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Under house ar(rest): Domestic surveillance in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

by Taylor Mitchell

The 2017 blockbuster horror film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, and the 1892 Gothic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman both begin with their protagonists entering new spaces. Chris Washington, a Black man, visits the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage in Get Out; the unnamed narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” stays at a summer home with her husband, John, in order to recover from her supposed hysterity. Through the film’s scenes from the gardener’s perspective, and also the short story’s paranoid narration, we immediately sense that Chris and Gilman’s narrator are under surveillance in these houses. The protagonists explore and interpret the space through, and are being watched by, the degrading lenses of the Armitage family and John. As a result, the respective houses embody the white, male gaze. The surveillance forces them to see themselves, and the space, through their oppressor’s perspective, thus dividing their psyches.

The narrator  in “The Yellow Wallpaper” flips between the woman’s interpretation of the vacation home and her husband’s as she questions the uncanny feeling in the room. Chris, too, questions his safety at the Armitages, saying “It’s like they’ve never met a Black person that doesn’t work for them” (Peele 50:08), after persistent microaggressions prove that the family sees only his Black body: a body inscribed with negative stereotypes. The gaze traps Chris and the narrator in these houses—while simultaneously treating them as an “Other” by fabricating and enforcing their inferiority. When the narrator in Gilman’s story recognizes that John has used gaslighting to control her, she is liberated: no longer are women inferior, as she locks John out of the room and claims it as her own, successfully overcoming the male gaze. In Get Out, however, when the coagula—the Armitage’s elaborate, racial transplant procedure—is revealed, Chris must escape to protect himself from the white gaze.

For Chris, knowledge is not empowerment: white supremacy is a threat to both his body and mind. The differing degrees of difficulty in Chris’ and Gilman’s narrator’s liberation demonstrates how white supremacy makes it more difficult for Black people to overcome the white gaze, in contrast to white women under patriarchy. A divided consciousness is mended when one can see oneself from his or her own, subjective perspective, instead of based on the way others see them. The particular experience of the Black individual in a white supremacist society greatly differs, however, from that of a white woman under the patriarchal gaze. Du Bois says in The Souls of Black Folk that “the Black man feels both American and negro,” creating double consciousness. This is distinct from the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” whose psyche is divided, but she is not doubled. This is seen by how she is able to free herself by subverting her mind and reclaiming her identity. But in order for Chris to overcome double consciousness, this cannot be something simply internal; it must also be legitimized by others, because his body has been rejected from the environment and thus it is impossible for his body and psyche to exist, unified, and in a safe space.

The unnamed narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” breaks free from the male gaze by subverting the domestic space to her advantage after she recognizes the patriarchal oppression that divided her consciousness. But Chris does not have access to this strategy. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the hidden women of history retain their humanness as ghosts within the vacation home. However, Chris, even after unraveling the Armitages’ plans and escaping the gaze, must physically flee the house. His body is still seen as a threat — and is threatened — while “The Yellow Wallpaper” articulates the possibility of a unified woman within the domestic sphere. Get Out instead ends with Chris and Rod driving away — without indicating their destination. The difference between the historical entrapment of white women and Black people surfaces by comparing the two experiences. The unification of the narrator’s consciousness, through her own actions, in contrast to the perpetual flight of Chris and Rod, reveals the heightened difficulty in dismantling white supremacy compared to patriarchy.

Despite being covered and confined, eerie pasts still haunt the households—representing how the legacies of racist patriarchies lurk behind seemingly well-meaning white liberals and doting husbands. However, the way white women and Black people’s existence is preserved reveals differing historical contexts. Though the “creeping woman” behind the wallpaper is physically suppressed, she retains her consciousness and helps the narrator become aware of the gendered oppression she faces. As the narrator follows the woman behind the wall, she becomes part of a female network. This collective experience shows her that John’s supposed diagnosis of her insanity was mere gaslighting by revealing the ways men have psychologically manipulated women, especially the women in the walls, throughout history.

