Unmasking ‘Us’: What Does it All Mean?

by Natasha Alvar

Let me set the scene for you: It is a Thursday night, the rain pours all around us, my colleague and I are trudging through the rain and gloom to head to the nearby cinema to watch Us because we needed some horror to distract us from the pulsing reality of our work selves. As you can guess, from the rain to the air-conditioned cinema, both of us were not feeling great the next day. Thank god its the weekend, so I can recover from my foolhardy ways and write the analysis I have been dying to pen since I left the cinema.

The great thing about Us is that there is so much to analyze, maybe because Peele is quite overt with his symbolism. It is a film student’s ultimate wet dream. After being shown 11:11 for the 100th time, I was like “I get it okay! Try to be more subtle.” The issues with Us results from Peele’s need to pander to a mainstream audience, fearful that we might not get what he is trying to say. He should have had more faith in us.

As I dive into possible readings/analysis of the film, we will of course be swimming in spoiler territory, so click away now if you haven’t watched the film.

Still here? You have been warned.

Social Class

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Image via HelloGiggles

This is the main commentary floating around the internet, so I decided to start with this first to get it out of the way. In the movie, the copies who live below are tethered to those who live above, forced to mimic their every move, lacking any agency of their own. This reflects our social class reality, where the rich and well-off dictate the movements in society, and the poor have to respond to it. The desire of the tethered to move from below to above reveals the lower classes’ desire for social mobility, as evidenced from Dahlia’s (Elizabeth Moss) wearing of Kitty’s (also Moss) lip gloss and the trying of her clothes. When Red (Lupita Nyong’o) tells the story of the shadow girl who gets presents that cut her when she tries to play with them, this points to the hand-me-downs or the cast-offs that the lower classes get from the more well-off.

In the movie, this desire is a forceful one, with the tethered aggressively taking the places of those above, invading their spaces in a show of rebellion. This culminates in the Hands Across America image, where they set out to achieve what has been promised by the program but never properly delivered. This is quite a bleak portrayal, indicative that the way things are can never change unless it is forced to through violence and uprising. Those above never think about the tethered until a tragedy requires them to do so, which is an accurate reflection of the status quo.

Duality of Self

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By now you would have realized the 11:11 reference is constantly there because it works like a mirror, highlighting the aspect of duality that runs throughout the movie. Moss’ character even has twin daughters, just in case you didn’t get the doppelgänger theme Peele is going for. Those above have copies of themselves in the form of the tethered, but these copies are only physically similar. The tethered move and behave in a far from natural way, with the climbing of trees and crawling across the floor, the only speech they seem to be capable of animalistic grunts and howls.

This points to the duality that exists in all of us. The ones above are the selves we show to society, while the ones below are our primal selves that we need to mask. The symbolism of the masks the sons wear point to this as well. Also, the fact that all the tethered walk around with gold-gilded scissors (how did they manage that by the way, Amazon shipping?) signifies how these primal selves desire to get out (I hope you see what I did there), to be released from the imprisonment by their socially accepted selves.

Nature vs. Nurture

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Image via Inverse

The swap between Adelaide and Red (which I saw coming 10 minutes into the movie), and the fact that Adelaide is able to assimilate in Red’s society demonstrates the nurture aspect of our identities. She is born tethered, but through the nurturing of the environment she is able to pass off as Red, proving that it is possible to move beyond one’s social background and upbringing. However, her connection to the tethered (her reaction to the tethered children’s deaths) and her possession of the animalistic traits that define the tethered (seen when she kills someone) shows that the nurture aspect might merely be surface; deep-down she is still who she is. Adding to that is the Red’s ability to dance, a talent which Adelaide doesn’t seem to have quite the same capacity for.

The Horror of the Doppelgänger

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Image via New York Post

The Victorians were obsessed with the concept of the doppelgänger. There was a desire to understand it in a scientific way, like looking at twins and how two versions of the same person could exist. Yet there is an undeniable supernatural element to it, perhaps because we can’t quite wrap our heads around such a reality. In the Literature of the time, we see many references to doubles, like in Jane Eyre where Bertha Mason (Rochester’s first wife) was viewed as Jane’s dark double, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Mr Hyde being the darker, sinister version of Jekyll, and someone quite beyond his control.

As a frequent user of Reddit, I belong to a subreddit called “Glitch in the Matrix”, where individuals share stories of weird experiences that can’t be rationalized or explained. One phenomenon that keeps getting brought up is this sighting of doppelgängesr. They look exactly like the person, but there’s something off in their demeanor, and they don’t really speak. Their heads also hang at a weird angle, at a kind of tilt. Please never enter the subreddit at night if you want to fall asleep without nightmares.

