“I Want Your Eye, Man”: Appropriation, Defamiliarization, and (Meta-)Minstrelization in Get Out
by Stefan Schubert
[page 57] Abstract: Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out has been studied for numerous (inter)textual and generic allegiances already, yet this article wants to add another avenue by examining in how far the film reacts to a particular tradition of Black representation in US popular culture: minstrelization. The article conceptualizes this term as originating in nineteenth-century minstrel shows but as encompassing a larger social process, which it proposes to frame as an invective practice building on specific affordances and affects. This framework is then used to analyze a few select scenes of Get Out for how they reference and represent minstrelization. In a final section, I argue that it is specifically due to the film’s fantastic deviation from the otherwise realist depiction of its storyworld that it manages to turn its representation of minstrelization into a newly unsettling and defamiliarizing one that could be called meta-minstrelization instead. The article thus expands the scholarly discourse on Get Out’s intertextual dimensions by examining a representational legacy that has not yet been considered in detail. Additionally, it provides an argument for why Get Out, despite making use of the same tropes as previous discriminatory representations of Blackness, ultimately manages to subvert them.
Keywords: affect, appropriation, horror, invective, minstrelzation, narrative
The commercial and critical success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) was also met with considerable scholarly attention. Only a few years since its release, a number of studies have situated the film within a history of Black representation in the horror (and Gothic) genre, including body horror and the zombie film (cf., e.g., Wilz; Casey-Williams; Citizen). Regarding this particular interest in the film’s textual allegiances and references, I want to suggest [page 58] another context in which Get Out can be read—and to which it simultaneously writes against: minstrelization. With that, I mean to refer to the long and variegated history of pop-cultural representations of African Americans that, in their discriminatory dynamics, can be traced back to the tradition of nineteenth-century minstrel shows. Get Out can be understood as a film that consciously evokes this discriminatory legacy characterizing mainstream representations of Blackness by seemingly making use of it in its narrative and visuals. In this article, I argue that the film self-reflexively refers to and eventually transcends a perpetuating representation of minstrelization by affectively defamiliarizing its audience in an act of ‘meta-minstrelization.’ That is, since there is something intrinsically ‘off’ about the film’s white characters performing Blackness in appropriated Black bodies, an affective discomfort is created that Get Out uses to metatextually point its audience to the constructedness and eeriness of (varying kinds of) minstrelizing performances.
Ultimately, I aim to illustrate that the horrific acts at the core of Get Out’s supernatural plot build on the very same historical practices that a variety of pop-cultural performances of culturally appropriating Blackness adhere to, a legacy that includes but exceeds the horror genre that previous studies of the film have focused on. This article thus expands the scholarly discourse on Get Out’s intertextual dimensions by examining a representational legacy that goes beyond brief references to minstrelsy or blackfacing. Additionally, I examine how Get Out, despite making use of the same tropes as previous negative representations of Blackness, ultimately manages to subvert them. For that, this contribution also theorizes a particular understanding of minstrelization as a much wider-ranging practice in US popular culture, one that helps explain Get Out’s representational politics but that can also be applied beyond this particular film.
To arrive at this argument, I first introduce an understanding of minstrelization as an invective practice, a brief [page 59] theorization meant to allow me to better trace where to locate minstrelizing patterns in the film. Building on this theoretical framework, I will then analyze several scenes of Get Out to highlight their minstrelizing practices, first focusing on how a few of the film’s realist elements allude to and represent the appropriation that is at the core of minstrelzation. Finally, I turn specifically to the film’s supernatural elements to point out how Get Out manages to self-reflexively challenge minstrelization’s representational practices.
