Essay – The white (silent) powerful woman: A Critical Gendered Analysis of Secrecy in Bier’s ‘Bird Box’

June 22, 2019

Liberty O’Hagan

Graduate, BSc Politics and International Relations, University of Bristol


The survival horror film ‘Bird Box,’ was released on Netflix in November 2018. To date, it has become the most watched film on the site, with 45 million accounts streaming the film within its first seven days of publication (Netflix, 2018). In addition to its demand within mainstream popular culture, the apocalyptic genre of the film can also offer a critique of power in our own societies (Crawford, 2003). The narrative follows an interracial couple Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and Tom (Trevante Rhodes) and two children who attempt to reach safety after surviving an apocalyptic suicide for five years (Bier, 2018). The limited analysis of secrecy within the film has mostly focused on the ontological form of secrecy, of the known unknown, which drives people to suicide (Topel, 2018). Several film critics have drawn on traditional understandings of secrecy as a deliberate withholding of information (Horn, 2011). For example, noting how the analytical data and marketing costs of the new release have been kept secret (Hoggatt, 2018; Nicholson, 2018; Lee, 2019). So far, however, far too little attention has been paid to the role of epistemology within Bird Box. Therefore, this essay aims to understand how epistemic questions surrounding gender, race and knowledge are reproduced in Bird Box. In order to do so, the analysis will critically explore the role of silence within a three-minute scene which comes after the first ninety minutes of the film. The first section of this essay will offer a short examination of feminist literature around the role of silence and ignorance. This essay will then conceptualise secrecy to refer to a process of knowledge making and unmaking within a gendered and racialised system of power. The remaining part of the essay will draw on Parpart and Parashar’s (2018) concept of a ‘purposeful silence’ and Mendieta’s (2011) term ‘culpable ignorance’ to analyse how secrecy practices can create or deny power. The analysis concludes by highlighting the implications of privileging a white subject position in wider discourses. This essay argues that silence as a secrecy practice helps to constitute the white female lead as knowledgeable and powerful.



Birdbox, 2019 (USA: Netflix]
Birdbox, 2019 (USA: Netflix]


Recent feminist academic literature on secrecy has suggested that the practice of silence can represent female agency. This literature challenges earlier assumptions of women’s silence as a means of disempowerment (Hansen, 2000). Parpart and Parashar (2018) define ‘purposeful silence’ as a mechanism for women to perform agency in insecure gendered relations and contexts. For example, women can use silence for protection within conflict, or in the case of Bird Box, apocalyptic societies (Selimovic, 2018). This definition moves beyond the dichotomous binaries of silence/voice, powerless/power, and frames silence as dialectical (Acheson, 2007). An assumption within this definition of ‘purposeful silence’ is that women intentionally conceal knowledge, which is useful when explaining how silence is more than an absence of sound (Elferen and Raeymaekers, 2015). However, there are also other more complex reasons behind silence. Feminist epistemology is useful to identify how silence, and the production of knowledge, are situated in a broader context of gendered power, hierarchy, and systems of privilege (Alcoff and Potter, 1993). For Mendieta (2011), knowledge does not neutrally exist; rather, it is produced by an epistemological ‘knower’ (ibid: 248). This understanding recognises that knowledge is constructed by someone, and thereby raises epistemic questions within Bird Box about our understanding of silence, and of who is speaking and who can reproduce ignorance. With this understanding, I conceptualise secrecy as relational. Gendered systems of power and privilege shape secret practices, such as silence and the production of ignorance. This understanding of secrecy will help analyse how the (white) character, Malorie becomes empowered by silence and simultaneously becomes powerful as she challenges her constitutive (African-American) Other Tom.


