Jordan Peele changed horror forever with his 2017 overnight-hit Get Out, a terrifying look at race and white liberalism in the United States. When his movie Us hit theatres in 2019, audiences were skeptical whether the comedy legend turned horror pioneer would be able to pull off another hit. Although the film had some mixed reviews, with some finding the symbolism and meaning behind the film difficult to understand and unpack, the consensus was that Peele had once again struck gold with his work.
The Story of Us
Us follows the story of the Wilson family as they enjoy a vacation to Santa Cruz and spend a day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Although her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), are excited about the trip, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is anxious because of a childhood incident that took place there when she was only eight. It turns out that she was right to be hesitant about visiting the beach, as her family becomes the victim of a house invasion by their sinister doppelgangers (known throughout the film at the Tethered). Throughout the movie, we learn that the Tethered are the product of a government experiment to clone, and control, people, but they were abandoned underground when the experiment failed. Now, they’ve escaped—thanks to the leadership of Red (Nyong’o)—and are killing the surface-dwelling versions of themselves to take their place above ground. The film concludes with Adelaide killing Red and the discovery of what took place when she was just a child: Adelaide was abducted by Red and brought underground, where she was then chained to a bed while Red took her place above ground. (Meaning the Adelaide audiences had been rooting for all movie was actually an escaped member of the Tethered.)
It’s More Than Just Good Horror
The movie is considered to be a critique of social status and mobility, income inequality, and what it means to belong. This is pretty well encapsulated when Adelaide asks Red, “What are you?” To which she answers, “Americans.” Much of the film focuses on the Wilson family trying to keep up with their frenemies, the Tylers, and Red often talks about the privilege disparity between their families. And while we could probably fill a book with musings about Peele’s deconstruction of class mobility, we’re going to refocus our attention on Adelaide and Red, both of whom are feminist icons in their own right.
Black women are severely underrepresented in horror. Although Black women do appear in scary movies, it’s often in a capacity that’s either limited to that of a victim or a supporting role (and one which normally enforces harmful stereotypes about Black women). In Danielle Dash’s article “How Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Centres Black Women in Horror,” she explains that, “Cis gendered, able-bodied, Black women starred in only 35% of the films on the aforementioned list [of the 50 horror films starring Black characters]. Black disabled and trans women have yet to be included in the genre in a meaningful way. And of the 19 films Black women starred in, they were three times more likely than Black men to die first—despite Black men starring in twice as many films.” Characters like Adelaide and Red are emblematic of the kind of diversity needed in mainstream horror and cinema at large. So before we even begin to dissect their characters, it’s important to acknowledge just how significant Lupita Nyong’o’s roles are in this film.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
When we focus in a little closer on Red and Adelaide, it’s clear just how powerful and unshakeable these women are. Both are mothers, both know what it’s like to live as one of the Tethered, both are fighting for their survival and the survival of their families. Red and Adelaide are, at their core, two sides of the same coin.
Adelaide’s journey is a harrowing one. She was born underground and forced to live as a shadow, subjected to the will of someone else. Her courage is immediately seen when she’s willing to leave the underground lair she’s been kept in for her entire life, in an attempt to find her freedom. Her determination and self-efficacy are apparent from the get-go, and they’re the reason she and her family survive at the end of the film.
She’s also an exceptional leader. Although her husband, Gabe, is often shown trying to take charge and lead the family towards the beginning of the film, Adelaide makes it clear one the Tethered come for them that she’s in charge. At one point, just before their arrival, she shouts at him, “You don’t get to make the decisions anymore!”
“You don’t get to make the decisions anymore!”
And, from that moment on, he doesn’t. Adelaide makes the plans and spearheads her family’s escape. When danger does strike, she faces it head-on to protect those she loves. For instance, at the film’s climax, she doesn’t think twice about heading underground to save her son, who’s been kidnapped by Red.
Red, much like Adelaide, has experienced significant trauma in her life too. She was kidnaped and forced to live underground for the last thirty years. Like Adelaide, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to save her family. However, her means of saving her family are more offensive than defensive. Whereas Adelaide is fighting off the Tethered, Red is leading them into battle. The biggest threat to Adelaide’s family is that of physical violence, but for Red, it’s something more profound. It’s a life spent without agency or the means of controlling one’s fate. For Red, it’s not a battle against a deadly threat, it’s a battle for her children’s future. It’s a fight to reclaim the life that was taken from her, but also the life that was never afforded to her children.
Although both women differ significantly in their approaches to saving their families, both are ultimately just trying to protect their loved ones while safeguarding their futures. And if that doesn’t make them some of the most feminist matriarchs in horror cinema, then we don’t know what does.
Be sure to check back for the next installment in our Greatest Feminist Icons in Horror series, coming to Tilt throughout October. For our up-to-date list, click here.