Conceptualizing Minstrelization as an Invective Practice
In discussions of the history of minstrelsy and blackface in the United States, the term ‘minstrelization’ has been used sporadically, at times interchangeably with minstrelsy, but not in a particularly theorized way. In his influential 1993 study of minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott characterizes blackface as “the most visible part of a process by which black practices were appropriated and regulated in Jacksonian America,” a process he terms “‘minstrelization’” (41). He traces the word, in turn, to John Szwed, who in a 1975 essay sees minstrelization as a “process by which [Black people] are characterized or emulated within a carefully regulated and socially approved context” (85). Other studies of minstrel shows using the term minstrelization often refer back to Lott’s use, for instance in David Waldstreicher’s investigation of the song “Backside Albany” as “part of a larger process [in which] performers of minstrelizing forms, live and in print, simultaneously racialized African Americans and, by ventriloquizing them, nationalized themselves as Americans” (33).1 While they do not define the idea implied in the term ‘minstrelization’ in detail, according to Lott and Waldstreicher, blackface and related practices form part of a larger process constituting “a socially approved context of institutional control,” characterized as “continually acknowledg[ing] and absorb[ing] black culture even while defending white [page 60] America against it” (Lott 41) and as “‘actively demeaning blacks’ in particular new ways that more effectively responded to black self-assertion and, in doing so, crafted a more secure white identity” (Waldstreicher 46). From the perspective of white America, minstrelsy was noted for its “simultaneous recognition and displacement of black centrality” (Waldstreicher 37); this kind of ambivalence and contradiction is also centrally evoked by Lott’s use of the terms ‘love’ and ‘theft’ in the title of his book. Extrapolating from these studies of nineteenth-century minstrel practices,2 I propose to understand the larger process that they allude to as built on appropriating Blackness as well as regulating and controlling Black culture (and Black lives), while at the same time also evidencing a controversial kind of “desire” for or “fascination” with that very culture, also having led, in Lott’s argument, to the “cultivation of public black arts” (55, 59, 46). This kind of ambivalent affective structure will become evident in my later analysis of Get Out as well.
I want to suggest that it is not just nineteenth-century minstrel shows that can be contextualized as part of such a larger process, but that these same underlying practices and logics, while originating from these historical formats, later spread and diffused into other realms of US popular culture.3 Partly, this includes very direct continuations of blackface and minstrel practices, such as in shows like Amos ’n’ Andy (cf. Taylor and Austen 135-63) or in contemporary political ‘minstrel scandals,’ e.g. when a 1984 photograph that seemed to show Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in blackface emerged in 2019 (cf. Hoxworth). However, minstrelization can also refer to certain actions, practices, tropes, stereotypes, etc., that do not literally use blackface (or ‘blackvoice’) or construct a direct historical lineage to minstrel shows but that, nevertheless, serve to appropriate, imitate, denigrate, or control Black cultural expressions (and at times, the lines between ‘literal’ blackface and adjacent kinds of appropriation are blurry to begin with). This includes a wide range of pop-cultural phenomena, many of which have al-[page 61]ready been discussed as adjacent or related to minstrelsy, most prominently perhaps twentieth-century and contemporary film and television as well as a number of musical genres, among them jazz and hip hop (cf., among many others, Nowatzki; Taylor and Austen; Coleman; Willis; Chaney; Heaggans).4 But it also extends to consumer culture (e.g. in the figure and brand of Aunt Jemima) and arguably to realms such as professional wrestling (cf. Calafell) and video games as well as other forms of ‘digital minstrelsy’ (cf. Nakamura; Everett and Watkins) or ‘blackfishing’ (cf. Cherid; Stevens). While their similarities to blackface and minstrel shows have at times been pointed out in previous scholarship, I suggest that there is actually a much stronger connection between these seemingly disparate phenomena in that they can all be seen as manifestations of minstrelization.
To better understand the widespread popularity of minstrelization in US culture and to try to grasp it concepttually, I propose to consider it as an invective practice. Invectives can be theorized as encompassing all “phenomena of insult and debasement, of humiliation and exposure” as well as all types of communication “that are used to degrade, to hurt or to marginalize others” (Ellerbrock et al. 3). In this understanding, invectives can include but go beyond ‘mere’ insults or ridicule and, instead, as part of a social process, they can be seen as having “the potential to unite and shape societies” due to “their disruptive, stabilising or dynamising effects on social order” (Ellerbrock et al. 3). That is, identities, communities, and indeed societies can be formed around invective practices, an aspect that studies of nineteenth-century minstrel shows such as Lott’s also investigate. As Katja Kanzler points out, popular culture generally makes use of invectives in numerous ways, and many pop-cultural formats are “organize[d] around performances of depreciation, devaluation, disparagement,” today perhaps most notably in a number of sitcoms and reality TV shows (“Invective Form” 28). In conceptualizing how exactly popular culture features invectives, Kanzler suggests the term [page 62] ‘invective mode’ in order to think of pop-cultural disparagement not in terms of genre but as a performative practice that transcends such ‘smaller’ forms (“Invective Form” 30)—for instance, the sitcom or the satire are not per se invective genres but they can certainly make use of invective performances in a constitutive way.5 Such manifestations within specific genres form the ground
in which the invective mode evolve[s] its modal repertoire. This repertoire revolves around a poetics of devaluation, negotiating a hierarchy between a speaker (speaking directly or indirectly, through figural or authorial voices) and an addressee (addressed directly or by proxy). The repertoire can suture the audience into the textual world in different places, often–though not always–working to make them side with the invective agency. . . . When it comes to formal techniques, the repertoire of the invective mode is very broad and constantly evolving. (“Invective Form” 32)
The invective repertoire that minstrelization makes use of, in turn, has been forged within popular culture since the early minstrel shows, by now encompassing a vast number of specific words, jokes, smaller or larger narratives, stereotypes, gestures, figures, tropes, etc. from or about African American culture that a particular pop-cultural text like Get Out can resort to.
