know it’s like every— Oh! I still feel so silly whining about this, but really, it’s like meal planning, meal prep, grocery shopping: it never ends.

AMY: It never ends.

DAHLIA: You just have to do it forever. And honestly, when I think about having children, the thing that seems the hardest is feeding them healthy meals forever.

AMY: Yes.

DAHLIA: That seems so hard! I can’t do that for myself. I do not do that for myself. It’s, oh god. It never ends! You have to get groceries all the time.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: You know, I don’t wanna help support your argument, but I also agree.

DAHLIA: Oh, you agree? Oh yeah.

AMY: Yeah. Because I fucking do not enjoy cooking. So, I’m like the laziest cook. I’ve invented all these hacks so that it makes it easier in less than 15 minutes for me. But yeah, sometimes I don’t even—I also love eating, but sometimes I’m just like, oh, I wish I could just like eat a pill. You know what I’m saying.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.] Well, okay. Yeah. I am so much like that that for a while, I was existing on—oh my god, what is that called—Soylent. Do you know Soylent, Amy? It’s….

AMY: Dahlia! [laughing] What the heck?!

DAHLIA: Do you know about it, or you don’t know about it?

AMY: Yes, I do.

DAHLIA: Are you judging me. Okay, yeah. yeah.

AMY: Go ahead, explain. Explain it.

DAHLIA: It’s like, you know the movie, “Soylent is people,” it’s like a joke. It’s like a play on that: Soylent is a meal replacement, not in a dieting sort of way. But in a, this is your meal in a can kind of way. And it tastes a little bit like pancake batter. And there was a long period of time— I ran out of them, so that’s why I don’t have any currently. But totally. And the thing is I love eating. I don’t like, I don’t, I’m not like yeah, I wanna take a pill and eat. I’m like well, I fucked it up. I didn’t buy groceries. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t know what I’m gonna eat. I can’t think of anything. I guess I’ll have a Soylent.

AMY: Wow. That does sound hard.

DAHLIA: Bleak. It’s bleak.

AMY: [Laughs.] So let us know what you all think. Please text “adult” to 503-855-6485. That number is 503-855-6485. And let us know what you think is the worst part about adulting.

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: Amy and I had the chance to see Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us, together. It was so exciting. I’ve seen it two times already, and I will say that you definitely pick up more things every time you see it. Just let me say first to start off, we’re definitely gonna majorly spoil Us.

AMY: So much spoiling.

DAHLIA: Major spoiling. So, if you’re the kind of person who likes things to be spoiled before so you won’t be as scared, then this is exactly perfect for you. But otherwise if you don’t want some spoilers, come back when you’ve seen Us. But I want to lightly explain the plot of Us.

[epic, suspenseful music from the film plays]

Us is Jordan Peele’s second film after his movie Get Out, which was a horror film nominated for Academy Awards. So, it just really, really smashed sort of what people thought horror could be. And Us has already had the biggest opening of an original horror film of all time. So that means it doesn’t have a bigger opening than say, a franchise movie like Scream or Friday the 13th. But for any standalone movie, Us is already, it’s been out for like less than two weeks, I think. Already, it is the highest-selling horror film of all time. So it’s just it’s wild how popular it is. It’s so exciting.

The plot, lightly, is that Lupita Nyong’o stars as a woman named Addie who had a bit of a troubled childhood. More on that later. She was a dancer, and now she’s on vacation with her family. She’s with her husband Gabe, who’s played by Winston Duke. Her daughter, Zora, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph, and her son, Jason, played by Evan Alex. They’re on vacation on a beach summer vacation, and they’re meeting up with some friends. And very quickly, things turn sinister. The family starts out having a really lovely beach vacation. Things are a little weird, but everything gets really horrifying. Later that night, everyone’s going to bed, and a family comes to the Wilson’s driveway. And they are doppelgängers of the Wilsons.