In Get Out, the consciousnesses of Black characters exist, but trapped in the disembodied existence of the Sunken Place. As a result, they do not technically exist because a body without its corresponding consciousness is arguably dead. The Black social networks in the house also prove unhelpful as Georgina, the Armitage’s Black female servant, causes Chris’s car to crash even after he saves her. The only times when the disembodied characters aid Chris is through his camera flash, which liberates their psyche from the Sunken Place. Only Chris has the agency to unify their consciousness with their body. The characters, the film suggests, cannot liberate themselves individually. Instead one must rely on others to recognize their identity, believe they are equal in society, and consequently empower them. The historical treatment of marginalized bodies in John’s vacation home and the Armitage household reveals the important differences between the suppression of a white woman — embodied in the image of a housewife — and a Black person, viewed as a slave.

Women were, and still are, viewed and treated as vulnerable beings in need of protection (Greenhouse), a strategy in upholding America’s patriarchy. Men preserved a feminine image of submissiveness, which women internalized through the male gaze and economic, social, and physical confinement to the domestic sphere. Women’s bodies, consequently, became an extension of the home. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John infantilizes the narrator so she is physically and mentally unable to survive outside the house, thereby reinforcing his role as provider. Her existence is essential to the domestic space—but only as a child psyche in a sexualized body.

In contrast to the fetishized preservation of white women’s bodies, the Black body has historically been seen as a threat to the white family’s stability. Thus, throughout history, Black bodies were only able to exist in white domestic spaces as bodies that performed physical labor (R.L). Orlando Patterson coined this nonexistent existence as “social death” in the slavery context (Patterson). Afro-pessimist theorists later applied Patterson’s theories to the 21st Century and found that the psychological aspects of the slavery power dynamic remain, as “black non-existence forms a negativity against which white liveliness and freedom defines itself positively” (R.L). Chris is subjected to the same phenomenology, as he is made to feel like an outsider at the Armitage’s because of his Black body—which they view as simply a space to project whiteness through the coagula. His Black body is useful to them as capital, while his identity as a Black individual is rendered obsolete. His humanity is denied in that domestic space. Chris, in contrast to the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” will not be freed by subverting and reclaiming the house. Afro-pessimists suggest that “a movement cannot be built on […] nothing—a nonentity” (R.L), meaning that, if Chris’ very humanity is denied within the space, his double consciousness cannot be reconciled.

Owning one’s home — as opposed to renting — allows the house to be passed down through generations, making the home a symbol of not only history, but permanence. When Chris and the narrator enter their respective foreign houses, they intend to stay only temporarily — yet the décor acts as a tool of domestic control, generating a psychological relationship between the protagonists and their spaces. The chained bed and barred windows in John’s vacation home allude to histories of psychiatric imprisonment. The bedroom has now become a nursery, a Gothic motif in which eeriness is veiled by the appearance of “normalcy” (Murphy 27). The walls are plastered with many layers of paper, representing how the dark past has not been dealt with but is instead suppressed. Consequently, the sense of something being “off” resonates with the narrator as she enters the room; she immediately asks to leave (Gilman 28). The furniture is secured to the floor, which prevents her from personalizing the space—denying her the last shred of agency. The Armitages’ décor also suggests concealed histories through the photos of Rose’s previous Black partners above her bed (Peele 1:32:50). Since she only puts up the photos after Chris leaves, she can freely stare at and thus visually consume the images of these Black men without their awareness or consent. This scene demonstrates the pervasiveness of the white gaze as it continues to uphold racial power dynamics even in secrecy.

As Chris and the protagonist explore the seemingly normal, yet hauntingly unnatural spaces, their minds ponder the unthinkable: women creeping within walls, and a white suburban family using Black people as inhabited bodies. Their uncanny experiences blur the boundaries of the self and the Other by obscuring their connection to the familiar.  In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is simultaneously drawn to, and repulsed by, the room. She hates it — and repeats this, over and over again, as if to convince herself. But that doesn’t stop her from contemplating its history, analyzing its patterns, and seeking to answer all the rhetorical questions she asked upon first entering the room —“why have stood so long untenanted?” (Gilman 24). As she declares its scent a “yellow smell” (37), it becomes clear that, through her exploration, the space has also invaded her psyche and disoriented her senses. The wallpaper pattern looks aesthetically unnatural — breaking principles of design in imperfect repetition (31) — yet there is something so personal about it, something uncanny, and something only she can recognize, without knowing why. A personal connection between the narrator and the room is immediately formed because she is the only one, at first, to sense the room’s eeriness. But since this uneasiness does not correspond to the suburban home in which she and John lived previously, the space is also unfamiliar, blurring the boundaries between Self and Other.

