DIY Whiteness in the Age of Apocalypse

There’s a shot in John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place that’s too, too lovely. In it, Emily Blunt appears with hair in a messy braid, Fair Isle sweater and overalls, framed in front of some homegrown flowers and a braid of drying garlic.

I’m not going to fault Blunt for having achieved peak wedding hair, but there’s more than one thing about the scene — and the movie — that troubles me. It’s not just the aesthetics of womanly sacrifice and resolve, though, certainly, it is also that. What really gets me about the film, and its embrace by the indie elite, is how narcissistic aesthetic practice puts such a pretty filter over ugly narcissistic politics.

Ostensibly, A Quiet Place is a post-apocalyptic horror film, in which the few remaining humans are terrorized by an invading alien species with very, very sensitive hearing. As a result, the surviving Evelyn (Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) Abbot, as well as their children, must be as quiet as possible, lest they alert the aliens to their presence.

The film opens with an aggressive enforcement of Waldorf-school rules as a child is punished for using a noisy, plastic, battery-operated toy spaceship by being rushed off screen and, one imagines, having his head ripped off by an angry monster sensitive to toys that are not “nourishing to the senses.” As if in correction to plastic toys that are not only tacky but deadly, the film later shows the pregnant Evelyn sewing a soft mobile for her impending arrival.

In addition to raising children disallowed battery-operated toys, the Abbots substitute kale leaves for clattering dinner plates, can organic fruits and vegetables, and decorate their yard with string lights. Needless to say, the Blunt character doesn’t get the epidural when it’s time for her bathtub home birth. A Quiet Place is a post-apocalyptic horror film, but it looks a lot like a utopia of homesteading and DIY practice.

On the one hand, if people want to expend their labor designing kale-leaf tablescapes and découpaging their basements, fine. But on the other, the film’s aesthetic choices suggest a belief system underpinning such handsome homesteads. In a recent episode of NYT podcast Still Processing, which included discussions of both the film and the new Roseanne, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham consider both as expressions of a white identity that sees itself under siege. Before  A Quiet Place, Wortham jokes that it’s easy to imagine Roseanne’s Conners building a bunker complete with ramen and buckets of water.

It’s a quick line, but to me, an idea worth lingering over. The bunker mentality matters now because it’s precisely in the bunker that the Conners and theAbbotts—two groups who might prefer to think they have nothing to do with one another—meet.  The dream of the bunker is the dream of being left alone. Though the invading presence varies, the bunker mentality is one that imagines the nuclear family would do better, if only left to its own devices.

A Quiet Place is a reminder that it’s often at the point of childrearing where Americans on the fringes of the left and the right converge. Take, for example, my near neighbors in Northern California, who, with their outrageously low vaccination rates, have an uncomfortably close alignment with conservatives who don’t want universal healthcare. No, really, take them.

There’s a root distrust of the government in my anti-Vaxxer neighbors, my fellow Nevada citizens the Bundys, and this film. It’s the attitude “No one can tell me how to raise my kids,” which suggests that some things, government things, are fine for poor people’s kids, for brown kids, but not my own. It’s the ugly impulse that fills the seats of both conservative and progressive private schools nationwide.

And indeed, at its core, A Quiet Place’s plot is committed to the idea that the government is incompetent and that smart, well-meaning families must take matters into their own hands. Evelyn lovingly homeschools the children and Lee is a tinkerer genius, with a workshop in which he attempts to fix his daughter’s cochlear implant and develop a theory of the aliens and their vulnerabilities. Part of this work includes his collection of newspaper articles about the invasion, which serve to fill in the film’s backstory. But the headlines reading “U.S. Military Defeated: we can no longer protect you” and images of impotent helicopters also raise the question of why government-funded researchers and the military couldn’t figure out the creatures’ weaknesses. As it turns out, this is the kind of problem that only a self-taught, make-it-yourself family can solve. Learning is what you do in isolation and only when you’re left alone. While the film links such efforts to a father’s love for his deaf daughter, it’s not unlike fetish made of autodidacticism by the anti-college movement of Silicon Valley assholes like Peter Thiel.

Because the film stays trained on the homesteading family, it doesn’t consider those who didn’t make it.  In its depopulated whiteness, the film doesn’t have to think very hard about the way catastrophe is a remarkable mechanism for revealing social stratification. It’s also helpful to the film that no other children appear in it, because it allows the fundamentally ruthless individualism of bunker thinking to remain just beneath the surface.

Of course survivalist films like A Quiet Place are a lie. They imagine the effects of catastrophe as evenly distributed, which means survival is a matter of merit. These characters know that shop craft is soul craft and it’s why they get to live. As it turns out, taking hog butchering classes and making your own lavender eye pillows is the perfect training regime for global apocalypse. Didn’t make it? Perhaps you should have planted your rooftop garden before the aliens started fucking shit up. The ant and the grasshopper and all that.

This is the paradox of white middle class survivalism: the fantasy that these bodies are simultaneously the most susceptible to danger and the most well equipped to survive it. It’s a tradition we’ve seen in film since at least 1915, when D.W. Griffith’s white women of the south appeared on screen upcycling old sheets for their ex-Confederate husbands. They, too, needed the national government to get out of the way to battle invaders.

And while the A Quiet Place’s bad new world is characterized by silence, rather than feeling oppressed by quiet, this family seems to like it. In a tender scene between husband and wife later in the film, we learn that their pre-apocalypse tastes were pretty subdued, too.  This is a lovely moment, underwritten by the beautiful mellow tones of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” a song the musician wrote in part because of his developing tinnitus. As Evelyn stands before a sink, washing dishes, she sways to music playing through her headphones. In a loving gesture, Lee puts one of her earbuds in his own ear and they dance. Another couple might crave sound—whether Young’s other, hearing-damaging hits, a little riot grrl music from Evelyn’s past, or some old school hip hop to really move to. But this isn’t the Abbots.

From their canning, to their homemade toys, to their musical tastes, this family is as sensitive as the monsters outside. So, while the plot of the film locates terror in alien invasion, the film’s aesthetics suggest a fear of that middle-class horror: toxins. In response to a dangerous world that includes other people ready to inflict plastic toys, vaccines, global warming, and questionable curriculum (toxic ideas), best to separate your family from society and school your own children, grow your own food, make your own clothes.

In a film with little dialogue, one line stands out. When the couple’s surviving children go missing late in the film, Evelyn whispers a question fiercely at her husband. “If we can’t protect them, who are we?”  The question is both justification for and encapsulation of the bunker logic that’s previously been expressed mostly via the film’s aesthetics. It’s the logic that allows the coexistence of beliefs that one’s children can’t have plastic touch their food, and that it’s an act of self care to tune out news stories about Flint’s water—an insistence on the special needs of one’s own offspring and general indifference to the fate of other people’s babies. Garlic braid, wool sweater, kale leaf—A Quiet Place creates a tactile world of self-preservation, depicting the cozy, nurturing textures which ensure that when liberal elites betray the social contract, at least they’re doing it in Instagram-worthy style.

–Katherine Fusco gets all her parenting advice from the movies. You can see more of her work at www.katherinefusco.com