To examine how a fictional text might make use of this repertoire, Kanzler suggests taking the affordances of the invective mode into account. She traces this understanding of affordance to Caroline Levine, who borrowed it from design theory, where it denotes “potential uses and actions latent in materials and designs” (Levine 6). Adapted to the realm of literary and cultural studies, such a perspective moves away from a text’s ‘intended’ use by instead shifting the focus towards the “potentialities [that] lie latent—though not always obvious—in aesthetic and social arrangements,” something that can be studied within the text itself (6-7). Kanzler, in turn, links this directly to the invective mode’s [page 63] repertoire:
One way to delineate the elements in this modal repertoire would be to say that they afford the devaluation and symbolic injury of subjects. Conceiving of this invective valence as an affordance means to conceptualize it not as a fixed and stable property of elements in the invective mode’s repertoire, but as a latent potential that can (or cannot) be realized in its individual uses. (“Invective Form” 35)
Textual characteristics that, for instance, have the “potentials to express shame–pride; injury–attention; disdain–affecttion” can thus be seen as part of the invective repertoire (35). Ultimately, such elements are always individually expressed in a given text, depending on its specific formal (narrative, audiovisual, etc.) elements; so, for instance, on cinematography and mise-en-scène in a film. In other words, discussing the invective affordances of a text necessitates a close reading.
This, then, is how I suggest to understand the larger process of minstrelization in which the nineteenth-century minstrel show participates just as much as later phenomena inspired by it: As a manifestation of the invective mode, it imitates and appropriates African American culture through a wide-ranging invective repertoire that disparages, denigrates, and regulates African Americans and their cultural expressions. This repertoire does not have to characterize the entire text but can instead be found in specific, smaller instances in a variety of different genres, media, or other formats. As a methodological impulse, to study minstrelization in pop-cultural artifacts, we can examine how specific textual elements afford invective disparagement or devaluation. In turn, such an interest in the poetics of minstrelization also lends itself well to being connected to its politics, in terms of how minstrelization works as a type of “institutional control,” allowing a white majority to establish and at once delimit Black culture (Lott 41). This invective ‘tradition’ exists throughout US popular [page 64] culture but has so far rarely been properly identified; yet I contend that Peele’s Get Out is an example of a text that is very aware of it—and of how it can be self-reflexively pointed out and challenged.
“Just Smile, the Whole Time”: Minstrelization and Appropriation in Get Out
Get Out’s initial Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) plot of how Black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) meets his white girlfriend Rose Armitage’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time slowly evolves into a horror story framed around the revelation that the seemingly friendly and politically liberal Armitages have been transplanting white people’s brains into Black people’s bodies in order to control them, an operation that they seek to perform on Chris as well. In this sense, the film is invested in representations of appropriation and minstrelization, rather than being a minstrelizing text itself, which already constitutes its self-reflexive interest (which I will turn to in more detail in the following section on meta-minstrelization). Yet in order to be able to point to this phenomenon, the film also has to represent it in the first place, which can still be seen as an invective practice that overall complicates the line between ironically commenting on or parodying an insulting tradition and running the risk of reiterating and perpetuating it.6
As far as I am aware, while the film’s complex meanings and politics have already been well-studied throughout a number of scholarly works,7 its references to minstrel shows and instances of blackface have rarely been discussed in detail. In Dawn Keetley’s edited collection Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror, it is only in the introduction that Keetley herself devotes a section to “Get Out and Blackface.” I very much agree with her reading that the film’s “body-swap plot” evokes “the longstanding US institution of blackface minstrelsy” (6)—but also, beyond that, the larger process of [page 65] minstrelization that I just outlined. Get Out manages to self-reflexively comment on this practice specifically through the fantastic elements that progressively ‘creep into’ its realist plot. Yet already before the central supernatural elements of the film—the body-swapping Coagula procedure and the ‘Sunken Place,’ the “place of black paralysis” to which Black victims of the procedure are banished (Landsberg 637)—are revealed, there are a few aspects in the film that can be seen as evoking minstrelization.