So, every actor in Us plays two characters. They play sort of their normal selves, and also they’re what we could call their red selves because all of these people wear these red jumpsuits, and they’re carrying terrifying scissors. This family shows up, and it’s sort of like a home invasion movie but with many, many scary turns. This family comes, and they refuse to leave. And they are exactly doppelgängers of the family that lives there except what do they want? Where did they come from? What are they gonna do? And so, that is what the rest of the movie concerns itself with, is who are these doppelgängers, and why have they come to seek revenge?

AMY: And it’s scary in a different way than I think traditional horror films are. I actually thought it wasn’t scary enough ‘cause I like, I really, really, really like being scared. And so, it’s kind of like more in a way where as an audience member, you’re sitting there trying to figure out why this is happening and what does it all mean. And there have been a lot of press and a lot of pieces and interpretations about what all the symbolism of the film is doing.

 

So what happens is we learn later in the film that when Adelaide was a child, she was on the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents, and they’re kind of arguing. And while they’re kind of arguing, she wanders off of the boardwalk onto the beach in Santa Cruz, and there’s this funhouse. And on top of the funhouse there’s a sign that actually says, “Find yourself.” And she goes into the funhouse just as a kid does when they wander off, and it’s like a hall of mirrors. So she sees herself reflected everywhere, and then suddenly she turns around. And like I think there’s a booby-trapped kind of door or a mirror that opens up, and she sees the back of herself, which doesn’t make sense because—

DAHLIA: It was—

AMY: —if you’re looking at a reflection— Sorry?

DAHLIA: It was so scary.

AMY: Yeah! It was really [laughing] scary. I mean I literally can’t imagine if I turned the corner, and I saw the back of my short ass! I’d be like, what the fuck?!

DAHLIA: I would just faint. I think I would just faint.

AMY: I’m one of those people who get so stunned I don’t do anything. I just freeze. I am like literally a deer in headlights. So that happens, and at the beginning the film we don’t see what happens. Like there’s no cut. It cuts to present time where it  jumps and everything. Because after that incident in the hall of mirrors, you see her parents taking her to a psychiatrist’s office or something saying like, “We just want our daughter back. She seems really affected,” and the doctor saying like, “Oh, she must have PTSD.” But nobody knows what happens to her in that hall of mirrors in the funhouse.

So, toward the end of the film we learn that when she sees the back of herself, it is her own doppelgänger, and that doppelgänger lives in like this abandoned, I guess, tunnel world that is all across America. ‘Cause at the very beginning of the film, there’s kind of like an epigraph, which talks about how there are lots of abandoned tunnels, abandoned subway depots, abandoned storage spaces that are underground and tunnels that nobody knows what has happened to them. So apparently, there’s an entire world of doppelgängers that are reflections of, that are just like us, the people who live above ground like normal human beings. And I guess they were created by the U.S. government to mirror our gestures and the way we live our lives in the tunnel world. And by doing that, the scientists were thinking they can control how we live above ground. But these people who live in the tunnel world, they subsist on eating, I guess, raw rabbit meat ‘cause there’s tons of rabbits in cages in the film. But they just kind of like go through the motions that we go through. They kind of mirror our physicality, but they don’t speak. They are said to have no soul, but they just kind of like live there and are tethered to how we navigate the world.

And so, what had happened was that when Adelaide was in the hall of mirrors, her tethered self had actually come up from the tunnel somehow and met her there. And when her tethered self saw her, she knocked out the real Adelaide, dragged her down into the tunnel, and handcuffed her to the bunks that the tethered live in. And her doppelganger goes back up to the regular-degular world. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Ha! Regular-degular world.

AMY: Yeah. And takes Adelaide’s place, and her parents are none the wiser. And because the tethered don’t speak, she’s effectively mute, and that’s why her parents were so concerned. ‘Cause like they’re like, “We want our daughter back.” And so, we’re supposed to surmise that in about the 30 years or so since that happened, she was able to learn language, sort of like mimic how humans are. And she’s able to marry Gabe, played by Winston Duke like you said, and then have a family and everything. And so, when the tethered—all the folks in the red jumpsuits—come up to the surface, they’re essentially trying to reclaim their lives. And the main tethered person who is Red, who is Lupita Nyong’o, the original human Adelaide, the child who got dragged down in the world, she comes back up. And she’s the only one who’s able to speak, and she tells the tethered version of herself who’s lived her life that she’s come back to reclaim her space, essentially, and that all of the tethered are no longer willing to live this life where they have no agency. And so, they have all surfaced, and they are all, I guess, sort of their responsibility is to murder their “human selves” that live on land. And then after they’ve murdered them, they all go back to somewhere where they’re supposed to go meet at, I guess, a specific space and hold hands. ‘Cause there’s like this theme about hands across America.

