On the first day of 2019, I landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, tired, hungry, and goaled up. I had been traveling for over 24 hours on a trip that took me from Lagos to Amsterdam and finally to the land of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aka The Bronx. I had spent the previous 11 days in my home country Nigeria visiting family and re-discovering my roots (stay tuned for a future blog post). During my time in Nigeria, I had limited access to the internet and deliberately avoided news from America. The goal was to live my best, MAGA-free life. And overall my plan was successful. Still, two news stories managed to slip through my self-imposed information embargo, their significance too large for me to ignore.
The first news story was the partial shutdown of the US government because of Trump's insistence that Congress fund a wall he screamed and tweeted for 2 years Mexico would pay for. The man’s ability to scam America has no limits.
The second news story that broke through was the phenomenon of Netflix’s original movie, Birdbox. I had no clue what the movie was about or why my favorite unproblematic white woman, Sandra Bullock was blindfolded on the promo shots. What I did know was the movie was wildly popular with over 45 million Netflix accounts watching the film in the first week of its release. It also sprouted a panoply of memes, which in today’s world is a key benchmark of reaching cultural significance and saturation. I mean, if you’re not a meme or Beyoncé, are you even culture? #realtalk
When I returned to America on New Years day, and turned on my data, I was immediately bombarded with texts, emails, messages, and news, all of which rained down like a steady never-ending tropical downpour. It was too much, and further affirmed my decision to theme 2019 as the “Year of the Core.” More in my blog post - here. Nevertheless, after the notifications finished pouring in, I was unsurprised to hear that the government was still shutdown and was entering its 2nd week. Meanwhile, on the internet, Birdbox memes, commentary, and reenactments were everywhere. And you know you could count on these new 0 calorie articles that just amalgamate all the best memes, like this one and this one, and this one :). At some point, the amount of people doing the Birdbox challenge and getting hurt got so bad, Netflix had to release a cautionary statement. Not going to lie, the videos are funny. If you want some reenactment laughs, here you go.
The very next morning on January 2nd, my sister had watched Birdbox. We had been in the country for less than 24 hours and she was already urging me to watch Birdbox. I said "nah sis." By this point I heard the movie was scary and I try my best to steer clear of horror and terror. I mean, the dreams I had post-"Get Out” were Stephen King meets Shonda Rhimes level. Y’all, I was having nightmares within nightmares…it was too much! So, I continued with my life, but no matter where I went, I couldn’t escape BirdBox. And yes, the irony of Birdbox’s inescapability isn't lost on me. I turned on IG, and there’s Cardi B’s talking about Birdbox on her IG, my feed had scrolled reenactments, my chat groups turned into referendums on Birdbox, my co-workers were talking Birdbox in between experiments, Twitter was packed with Birdbox memes. I even saw science ones!
By the time I saw the science memes, my resolve to not watch the movie had been chipped away. I gave in. It was inevitable really. The FOMO was on a national level. Before watching Birdbox, I first skimmed the movie’s Wikipedia page, just to give my brain a heads-up on the psychological duress I was about to put it under. And then on Friday January 11th, I poured a glass of red wine with ice (sorry not sorry), opened up my Netflix account and pressed play on Birdbox.
~Spoilers from here~
The first thing I see - my unproblematic white woman fav, Sandra Bullock, sternly yelling at two young children like the world was ending. Turns out, the world had ended, or rather civilization had and Ms. Bullock was somehow going to travel blindfolded with two children down a river and through a forrest to an unknown safe haven that can only be located by the hums of birds. Sounds crazy, but the thing is, I knew from the get go Sandra was going to make it. I mean homegirl survived Gravity and Ms. Congeniality. There’s nothing Ms. Bullock can’t do.
So yea, after I saw Sandra yell at those very specific survival instructions at two young children, I knew we were good. So I spent the next two hours sipping on my delicious chilled wine and watching what I thought was a fascinating story! As a huge fan of sci-fi and dystopia, I thought Birdbox checked all the boxes for what makes the genre so great. And the acting was superb. For any fans of Sci-Fi channel original movies, you know how crucial this is. Hollywood’s top talent don’t exactly sign up for Sharknado 6.
We also need to talk about Trevante Rhodes. He stepped out of the moonlight and into a leading man role, and he was a delight to watch. Finally, the cast of characters in the house felt like central casting was trying their hardest to bring Hillary's America to life. #StrongerTogether. I appreciated the effort.
After finishing Birdbox, I reflected on what exactly made the movie so popular? And why now?
I can think of two reasons.
The first is how easily the movie’s premise and plot fit into internet meme culture. This is a subject of a whole other post, but suffice to say - I believe the ubiquity of Birdbox memes created a cultural FOMO that generated interest in the movie. Birdbox’s hype was interactive, there were challenges, memes, reenactments. As an internet user you effectively had two options - get with the program and watch the movie to understand the memes or not get a national inside joke for the rest of your life. The choice was pretty clear.
The second reason I believe Birdbox was so popular relates to the first news story that broke through my embargo in Nigeria - Trump’s shutdown over the border wall. I believe Birdbox was so culturally resonant because the movie’s symbolism directly reflects today’s sociopolitical climate. Americans are living in a moment dominated by fear. Provocations of fear inundate our national conversations and declarations that we should fear others are spewed from the White House. At the core of the MAGA message is fear of the future and fear of change. Birdbox shows us what happens to society when we let fear become the primary glue that holds us together. We immediately see things fall apart, when a center, held together by fear, no longer holds.