Chris is introduced to the audience while shaving in front of his bathroom mirror (intercut with scenes of Rose looking at a bakery’s selection of pastry). The camera first shows the scene from behind Chris, looking at himself in the mirror, and then from the side, with Chris’s face on the left as he applies the white shaving cream, and then again from behind looking into the mirror. I read this particular scene as depicting Chris before a performance, getting ready for an ‘act,’ and while shaving one’s face can generally be seen as a particular kind of gender performance, the focus on the white shaving cream evokes parallels to white minstrel performers applying burnt cork on their faces, a reference also noted by Mikal J. Gaines (165). However, I would not read this as “‘Chris’s metaphorical white face mask’” (Moore qtd. in Keetley 9) and also disagree with Gaines’s take that this denotes that “Chris seems less interested in performing stereotypes of blackness than in creating an image of nonthreatening respectability for Rose’s family” (165). The latter is certainly true, but in the logic of minstrelization, it can still be seen as a trope or stereotype of Blackness to appear ‘nonthreatening’ in the presence of white Americans. This does not mean, however, that Chris is trying to ‘pass’ as white: the minstrel performers of the nineteenth century also established the invective trope of African Americans as docile, nonthreatening, and unintelligent—a figure to be mocked and laughed at, a clown rather than an aggressor. Chris, then, is putting on metaphorical blackface, not a white face, in channeling or performing a part of his identity that he might consider [page 66] acceptable to Rose’s white upper-class parents. This, accordingly, aligns with many of the readings that understand Chris as putting on a mask throughout much of the film, performing in a particular way to meet the Armitage family’s expectations and thus evidencing his double consciousness (Keetley 9-10; Gaines 165, 168; Hills and Vannatta 3-4). However, this is not about Chris ‘acting white’ but performing a specific kind of Blackness, one that he also must have become acquainted with through minstrelizing portrayals in U.S. culture. Chris continues and perpetuates these stereotypical representations and expectations himself, as a Black character, similar to how minstrel shows also featured Black performers and later minstrelizing phenomena have been linked to African American actors, singers, or entertainers (cf., e.g., Taylor and Austen 109-34; Keetley 7-8).
This becomes especially apparent in a later scene when, after having gone through the first day of meeting Rose’s family, the guests of the ‘party’ (or rather, as it will turn out: the silent auction to bid on Chris’s body) arrive. Rose notices them when looking out the window and asks Chris if he is “ready for this” (‘this’ essentially being another performance, another act). After, Rose and Chris are shown at the party itself, with her telling him: “Smile. . . . Yeah, just smile, the whole time,” and as he complies: “Yeah, there you go, there it is.” In the scene, the camera tracks their movements from the right side of the frame to the left, and as Chris performs his smile, viewers can again only see him from the side, but it is enough to catch a glimpse of his exaggerated smile, artificially showing his teeth in what seems more like a grimace. Both Rose’s request (or, rather, command) and Chris’s particular performance reveal this as more than a coping mechanism to get through this social situation. Rather, this again evokes a kind of Blackness that is supposed to delight and entertain its (white) audience. Such entertainment was also, of course, the main purpose of nineteenth-century minstrel shows, and in advertisements as [page 67] well as in later minstrelizing representations of Blackness, exaggerated, contorted, and excessively smiling Black faces were a common trope that became part of minstrelization’s invective repertoire.8 Chris upholds this particular act throughout his encounters with the different guests while facing microaggressions, being physically touched without his consent, and asked a number of inappropriate questions about African Americans as if he was “what bell hooks calls the ‘native informant’” (Hills and Vannatta 5). While, on the plot level, this is meant as a way for the ‘bidders’ to ascertain his ‘value’ for the auction, the film here also represents a minstrelizing performance that depicts Blackness as a curiosity to white Americans, something to pleasantly take part in, to be entertained by. This is a trope that has a long history in popular culture but perhaps is sometimes overshadowed by other discriminatory portrayals of especially African American masculinity as violent and hyperaggressive—but which is no less diminishing in its invective potential, portraying Black men as docile and obedient instead.
