The program to watch while under the Wuhan Virus lockdown is not Tiger King, Waco or any other series recently dropped by Netflix, nor some pandemic blockbuster thriller like Contagion, or a familiar offering from childhood, but the 1995 cult classic [SAFE]. Directed by Todd Haynes and starting Julianne Moore, [SAFE] is a psychological horror that tells the story of a young woman said to be allergic to the 20th century.
Carol White, Haynes’s pastel-hued heroine, leads the comfortable but isolated and meaningless life of an upper middle class housewife. When she starts experiencing gradually escalating symptoms of some mysterious disease, including headaches, skin irritation, congestion, a dry cough, nosebleeds, vomiting, and trouble breathing, Carol’s doctor is dumbfounded.
At the time the movie came out, critics saw parallels between the lead character’s novel illness and AIDS. No doubt Haynes wanted to evoke that pandemic, even though the heroine had diagnosed herself with an environmental allergy caused by chemicals. Whether her condition was caused by a virus or a chemical reaction, Moore’s gently insignificant Carol finds herself in a downward spiral. This leads her (spoilers) to a cult-like retreat teeming with mentally ill women — seemingly suggesting that the illness is all in her head — and, eventually, to a medical bubble.
In watching the film, we get a sense that the filmmakers don’t have much love, or even sympathy for Carol. She is at best to be pitied for her listless surrender to the safety and security of suburban womanhood. At worst, the filmmakers quietly rejoice in killing her slowly and softly. They expertly get their viewers to ask each other: “What the hell is wrong with this woman?”
From a 2020 vantage point, Haynes and Moore look to be ahead of their time in hating on white women. Carol’s cocooned marginal existence comes across as an auto-immune disorder not unlike the one from which she believes herself to be suffering. She floats from aerobics classes to gardening to sex, a personification of feminine mystique, lacking purpose or joy, until her mind and body turn on themselves.
The movie radiates disdain for her environment, too, as the 1980’s San Fernando Valley, which represents everything the filmmakers hated about life in Reagan-era America: nuclear family, the suburbs, prosperity and comforts of capitalism. I’m more than willing to overlook the movie’s politics because these are both expected and not very important.
In the end, the movie is not about whiteness, or suburbs; those are fleeting themes specific to late 20th century-early 21st century America, but meaningless everywhere else. What Haynes is telling us about the relationship between a person and his environment, on the other hand, is enduring, and it happens to be particularly pertinent today.
The message is unmistakable: no human being living a full, meaningful life is fully safe. We are, in different ways and measures, exposed to germs, chemical elements, natural disaster, predictors, as well as people who don’t wish us well. There is a risk in going out and facing the elements every day, like there is a risk in using Clorox. They are not great risks — otherwise the human race wouldn’t survive — but they are risks nonetheless. To take such risks is normal and healthy. In fact, it is unnatural for a grown up human being to lead a sheltered life.
There’s been s lot of hysteria surrounding the Wuhan virus. Some of it has to do with its newness, but a lot of it has to do with the clandestine nature of the Chinese Communist regime under which it emerged. Because the Chinese government hid, and continues to hide, the truth about the extent of the damage the Virus has wreaked on Wuhan, rumors and fear swarm about.
We know from the Chernobyl experience that when totalitarian societies get secretive about their calamities, the free world panics. There was a spike in abortions across Europe after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, even in countries as far away from the epicenter as Italy or Greece. These nations weren’t exposed to high levels of radiation, and gestating babies weren’t at risk of developing genetic mutations, which was something widely known at the time.
COVID-19 can be deadly, but it was never an existential threat to our society. This was also well known. We were ordered to shelter in place not to prevent mass death, but to avoid hospital overcrowding. After more than a month of home confinement many people continue to live in a state of fear generated by the media constantly running with worst case predictions, spotlighting the stomach-turning side effects, and profiling the youngest outlying victims of the illness. Once fear gets into our reptilian brain, it’s hard to shake off. Unfortunately, our politicians and their advisers are the most cowardly reptilian creatures of all. Too many are unwilling to lift shelter-in-place orders because we are not completely safe from the Wuhan virus. So where does this leave us?
The bug is now a part of our environment on this planet, we may never develop a vaccine, and treatments may take years to improve to our satisfaction. In the meantime, life has to go on. We can’t be housebound indefinitely. People need to put food on the table. As Haynes can tell you, the outside world is never truly safe, nor is a safe life worth living. Safety in his opinion is a delusion forced on obedient hysterical women by white heteronormative patriarchy. Whatever. I think we are in a far more dangerous situation when the state promises its subjects total safety than when women rely on their husbands and fathers.
This is not to say that the government has no role in protecting its citizens, or that we shouldn’t want greater safety and security. I highly recommend taking the Coronavirus vaccine if does become available, and will follow reasonable social distancing protocols as long as necessary. COVID-19 is a nasty illness, and perhaps we all should assume that it can take a decade or so off an average American’s life expectancy. Even then we are very lucky to live what are, by all historic standards, long lives, and to live them in a free, prosperous republic.
However, to sacrifice our liberty and our way of life for a “war” on a bug that kills less than 1% of the infected is akin to Carol White’s psychosomatic autoimmune disorder. Nobody in the near future will honestly be able to tell us that we are COVID-safe. We need an artist’s vision to shake off the media-driven fear. What [SAFE] can help us do, is to master our courage to take risks, and to go back to normal despite a real danger lingering in our environment. Don’t be a Carol.