Malorie claims that by refusing to tell the children about life outside, she is helping them to ‘survive,’ thus justifying secrecy as a means of protection (Selimovic, 2018). However, silence can also reproduce gendered expectations of what constitutes a ‘mother’ in comparison to a ‘protector’ and a ‘survivor.’ Malorie, who has experienced family death, trauma, separation from Boy’s father and witnessed the suicide of Girl’s mother, appears to reject historical, and cultural assumptions of a motherly figure as affectionate and overly emotional (Bell, 2004). For example, the children and mother never share on-screen affection, and she refers to the children without names, calling them ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl’, for example. The use of silence here can provide personal recovery as she tries to reflect on her new identity as the mother of two children with deceased parents. Silence as a secrecy practice, therefore, creates spatial and emotional distance within parent-child relationships (McNay, 2009). When Malorie does speak to the children, this is often limited to instructions which again challenges assumptions of women’s voices as gossipy, irrational, and affectionate (Hansen, 2018). From this interpretation, we can see that silence within Bird Box helps to constitute Malorie as a protector. By drawing on masculine assumptions of the ‘protector,’ Malorie is seen as emotionless and rational (Young, 2003). While it could be argued that Malorie uses purposeful silence to exert power as a female agent, she does this through the rejection of a feminised understanding of a ‘motherly’ role. This assumes then that Malorie could not be both a mother and a protector. Thus, while silence can be a symbol of female agency within the film, this understanding of secrecy is grounded in masculine assumptions of what constitutes a ‘protector.’


Another important use of silence by Malorie is to produce ignorance within the children. As previously discussed, she legitimises silence as a means of survival. However, by denying knowledge-making, Malorie constructs a racial asymmetry of power between her and Tom. Mendieta’s (2011) term ‘culpable ignorance’ is useful here to consider how ignorance is a process of knowledge making and unmaking within entrenched systems of power. Malorie and Tom have both seen a world before the apocalypse, and so, in comparison to the ignorance of the children, are epistemic agents of knowledge. During the scene, Malorie interrupts Tom (secret-revealer) relaying a vivid memory from his childhood and forces the children to go to bed, thereby both silencing Tom and preventing knowledge-making. Malorie argues that Tom is constructing a ‘lie’ as the children are unlikely to live the same childhood Tom experienced. Malorie appears to embody the white, western subject which equates her white identity as a trustworthy secret-keeper (Fletcher, 2012).


In contrast to the white woman, Tom as the constitutive black male Other, is understood as untrustworthy and incapable of speaking the truth (Lorenzini and Tazzioli, 2018). Although Tom appears knowledgeable, he is not powerful. This practice of secrecy, therefore, relies on racialised systems of knowledge, where black men have systematically been denied privilege to their white counterparts (Carby, 2007). While Malorie’s ‘purposeful silence’ does not suggest that her character, or the (white) directors and producers of the film, intentionally denied Tom power, through their whiteness, Bird Box helps to reproduce certain privileged (white) subject identities (Applebaum, 2011). Thus, through her whiteness, Malorie becomes trusted and knowledgeable. For Malorie, secrecy practices, such as silence and the production of ignorance, engage with hierarchical and racialised systems of knowledge to the oppression of the black Other.


In conclusion, secret practices, namely the role of silence and ignorance within Bird Box, help to conceptualise secrecy within a complex system of power and knowledge. For instance, Malorie justifies silence to protect the children, while also exercising silence to create spatial reflection between her identity as a survivor, a woman, and a mother. By using silence, Malorie can perform agency and challenge assumptions of women using silence in conflict societies as lacking a voice. However, Malorie also exercises power when performing silence through the production of ignorance as a (white) secret-keeper. Therefore, this analysis offers a deeper insight into how epistemic questions of secrecy are constructed in Netflix’s to date, most streamed film, Bird Box (Netflix, 2018). An intersectional insight into the film shows how dominant discourses of secrecy continue to privilege a white, masculine subject position within mainstream popular culture. This is important as popular culture can often inform and reinforce what we assume about hegemonic subject identities, for example, our knowledge about the Other within discourses on development (Fletcher, 2012). When recognising Bird Box’s mainstream success, further work is needed to fully understand the implications of secrecy and epistemology within mainstream productions like Bird Box. Further research might explore how silence (re)produces ignorance within children, and what this may mean for children in vulnerable subject positions in conflict or apocalyptic societies.




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