The other minstrelizing performance in the film that does not have its origin in the plot’s supernatural elements comes from Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford). As other readings have pointed out (cf., e.g., Patton; Sublette, “Post-Racial Lies”), Dean’s behavior forms part of the film’s framing of the Armitages as white liberals, enshrined in his insistence that he “would have voted for Obama for a third term if [he] could.” Hence, their particular kind of racism is also meant to reflect the racist attitudes of so-called ‘well-meaning’ whites in the contemporary United States. Next to these proclamations, though, his minstrelizing performance establishes something similar on a different level. When Chris and Dean first meet, Dean says, “you call me Dean, and you hug me, my man” (and Rose later complains that he has said “my man” more often than ever before throughout the day). While intended as an amicable gesture (he first jokes that his name is “Mr. Armitage”), the use of the imperative here is already telling. Later, he asks Rose and Chris: “So how long has this been going on, [page 68] this . . . this thang?” This use of slang, “black lingo” (Byron and Perrello 26), and what Robin R. Means Coleman and Novotny Lawrence call Dean “adopting a stereotypical Black affect” (59) can be seen as a kind of code-switching in an attempt at a friendly gesture, yet as Hills and Vannatta point out, this of course constitutes an appropriation (4). Dean’s way of speaking might be intended as establishing rapport or even as an expression of admiration for the way he imagines that African Americans speak (similar to the Armitages’ diminishing adoration of Black bodies for their physicality), something that he desires to perform himself because he might deem it ‘cool’—which is the kind of ambivalent and contradictory desire for ‘authentic Blackness’ that also characterizes minstrelization.
It is Dean’s powerful position of privilege that makes it possible for him to appropriate Blackness in this way, and the framing of the scene establishes this dynamic: Rose and Chris are sitting to the right, mostly only their heads visible, looking towards Rose’s parents, whereas Dean is the only one standing in the room, next to his wife Missy (Catherine Keener), who is sitting in a chair. The two couples are symbolically separated from each other by a white column in the middle of the frame. From this metaphorically elevated position, Dean points and wags his finger at the couple when he speaks of “this thang,” in a slightly playful manner that nods to minstrelsy as well. The audience can see how his performance, as an invective practice, affords shame and a feeling of ‘cringe’ since the camera immediately cuts to a close-up of Chris’s and Rose’s faces, with Chris slightly jerking his head (perhaps to signal uncertainty whether he has heard right), smiling in a forced way, and then letting out a brief awkward laugh. Affectively, his body language and facial gestures signal discomfort.
As Sara Ahmed has theorized, such affective reactions are centrally linked to bodies: “Discomfort is a feeling of disorientation: one’s body feels out of place, awkward, unsettled” (148). In this way, Dean’s appropriation of a [page 69] particular kind of Blackness—what he might consider being ‘hip’ by emphasizing Black slang—also clashes with Chris’s own performance of a much more subdued Blackness. His discomfort can thus be seen not just as surprise or outrage at Dean’s appropriation (similar bodily reactions of discomfort follow in the later awkward exchanges that Chris has with the party’s guests) but also as “an effect of bodies inhabiting spaces that do not take or ‘extend’ their shape” (Ahmed 152)—that is, as doubt and anxiety over whether his Blackness is considered ‘appropriate’ in this setting. Dean’s performance thus becomes invective not because it is a direct insult but because his appropriation of Black lingo denigrates Chris to a stereotype and, in the process, regulates and restricts what might be ‘acceptable’ expressions of Blackness.
Overall, on the level of plot representation, the invective repertoire of minstrelization is evoked through Chris adopting a certain kind of Blackness and Dean appropriating another. While this happens on the realist level of the film in terms of how the characters behave, such practices of appropriation are, of course, most present in the film’s central fantastic element, the Coagula procedure, through which whites can literally inhabit and take control of Black bodies. How exactly the film depicts the results of this procedure is also how it moves beyond merely perpetuating minstrelizing representations, instead working against and subverting them through what could be called meta-minstrelization.
“I Want Those Things You See Through”: Meta-Minstrelization and Defamiliarization in Get Out
Towards the end of the film, Chris finds out that the odd behavior that he noticed in some of the characters has a fantastic reason: the Armitages’ Coagula procedure has allowed for the transplantation of white people’s brains into Black people’s bodies, gaining literal control over them and trapping the Black host’s consciousness in what Missy calls the Sunken Place. This fate also awaits Chris, because the [page 70] blind art dealer Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) desires his body.