Chris, too, encounters an eerie familiarity when he enters the Armitage household. Before he enters the house, Rose’s parents act like they know him already, through exaggerated declarations of “my man!” and strategically performed affection through awkward and too-long hugs (14:26). This scene is depicted through a long shot which helps the viewer recognize, and feel, the disingenuousness of their actions; the viewer can only see the silhouettes of their gestures, no emotional indicators. Moreover, Rose’s dad appropriates African American Vernacular English (AAVE) when greeting him to make it seem like he understands and is part of Black culture.

In contrast, Chris’s apartment is sincerely familiar and comfortable. When Chris opens his apartment door for Rose, the camera alternates between their points of view, intimately capturing and lingering upon their reactions (6:25-6:34). It is later made more evident that the Armitages feel familiar around Chris because the notion of “colour-blindness” says they can. The Armitages’ predisposed attachment displays the privilege of one’s body feeling safe within its space — disregarding the discomfort Chris feels in entering a white household as a Black man. The uncanny familiarity in the two spaces — whether hidden or performative — leads the characters to question not only the houses, but their identities inside them.

As the characters enter the homes and try to decipher their uncanny discontents, the white and male gazes try to enforce specific interpretations of the space to the oppressor’s benefit. John asserts that he brought his wife to the vacation home “on her account” to provide “perfect rest and all the air [she] could get” (Gilman 26). She is made to feel indebted even before she enters, cultivating her submission to him. In their home, he documents her behavior like a doctor with a patient, noting how much she “improves” — even when she proves his data false (35). His insistence on keeping her in the nursery, though she protests, displays how he tries to infantilize her as a means of physical and mental control. He tells her exactly what to do and how to think: she has a “schedule prescription for each hour in the day” according to his demands (26). While he is away at work, his sister watches her. The protagonist’s frantic narration reveals the effects of 24/7 surveillance on her mind as she begins to see herself through John’s eyes. Even when alone with her notebook, she is nervous to be alone with her thoughts, let alone put them into writing. “I confess it [writing] always makes me feel bad” (25), she says, feeling like a “burden” (28) for failing to live up to John’s expectations. Consequently, her interpretation is skewed by gaslighting: psychological manipulation whereby the oppressed doubts their sanity. For a moment, she notes something “queer” about the wallpaper, but quickly asserts that this cannot be so because John says otherwise (34).

Chris’s interpretation of the space is also monitored; Chris analyzes the house as much as the house analyzes him. Dean physically and verbally leads Chris through the house, and seldom looks back at him (Peele 17:17-19:07). During the tour, the camera watches Chris from the point of view of an unseen voyeur (16:28), showing not what Chris sees in the house, but the house’s depiction of his reaction. This gaze, further, is one-sided, and we see this at the first dinner scene: instead of listening to Chris’s story, the family watches his body and makes stereotypical assumptions, for example, that Chris must be an MMA fighter (23:57).

In both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Get Out, an imbalanced relationship between oppressor and oppressed is demonstrated. The goal of the oppressor’s gaze in both texts is, paradoxically, to create a unified identity for the oppressed by defining them by and through a singular gaze. John’s gaze is relatively less powerful than the Armitages; when the narrator recognizes her oppression, she is liberated from it. Chris, however, is already aware that he is stepping into a dangerous situation as he asks Rose whether her family knows he is Black before they depart (7:19). When the coagula is revealed, and Chris sees just how deliberate and institutionalized the family’s racism is, his sense of entrapment is brought to a climax. The mere recognition of this does not liberate him, though, as he then must physically escape the property in order to be safe.

Both texts literalize the white and male gazes by showing how they manipulate physical objects to generate psychological control. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John treats the narrator’s mind and body by giving her “phosphates or phosphites […] and tonics” for her “temporary nervous depression” (Gilman 25). By convincing her that she requires treatment, and that he is the one to administer it, she becomes convinced that she must rely on him for survival. He prescribes not only her actions, but also her thoughts. When her mind wanders, she repeats his commands like a soldier forced into submission. Thus, sex and gender (represented through the body and psyche respectively) are both degraded under patriarchy. John’s “scientific” solutions imply that the so-called female inferiority is a biological problem worthy of medicine. She is nourished, then, by that which renders her inferior. The male gaze is internalized through the consumption of physical and psychological treatments determined by John’s manipulation.