At this point I’ve laid out my thesis like a good college student. I provided some personal anecdotes on how I got to this topic. I’ve promoted a few earlier blog posts and managed to insult Trump and bring up my fellow Bronxite, AOC, the Republican Slayer. I’m feeling pretty good, and now it’s time to dive into the central question of this post:
What does Birdbox teach us about the role of fear in society?
On one level, the entity-wind force monster in BirdBox showed us how quickly mass hysteria and fear spreads in society. We also see how they abruptly and effectively upend society. In place of laws, we see lawlessness. Chaos consumes, and pregnant Sandra Bullock nearly gets trampled (she’ll make it don’t worry). Everyone is looking out for themselves and within 20 minutes, society has totally disintegrated. Birdbox demonstrates just how thin the fabric holding society together really is and that if we give into our fears, the trust we have for each other and our way of life totally erodes.
In Birdbox, blindfolding yourself ie shielding yourself from the monster, which represents fear is one way to protect yourself. And in the movie, we witness how reliant we are on other people to keep ourselves blindfolded, protected, and untouched by fear. We need each other to stay sane. At the same time and more importantly, the fear turned Birdbox’s characters deeply suspicious, paranoid, and distrusting. In essence, the character’s forfeited a bit of their humanity in their goal of self-protection from the outside. The fear bound them together, but it also tore them apart. And can blame them right? That monster, which we deliberately never saw was terrifying! Still, the fact that the 2nd pregnant who came into the house was almost shot and that her death could have been quickly justified by some of the characters and even viewers as necessary is a testament to fear’s ability to warp our sense of right and wrong.
In my opinion, the constant existential feeling of fear the characters experienced was the real monster in the movie. Seeing the speed at which Sandra Bullock put the towel over the children on the boat exuded that fear. The introduction of every new member of that house was baked with fear. There’s a reason why I think the audience never sees the monster. We weren’t meant to. If we saw the monster, our own fear and focus would shift away from the characters’ own constant dread and fear, and towards the monster and how it looked and moved, and preyed. Instead, we are only really left to see how the character’s react to this scary threat and handle their fear. This nuance is critical for understanding the resonance of Birdbox.
Keeping on the topic of fear, I actually thought the more compelling part of the monster, which by the way was giving me “Lost" smoke monster vibes was near the end when Sandra’s character and the kids who somehow managed to survive capsizing in rapids had to withstand voices in their head that sounded like they were coming from people they trust, but were actually the monster. It was cool to see that it wasn’t enough to close your eyes and not look at your fear, but that the characters also needed the mental fortitude to not listen to them as well. This I thought was the truest challenge in the movie. It was also a poignant point made by the movie, that is when temptation comes from those closest to you is when your chance of succumbing is highest. Thankfully our characters stayed strong, though for awhile I was prepared to say Girl bye.
Overall, I believe the symbolism of fear and how its employed in Birdbox reverberates strongly in Trump’s America. We have a president who goes on national television to stoke fear and force the public to see and hear images meant to frighten us. The midterm election video he posted was aimed at portraying the caravan of migrants and immigrants at large as a lawless mob coming to invade America and turn our country into Soddom and Gommorah. The thing is we already have that, it’s called the White House. Nevertheless, Trump understands the potency of fear as an emotion. And he weaponizes to stir up his base.
Trump and his gang of sycophants wants us to see immigrants and feel fear. They paint immigrants as scary and want the American people to fear them, just like the characters feared the unknown entity in Birdbox. This wall Trump shut down the government to build is a charlatan blindfold for the non-existent threat of immigrants. And at the root of this wall is fear.
For me and perhaps people on the left, Birdbox resonated because I saw a world where fear left us blindfolded, unable to see, and deeply distrustful of other. Fear left children without proper names (Boy / Girl) and without love as they were being raised. This is why I thought Trevante’s character telling the children a story was so beautiful. There he was teaching them to laugh, to hope, to imagine. They had smiles on their faces, they were were unburdened. Ultimately, fear stripped many Birdbox character’s of their humanity and left civilization in ruins.
Widespread fear can never uphold society. Walls, internment camps, and travel bans are symbols of a society desperately trying to blindfold itself from fear. But by that point the moral corrosion has already commenced. Fear doesn’t make us great. It never has and never will. Instead, it leaves us scrambling around in the dark, looking crazy, and weak.
I look forward to the time when the pendulum of our cultural ethos swings the other way towards hope. It’s a message championed by former President Obama and one that can unite the country more strongly than fear and despair. The problems of tomorrow won’t be solved by a fractious population divided by fear, but rather by coalitions united in hope for a better tomorrow. Moving forward, I wish the message of hope is broadcasted in 2020 as an antidote to the message we know will be coming from Trump.
Finally, Birdbox ends at a safe haven with Sandra’s hope fulfilled. At this safe haven we see a multicultural, multi-abled, harmonious community that lives freely. Members seem to genuinely care for each other. In the end, this is the symbolic meaning of Birdbox. To survive, we must choose hope over fear.
And of course Sandra Bullock as your post-apocalyptic partner. Sandra stays surviving :).
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