Her voice, as if originated in a deep abyss, struggles to reach the surface. “Once upon a time there was a girl, and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together.” This is how Adelaide’s double, in a red jumpsuit and holding a big pair of scissors, introduces herself to terrified Adelaide and her family.
And this double hasn’t come alone. For each member of the protagonist family there’s an evil animalesque double. And Adelaide’s, named Red in the credits, expresses her horrible feelings towards a family she has been forced to have due to her nature as something like a photo negative of Adelaide.
There is a region in everyone’s psyche that accommodates emotions and instincts rejected or feared or abhorred so much that even inner recognition is impossible. Or so believed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who baptised the region with the name shadow. And Us, the latest film by rising Jordan Peele, speaks of that region, depicting it both in human and infrastructural form.
But, intellectually speaking, what makes this film really special is the convergent positing with these symbols of the presence of a similar dimension in the culture of a social group. I call this dimension of a group’s “psyche” communal shadow.
We the people need the group to survive. And in socialisation we are taught which behaviours are correct and which are unforgivable sins. That is how, in order not to be banished from our herds (reasonable primal fear…), our potentially problematic tendencies are sent away to a place where they seem trapped forever. This is the origin of the individual shadow, an important element of our unconscious. And our unconscious is generally portrayed as that which lies below the surface, below consciousness.
This imagery of surface and depths is part of what the imagery in Usis made of.
As shown in the film, burying antisocial impulses doesn’t make them disappear. They are still with (Guess who!) us. Stewing in their own juice, intensifying in the lack of an escape valve, exuding anger and frustration, and ready to take control when our guard is down and/or the right triggers are pulled.
We all have said or done things that we’ve immediately regretted. We all have “lost control” and behaved in ways that seemed unlike ourselves. Haven’t we? I usually refer to these occasions as appearances of Mr Hyde. And this is not a coincidence. Consensus among Jungians admits that Stevenson anticipated Jung’s conceptualisation with his hidden Hyde reaching the surface to do “evil” things.
Taken one by one, the doubles or doppelgängerin this film, who have been living under the surface, in the “thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental United States,” condemned to behave as their counterparts above, enraged for their slave status, represent individual shadows. Let’s have in mind that every person in the surface and her double beneath are said to share the same soul, to be one despite their separation. And their experiences are parallel but felt differently. Let’s pay attention to how Adelaide and her daughter Zora are surprised by an astonished Jason (son and brother respectively) letting out an unexpected cruelty, even enjoyment, in killing doubles. Let’s remember thatimportant fact from the past forgotten by Adelaide, the fact that she’s on the verge of remembering in front of her old ballet bar. Not by coincidence, in the basement.
Especially interesting is Jason’s obsession with wearing a red wolf-like mask and doing a magic trick with a lighter, together with the characterisation of his double as a pyromaniac that behaves like a dog.
It will be Jason who will have his own shadow burnt.
With his mask, with his playful emulation of a beast, with his attempts of fire tricks, Jason has been manifesting in an acceptable way what dwells inside him.
The perks of being normal
But at least a fraction of Mr Hyde’s atrocities in the Victorian era could be considered unproblematic nowadays. What we bury in our shadows depends on what’s generally accepted in our social environment. As a consequence, our talents, our particularities, the features that make us special, can be put away due to the social pressure to be normal: “The more similar, the more ordinary people, have always had and are still having the advantage […] One must appeal to immense opposing forces, in order to thwart this natural, all-too-natural PROGRESSUS IN SIMILE, the evolution of man to the similar, the ordinary, the average, the gregarious.” Always a good time to quote Nietzsche…
“Progressus in simile” is what appears to happen to Zora, who’s got a great talent for track and field but has decided to leave her training in favour of a more “normal” life. We’ll see her shadow displaying impressive athletic skills.
What makes shadows resemble or directly beour evil sides, as in this film or in Dr Jekyll’s story, are not necessarily the repressed impulses per se. Many times, it’s repression itself and its consequent frustration. These can make us explode with anger and cruelty given the appropriate situations.
But wait! The doubles in this movie have a particularity: They’re Americans!
Uncomfortable National Truths
“We’re Americans,” says Red, and that is indeed a surprising assertion. But look at them, their jumpsuits, their sandals, their skin colour. Don’t they remind us of slaves? Us=US?
It’s a fact that every society has been built and maintained at the cost of the subordination, exploitation and exclusion of certain social groups. How did Americans get their cotton produced? How did Egyptians get their pyramids built? How was an important part of Barcelona’s urbanism defrayed? (With money from trafficking of Africans by rich families. This is a conversation recently started in Spain.) Who used to prepare men’s meals and raise their children? How does the Western world get its oil extracted and its low-cost clothes fabricated? How do the greatest fortunes make more and more money while poverty rates increase? And what better metaphor for these inequalities than the difference in the food and toys Adelaide (the accommodated one) and Red (her behavioural slave) had in their lives?
Just like many of us, just like Adelaide herself, states and social groups make up stories of heroism and martyrdom to conceal the deeds, present and past, that would damage their (self-)image.
And every individual is located in history, affected, shaped and identified by past and present social processes, the former reaching us through the latter. This includes the stories we have been told, the long-lasting marginalisations, the long-lasting detachment from marginalisations in our daily lives (or our not wanting to know), and facts that have been completely obscured.
Our shadows are born socially, and socialisation carries meanings, burdens, bonds and privileges.
Voices From the Voiceless
Ernest Renan wrote that having forgotten many things is in the essence of a nation. But some things may be silenced and yet present anyway. They are what I call communal shadow. And what better metaphor for it than having a large group of doubles trapped beneath the ground to represent a society’s dismissed experiences?
With the ascension of Red and the rest of the “tethered” (that’s how she calls them), class, race, a historical slavery the consequences of which are still dramatic, the lives of those who inhabit indeed the tunnels in real-world big cities, are being brought to light. And American “dark” and hypocritical nature harshly revealed. Not in vain the tethered plan to emulate a decades-ago national gesture of solidarity with the poor that, as usual, supposed no significant changes.
According to Jungians, the path to follow in relation with the shadow is to integrate it in our conscious mind. Finding it, recognising it and letting it be will make us complete persons, will set our particularities free, will make anger disappear, will make possible a new creativity and a new life. And it is my opinion that something similar must happen, and is indeed happening, in many societies.
Uncomfortable truths are, just like Red’s voice, tearing the fabric of official culture bit by bit, demanding due attention for the whole society to recognise them and rearrange itself. Many have been on it for decades, such as the persistent marginalisation of African-Americans, and remain inadequately addressed. But their influence grows unstoppably.
As I see it, a society has started to come to terms with a fraction of its shadow when previously obscured or ignored experiences enter the realms of law and popular culture. In Western countries, TV shows such as Big Little Lies, My Brilliant Friendand The Handmaid’s Taleare telling women’s experiences from women’s perspectives, functioning as demands for recognition to these experiences and encouraging their integration in what we call ourculture. So be it.