Note: This entire piece is filled with major spoilers about Us. If you haven’t seen the movie, do not read it until after you have seen it unless you want the whole movie to be ruined for you.
There are many ways to interpret Jordan Peele’s Us and the scissor-wielding doppelgängers who dwell within it. The subterranean shadow people relegated to living in America’s collective basement — a basement that has existed for years, as the opening titles proclaim and the final act of the film explains in more detail — can be viewed as the “lower” class that has historically been ignored and stripped of their humanity in this country. The most immediate, obvious take on Us, and one that is completely valid, is to view it through that lens, as a statement on the insidiousness of oppression.
But the disturbing beauty of Peele’s second big-screen horror project is that it’s possible to glean more than one meaning from it. Which is why I also view it as a commentary on Generation X, a marginalized group that’s long realized the promises made during its youth will never be fulfilled.
The main character in Us is Adelaide, played as a child by Madison Curry and as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o. We first meet her in 1986, when she is roughly 7 or 8 years old, which means she was likely born in 1978 or 1979, the same year writer-director Peele was born. That puts Adelaide on the latter end of the Xer spectrum. (The Pew Research Center recently defined Gen X as Americans born from 1965 through 1980.)
Us is rife with cultural reference that are specific to the X generation’s coming-of-age years, right from its opening scene in which a television broadcasts a commercial for Hands Across America (more on that later) while Adelaide watches, her reflection faintly visible in the TV screen. The pop culture Adelaide is consuming — she’s watching the commercial on MTV on a TV flanked by VHS tapes of C.H.U.D., The Goonies, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Right Stuff — takes over the frame, telling Generation Xers that what we’re looking at is us: kids who grew up in the glow of the television, nurtured by what it fed us, often while our parents weren’t paying attention. (A few minutes later, when Adelaide and her parents go on their fateful outing to the Santa Cruz boardwalk where Adelaide first comes face-to-face with her double, it’s clear that Mom and Dad don’t get along and that Adelaide’s dad, in particular, can be negligent and irresponsible.)
The ‘80s and ‘90s references that pop up like gentle, nostalgia jump scares throughout Us are not just signifiers of an era, or reminders of the touchstones that shaped Adelaide and her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke). They each have been carefully selected and spread out like clues that, in retrospect, hint at the very essential plot of Peele’s movie: that Adelaide, and everyone else, has a double that’s living life in the Us version of the Upside Down. (The Downstairs?)
The VHS tapes I mentioned earlier speak to that upstairs/downstairs duality. Each of those movies centers around things living “at the bottom” — creatures that lurk beneath the sewers (C.H.U.D.), kids that venture into underground tunnels (The Goonies), a child killer burned in a basement boiler room (Nightmare on Elm Street) — except for one, The Right Stuff, which is about a group of white men aiming to soar into space, where they can (briefly) exist high above everyone else on Earth.
Subsequent pop culture allusions nod to the notion of hidden “others.” At the beach in Santa Cruz in 1986, when Adelaide arrives with her parents, she notices that a movie is being shot on the other side of the boardwalk. That movie is The Lost Boys, which would have been in production in the spring of 1986 in the Santa Cruz area before its eventual release in summer 1987. Notably, that’s a film in which Santa Cruz doubles for the fictional Santa Carla, and in which a bunch of seemingly normal — well, normal-ish — biker teens are hiding the fact that they are vampires who regularly hang out in an underground cave.
Later at the boardwalk, Adelaide’s dad wins her a prize: a Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” T-shirt, featuring an image from the King of Pop’s groundbreaking video for his album’s title track. Before this night, that video may have been Adelaide’s first introduction to horror; we hear her mother admonish her father for giving her the shirt and for showing her that video in the first place, because it “scared” her. (Again, in the Xer experience, parental guidance may have been suggested, but that doesn’t mean parents actually provided it.)
Jackson and that video loomed large in the childhood of anyone who grew up in the 1980s. But it’s especially relevant to Us since during that clip, Jackson reveals twice that there’s something sinister lurking beneath his surface: first, in the ‘50s horror movie within the video, when he comes out as a werewolf (“I’m not like other guys”), and later, when he reveals himself to be a zombie with killer dance moves. The fact that, as Leaving Neverland has recently driven home, real-life Jackson may have had another monstrous alter ego adds another, likely unintended, layer to Peele’s decision to clothe his heroine in “Thriller” at the moment when her mischievous other, the so-called “Red,” succeeds in taking over her identity.
Even the throwback references in the present tense of Us are very deliberate. When Gabe and Adelaide mention Home Alone during an argument, they’re acknowledging a work that’s, in a way, Us turned inside out. It’s a home invasion movie that plays for laughs instead of gasps, and is about a young boy left behind by negligent parents, but in an attic rather than an odd basement laboratory.
