Ready or Not: Here Come the Feminists
by Madeline Dulabaum
Aslender young woman dressed in a formal white wedding gown stands at the center of the posters for the 2019 horror flick Ready or Not. She makes a striking image; the flowery lace of the bodice and sleeves contrast starkly with the large shotgun cocked against her hip and the leather bandolier of heavy ammunition strapped across her chest. Her left hand clutches one of the fist-length bullets, showing off her large silver wedding band. The movie follows the bride, Grace (Samara Weaving), on the night of her wedding to Alex (Mark O’Brien), member of the “wealthier than God” Le Domas family. Their massive fortune stems from a board game “dominion” and they initiate new relatives by playing a game chosen from a deck of cards. Unfortunately, Grace does not draw chess or Old Maid but instead pulls Hide and Seek, the only bad card in the bunch. Grace hides in their creepy mansion while the family arms themselves with archaic weapons, setting out to hunt and kill her before dawn in a satanic ritual. Family lore tells that the Le Domases have played a game on every wedding night since a Le Domas struck a deal with the devil in exchange for unimaginable wealth, and should they fail to kill whoever has the misfortune to draw Hide and Seek, the family will perish. The prologue shows the last time Hide and Seek was played thirty years before, ending with the death of a young groom. This time, though, the sadistic family seems to have finally met their match in Grace who fights through the night to stay alive.
The film has received mostly positive reviews, currently holding an 88% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics have praised — or at least delighted in — the skewering (both figurative and literal) of the uber-wealthy. The creative team behind Ready or Not is vocal about their intentions for the film’s message. In an interview with the LA Times, co-director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin explains that the movie asks “if extreme wealth is in and of itself a deal with the devil.” All in all, this doesn’t seem to be a question as much as a statement, given that a deal with the devil is literally how the Le Domas fortune was amassed.
But as transparent as the goal of the filmmakers is, one common complaint among negative reviews of Ready or Not is that the commentary on wealth disparity lacked the necessary support and depth. The symbolism of a poor woman hunted by the wealthy elite is weak because, with maybe the exception of her Chuck Taylors, there is nothing besides dialogue that indicates Grace is not a born-and-bred member of the upper class. When the movie begins, Grace looks like she belongs at the mansion with her flawless complexion, straight white teeth, and elaborately done-up hair, and more to the point, seems comfortable in her fine attire. The interactions with her new in-laws are awkward but she does not commit any social faux pas: no knowing glances are shared between relatives and we are deprived of the quintessential regular-person confusion at which fork is the dessert fork. Grace is given an under-privileged backstory having grown up in the foster-care system but the emphasis of this exposition is placed on Grace’s lifelong desire for family. Additionally, her economic status leading up to marriage is ambiguous, all of which combined creates a poorly-supported symbolic lower-class figure.
Yet, Grace’s character does carry hefty symbolic weight, supported most obviously by the choice to keep her in the increasingly-tattered wedding gown. She is visually reinforced as “the Bride,” keeping her identity as a woman continuously in the forefront. Thus, the image of a woman in her wedding dress hunted by her husband’s family evokes a strong feminist metaphor, as marriage often acts as a synecdoche for the institution of patriarchy. Patriarchy means literally the tracing of familial lines through the father, but is also used to describe the socio-economic-political system in which men hold power over women. In this way of human organization, women are only ever defined by their relationships to men; first as a member of their father’s family and then after marriage as a member of their husband’s family—never operating freely as a being of their own. Grace is not even given a last name of her own and is trapped in the familial home of her husband’s family. She is in danger of being presented as a human sacrifice for the survival of the family as a whole, not just an individual marriage. Grace, as a symbol of women individually and feminism at large, fights to survive the violence inflicted by the patriarchy in the name of its survival.