So, there’s a lot! There’s a lot a lot a lot a lot happening. And actually, all this revelation comes in the third act of the film, which I’m kind of critical of. But we wanted to talk about the film and spoil it because we wanna talk about all of the multiple interpretations of the film, I guess, and also what it speaks, how it speaks to the genre itself. And what does it mean that this is a film by Jordan Peele that’s getting so much acclaim, especially as a genre movie too.

DAHLIA: For me, I feel like—you said earlier this is sort of like a more traditional horror film—in a sense, I feel like it was caught between wanting to be a traditional horror film and trying to nod a little bit at being like a sociopolitical horror film in the way that Get Out was. And I think also, because the main cast, the main family is Black, I think people interpreted that—you know, because people saw that in the trailer—I think people interpret that to mean like, oh well, this is naturally going to be a statement about race in some way. And I think that a way in which maybe it didn’t quite work for me is that tension between is this horror like Friday the 13th or is this horror like Get Out? And I think where that tension becomes a little tricky is in the logic and in the explanation of why these doppelgängers exist.

So the idea we’re given or the idea we’re told is that this is a U.S. government experiment gone wrong to create these tethered doppelgänger versions of ourselves. But the introduction of the U.S. government into that storyline necessarily suggests something like, are we talking about politics? Are we talking about communism? Are we talking about class? And I think it is that question, like what is the U.S. government experiment, what is this about that, I think, for me wasn’t necessary. I think accepting just the idea, here is you looks just like you, doesn’t talk, and it wants to kill you. And it’s very eager to kill you. I think that that’s just so much scarier than an explanation that I think, like you were saying, comes in the third act and doesn’t feel satisfying, I think because it comes so late and is a little not fully fleshed out.

AMY: Yeah. I mean when we watched it together, I was, I mean like honestly, I was disappointed. And immediately after we walked out of the theater, I was like, “What the fuck happened?” [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Yeah.

AMY: And we stood on the sidewalk in front of the theater and poked holes, like plot holes, in all the ways that that doesn’t make sense. And that’s not fair to the film ‘cause I think that like, ‘cause I think that for me, there’ve been a lot of great pieces interpreting the film and talking about the symbolism about it and how these types of symbolism function in the world and the things that it’s trying to say sociopolitically. And I don’t agree with the vast majority of the pieces that were published because I don’t think it’s in the film. I think that we want it to be in the film. We want it to say these things, but it’s not being said. Because Jordan Peele did such an amazing job with Get Out, it was so clear, it was so clean, it was amazing storytelling, it was something we’d never seen before, so I think I went in there expecting Jordan Peele to really create another masterpiece.

And speaking masterpiece, there are reviews that say this is a masterpiece, but it really fell short for me. And I think that…. And I actually appreciate all the hype even though I think it kind of ruined the film for me because it was so hyped. I appreciate the hype because it’s saying to Hollywood and the marketplace that you can have a Black director, you can have a Black director direct a majority Black cast in a genre that’s ignored Black folks for a long time—and ignore them in terms of centering them as main characters—you can do all that and be wildly successful. So, even if there are, I think, a lot of interpretations of the film that are kind of made in bad faith. I mean I’m using bad faith loosely, but I’m saying bad faith in that they’re just stretching the symbolism to make it work for how they wanna interpret it, it bothered me at first. But I’m like no, go do your thing because let’s have more filmmakers from marginalized communities make all types of films. And let’s let them be hella hyped.

DAHLIA: Totally.

