“I’m sorry if this is weird”
How do you show someone that what he considers innocent or “normal” is anything but? You flip it. You turn the victim into perpetrator and vice versa so that they can begin to understand the position they so involuntarily place others in as though it’s their right. But even this isn’t enough when the insidious nature of abuse is so intrinsically linked to a warped and archaically outdated cultural bias. This is why you can’t ask a chauvinist how he’d feel being objectified because he wants to be objectified. He thinks entitlement is flirtation and weighs his own worth on a desire-based scale. This is why sexual aggressors joke about statutory rape: “Who wouldn’t want to have sex with his ‘hot’ teacher?” Their conquests wrongly form their masculinity.
Look at the other side of the #MeToo argument for this theory in action. The men guilty of being scum of the earth candidates see it not as a movement that allows them to improve themselves and change for the better, but one that risks ruining the very fabric of their existences. Their identities are being called into questioned—that’s how deep these actions are ingrained within the American “man’s man” culture. And because the one’s who refuse to open their eyes and comprehend how power dynamics work are fueled by toxic masculinity, the circumstances must be dissected and rebuilt to get around it. You need to force them into a position of weakness by using the same tools they wield to do so to others.
Writer/director Ari Aster understands this and uses it to construct his dark look at sexual abuse, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. Before I say more about how he does it, let me implore you to watch it cold if you can. Going in without knowing how the relationship dynamics have been skewed renders the experience that much more shocking and therefore potent. Thinking that Sidney (Billy Mayo), Joan (Angela Bullock), and their young son Isaiah (Brandon Greenhouse) are a regular happy middle class family makes the revelations cut deeper because the honest truth reveals how this scenario is no more horrible or less believable than the nightmares so many actually live. This version feels absurd because it’s different and blatantly satirical. The pain, however, remains very real.
Still here? Okay. The twist Aster so jarringly introduces is his decision to make the incestuous relationship at the center of his film one wherein a child abuses the parent. How does this alteration change what happens? How does it comment on the atmosphere within the house and the actions of those complicit from fear, embarrassment, and abject numbness to the truth? The answer is unequivocally: it doesn’t. Whether a father is sexually assaulting his wife, son, or daughter doesn’t change the psychological impact of the deed itself. So why should a son sexually assaulting a father? Shame is still present and helplessness still cripples any hope for strength. The house is just as claustrophobic and full of insincere apologies because the labels “abused” and “abuser” don’t segregate.
The result is simultaneously familiar and wholly unique. The situation is believable and yet impossible to process because of the way it’s presented. This is the work’s genius. It forces us to confront taboo in a way that refuses to let us dismiss it. Society has a tendency to grow ambivalent to horrors once they become too prevalent. When there are eleven school shootings in the first twenty-three days of the year, tragedy is rendered routine. If Aster told this story the usual way we’d shrug our shoulders. Another film depicting a father preying upon his underage daughter doesn’t create a conversation. But one where the just-married son’s presence makes his father shake and his mother freeze—that’s a premise you won’t be able to stop talking about.
We confront what we think we’ve already confronted and pushed aside as solved. But just because we’ve personally judged something as immoral doesn’t mean it as a reality has been solved. It’s why a campaign like #MeToo is so powerful in its simplicity. Our becoming numb to a topic doesn’t mean it should be taken out of the news cycle and forgotten. On the contrary, we must ensure it remains in the public eye. That’s exactly what Aster does. In an industry where rape has sadly become a trope to advance plots as a motivating factor, artists need to find ways to give it back its weight. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons does this. It makes us uncomfortable again about something we’ve sadly allowed ourselves to accept.