Her dress offers an interesting second key to unlocking the feminist metaphor within the film, appearing almost Victorian with its high collar, long sleeves, sashed waist, and long train. As the film unfolds, an emphasis on the Victorian Era and Victorian aesthetics emerges. The deal with the devil, resulting in the Le Domas fortune, was struck during the Civil War. The weapons used to hunt Grace are all from that time because of a family obsession with tradition, ultimately limiting themselves to the conditions and tools that the patriarch Victor Le Domas would have experienced. The eerie hiding song is played on a gramophone, technology invented during the Victorian Era. The tradition of wearing a white wedding gown was actually made popular by Queen Victoria herself. The seeping of Victorian aesthetics into the film is mirrored in how Victorian gender dynamics also seep into the relationships between the characters.
Ideal womanhood was conceptualized in the Victorian period to mean a woman who stayed inside the home (private sphere) where she could instruct children on morality and religion and act as a “moral compass” for the men who have been morally contaminated by vice while venturing out into the public sphere. The moral compass concept appears throughout the film when Alex insists that Grace is what makes him better than his family, with his brother Daniel (Adam Brody) even remarking that the biggest distinction between Grace and the rest of the family is that she has a soul. Alex proves he is not made better by Grace when he gives her up, attempts to stab her to death, and is exploded by the devil. The feminist message here is that Grace is not responsible for Alex’s morality, his shortcomings are not hers to bear.
However, that Alex is actually corrupted within the home acts dually as part of the uncanny elements that create the psychology of horror films and as an echoing of current feminist thought that men learn to commit violence against women at home. The backdrop of the familial home as a place for such atrocities speaks to the fight proto-feminists and feminists made to carve out space for women to exist in the public sphere. Grace’s escape from the house’s grounds highlights the immense physical and emotional struggle women face in escaping both the private sphere at large and their own personal home, with the film focusing on Grace’s desperation to squeeze through the iron gate and the deep cut she receives from a bent prong.
In more recent feminist theory, the concept of “complicitness” has provided nuance to understanding of oppression, particularly within patriarchal societies where gender interacts with other forms of oppression, such as racism or classism. Likewise, the term “white feminism” has grown to mean a complicit type of feminism that accepts whiteness (especially middle-class, straight, cis-gendered whiteness) as its base framework and only works to liberate women inside that structure. Ultimately, white feminism excludes women of color, poor women, and queer women from feminist dialogue and agenda, while ignoring social, political, and economic factors that compound with gender to further oppress various groups of women in unique and specific ways. White feminism often manifests in the everyday with women aligning with the patriarchy in order to further their own personal gain at the expense of other women. The other Le Domas women that have married into the family — matriarch Becky (Andie MacDowel) and Daniel’s wife Charity (Elyse Levesque) — are fantastically unlikeable examples of this brand of feminism at work.
Both women hint that their circumstances were more akin to Grace’s prior to their marriages: Becky tells Grace that people thought she wasn’t “blue-blooded” enough to be a Le Domas and Charity hints at some horrible past life, telling Daniel, “You knew where I came from and what my life was like before.” Given their similar roots and that both could have drawn the deadly Hide and Seek card, one would expect Becky and Charity to carry some empathy for another less-fortunate woman. Instead, Becky and Charity are more than willing, if not downright eager, to hunt Grace down to preserve the patriarchal structure that extends them status, wealth, and power. At the start of the game, Charity is seen leisurely reapplying her lipstick while holding her harpoon gun, clearly unperturbed by the violence she is about to participate in. She even kills her own husband when he tries to help Grace escape for the good of their own personal patriarchy. Likewise, when they begin to run out of time, Becky takes charge and issues commands to the rest of the family on how to find and subdue Grace, even attempting to kill Grace with her bare hands.
It is important to note that because the screenwriters’ and directors’ focus was on class-based issues, the film actually simplifies systems of oppression, perpetuating a white feminist framework. All the main characters are white, abled-bodied, and present as cisgender and heterosexual. The imagery is of a white privileged family hunting down a white less-privileged/under-privileged young woman, isolating the social commentary to just gender and economic status. Given the current state of race relations in the United States, as well as the highly-publicized marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry of England, casting a young Woman of Color in the role of Grace would have evoked a very different social commentary, with far more complicated intertwinings of racism, women’s issues, and wealth disparity.