AMY: Because how many, how many fucking terrible films were super-hyped made by mediocre white men have I seen in my life? [laughing] You know I mean? I’m not saying this is a mediocre film by a mediocre filmmaker, but I’m saying, let it be hyped. Let it make tons of money. I want it to so that it can open the door and give more opportunities to other Black filmmakers that wanna center Black families or Black main characters in films that we don’t often, genres that we don’t often see.

So in that way, I really appreciate it. But on a textual level, it fucked me up! Because I’m like, none of this makes sense! And I think you’re so right about I think that it was trying to shoehorn too much stuff so that as a viewer, I’m trying to make sense of why that was put in there. I think you’re right. If it was just like an underworld of our doppelgängers that just felt like coming up to earth and getting their comeuppance, I’d be like, Okay, I don’t need any sort of justification for their anger or like why they wanna kill me. It’s ‘cause they’re fucking psychotic! [Laughing.] They’ve been living in tunnels their entire life, and they don’t like me! Like I made them do a lot of dumb shit, you know?!

DAHLIA: Right.

AMY: I made them late in paying bills all the time, and now they’re angry!

DAHLIA: [Raucous laugh.] I made them eat crap for breakfast.

AMY: I made them eat Soylent.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

DAHLIA: No wonder they’re mad.

AMY: Yeah. But so, I think that there’s, for me as a person who’s writing fiction, there was like, you know, I think some storytelling things that I’m like, I don’t vibe with this. I don’t think it’s working that well. But I also have to be like, Okay, well, what was Jordan Peele’s intent, and did it work effectively for this genre? So judging it in that way, I think the film could make more sense ‘cause then I could suspend my disbelief more. I think it’s because Get Out was so good, and Get Out was also so rooted in reality even though the premise was so wild. The sociopolitical stuff was so fucking real that the metaphysical, weird, supernatural stuff made so much sense. But I think in this world, maybe perhaps he tried to ground it too much in real shit, and we didn’t need it to be grounded in real shit. We just wanted it to be like these are monsters, and the monsters are literally us. That’s fine.

DAHLIA: Right.

AMY: But you don’t have to have all this sociopolitical shit tied to it. ‘Cause he even has made statements saying that this isn’t a movie about race. But we can’t ignore that it kind of is because of the climate we live in.

DAHLIA: Mmhmm.

AMY: It is in that it stars a Black family in a genre that never centers Black folks. Or you know, there’s even the trope about horror that Black folks or folks of color get killed off first.

DAHLIA: Right, right.

AMY: Yeah, you know. And they don’t even get as much screen time. So, yeah. I’m having mixed feelings about it. I was disappointed, but I will watch it again when it comes on HBO—

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: —so that I can understand what’s more of what’s happening. And I also think because Jordan Peele’s a filmmaker that loves doing homages. And because I’m not as familiar to the films that he’s giving praise to or alluding to, I may have missed a lot. And I wonder also if that may have done too much. Like he has like the character Jason wearing a Jaws shirt, or he has a lot of “Thriller” references. He has Shining references. There’s so many. It’s like a film of references, and that can also be very distracting and might be to detriment to the story itself.

DAHLIA: Yeah, I was thinking a lot about the Thriller references because obviously, now that this Michael Jackson documentary has come out, I don’t know that the cultural conversation around Michael Jackson has totally shifted. But it does play a really large part in Us. And a callback that I didn’t get until I saw it the second time, for instance, is that I mean “Thriller” is sort of, you can use “Thriller” as an allegory for the whole movie, which “Thriller” is a music video about Michael Jackson turning into a werewolf. He’s on a date and wait. He’s a werewolf. There are also zombies, right? And he’s on a date, and at the very end it’s like he’s back to normal. And he’s like, “It’s okay. I’ll take you home from the movie theater.” And then he turns around and winks at the camera, and he’s a werewolf again.

And that shot is echoed in the very end of Us because at the very end, Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Addie, is driving, and there’s this moment where you realize that her son Jason has figured out that the Addie that you’re seeing is the bad doppelgänger version, right, because she had switched as a child. And so, this Addie that we’ve thought all this time is the good version or the normal version is actually one of these tethered underground people. And there’s a moment I think really cleverly echoes the ending of “Thriller” where it’s like a look on, you know, it’s all it is it’s like a look on Lupita Nyong’o’s face of like a little bit of a wink like, yeah, I am a monster.