In the real world, white supremacy socially determines Chris’s existence as a reflection of the white gaze. When in the Sunken Place, a place which controls body and psyche, he is “forced to watch the world as a representation, unable to influence his surroundings or control his identity” (Heller-Nicholas and Nelson). Chris’s identity is consumed by whiteness through the symbol of Missy’s teacup, an object associated with the kitchen and femininity. The teacup also represents how white women, like porcelain, were traditionally treated with care. Missy, however, subverts this understanding, and wields the symbol as a weapon against Chris. Her actions reflect white feminists who have historically incarcerated Black men for supposedly threatening their femininity. For Chris, the white domestic space is a site of oppression; for the narrator, it has potential for resistance. Therefore, smoothly equating misogyny and racism is fundamentally dangerous for Black people as it makes invisible the extra barriers Black people face in reconciling double consciousness.

To resist these modes of control, both protagonists utilize artistic tools that allow them to depict the space; by better understanding their environments, they break free from the white and male gazes, seeing how they have been controlled. Though John tries to demonize her for writing, the narrator uses it both as a form of escape and of introspection. She temporarily alleviates herself from patriarchal confinement, in her imaginative world, by accessing the part of her psyche which John tries to annihilate. The narrator then becomes the maker — and not bearer — of meaning by the story’s end, freeing her thoughts from the male gaze. By expressing her thoughts, she begins to internalize and embody her subjective voice. Consequently, she converts the room that confines her into a space of limitless creative potential. The protagonist’s act of locking John out of the room represents her locking him out of her thoughts, as she becomes one with the wall despite — and to spite — the looming patriarch. She is in control of herself and her surroundings. In contrast, Chris’s photography divides him from the home through the physical barrier of the lens; only by distancing his body can he become the maker of meaning.

When Chris greets the “like soooo white” (Peele 27:59) family in the garden, the viewer feels Chris’s claustrophobia as family members look directly into the camera, depicting Chris’s point of view. While walking into the house, white people stare at him from all angles. He cannot return all of their glances simultaneously (48:08-48:27), and thus they see more of him than he sees of them. Similarly, at the dinner table, Dean is fixated on Chris. He silently eyes Chris, as Jeremy talks of MMA fighting, focusing on Chris’s reactions (24:28). Only when Dean momentarily looks away can Chris look back (24:17). Dean thus can control when he is viewed. When Chris, as photographer, is behind his camera, however, he is shielded from the fetishizing white gaze, since his face is hidden. He is no longer the subject in focus, and he surveys the house from a distance.

Both writing and photography give the protagonists the ability to look out and interpret their surroundings—but only when conducted privately. The narrator has to hide her diary, and Chris can only take photos when his face is hidden. Both photography and writing also help to liberate them by revealing past injustices. As a projection of her voice, the narrator’s journal is also a form of empowerment. Chris’s photography, however, only brings the disembodied Black characters out of the Sunken Place and does not create a space for them to express themselves.

By obscuring the boundaries between inside and outside, these texts reveal that the house does not protect the family from danger, but embodies the family as a microcosm of society. Therefore, the domestic surveillance done by John and The Armitages points to larger systems of oppression. To reflect this, Get Out often uses an establishing shot of the house to transition between scenes. As Chris is shown around the Armitages’ property, from the backyard to the patio (19:09), the camera zooms out. Close-up shots of Chris and Dean walking through the garden become an outsider’s view of the house, and give the impression that Chris is under surveillance from both the inside and outside.       

The permeability of the white gaze, thus, has no physical limits, and the camerawork reflects how Chris’s external body and internal psyche are both under surveillance. When Chris is sleeping, a toy lion, positioned toward him on the nightstand, watches. Numerous times he turns the lion around (28:12), but every time, it inexplicably moves back. He cannot escape even when conscious of this surveillance, unlike the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper:” Chris’s privacy is made public through the white gaze. In contrast, not only is Gilman’s narrator constantly under John’s gaze physically and psychologically, but she is denied access to the public sphere. She is rendered property of John, as she becomes an object to which he can program an identity. The ability to transcend an interior and exterior gaze, and space, is therefore a privilege that only occurs when one’s self-perception corresponds with the dominant social gaze.