When the Tylers are killed by their own “tethereds,” the song “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, an upbeat baby boomer favorite released in 1966, is playing on their “Ophelia,” the Us version of an Alexa. When the Wilsons show up at the Tylers’ home, having narrowly escaped their own murderous copycats, they change the song to 1988‘s “Fuck Tha Police” by NWA, a switch that signifies that this black family is about to get to work on these homicidal Xeroxes of white people. But it’s also an audio marker of generational change: The Beach Boys have been replaced by NWA, and the Xers, not the boomers, are now the grown-ups trying to survive and keep their kids safe.
Then there’s Hands Across America, which winds up playing a central role in how the real Adelaide plans to reclaim the life that was stolen from her by Red, the clone who left Adelaide many feet underground and assumed her identity. Part one of the plan is, of course, to murder the doubles enjoying all the benefits of earthly life that have been denied to those down below. Part two is to form a human chain of people holding hands from sea to shining sea, akin to what was done on May 25, 1986, when Hands Across America took place.
If you’re like me, you walked out of the theater post-Us, thinking, among other things: What the hell did Hands Across America have to do with anything? That event, a fund-raiser for America’s hungry and homeless organized by the USA for Africa organization, took a total of 15 minutes to unfold. Fifteen minutes: The same amount of time it took for young Adelaide to go missing, the number of minutes it was supposed to take the police to get to the Wilsons’ house, an amount very close to the run time of Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller,” and how long it took in May 1986 to, allegedly, make the world better for the less fortunate.
Except Hands Across America didn’t make the world better for the less fortunate. There were all kinds of logistical issues associated with organizing it and, ultimately, the 1980s equivalent of holding up one massive Free Hugs sign didn’t raise nearly as much money as hoped. (The total came in around $15 million, rather than $50 million.) But Adelaide, whose last memories of life as a normal kid living in a regular house included watching that Hands Across America promo, never knew how the event played out. She was tucked away from the real world by the time that happened.
Hands Across America sounds like such a stupid idea now — you’re just going to get together and … hold hands? — and admittedly, also sounded pretty stupid at the time. But at that point in the 1980s, after Live-Aid and Farm-Aid and “We Are the World,” when pop stars from Michael Jackson to U2 were sending messages about aspiring to achieve harmony and strive for social justice, the concept behind Hands Across America made a certain sense. And it looked less silly through the eyes of a child who was accustomed to holding hands to stay linked with classmates on field trips, or watching the Whos down in Whoville singing hand-in-hand every year on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or cutting out an endless string of hand-interlocked paper dolls. (Certainly the Tethered carry scissors as their weapon of choice because they can be used to create those dolls, as Adelaide does when she confronts Red for the first time since their initial meeting. Also, a single scissors is referred to as a pair, much like each single person is actually a pair in the Us narrative.)
Adelaide is part of the Free to Be You and Me generation, a group raised on that progressive, acceptance-preaching book/album/TV special and the ideals it espoused. (Know who participated in the TV incarnation of that famous project, spearheaded by Marlo Thomas? Michael Jackson.) She and her peers were teed up to believe that a better tomorrow — one where gender and class and race didn’t divide us — was possible, even if it hadn’t become reality yet. But then Adelaide got older and she realized that life wasn’t improving, especially for her, it was just … stuck. She had been forgotten, left out, quite literally replaced, and the world kept moving on without her as if she did not exist. Certainly that captures the sentiments of many in the lower and middle classes in this country. But if it doesn’t also describe the feelings of the perpetually overlooked Gen Xers — and can you blame for feeling overlooked when things like this and this happen constantly? — I don’t know what does.
Generation X has a reputation for being cynical. Certainly the part of Adelaide’s plan that involves mass murder qualifies as cynical and dark. But there’s part of her that’s still fixated on the idea of Hands Across America and finally seeing it happen. The closing shots of the film, when we see all those red jumpsuited doppelgängers holding hands as far as the eye can see, suggests the second part of her mission was accomplished. Just as Home Alone can be construed as an inside-out version of Us, this Hands Across America 2.0 is an inside-out version of the real thing: Instead of a bunch of celebrities and suburban-ites intertwining fingers in a showy demonstration of support for those living below the poverty line, Adelaide’s version actually puts the people from below in the line.
Unfortunately, the original Adelaide isn’t able to kill the original Red and claim the spot that should have been hers: the independent, strong-willed mother in a relatively affluent family. Red holds on to her role as Adelaide. And that feels right for a film that, on one of its many levels, functions as an allegory for the Generation X experience. The real Adelaide, our Xer heroine, has been edged out of American life. And no one, save for possibly her son, Jason (Evan Alex), the kid who walks around dressed in Gen X clothing (the Jaws T-shirt, the Wookiee mask), even notices she’s not there.