The treatment of the family’s three female maids further illustrates the violence against women perpetrated for the sake of the patriarchy. The maids are picked off one by one, with their deaths growing in gore and spectacle each time. Their deaths are attributed to Grace by the Le Domases, but two of the maids are in fact killed by the family and the third is killed in an accident while trying to hide from them. The violence they experience is unfortunately played up for laughs, highlighting the sheer incompetence of the wealthy family, which Katie Walsh of the LA Times thought “just [didn’t jive]” with any socially-conscious message the film might hold. Certainly, a critique on violence against women being used as a running joke is more than warranted and indicates that the feminist message present in the film was not intentional or carefully crafted. But, through the lens of the Le Domas family as the patriarchy, the maids show the violence women in the periphery experience at the hands of the patriarchy.
When Grace comes across Dora, the last maid left alive, she is scared and hiding in the dumbwaiter. Her voice bubbles with hysteria as she tells Grace she doesn’t know what is happening or why her two companions have been killed. While Dora is not the center of the hunt she certainly feels as targeted as Grace, a parallel aided in that they both individually hid in the dumbwaiter. The night might have ended better for Dora had she teamed up with Grace. But when she learns that Grace is the target, Dora yells out her location and very unsuccessfully attempts to hide again until the hunt is over. Dora is not aligned to the patriarchy in the same way that Becky and Charity are but is intimidated into perpetuating the patriarchal agenda against another woman.
Some critics have cited the treatment of the maids and the male butler as support for the attempted social commentary against the uber-wealthy, but this argument ignores the nuanced gendered differences present in their respective manner of deaths. The maids each die in disturbing and graphic ways — the first is accidentally shot in the face, the second is shot through the neck with a crossbow and then decapitated, and the third is cut in half by a dumbwaiter — even while their deaths are punctuated with jokes about the ineptitude of the Le Domas family. Then, their mangled bodies are put on gruesome display and carelessly dropped into the family body-hiding pit. Comparatively, the butler’s possible death in the car wreck is relatively gentle. His wounds and body are never on morbid display, and there is actually no confirmation that he is even dead at all. His actions while living, too, distinguish him as an ardent support of the patriarchy. The maids have minimal participation in the hunt, offering up Grace’s location twice which doesn’t actually help the family in any way. The butler, however, actively prohibits Grace from escaping through the kitchen and proceeds to hunt her down with escalating violence on behalf of the family. He is not bound to the same life-or-death consequences as the Le Domases, nor does he seem frightened like the maids, and so his allegiance to them and willingness to harm Grace is purely because he benefits from the family’s power. Disturbingly, he appears to relish the chase and violence inflicted on Grace and never loses his cool unlike the Le Domas family.
The film’s finale is quite literally explosive, but Grace ends the film sitting stoically on the steps of the burning mansion smoking a cigarette in an obvious nod to cult classic Heathers. She is no longer the fresh-faced bride. Just as the conceptualization of Grace’s character does not successfully support the creator’s intended commentary, her internal transformation by the end of the movie also fails, instead supporting the feminist interpretation. Grace initially buys into the idea of a patriarchal family. She is desperate to join her husband’s family and is willing to suffer through Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni)’s vicious glare, being hit on by Daniel off-screen, and the general consensus that she is not good enough for Alex or the Le Domas family. But by the film’s end, Grace has changed. She has evaded the Le Domases, escaped the familial home, been shot and stabbed, soaked her wedding dress in blood and filth, and even seen the devil. Her desire to survive has triumphed over her desire for a patriarchal family, and the cost of belonging is too high. Before Alex explodes into bloody goo, Grace takes off her engagement ring and wedding band and tells him, “I want a divorce,” rejecting their marriage, his family, and the patriarchy all in one go.
About the reviewer:
Madeline Dulabaum is a recent graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. While there, she studied English Literature, with a focus on Victorian literature and culture, and Women’s & Gender Studies. Her undergraduate studies included a semester spent as a scholar at the Newberry Research Library, where she researched and presented on femininity and criminality in primary documents about witchcraft from 15th-century Britain. She works as an administrator in Chicago, writing both fiction and non-fiction in her spare time.
Note: Poster for Ready or Not featuring Grace (the bride), the Le Domas family, and their butler and maids. Image from IMBD.com