line of cult members
Posted on May 30, 2020

So, We’re Just Going to Ignore the Sunlight Then? Aesthetic Whiteness in Midsommar

Guest Post

When we look at the history of horror and the gothic, we see that the aesthetic investment in establishing darkness as an easy visual cue for badness is largely taken for granted. That the dark is the place where monsters dwell, unseen and always threatening, is perhaps the most deeply rooted cultural and linguistic paradigm propping up the interlocking systems of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—that is, it is among the most banal gestures of anti-Blackness in which we all participate daily. As such, horror films historically have been, well, dark.

As much as aesthetic layers undoubtedly inform the genre, real-life occasions of horror rarely arrive with packaging so convenient. That is, horror tends to be experienced as a sort of absurdity or cognitive dissonance: the feeling of suspension, of lacking gravity, of time collapsing.

My point is that horror lives in the mind, as a way of seeing.

In  Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, a hybrid of memoir and cultural critique,  writer Leila Taylor speaks to this point succinctly: “Darkness is everywhere, even in the oppressive glare of the noonday sun.”

Influenced most overtly by Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), director Ari Aster’s Midsommar is darkest in its opening; the rest of the story takes place almost entirely in glaring sunlight. The use of daylight in the horror genre functions as an act of subversion, preying on the audience’s presumption that we (and therefore the characters onscreen) are most vulnerable at night, in the dark. Daylight horror is a long-established tradition, utilized in classics ranging from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Ginger Snaps (2000), wherein the sheer visibility of the horrors on display, such as Leatherface wielding his chainsaw silhouetted against the rising sun, makes those horrors all the more terrifying.

The success of this strategy in Midsommar lies in Aster’s understanding that the audience’s misconceptions regarding safety and sunlight reflect its misconceptions about the inherent goodness of whiteness and beauty. As such, the daylight functions as one component in a lattice of devices designed essentially as a critique of white supremacy.

With her 2019 piece, “In ‘Midsommar,’ Silent White Supremacy Shrieks Volumes,” writer Noor Al-Sibai identifies many of Aster’s “overlooked comments” that suggest Midsommar is, at its core, a film about the inherent violence of white colonial ideology, wherever it shows up and in all the many ways it manifests. To support her argument, she analyzes how Aster plants easter eggs in the Nordic runes—symbols with a long history of Nazi appropriation—that are present throughout the cultural imagery of the film’s Hårga, a rural Swedish community.

But Aster’s commentary isn’t really even necessary. The devil is clearly in the details.

smiling cult members welcome the interlopers

Dani (Florence Pugh) is a psychology student who experiences a profound family trauma at the start of the film and, as a result, can’t let go of her shitty boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), a perpetually disappointing anthropology grad student. The pair end up on a research trip with a few members of Christian’s cohort (the film might call them friends, but I wouldn’t say as much) to observe the midsummer rituals of the Hårga. They’re led by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a native of the community.

While the toxic relationship between Dani and Christian situates itself as the most visible conflict, the horror in this film is largely concerned with horrors produced by culture. American modes of thought and being are thrown up against the cultural practices of the Hårga, each acting as a mirror to the other. Dani’s disavowal of her consuming grief and the inability of her “partner” to support her as she navigates that grief function as a contained critique of cishetero patriarchal dysfunction, especially when contrasted with the culture of mutual support and radical empathy seemingly practiced by the Hårga.

This is perhaps most obvious during a scene in which Christian has forgotten Dani’s birthday and—after being reminded by Pelle—is shown feebly trying to light a candle on a slice of cake while choking out a pained “Happy Birthday” in the foreground of the shot. Meanwhile in the center background, a group of Hårga women are embracing one another in a display of intimacy and connection that, juxtaposed against Christian’s gesture, seems borderline miraculous (though the display in this scene takes on a different meaning when you connect it to the larger ritual ahead).

Christian and Dani talking

The emerging dynamic between Christian and Josh (William Harper Jackson), the only Black member of the cohort along for the research trip, reveals the sheer audacity and entitlement of whiteness flexed as capital. Christian’s poaching Josh’s thesis subject highlights his mediocrity, yes, but it also demonstrates the rugged individualism and culture of competition created and encouraged by white supremacist capitalism (and colonialism, from which the ideology descends).

The imposition of the white male gaze, especially as informed by Christian modes of morality, has historically had dire consequences for the cultures on whom that gaze has focused. We see divergent perceptions revealed through Christian’s and Josh’s chosen research questions: where Josh is largely non-judgmental, respectfully inquiring about sacred texts and the ideologies and ritual practices of the Hårga, Christian asks whether they have a problem with incest. Even the character’s name, Christian, appears to be a nod to the particular history from which he descends, enacted through the fetishizing gaze he projects throughout the film.