And I think overall, like Amy was saying, we walked out of the movie, and we were like, what is that about? And I was like, well, I think what it’s about is the idea that like—Oh, there’s this line where Lupita’s—I just keep calling her Lupita because I want her to be my best friend.

AMY: [Chuckles.]

DAHLIA: There’s this line where Addie addresses Red, her bad doppelgänger, and she says, “Who are you people?” And Red says, “We’re Americans.” And I think that, cut to Amy and I talking about this outside on the sidewalk at like 10 p.m., I think that if I can say what is Us about, I think it’s about the idea that there are Americans, humans, there are people who are suffering. There are people who are thriving. There are people who are monsters. There are people who are being injured and killed. And all of these dynamics are interconnected because we’re all humans. And that which is monstrous is us. I think that’s sort of what Us is about. And I said that to Amy, and Amy was like so?

AMY: So?

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: And? And what? But I’ve thought more deeply about that line, like, “Who are you guys?” And then Red says, “We’re Americans.” And this is where I’m thinking it’s in the text, and then it’s being interpreted outside of it. I think she says that because Red is obsessed with Hands Across America.

DAHLIA: Yeah, that’s true too.

AMY: Yeah. And so, she has all the tethered lined up and hold hands because they’re trying to recreate Hands Across America because they’re “Americans doing this American thing.” So, I think as Red, she means it quite literally. I don’t think she means it symbolically like how we’re all interpreting it. You see? So that’s why when I read interpretations of the symbolism in the film, I have a rebuttal for almost everything that speaks.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: It’s not like I’m very smart about the shit, but I just think that it’s not in the text or if the text can be read differently. And I think the reason why I am pushing against a lot of these arguments about symbolism, which I think are great and are useful. When we talk about art and we talk about criticism, I think it’s actually really fun and interesting and rich and lively. But I think the reason why I’m pushing against it is because I’m wondering if Jordan Peele was just making a horror film, you know what I mean. And it’s just a straightforward horror film where there are monsters, and they’re just doing monstrous things. Because we don’t talk about Friday the 13th or Freddy Krueger in this way, like what does this say about socioeconomic issues with class and gender, you know? I mean we do talk about in some way, I think retrospectively, about how do women play in these films or how do characters of color play in this film? But we don’t go into watching those types of film with this type of urgency to discover symbolism that we have done with this film, you know? And so, I think my instinct, now that I’ve thought about the film for a while now— ‘Cause we had a ridiculous group chat about this film.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.] We really did. Yeah, we really did.

AMY: And I think he’s just making a good ass horror film. And I think that my own bias and issues with going in was that I thought it was gonna be something hella deep, [chuckles] and maybe it is hella deep in some ways. But I just needed, I should’ve just enjoyed it for a good, fun film. And because I had different expectations, which is my own fault, it kind of made it not as fun for me. So maybe this is like my warning or my way for other people who are maybe struggling with getting it, “getting it,” that’s something that I was thinking about a lot.

DAHLIA: Well, okay. I have two rebuttals to you. One, I feel like I mean I get it that you’re like, “Okay, so, we’re all humans. So what?”

AMY: [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: But to me, that’s deep for a horror film, you know? Like that’s what Frankenstein is about. Like that’s troubling the idea of what is monstrous and saying, actually, what is monstrous is human. To me, I think that’s as deep as a horror film gets. But I get what you’re saying. And I think second—I was thinking this while we were talking earlier—I wonder, I mean obviously, there’s so much. Jordan Peele has all of this hype, and people know about Get Out, and there’s just like a lot of baggage you’re bringing with you into the theater experience. And I think part of that also, I wonder if it is just the fact of a mostly Black cast really urged people to think there is more than this. Because I’m seeing a Black cast, that has sociopolitical meaning, necessarily. And I guess I feel like in a way, kind of in a way, it does.

