This piece contains significant spoilers for the film Get Out.
In the final minutes of Get Out, when the “social thriller” goes full-on slasher gore, and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is clawing his way out of the home of his white girlfriend’s family, said girlfriend is definitely not clawing out with him. In fact, even though it’s her family that has morphed into a psychopathic version of the Waltons, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is nowhere to be found.
The premise of Get Out is simple: Chris, a black man, is accompanying his white girlfriend home to meet her family for the first time — a pretty scary scenario even outside of a horror movie. The Armitages are the very picture of white liberalism: Her father (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon, her mother (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist, and they both work too hard to prove they’re actually down with the swirl. (“I’d elect Obama for a third term if I could,” Rose’s dad tells Chris.) The weekend is a minefield of familiar microaggressions Chris has to ignore — the brother who keeps trying out “black slang,” family friends who sexualize him, a girlfriend who brushes off her family’s bizarrely, unexpectedly semi-racist behavior — until he can’t ignore them anymore. It begins to dawn on him, and the audience, that the white people cannot be trusted.
Those white people include Rose — the beautiful girlfriend who, until the final act, had been his and the audience’s ally. In a movie full of homicidal white people, Rose is positioned to seem like the way out. But when the twisted Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner anxieties slowly give way to actual, blood-spurting aggression, Rose — with her perfect, shiny ponytail, sparkling blue eyes, and porcelain skin — is upstairs in her childhood bedroom enjoying a snack. She arranges a bowl of Froot Loops and a glass of milk on a tray, like it’s 3:30 p.m. and she just got home from prep school. She sits cross-legged on her four-poster bed, puts on her headphones, cranks up the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing (“The Time of My Life,” naturally), and sips milk through a straw — totally ignoring the nightmarish, mini race war taking place just outside her door.
The moment made me laugh, because it’s that horrifyingly spot on. Of course this character would be the ultimate secret racist. Of course she winds up with a giant rifle trying to kill her boyfriend. It’s the only way to end the movie, because Rose, with her performative progressivism and nearly undetectable racism, is the walking embodiment of Get Out’s driving fear: Seemingly benevolent white people can turn into threats we never saw coming. There is a reason that Rose is the ultimate villain in Get Out, and it is not just because of a plot twist. Rose, and women like her, are often the scariest characters of all.
Rose reminds me of Taylor Swift’s anti-haters anthem “Shake It Off.” You remember it: catchy, inoffensive, a little basic. That faux-rap “this sick beat” breakdown was annoying, but it was generally bland enough not to offend anyone — until the video came out, with its tone-deaf twerking and the “Who me?” moment of appropriation. It was the song equivalent of a very specific white-girl type: uncontroversially beautiful, good-natured, performatively tolerant, and entirely un-self-aware.
That’s Rose at the beginning of the movie. Take, for example, how she fails to tell her parents Chris is black before she brings him home. She assumes, idealistically, that they won’t care (or even be surprised); she assumes, selfishly, that Chris won’t feel uncomfortable. Rose is misguided, we’re told, but she’s not malevolent. She represents a familiar type of white person privilege — maddeningly oblivious at best, mildly offensive at worst.
When asked about choosing Williams for the role, writer-director Jordan Peele told the Los Angeles Times that she has “that quality that sort of reminds you of somebody you might have known growing up — like an old summer camp crush.” Williams’s well-documented real life adds to the casting effect: Her father is Brian Williams; she was born and raised in New Canaan, one of the richest and whitest parts of Connecticut. She went to Yale after prep school, and now she’s married to Ricky Van Veen, her physical and socioeconomic doppelgänger. They got married in Wyoming, and Tom Hanks officiated. She plays Marnie on Girls. Williams’s career, for better or worse, has been constructed around the archetype of the preppy white woman. Williams herself has spent a significant amount of her Get Out press tour acknowledging her own privilege, and discussing its effect in the film. “We are using the thing that I was finding so sticky to flip the bird to the audience, basically, and say ‘Ha! You trusted me so much because I’m so WASP-y,’” Williams told Vulture.
She is right that Get Out plays largely on her Marnie-fied persona. But whether or not you can trust a WASP is the film’s essential, terrifying question, and it is embodied in Williams’s character. Rose is on the sidelines just enough that you start to doubt her motives, her compassion, and her empathy. But mostly, you start to doubt yourself.
There’s a later party scene where guests compare Chris to Tiger Woods and ask him if the “once you go black” myth is true. Rose shrugs it off — first by leaving him to fend for himself in the conversations, and then by good-naturedly rolling her eyes at the comments she does hear. She might not be perpetuating the racism, but she doesn’t really acknowledge that he’s experiencing it. Chris is left alone in the situation, wondering if he’s totally delusional or if that Tiger Woods reference was, in fact, pretty damn racist. This is why it took me so long to realize that Rose was in on the plan, even as her offenses stacked up. It’s easier to wave off each instance of passivity with a “Yeah, but she’s the nice person on his side!” It’s easier, and less scary, to continue to look for the real obvious threats.
It takes a box of photographs for Chris — and the audience, and me — to finally realize that the nagging suspicions about Rose are totally valid. The photographs are Rose in different stages of life — riding horses (of course), making goofy faces during her awkward phase (of course), posing with her first black boyfriend (what??), smiling with another black boyfriend (wait.), standing next to yet another and another and another black boyfriend (she said Chris was the first one!), and then, finally, a black girlfriend (oh shit!). The initial, devastating fear the scene evokes is “Am I just a fetish?” The horror-movie realization is that the situation is much worse.
Rose is eventually revealed to be the full-on aggressive enemy who has been misleading him the whole time. (She’s hunting him for her family’s brain-replacement program, because what would a social thriller be without a comment on cultural appropriation?) By the time she’s hunting him down, rifle in hand, dead set on ending his life, I felt (despite the body-switching horror tropes) a familiar feeling. It’s that same surprise and shock you feel as a black American when someone you trust locks the door when driving through an all-black neighborhood, or asks to touch your hair, or, worst of all, defends white men covering “Formation.” The hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you realize the world is, sadly, what you’ve always suspected. Sometimes the distrust you feel for an interaction, or a comment, or the seemingly well-meaning white woman, isn’t just in your head. The paranoia is justified. Rose is the type of villain who makes you rethink the real world because she so clearly already exists in it. The “nice” people can be as vicious as the obvious racists, Get Out reminds us; and sometimes, they’re scarier for it.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the cereal Rose eats; it is Froot Loops, not Lucky Charms.