Christian is so awful, in fact, he makes the Hårga look like angels. Even after the spectacle of ritualized suicide, their value of sustainability over everything seems more palatable—more reasonable—next to Christian and his friend Mark who takes a piss on an ancestral tree.

cult member angry over sacred tree being disrespected

But the Hårga are not angels.

Christian receives the PR response to his question about incest (“We respect the incest taboo”). However different his and Josh’s lines of questioning are, though, they converge on Rubin, the Hårga’s “oracle” whose neurodivergence—the result of intentional inbreeding—the community fetishizes as being “unclouded by normal cognition.” What the unlucky Americans come to discover is that Rubin is also violent, eventually murdering Josh when he—in desperate competition with Christian—violates the Elders’ condition that no photos be taken of their religious texts.

The film’s characterization of Rubin is deeply ableist and exemplifies one of the genre’s old tricks, representing disability and neurodivergence as a sort of monstrous benevolence (Frankenstein‘s Igor being a classic example) to be manipulated by the so-called normal people the disabled serve.

As a viewer, I found the film’s combining of this ableist trope with its participation in the much-discussed trend of having the Black character die first to be initially . . . distracting, to say the absolute least. But as the events of the film unfolded, I came to consider that Aster’s use of such tropes functions strategically: the film enacts the violence to reveal the violence.

The aesthetic treatment of the Hårga goes a long way in seducing the audience. The peasant dresses and wildflowers and haloes of blonde hair crowned in noonday sunlight all effectively function as red herrings, their prettiness distracting from the fact that there’s not a lick of difference among the group, save for Rubin, whose difference is, as already stated, both manufactured and fetishized. But then, one by one, those not phenotypically like them are picked off by the Hårga, beginning with the two other characters of color besides Josh, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia), until just Dani and Christian—the two white, blonde, able-bodied individuals—remain.

The film’s characters of color die first precisely because their difference renders them expendable in the cult’s logic. It’s no coincidence that this also happens to be the same logic held by American systems of oppression because, well, whiteness—a whiteness that values the perception of purity and beauty and cleanness above all else.

cult members at dinner table

It’s an important distinction that where American culture buries its ugly deep down, refusing to acknowledge it, witnessing is highly significant to the Hårga’s practices. Systemic death occurs in the open air for all to see, and this seemingly radical form of acknowledgement functions as a type of relief for Dani, who is treated as the film’s protagonist and heroine.

You wouldn’t necessarily call Dani a Final Girl, though, ironically, that trope is itself predicated on much of the murderous logic used by the Hårga—and this is sort of the point. Dani is a victim, yes, but the relief she finds in this new vision of family makes her monstrous regardless of how vindicated she feels (or we may feel for her) by the end.

Running throughout the film is an undercurrent of preoccupation with breathing. Breathing is, of course, the single most significant measure of time we possess, but intentional breathwork is also a frequently practiced form of behavioral therapy. Dani spends the film suffocating from her grief and despair, which makes her first vulnerable and then complicit. She breathes, finally, when she is no longer forced to pretend, when she’s accepted and held and supported. But how many people die in order to get to that moment?

Dani riding high on celebratory float

Alongside its spiritual predecessor, Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015) (from which it stole its ending), Midsommar completely indulges white women’s fantasies about themselves, their catharsis its literal climax, sickly sweet with aesthetic overture. Dani’s monstrosity is largely justified by Christian’s feckless behavior and therefore doesn’t seem all that monstrous by the film’s end, especially when dressed head to toe in flowers and sunshine. But in finding communion with the cult, Dani betrays all those murdered—not just Christian—and for this betrayal, she is rewarded: not just as May Queen, but with a family.

That white women’s tears have been known to sink ships appears to be the commentary lost in its own unraveling. Just as Thomasin in The VVitch accepts the offer to “live deliciously,” Dani makes her own deal with the devil, so to speak—but in this case, the devil is white supremacy.

It’s undeniable that much of Midsommar’s success is due to the fact that it’s highly brandable. The film’s overall aesthetic is one that, in the world beyond Midsommar, is most palatable—most desirable—to white supremacist patriarchy. And because capitalism is capitalism, that aesthetic is also completely purchasable.

smiling Mayfair queen

The horror of Florence Pugh’s perpetually tearing doe eyes and protruding lower lip is that the entire world will bow before it, her beauty being the type that the dominant concept of beauty itself (and therefore the perception of goodness) is constructed around. Although the film critiques the monstrousness of whiteness—including that of white women whose pedestal is built on the bodies of people of color—that point seems to be largely missed in the smoldering light of Pugh’s golden smile.

Midsommar is available on Amazon:

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Lea Anderson is an independent horror scholar, critic, and poet writing at the intersections of race, gender, ecocriticism, and monster theory. A Miami-native, she currently lives just outside Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.

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