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Get Out & The Horror of White Pleasure

An Examination of Jordan Peele's 2017 Film

The terrific film Get Out — which writer and director Jordan Peele aptly dubs a “social thriller” — is a smash hit and critics’ favorite. Many glowing reviews converge on a key claim: the film is a gripping exposé of “white liberal hypocrisy.” And it is. But it is also, and more challengingly, a film that examines a specific, disavowed dimension of the “horror of whiteness”: antiblack domination as a source of pleasure for whites.

Get Out centers on Chris, a 20-something black photographer living in New York. Chris is apprehensively joining his white girlfriend, Rose, on a trip upstate, where he’ll meet her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage, for the first time. Rose assures him there’s nothing to worry about, the Armitages “are not racist.” Initially, Rose’s statement seems only slightly suspect. Dean, a neurosurgeon, repeatedly calls Chris “man” and emphatically proclaims his love of Obama, while Missy, a psychiatrist, pries into Chris’s background. But Chris shrugs all this off, until things get weirder. Rose’s brother creepily ogles Chris’s body and tells him he could be a “beast” if he hit the gym. Most unsettling of all, perhaps, are the black live-in servants, Walter and Georgina, who move about in a contended, compliant stupor. When a group of white neighbors descend on the Armitage estate for an annual party, the façade of normalcy begins to fall away, and we eventually learn that these sophisticated, supposedly “color-blind” whites are doing awful things to black people.

Even before the full extent of the physical and psychic violence inflicted by the Armitage family is revealed, we witness complex forms of white-over-black domination carried out on their estate. Importantly, the dynamics are neither simply exploitative (in the sense that the primary end is profit) nor wholly destructive (in the sense that the primary end is death). Rather, we see how white people extract enjoyment by using black persons — reduced to black bodies — for an array of their own projects.

The clearest instance involves Logan, a peculiar young black man who attends the party on the arm of an older white woman. It turns out that he has been captured and subdued for purposes that make the film’s comedic riff about zombie sex slaves resonate anew. Yet blackness is not just a site of sexual objectification in the service of white gratification. In Chris’s case, his tormenters want him for his vision, both literal and figurative. The blind white man, Jim, who lays claim to Chris, explains the use to which his stolen body will be put: “I want those things you see throughI want to look at the world through your eyes.” These white folks don’t just want to make money off of black people, nor do they want to kill them, exactly: they seek arousal, sensitivity, novelty. They relate to black bodies as instruments for realizing their own racialized fantasies.

Get Out, then, unapologetically depicts (a version of) the present as part of “the afterlife of slavery.” The instrumentalization of black life to satisfy white appetites was a defining though often overlooked feature of chattel slavery, as Saidiya Hartman has shown, and it lives on, here and now. Two particular motifs in the film, captivity and self-augmentation, invite viewers to consider that black persons are still too often regarded as conduits for white pleasure.

The experience of captivity — black captivity — is at the heart of the bizarre and ultimately terrifying world Chris encounters. A nighttime abduction serves as the film’s prologue, a scene that, as several reviews have noted, hauntingly recalls the murder of Trayvon Martin. We should also consider that the theft of black bodies is a founding event of the American social order. Indeed, the strange scheme carried out by the Armitage family involves some unusual practices like hypnosis and neurosurgery, but it also repeats, in miniature, one of this country’s oldest crimes: the kidnapping of millions of Africans to be kept captive (along with subsequent generations) as slaves. The “theft of the body” that constituted chattel slavery was always more than physical. As Hortense Spiller argues, enslavement entailed efforts to “sever… the captive body from its motive will, its active desire,” a fitting description of the state induced in Get Out’s black captives. The violence inflicted by the Armitages consists, most fundamentally, in robbing black people of their agency.

The “body snatching” portrayed in the film involves a very specific kind of theft. Seemingly enlightened whites rob “the souls of black people” in order to use the remaining vessels as they wish. The Armitages’ crimes, then, bear a double valence: they simultaneously take black persons’ wills from them and take pleasure in putting their husk-like bodies to manifold uses. The plot’s thrills are generated by an extreme and fantastical quest to instrumentalize black life. Yet the film also repeatedly points to a more familiar practice that simultaneously circumscribes black personhood while glorifying black embodiment: sports. The figure of the black male athlete, appearing in several iterations in the film — Walter, Jesse Owens, the NCAA prospects — reminds viewers that although sport is an arena for celebrating black achievement in the U.S., that celebration is inevitably entangled with black objectification. This problem, mostly concealed or excused today by athletes’ fortunes, surfaces whenever a black athlete refuses to be merely a high-paid body and conducts him/herself like a political subject, as in the cases of Richard Sherman, Colin Kaepernick, and Serena Williams. The outrage directed at such unwelcome speech and action registers a powerful white desire to relate to black persons as use-objects.