Dean’s earlier admiration for Jesse Owen’s athleticism had already established the Armitages’ fascination with the Black body (and, of course, the reduction of African Americans to their bodies), and Hudson gives a similar explanation to Chris: “[S]ome people want to be stronger, faster, cooler,” with the latter pointing to a similarly contradictory embrace of Blackness as mentioned before. Hudson, however, claims he desires something “deeper”: “I want your eye, man. I want those things you see through.” Chris equally realizes that, at the end of the procedure, “you’ll be me.” While, on the plot level, this can be read as Hudson wanting to regain his sight (and a particularly good one—Chris is a gifted photographer), metaphorically, it also goes beyond that: Hudson’s quote can be understood as the paradoxical white desire to see the world from a Black point of view, to experience it as a Black person would, and to “possess Chris’s aesthetics” (Poll 87). As Hills and Vannatta phrase it, for Hudson, “the ‘second sight’ of the black body is a source of fascination and admiration” (4). In this sense, the Coagula procedure is an extension, or perhaps an intensification, of the appropriation implied in minstrelization, as Keetley also notes: “the desire of whites to adopt not only ‘blackface’ but a blackness in toto” (7). Rather than acting like or imitating somebody else, it is about literally becoming that other person. While to some extent this again expresses the admiration that is also inherent in minstrelization, it equally literalizes the desire to control and regulate Black lives through whites, by living these lives in their stead. Chris eventually manages to escape this fate, but Get Out depicts how other characters behave post-procedure, and this is how the film succeeds in self-reflexively commenting on minstrelization.
Once the audience knows about the Coagula procedure, the performances of the minor characters Walter (Marcus Henderson), Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and Logan (LaKeith Stanfield) all become legible as examples of minstrelization. Georgina’s body is that of the Armitages’ housekeeper, but [page 71] her mind is that of Marianne Armitage, Rose’s grandmother; the groundskeeper Walter is actually Rose’s grandfather Roman Armitage; and Logan King is the name of the white person who inhabits the body of Andre Hayworth, whose abduction is depicted in the film’s opening scene. Due to the Coagula procedure, as Hudson phrases it, the white characters “control the motor functions” of the Black bodies, whereas the Black characters are “able to see and hear what [their] body is doing, but [their] existence [is] as a passenger, an audience.” This literalized appropriation of Black bodies by whites certainly is a fantastical representation of minstrelization, but the specific performances unsettle that representtational history. This is because the white characters apparently do not know how to (or do not see the need to) ‘pass’ as Black; their manner of speaking and behavior are marked as white by the film. Unlike Dean, who minstrelized Black behavior in a white body, for these three characters it is the other way round, which turns their performances into an unnerving, defamiliarizing experience for the audience.
When Chris interacts with the three characters, they all exhibit some characteristics of a minstrelized idea of Blackness, coupled with other behavior that is distinctly out of place. The former is especially true for the attitudes and facial expressions of Walter and Georgina, who smile and grin excessively, similarly to how Chris puts on his fake smile for the party’s white audience. Walter, for instance, greets Chris “with an unnerving, almost clown-like smile” (Gaines 168), laughs unnaturally, and, at the end of their conversation, reminds himself to “mind [his] own business.” However, this ‘proper’ performance of minstrelization is contradicted by how he speaks in a stilted manner and uses odd, outdated expressions like “one of a kind, top of the line, a real doggone keeper” to describe Rose. This tendency to appear docile and servant-like is also shared by Georgina, who also evidences an unusual manner of speaking, using words like “cellular phone” and “tattletale” (she does not understand Chris saying “snitch”). The editing in the scene between Chris and Walter [page 72] already highlights the particular expressions on Walter’s face and his demeanor, but the film further intensifies this focus when Chris and Georgina talk about his phone charger having been unplugged. During this scene, Georgina seems to be momentarily breaking through Marianne’s control over her body. As she comes closer to Chris, the camera zooms in and then repeatedly shows her face in an extreme close-up. She constantly keeps up a smile, but after Chris mentions that he “get[s] nervous” when there are “too many white people,” viewers can see Georgina’s face becoming slightly more serious. She seems to struggle to speak for a split-second, but then returns to her smile, accompanied by a tear streaming down her face—as if the ‘real’ Georgina almost managed to break through for a second, only to be shut in again by Marianne’s control (cf. also Gaines 170). This “evidence of an internal struggle” on “Georgina’s tortured face” constitutes one of a few moments in the film “when the hijacked black body and mind assert themselves” (Keetley 12, 13).