 

But I also think that that’s the reason why Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker play this couple who are friends with Addie and Gabe. They’re another couple friend, and they’re a white couple. They have two daughters. They’re a white family. And I think that they are in the movie to sort of shift things to be like, oh, you thought this was gonna be just about this family. But actually, everybody has an evil doppelgänger. So, what you see, first you’ve only seen the red family of the Wilsons. But then you see Elizabeth Moss’s evil doppelgänger, who was my favorite doppelgänger by the way.

AMY: Her performance was so amazing.

DAHLIA: She was so good!

AMY: So good.

DAHLIA: And in fact, I don’t know Amy, if you noticed this but, I noticed that as soon as  Elizabeth Moss’s bad doppelgänger came onto the screen and the audience realized that there were other doppelgängers beside this one family, I heard a bunch of people being like, “What the hell?”

AMY: Yeah.

DAHLIA: Like I heard confusion, right? And I think it’s that. I think they’re there to say, this isn’t a movie about race. But I think that one, people really like….Even though you and I are a little bit disagreeing or whatever, we’re having such a good time.

AMY: Yeah.

DAHLIA: And we were talking outside of the movie theater disagreeing, still having a good time. I think people really like having conversations like this. And I also think that the fact, like you said, Friday the 13th or Scream or Nightmare on Elm Street, they don’t have casts of people of color. And I think it is that, like one, I think that fact is very meaningful. But I also think it is that fact that is also insisting upon a reading that has to do with race or class. Because I think people are very eager to find meaning in this film, especially, like you’re saying, because there are so many little references not just to other films like Jaws or like “Thriller” or like Beloved, but also to real, like this Hands Across America, which was a real kind of scammy fundraising against poverty initiative in the ’80s. These like little drops, I think, really do feel like crumbs for Hansel and Gretel. And I think people are really eager to pick them up because they had such a good time doing that with Get Out, even though, like you’re saying, get out was a very different film.

AMY: Yeah, yeah. I think Jordan Peele, for this film, I think he really enjoyed making the references to pay homage, and good for him. And I think that that would be fun for the decades for people this watch this film over and over again and find a new thing. I mean in terms of making an art piece in that way, go for it. You know what I mean? And I totally agree with you that yes, centering a Black family makes this, kinda puts this film on a different level in terms of how we talk about this film in the canon of the horror genre. But yes, I completely agree with all of it. And in the end, I do agree with what you’re saying about how—‘Cause remember in our group chat, it was like, I think at one point I was just like, “Oh! So, the monsters are us. That’s literally a thesis.” And like, “Yes.”

DAHLIA: Yeah! Yeah, yeah.

AMY: I was like, Okay. That’s enough for me.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: But I just wish that the film would’ve been more clear ‘cause I think all the other stuff, like all the other things around it, made it too opaque to get to that point completely. ‘Cause I think everybody’s interpretation is like there’s just so heavy with symbolism in all these other ways, but I just wanted it to be like the monsters are us. Period. Not the monsters of us, comma, and this thing represents that thing. You know what I mean?

DAHLIA: Yeah.

AMY: Yeah. But it was a really fun thing to watch. And like you’re saying, we still are talking about it. Lots of people are still talking about it. And I hope people keep talking about it so that we can get more weird ass films like this being made. Because this was like, even though I’m saying it’s like traditional horror or whatever, but I think the story that it’s telling is fucking weird, and I love it. As much as I love Black Mirror, I think we talk about Black Mirror on Backtalk whenever a new season comes on, I fuck with Black Mirror. I love Black Mirror! I love creepy, weird shit that makes your mind flip flop and do somersaults. And I think this movie definitely did that. I personally, my thing was I wish it did it more clearly—

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: —about its intentions, but I want Jordan Peele to make weirder shit that makes me question, like have a thousand questions. But yeah, keep fucking up the box office and making a ton of money so that other weird filmmakers of color can come through and tell even weirder stories. That’s, I think that’s in the end, why I love this film so much in a way, because it’s speaking to the economic realities of how Hollywood works. It’s ticket sales that tell the market what they will continue to make. And I’m very glad that this film was very success—continues to be very successful so that we could see more weird shit like this.