Constraining black agency is a means for whites’ self-augmentation. The antebellum custom of referring to slaves as “hands” signaled not only that slaves were symbolically reduced to body parts, but also that masters related to slaves as extensions of themselves, appendages for enhancing their own power. Walter the groundskeeper and Georgina the maid, archetypal black workers and modern-day “hands,” provide their white captors with the pleasures of self-augmentation. Their obsequious affability signals that their responsibilities are not so much gardening and cooking as they are doing that work with the proper affect, one that flatters whites. Their cheerful docility riles Chris, but it surely satisfies the demands of white paternalism, which has always instructed that the oppressed are better off as, and should be grateful to be, the servants of others. When it is revealed that Georgina and Walter’s bodies are inhabited by the Armitages’ ancestors, one cannot help but recall the familiar white delusion that (un)paid subordinates are like “members of the family.” Moreover, Georgina and Walter’s spiritual possession points to another facet of the white desire to control black bodies: the longing to inhabit blackness, to experience a black body as one’s own. Walter’s and Georgina’s strangest behaviors — his intense physical “training exercises” and her enchantment with her own reflection — reflect white America’s complicated obsession with black bodies, as objects of both aversion and attraction.

The themes of captivity and self-augmentation open up the problem of anti-blackness as a source of white gratification. In other moments of the film, domination is bound up with enjoyment quite explicitly. A high-stakes Bingo game among party guests determines Chris’s bleak fate. The slave auction it evokes, we should remember, was never simply a commercial transaction, as Walter Johnson argues, but also operated as a public spectacle, even a festive one, for white onlookers and participants. The scene of Chris’s torture, in which he is shackled to a chair and subjected to hypnosis in preparation for his body to be overtaken by Jim, occurs in a familiar-looking basement rec room, furnished with a foosball table, board games, and other emblems of wholesome family fun. The scene raises an ugly question: could the mistreatment of black Americans be akin to a diversionary pastime?

Get Out is a startling and important film. It suggests that anti-blackness today is sustained not only by whites’ ignorance or indifference, but also by a deep attachment to the notion that black people exist for the sake of satisfying white desires. We are confronted most directly with this provocation during a tense moment between Chris and Dean. Stoking the fire in the grand fireplace, Dean turns to Chris, who is obviously desperate to leave, and inquires, sneeringly, “What is your purpose, Chris, in life?” On the face of it, the question is your average parental inquisition. But Dean’s menacing delivery, in a setting where black persons are kidnapped, brainwashed, and forcibly operated upon, renders the seemingly innocuous query disquieting. Dean’s bitter incredulity when it comes to Chris’s “purpose” registers the incomprehensibility of autonomous black existence. Like so many before him, he can grasp black being only as “being-for-others.” He can scarcely imagine that black people have aims of their own that have nothing at all to do with what white people want.

Ella Myers

  • michael

    I loved the film, which reminded me of an underrated text from a couple decades ago—Benjamin DeMott’s book, The Trouble with Friendship. This reading of the film nicely captures its thematic thrust. But there is a reflexive twist that still needs to be considered. After all, one of the primary ways black bodies are deployed for white pleasure (as DeMott points out) is in Hollywood films. Indeed, the reaction to “white Oscars” has brought us several outstanding films by and about black people, including Get Out and the amazing Moonlight.

    Even the best of these films almost inevitably, despite their own intentions, instrumentalize black bodies for white pleasure. When I am moved to tears by Moonlight, I nevertheless enjoy not only the simple pleasure of catharsis, but also the “secondary” one of being aware of myself as the sort of person who is deeply moved by such a film. Indeed, the more authentic my primary pleasure, the greater the secondary one, since the authenticity of my response validates my preferred self-perception as a genuinely caring, anti-racist white man.

    Nor can I fully get rid of this pleasure, least of all when I catch myself “getting the message” of Get Out. In effect, the film repeats the very gesture it so brilliantly unmasks. I am left taking pleasure in endorsing the film’s indictment of me (of the sort of pleasure I am experiencing), which is therefore no longer an indictment but an exoneration. I am not the racist any longer; the norms of Hollywood narrative are. I am just the one who “gets” them—and gets to “Get Out” of being interpellated by them. But of course *this* exemption is precisely the form racism now assumes.

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