While Keetley states that it is in these moments that “we do become palpably aware that Georgina wears a mask” (12), I would not consider these brief instances of the characters ‘breaking free’ from their enslavement as the most relevant for the film’s self-reflexivity. Instead, it is in the moments beforehand, when the minstrel performance of these characters is not yet broken but constantly feels strange and weird, that Get Out manages to engage in meta-minstrelization. This is true for Chris’s interaction with Logan, too. On the level of the plot, the moment when Chris’s phone’s flash briefly gives Andre control over Logan, compelling him to “[lunge] at Chris screaming at him to ‘Get out!’” (Keetley 13), is certainly another significant hint to the audience (and Chris) that something secret and horrible is going on at the Armitage estate. However, I would argue that Chris’s interactions with Logan before that are actually more unnerving: Logan reacts unnaturally, with slow, stilted movements and expressions, and is excessively formal when [page 73] Chris calls him “another brother” (he tells his wife while still in Chris’s presence: “Chris was just telling me how he felt much more comfortable with my being here”); he meets Chris’s attempt at a fist bump by shaking his fist instead. When asked about “the African American experience,” he answers: “Well, I find that the African American experience for me has been, for the most part, very good.” All of these odd performances are filmed in close-ups, often alternating with shots of Chris’s puzzled reaction.
I read this as a conscious affordance by the film to unsettle its audience, mirroring Chris’s feelings. The repeated—or, in Georgina’s case, drawn-out—focus on the characters’ facial expressions highlights their artificiality as human beings and as Black people in particular. These performances feel unnatural precisely because they are not examples of a ‘proper’ minstrelization—they recur to some invective tropes of representing Blackness but then curiously mix these with tropes of white behavior and language, foregoing an imitation of (stereotypically) Black demeanor. Unlike Dean’s appropriation or Chris’s channeling of a particular kind of Blackness, the audience cannot be familiar with how these (only ostensibly) Black characters behave because their behavior is not built on previous pop-cultural representations.
Additionally, affectively, the feeling of suspicion or unease that these scenes’ cinematography evokes is also displaced from the diegetic realm onto the audience, since viewers are missing a clear evocation that something is, indeed, off. As Gaines says about the scene with Walter: “Everything about Walter’s demeanor rings false, prompting a feeling of uncanny peculiarity for Chris as well as for the audience; we know that something is wrong with Walter, but the precise source of our unease remains elusive” (168). Since Chris, at this point, is also unsure whether he is perhaps imagining or exaggerating things (he is repeatedly gaslit by Rose about his suspicions), the audience lacks confirmation of these suspicions, which affectively transports the scenes’ [page 74] “feeling of disorientation” that Ahmed identifies as constitutive of discomfort from the diegetic bodies onto the extra-diegetic viewers (148).
These affective affordances of the post-Coagula performances are exactly how I understand the film as engaging in meta-minstrelization: they manage to defamiliarize the audience, with the film’s affective regime focused on creating discomfort and unease. The characters seem to behave weirdly precisely because they do not fully conform to the invective repertoire of minstrelization that a pop-cultural audience has been ‘trained’ to recognize; they only make use of some of these tropes, mixing them with other, unfamiliar performances. This works to turn the whole performance into a strange sensation, and in this sense, the defamiliarization of minstrelization allows the film to engage in meta-minstrelization, pointing to the general artificiality—the conscious, constructed performance—of these characters’ behaviors as specific invective practices. In particular, Logan’s scenes and odd dialogue might also trigger laughter, similar to Chris’s reaction to Dean’s use of Black slang: as a coping mechanism for the audience because of the confusion over where to ‘place’ the strange way in which LaKeith Stanfield acts as his character. This use of potentially comedic elements in a horror film adds to Get Out’s capacity to defamiliarize, just as its supernatural elements make it possible to feature a kind of meta-minstrelization that, in turn, highlights the previous (perhaps, in a first viewing, seemingly more ‘natural’) performances by Dean and Chris as minstrelization as well. Finally, this works on a metatextual level as well: Get Out, as a fictional film, is of course part of popular culture itself, and by unveiling the mechanisms of minstrelization, it also points to the omnipresence of minstrelizing representations of Blackness throughout American popular culture.
