Recently, I watched Bird Box (2018), a new Netflix horror film starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, and John Malkovich. Since its release on December 21, the film has made a huge impact on social media and is the subject of hundreds of viral memes. While Netflix does not usually release viewership numbers, they say 45 million accounts accessed the movie within its first week. Like the traditional theater hit A Quiet Place (2018, Paramount Pictures) and another Netflix production, Hush (2018), Bird Box features a major twist involving disability and begs for critical disability analysis.
Bloggers have effectively read A Quiet Place and Bird Box on the basis of race, emphasizing the former’s “DIY whiteness” (Katherine Fusco of Avidly, at the LA Review of Books) and the latter’s parallel to white unwillingness to recognize white supremacy (Michael Harriot of The Root). These are compelling pieces, packed with insight and well worth your time. But, my interest here is in a disability reading of Bird Box. This is made urgent by the surprise popularity of the film, and the fact that film and tv are a major site of disability’s social and cultural construction. Warning: major spoilers in this post for all three movies mentioned so far.
Bird Box (BB) and A Quiet Place (QP) form a pair. In BB, an unknown and largely invisible menace somehow provokes suicide when viewed directly, so protagonists use cloth to cover their eyes and hide indoors behind blocked windows to stay alive. BB is all about vision, and – ultimately – blindness. This is revealed when Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie, two kids in tow, eventually finds safety in a community built around a school for the blind. Because of their blindness, those living there are able to permanently resist the danger and provide a safe home for a large and diverse community (using the titular birds, who can sense the monsters, as an alarm system).
In QP, lethal aliens control the landscape – including, most importantly, the soundscape – because their super-powered hearing can capture the tiniest of sounds in their prey, including people. A Deaf child, Regan, accidentally discovers that her hearing aids can deliver a brutally-pitched sonic blow to the aliens, and uses the devices to save herself and most of her family. QP is all about hearing, and – ultimately – deafness. John Krasinski, director and an actor in the movie, insisted on hiring Deaf star Millicent Simmonds to play the main role, a move which has garnered him significant pats on the back. Krasinski’s move is notable (although it shouldn’t be) since many actors “crip up” to portray disability onscreen. “Cripping up” is when a non-disabled actor plays a disabled role. This practice generally goes without comment despite its troubling frequency, although conversation about the unacceptability of black face and yellow face have yielded discussion of cripping up.
Meanwhile, the Deaf woman (Maddie) at the center of Hush successfully fends off and finally kills her would-be murderer in a silent and protracted standoff. “The Man” assumes Maddie is an easy target for torture, given that she lives alone and is deaf; in their final tussle, he mistakenly thinks she can’t sense him behind her. But, she notices his breath on the back of her neck and can therefore surprise and eventually overcome him. (Note that Maddie is unfortunately not played by a Deaf actor, but rather the hearing Kate Siegel who is “cripping up”; further, Siegel’s inconsistent use of ASL was critiqued by blogger Rebecca-Anne Withey.)
In different ways, these three stories reverse the typical roles in the horror genre, making disabled folks and their assistive devices the heroes when it’s far more frequently the case that they (or their symbolic substitutes) would play the monsters. Consider the classic horror story, offering up disabled villains aplenty whose motivations seem rooted in their difference itself; think Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the classic Frankenstein’s monster, or more recently the terrifying villain of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 horror hit Split. In BB, QP, and Hush, it is rather disability itself, or its technological trappings, that secures the protagonists’ safety.
I’ve argued that the horror genre, when reversed in this way, opens up politically-significant thinking about disability. For this argument, see my article “Horrible Heroes,” published in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2013. There, I analyze the horror/fantasy of Stephen King and Tim Burton and conclude that both are politically useful for combating ableism. They repeatedly suggest that normalizing society is to be feared, rather than difference, and that difference can make one a hero.
On my reading, A Quiet Place hints at the same suggestion through Regan and her alien-busting hearing aids. There’s a lot to appreciate in Regan’s centrality to the plot, and the ASL use in the movie is relatively sophisticated. But, the political potential of the movie is betrayed by its presentation of a genre-typical monster – an invader monster from elsewhere whose weaponized difference is to be feared. Ultimately, the movie celebrates the central family’s ability to be self-sufficient and lock out these monsters (this is the “DIY whiteness” critiqued by Fusco).
What about Bird Box?
My analysis of Bird Box is far less rosy. The role of the blind folks who jump in at the end of the film feels cliched and a mere device for the central characters to find safety. Meanwhile, there is another set of characters who form a secondary threat – those who attempt to force people to view the amorphous monsters, and who themselves can look without being hurt (they are marked out by the fact that they do not need to cover their eyes). These folks are presented as “crazy” and in their illness are made exceptions to but also accessories of the primary threat. Malkovich’s character shouting – to warn others – “I told you he’s crazy! He put the birds in the freezer!” cemented the meanings and register of this theme at a climactic moment, and actually acts as one of the highest points of tension in the film. For me, this ableist element in the plot undermines any positive disability reading of the movie.
Further, consider the resonance with disability simulation; while the protagonists are not themselves blind, they simulate blindness with handkerchiefs and other devices. The movie lingers on them moving about haltingly, unsure of themselves and each other as they attempt to make their way about their environment. Like disability simulations more generally (such as the ever-popular “Dining in the Dark” activity), their discomfort, confusion, and vulnerability in being without their vision temporarily makes it seem as though tumultuous and uncomfortable experiences are inherent in disability.
On another note, like QP, BB fetishizes family. Malorie is desperately afraid of death, and so refuses to even name her two children and the film hints that she may sacrifice the girl (whom she “adopts” after the death of the girl’s mother) in order to save herself and the boy. But, the film fixes this issue and reconciles Malorie to the children by the end; she chooses to risk herself and both children in order to potentially save all three and, when they make it to their final sanctuary, she happily names them. (For a book-length treatment of Hollywood’s traditional family fetish, see Kelly Oliver’s Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down.) What would we have thought of Malorie’s character if she had chosen otherwise? If she hadn’t eventually accepted her role as a mother?
Overall, Bird Box – despite its seeming reversals of some ableist horror tropes – does not read at all as politically progressive to me, and indeed even perpetuates the constant horror trope linking villains to mental illness.
If you saw Bird Box, what did you think? Did you notice the disability themes I mention, or have thoughts on the politics of the movie? [Feel free to share your best or weirdest Bird Box memes in the comments!]