DAHLIA: Also, we should add: something I really loved about Get Out was that it was funny the whole time, and Us is super funny the whole time! There are a lot of like, there’s a lot of dialogue that’s really funny. There are a lot of visual jokes. And you, laughter helps cut the anxiety. So, it’s like you’re laughing. Then you’re very tense again. So it’s not scary the whole time. It’s definitely like a pleasurable roller coaster of anxiety, laughter, fear, laughter.

AMY: [Laughs.]

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: At the end of every episode, we share something we’re reading, something we’re watching, and something we’re listening to. I have the watch and the read pick this week. I haven’t yet seen it, but this weekend, this Sunday, Season 2 of Killing Eve comes out on BBC America.

AMY: YES!

DAHLIA: I’m so excited. If you haven’t seen it—

AMY: Bom bom bah bom!!! [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: [Chuckles.] —it stars Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. It’s about Sandra Oh plays this woman named Eve who is a British intelligence agent, and Jodie Comer plays Villanelle, who is a assassin, a master assassin. And they’re caught together in a sexy web of lies and murder and government ops. It’s so good. And I’m really, really excited to see a new season. Because I was one of those people that hadn’t been watching Killing Eve last season as it came out, and I just watched like the whole season in one day. And so I’ve been very eagerly awaiting Season 2. You watched the first season also, Amy.

AMY: Yeah. I’m almost done with it.

DAHLIA: Oh good.

AMY: I haven’t finished it, but it’s so good! It’s so quirky and funny and also dramatic, and I think it talks about gender and killing [laughs] in a way that I’ve not seen on television before. So I really love that show.

DAHLIA: I’m so excited to see the next season.

And my read pick is the novel Women Talking by Miriam Toews. The novel is based on a real event that happened in a Mennonite community in the early 2000s where 130 women between the ages of 3 and 60 were raped by what they thought was—obviously not—was a ghost. But what was actually happening was men in the Mennonite community were drugging women and then sneaking into their homes to rape them. And so, the writer Miriam Toews learned about this event, and her novel is about both those events but then also a meeting between eight Mennonite women leaders. They’re having a secret meeting talking about what they should do to protect themselves and their daughters and also sort of what should they do about this violence that is happening in their community. Miriam Toews wrote this novel called All My Puny Sorrows that I just loved. And this book looks, I’m so excited to start reading this. I just love books about religious communities, of course, about women, and this seems like sort of a revenge kind of novel. So I wanna recommend Women Talking by Miriam Toews.

AMY: I also started on All My Puny Sorrows.

DAHLIA: Oh!

AMY: Yeah. It’s so like, she does such a good job with writing humor with tragedy or tough shit, and I think that’s a really difficult balance. I’m excited to also finish that book. She’s such a talented writer.

And I have the listen pick! My listen pick is a super duper throwback. It is Tracy Chapman. She hasn’t put out, I don’t think, a new record in a while, but—I think in almost 10 years—but a couple weeks ago, I got hella stoned, and I got her greatest hits.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: [Laughing.] I bought her greatest hits record. And it was the best decision I’ve ever made while stoned. [Chuckles.] So Tracy Chapman is a singer/songwriter. She was very popular in the late ’80s and ’90s. And I really love this Greatest Hits album. I think that if you want to hear some really great kind of folky bluesy rock by a Black woman who hasn’t come out as queer, but I think everybody knows she’s queer. [Laughs.] I think she’s somebody who’s not represented in a lot like folk music. I just am loving this Greatest Hits album. I played it I start to finish dozens of times already since I’ve downloaded it. Yeah so the track that I want to play is called “Crossroads” and it is by Tracy Chapman off of the Greatest Hits.

[“Crossroads” plays]

♪  All you folks think you own my life/
But you never made any sacrifice/
Demons they are on my trail…./ ♪

AMY: Thanks for listening.

DAHLIA: Thanks for listening.

♪ I’m standing at the crossroads of the hell/
I look to the left I look to the right/
There’re hands that grab me on every side….”♪

DAHLIA: Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This show is produced by Cher Vincent. Bitch Media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to bitchmedia.org and donate.

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by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam is Bitch Media’s contributing editor. Find her at @amyadoyzie.