Horror movies aren’t the best when it comes to diversity. The genre’s been slow to add women in fresh ways, and black people, typically, don’t fare well. Female characters are often reduced to stereotypes: scream queens in short skirts who screech and squirm their way through blood-soaked landscapes before meeting an untimely death.
But Jordan Peele’s new movie Us, in theaters now, presents a new kind of horror heroine—one who doesn’t scream, doesn’t squirm, and definitely doesn’t need a man to save her. Her name is Adelaide Wilson, and she’s played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o. The actor’s performance in Us is award-worthy, like everything she does, but it’s more than that: It’s a powerful portrait of a black woman who—spoiler alert—survives Peele’s terrifying, topsy-turvy world and teaches women how to fight back on their own.
Us breaks horror tropes left and right with intelligent characters who make good choices. Adelaide moves through the movie with her eyes and ears open. When her not-so-better half, Red, also played by N’yongo, wants to air her grievances, Adelaide listens intently and, as a result, learns important information to help her family survive. She’s a shining example of how staying calm and asking the right questions is the key to getting what you want. Screaming at monsters rarely works, even in movies.
Don’t be fooled by Adelaide’s listening, though: She’ll cut you as soon as she has the chance. Old-school scream queens usually waited to be saved, but newer horror heroines—think Michonne (Danai Gurira) on The Walking Dead—are sharp. When the moment comes to attack, Adelaide strikes without fear and without over-the-top aggression. Her daughter Zora, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph, also knows how to hold her own. With their eyes on the prize (i.e., survival), Adelaide and Zora fight when they need to but are smart enough to hold back when the cards are stacked against them. And get this: They do it all without screaming.
Resilience is another important theme in Us, and Adelaide has it in spades. Despite the fact her alter-ego, Red, is the physical embodiment of her fears, she never backs down. Time and time again in the movie, we watch Adelaide address her demons head-on—charging forward, even when she’s terrified. That’s so incredible to see from a female protagonist. Facing your fears is difficult, but it’s necessary for survival, both in horror movies and real life, where the fight is just as scary.
Scary movies often end with a fine line between the killer and the victim: In order to defeat the monster, characters become the monster. But Adelaide doesn’t do this in Us. She never forgets the people she’s fighting are just that: people. She recognizes they have wants and desires, and recognizes they bear their own burdens. Make no mistake: This doesn’t stop Adelaide from kicking some serious ass, but her empathetic approach with the villains is something we rarely see in horror movies. Maybe it’s time that changed.
In a world full of threats—especially for women—we need more onscreen heroes like Adelaide. When done properly, like in Us, horror movies are the perfect place for women to see how to be brave in the dark. Strength, patience, resilience, empathy: These are all traits Adelaide has in Us, and they’re what we need to fight the monsters in our own lives. Representation matters, and Peele’s writing and Nyong’o’s acting bring to life a woman who’s powerful, bold, and balanced: exactly the woman we need to see in 2019. Adelaide Wilson is spearheading a new path in horror, one that shows female characters conquering the shadows in their life once and for all.
Susan X Jane is a media, race, and pop-culture commentator. Follow her on Twitter at @susanjane19.