Many previous studies of Get Out have convincingly argued that the film is an indictment of how white liberal [page 75] America’s racist attitudes towards African Americans have been obscured in the guise of ‘postracialism’ (cf., e.g., Keetley 7; Patton 350; Landsberg 629). This extends to what I hope to have demonstrated in this contribution as well: Get Out makes visible a practice of representing Blackness that can be found all over mainstream US popular culture, including but also extending beyond the horror genre, and just as the film “narrates how American slavery is not an institution confined to the past” (Poll 72), it also establishes that blackface and minstrelsy have moved and evolved from the nineteenth century into different, ubiquitous forms of contemporary minstrelization. The film partly participates in this historical practice as well, but only to then make use of its plot’s supernatural elements in order to defamiliarize its audience’s representational experiences and expectations, enabling a self-reflection that I have called meta-minstrelization. Get Out thus draws attention to minstrelization as a practice, as something consciously performed, and to the role popular culture plays in its dissemination. As such, the film also uncovers the invective valence at the core of minstrelization, at once disparaging Black culture and delimiting what is even considered (and thus representable) as a Black cultural expression. Finally, as a piece of popular fiction itself, Get Out also demonstrates a way out of the vicious cycle of minstrelizing representations, specifically by transcending the constraints of realist mimesis through the use of the fantastic—and by affectively unsettling its audience in the process. As it turns out, such formal innovations in a highly ‘political’ pop-cultural context appear to be not just a particular interest of Get Out but of Peele’soeuvre more generally.
1. In a different (yet related) context, Erving Goffman uses the term minstrelization as part of his stigma theory, understanding it as the process “whereby the stigmatized person ingratiatingly acts out before normals the full [page 76] dance of bad qualities imputed to his kind, thereby consolidating a life situation into a clownish role” (110). Goffman, in turn, points to Anatole Broyard’s 1950 “Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro” as another source for the term.
2. Similar dynamics are also discussed in many other studies of both nineteenth-century minstrel shows and their later twentieth- and twenty-first-century legacies, even when they do not make use of the term minstrelization (cf., e.g., Johnson; Taylor and Austen; Brooks).
3. And from there, of course, these practices also influenced the social reality of African Americans, and incidents from that reality found their way back into popular culture. This kind of back-and-forth is also part of Goffman’s and Broyard’s chief interest in the phenomenon.
4. Szwed’s account also already makes this link when he notes that “the fact that, say, a Mick Jagger can today perform in the same tradition without blackface simply marks the detachment of culture from race and the almost full absorption of a black tradition into white culture” (85).
5. Similarly, a fictional text is not necessarily understood as an invective itself but it can include invective elements, alongside others (and other modes too). This is also how I will read Get Out in the following sections. By making use of the conventions of the horror genre (among others), the film is also an effective example of mixing the realist mode of representation with the fantastic mode (cf. Jackson)—and in addition to these, I suggest, the invective mode is used as well.
6. There is a similar predicament in most forms of satire and parody, and also in invective ‘meta-disparagement humor,’ which Caitlin Joline Brown defines as “jokes that explicitly target a minority while implicitly ridiculing those who would laugh at the joke at face value” (xi; cf. also Kanzler, “(Meta-)Disparagement”).
7. Among these are investigations of the film’s links to [page 77] African American history (and the history of slavery in particular) and its contemporary relevance (cf., e.g., Poll; K. N. Brown; Sublette, “House”; Landsberg; Patton; Ryan-Bryant), readings of Get Out through theoretical concepts such as double consciousness (cf., e.g., Boyd; Hills and Vannatta; Gaines) or Afropessimism (cf. Poll), and a large number of studies that understand the film as situated within and critically engaging with a history of Black representation in the horror (and Gothic) genre, including in a number of subgenres like the slasher, the body horror, or the zombie film (cf., e.g., Wilz; Blake; Coleman and Lawrence; Casey-Williams; Murphy; Citizen; Lowenstein). This focus also extends to other genres, like the neo-slave narrative (cf. Sublette, “Post-Racial Lies”) and stories of slave revolts (cf. Lauro) or lynchings (cf. Ryan-Bryant), and to more specific intertextual references and connections (cf. Byron and Perrello; Lowenstein).
8. As seen, for instance, in the grotesque logo of the “Coon Chicken Inn,” founded in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1925 and in operation until the 1950s, depicting “a buffoon with exaggerated facial features, less an image with human character than a human-like puppet or clown” (Weaver 76).
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Stefan Schubert teaches and researches at the Institute for American Studies at Leipzig University, Germany. His dissertation on Narrative Instability: Destabilizing Identities, Realities, and Textualities in Contemporary American Popular Culture was published in 2019. Among his wider research interests are the poetics and politics of popular culture, narrativity, genre theory, discourses of privilege, gender studies, 19th-century literature, and (post-)postmodern literature and culture. He is currently working on a project investigating the ‘invention’ of privilege in nineteenth-century U.S. literature.
MLA citation (print):
Schubert, Stefan. "'I Want Your Eye, Man': Appropriation, Defamiliarization, and (Meta-)Minstrelization in Get Out." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 57-81.