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Image via Complex

There is just something so disconcerting to see someone whose physical features and behavior is so familiar to you become this person that you can’t quite comprehend. That is the true horror in Us, to see a version of ourselves and suddenly realize the world isn’t what you thought it to be. Moreover, it is humans who are behind the creation of the tethered, essentially pointing out that we are the true monsters. Peele’s movies always point to man-made horrors. In Get Out, he comments on the social structures that exist around the concept of race, the adopting of desirable aspects of black culture yet at the same time allowing a continued discrimination to exist.

Fate and God

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Image via Thrillist

The night that Red and Adelaide meet is a set-up for this larger idea of fate and predestination. They are both drawn towards the other, a stormy setting dancing chaotically in the background to symbolically demonstrate that this is an act of God. Red herself feels she is called by God, that she is chosen and special. Her ability and autonomy over dance signifies that she is not tethered like the rest. The reference to Jeremiah 11:11 seems to indicate her role as the leader in the uprising:  “Therefore thus said the Lord, ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.'” Though there is much pleading from Adelaide to not harm her family, Red does not cease in what she has to do.

At the end we see the tethered are free, having been liberated from the underground and asserted themselves in the world above. It is definitely no coincidence that Peele chose to release this near Easter, even calling it an Easter movie. He even comments on the duality of Easter, since it is a day we celebrate, but it comes after a huge tragedy has taken place (the death of Christ). We see the same thing here, the tethered are now untethered, but at a great cost. Perhaps that is our consistent path as humans, with great change only followed by great loss — that is the unassailable state that is Us.

Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Us? Comment down below!

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Gail Eileen Jordan April 3, 2019 - 10:30 pm

Was totally boring and very few people who saw it thought it was good – people attend the cinemas to be entertained – not to analyze. You can watch Dr. Phil or some similar tv show if you need that. I would say that of all attending, maybe 5% will be able to analyze and capture Jordan’s meaning. All I know is that there were very few people attending the movie the afternoon I went and most left grumbling about wasting time and money and also thinking it was weird -, certainly not scary, and very, very over hyped. Will be interesting to see how much the movie grosses.

Natasha Alvar April 4, 2019 - 9:39 am

HAHAHA I don’t think Dr Phil needs analyzing to be honest, that show is bonkers. I agree with the overhype, that might have played with expectations a bit. It’s not scary in the usual way, but I thought the soundscape was effective. Enjoyable but not great.

Sam Simon April 1, 2019 - 2:38 pm

Very insightful post, thank you! This is certainly an intelligent movie, it’s nice to talk (and write and read) about it. I see that you have some issues with the plot as well as I do, though (Amazon shipping for all those scissors and jumpsuits…)!

Natasha Alvar April 2, 2019 - 6:00 am

Hahaha there were definitely some inconsistencies I couldn’t wrap my head around. Always nice to hear from you Sam :)

Sam Simon April 3, 2019 - 3:12 am

And it’s always nice to read your posts! :–)

Natasha Alvar April 4, 2019 - 9:36 am

Awww Sam! Hahaha too sweet :)

The Arcane Nibbler March 31, 2019 - 4:00 pm

Insightful as always, Natasha. I personally found the central metaphor contradictory in that I felt that the tethers were both victims of neglect and parodies of darker American instincts, but I may have been over thinking.

Natasha Alvar April 2, 2019 - 6:11 am

Thank you Brian :) Always a joy to find your comments on my posts. I checked out your blog and was reading through some of your reviews. Haha, the zinger you ended your “Bird Box” post with was particularly satisfying. I can’t believe 45 million people watched “Bird Box”.

Anyway, I do agree with what you said about the symbolic meaning of the tethered being muddled. I don’t think Peele himself knows for sure. Sometimes filmmakers don’t think clarity is essential. Look at Synecdoche, New York. 1 hour in and I was like what on earth is going on?

The Arcane Nibbler April 2, 2019 - 6:14 am

I haven’t seen Synecdoche New York. Will have to check it out. Thanks for checking out my blog.

Liz Gauffreau March 30, 2019 - 9:29 pm

That was quite a symbol safari!

Natasha Alvar March 31, 2019 - 8:49 am

I know right! It really is a film or lit students’ wet dream. I would go crazy if given money to make a film hahaha.

cielotech March 30, 2019 - 12:06 pm

I say this movie and though it was absolutely great. Very well done and the cast was marvelous. My wife does not like “scary” movies so I went solo. The theater was absolutely packed so I’m not surprised it has brought in multiple-millions. Definitely “R” rated but worth the price of admission.

Natasha Alvar March 31, 2019 - 8:53 am

Lupita was absolutely stunning to watch. Its so surprising that this is her first lead role. I definitely enjoyed myself, just felt that Peele should work on his movie rules. There is no consistency in how exactly the tethered function, and the premise behind their creation feels a bit weak too.

Nick Kush March 30, 2019 - 11:42 am

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