Contains spoilers for A Quiet Place.
There is, in A Quiet Place (2018), a moment of beautiful sacrifice. A life for a life; a father for his daughter; the present for the future. There is a scream.
A Quiet Place does a lot of things right; Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actor, plays a deaf character. A seemingly obvious feat with great impact for representation in the deaf community. The film is also, aesthetically, a triumph, something to be experienced in cinema surround sound, feeling too tense to delve into your popcorn. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But its politics don’t sit too comfortably with me, not when the film itself sits almost too comfortably alongside a growing canon of family-centric horror, which tells us what we should value in our most desperate times is almost never what’s here, but what could be here someday. This, to me, is the most hopeless narrative of all.
Emily Blunt’s character gives birth in near total silence. She has to. She could potentially do it again.
There’s a term in queer theory, made popular by Lee Edelman in his 2004 polemic No Future. ‘Reproductive futurism’ is, in essence, another way of saying ‘think of the children’. It puts a name to the idea that our political lives, our politics itself, is child-focused, child-orientated, always with a view to improving the world for our children. Reproductive futurism permeates through everything from environmental policy to education to life insurance, and burrows into our media too. Edelman posits the question: what does this mean for queerness, for other kinds of kinship or individual existence beyond the heteronormative pale?
My question is this: what is ‘family’ at the end of the world? What A Quiet Place seems to be saying is this: stay silent, think of the children.
The 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is hardly what I’d usually posit as a radical film, let alone a positive alternative to pretty much anything else. But I’ve been thinking about what ‘hope’ is in this film as an antidote to the biologically essentialist form hope takes in A Quiet Place. Why do this man and his son keep going? What could possibly be at the end of the road? The answer is survival, now if not later. It’s a message we could all do with taking on board. The man and the boy are traveling to the coast in the hope that it will be warmer. The man carries a gun with two bullets, just in case. This is a thankless film, a moral wasteland to rival its physical setting, its ending is a fork in the path and we don’t get to see which way it veers. But it is radical, this carrying on in the bleakness. It is true. I am, of course, not implying that The Road is inherently pushing against reproduction-as-purpose solely because it focuses on a cis man and his son. But a post-apocalyptic narrative which centers personal survival rather than the potential for future generations’ survival is something to be noted and reconciled with our own ideas of vitality and importance. Reproduction in The Road is not – and cannot – be prioritized over current life.
What is family at the end of the world?
The final shot of Snowpiercer (2013) shows, in the midst of Earth’s second Ice Age, a woman and a child, not related by blood, step out into the snow. A polar bear moves in the distance, proving that life is possible outside of the train on which the preceding majority of the film is set. This is enough, to know that life is – presently, currently – possible, for Snowpiercer’s ending to be an uplifting spark of magic. These two can live now, regardless of what lies beyond the mountains, as can that single polar bear.
The Road; Snowpiercer
We live in times where a future is hard to conceive of (so to speak), where our daily lives are punctuated by bleak jokes about nuclear annihilation floating around Twitter, where we have to ask why it is that we always have to ‘think of the children’ yet to exist when we are right here, all of us. We (and I use this term liberally, as a non-American) pin our hopes for gun control on student activists, sigh that ‘the children are our future’, marvel at their organizing skills. If we only ‘think of the children’, we prioritize abstract hope over manifest change.
When I say ‘the child’, when I say ‘children’, I mean the representational use of the phrase itself: ‘the child’. The child above all else, the child ‘we’ must keep safe from harm, from the ‘superpredator’, from hormone blockers, from radical thinking, from anything beyond its political positioning. ‘The child’ in this sense is a reactionary figure, a useful pawn in a conservative game. This is not a real child, questioning their sexuality or recovering from the trauma of a school shooting or being separated from their parents at the border. It is an abstract figure through which we can justify any level of action or inaction, depending on what’s most politically convenient and expedient. This is a liberal game too, it is a way of making environmental policy more palatable, of excusing responsibility and scapegoating the present in favor of a future-orientated idealism. Things get better with every generation; be patient; it’s changing slowly.
We pin our hopes for gun control on student activists, sigh that ‘the children are our future’, marvel at their organizing skills. If we only ‘think of the children’, we prioritize abstract hope over manifest change.
Another sickeningly obvious example of this logic playing out in dystopian film is Children of Men (2006), in which infertility threatens humanity with extinction. Edelman discusses the P. D. James novel on which the film is based in No Future, recalling in particular when the narrator calls sex without procreation ‘almost meaninglessly acrobatic’. Experience, connection, physical embodiment: all are rendered useless in the face of infertility. This is to say nothing of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is all about the children and nothing about them both at once.
Let’s try to situate these narratives in a context of thinking about ‘hope’ and the ‘future’ right now, in what often feels like interminable political misery. Let’s consider how radical both personal and communal but always current survival is, even as we think of future generations. Let’s listen when politicians talk about ‘thinking of our daughters’ in the wake of the #metoo moment. Let’s pay attention to the discourse around environmentalism and gun violence. Let’s remind ourselves that Silicon Valley billionaires could end poverty, while SpaceX – the supposed future of space travel – is worth more than $20 billion.
When I think of family at the end of the world I think of Paris is Burning (1991). I now think too of trans-centred TV show Pose on FX, and its exploration and elevation of the ballroom scene. I think of found families, and AIDS, and the title of David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague. Perhaps we need to rethink what the ‘end of the world’ is, where its lines and limits are drawn, when it begins to end. What is, I think, most important is nowness. It is vital to carry on dancing, to hold each other, to feel completely what is happening – to you, to others – in the present.
The children are here already, and we were once a past somebody’s future children to think of. We cannot live in a state of constant deferral. We cannot pin our hopes on anything, we’ve got to wear them out like a favorite pair of shoes.