For Chris to reconcile his double consciousness, and for the narrator to escape from John’s gaslighting, they both must embody their own individual identities and have them legitimized by others. Only then can they coexist within private and public spaces. How the protagonists confront and move through these spheres, however, greatly differs in the texts’ respective endings. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is liberated as she simulates public life within a private space. Throughout the text, and as a result of his male privilege, John could not only explore, but embody, both spheres: he was her gateway to the outside and psychologically invaded her privacy, thus transcending spatial boundaries. However, after finding and embodying her individual identity, the narrator’s existence is legitimized through the female networks contained in the walls. It is then affirmed that what she endures is, in fact, not a biological “condition,” but a condition of patriarchy. Her divided psyche is thus reconciled as the short story ends. Freedom from the male gaze subsequently allows her to claim the space as her own when she physically locks John out of the room. Since the house was intended to shelter her from the outside world, her concluding awareness of patriarchy allows her to transcend the enforced boundaries and delegitimize John’s role as her protector.

In Get Out, Chris wields symbols of slavery to his advantage. He stuffs cotton in his ears to close his mind off to the sound of Missy’s cup and spoon (1:25:50). He is also aided by Rod, who is a rescuer from the outside, something not seen in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The central difference comes when Chris escapes laterally from the inside to the outside, crossing material and psychological boundaries, but not transcending them. The film ends with Chris and Rod sitting in the car — a symbol of forward motion — and driving away, without any indication of where they are going or hope to be going. Rose’s twitch, as she lies bloody on the road, signals the eerie possibility that Chris is not fully able to escape her gaze, because she is not dead. The ending encapsulates Patterson’s idea of “social death” for the Black individual. Though Chris can escape the gaze, a space in which his existence is recognized and made whole seems to be, as Wilderson says, “impossible,” until the ontological roots of racism are dismantled (Ball 9).

The word “creep” can be both active and reactive: to move away from something and avoid detection, or to move toward something without others knowing. These two definitions aptly represent the endings of Get Out and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The short story begins with the unnamed narrator hiding her writings from her husband. By the end, she “creep[s] over him” (Gilman 42) as he lies unconscious. In Get Out, Chris flees from under the watch of a half-dead Rose. Both texts explore the simultaneous othering and entrapment that results from the male and white gaze, ultimately liberating their main characters. But only “The Yellow Wallpaper” articulates a space in which the narrator can reclaim her identity within — and despite — the patriarchal environment. For Chris to experience that same empowerment, the deeply embedded structure of “social death” must be decolonized. Thus, in comparing the two texts, the need to recognize the nuances of marginalized people’s lived experiences is brought to the forefront. Understanding the way white patriarchy operates in society allows us to take a more intersectional approach to both anti-racism and feminist efforts. The greater awareness of these lived experiences triumphantly produces greater social change.

 


Works Cited

Claire. “Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement.” Sister Outrider, Web.

Collazo, Richey. “AAVE is For Black People And Black People Only.” Affinity Magazine, 22 May 2016, Web.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Edited by Henry Louis Gates and Terri Hume, W.W. Norton, 1999.

Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele, Universal Pictures, 2017.

Greenhouse, Emily. “Women in War Zones.” The New Yorker, 20 June 2017, Web.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra and John Nelson. “‘We’re on your side’: white violence and the horror of representation.” Overland Literary Journal, 1 May 2017, Web.

L, R. “Wanderings of the Slave: Black life and Social Death.” Mute, 5 June 2013, Web.

Murphy, Bernice M. The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, Print.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard University Press, 1982, Web.

Perkins, Charlotte Gilman. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Edited by Catherine Golden, City University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 24-42.

Wilderson, Frank B. “‘We’re trying to destroy the world’ Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson: An interview with Frank B. Wilderson, III.” Interview by Jared Ball. Sfbay Anarchists, October 2014, Web.

 

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