10 Cloverfield Lane and the Reclamation of the Captive Woman

By  · Published on March 17th, 2016

Spoiler Warning: The following discusses 10 Cloverfield Lane in-depth, which means that it’s best consumed if you’ve already seen the movie.

From Samantha Eggar in The Collector to Brooke Smith in The Silence of the Lambs, even Donkey Kong’s Princess Peach – popular culture has thrived on women in isolation, saved by an outsider or dying at the hands of their kidnapper. In recent years, the captive woman has taken on added significance, stretching beyond an object of recovery. Last year alone saw two movies with captive women at the forefront in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Lenny Abrahamason’s Room with both films securing Best Picture Oscar nominations and opening the door towards examining the role of the captive woman in an increasingly terrifying world where women’s rights are being tied to the proverbial train tracks. This week’s 10 Cloverfield Lane introduces a new entry in the captive woman canon as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle takes a page from the Aliens playbook to reclaim the captive woman through exploration of a landscape both real and imagined that’s allowed the trope to thrive.

10 Cloverfield Lane, at its core, is an allegory playing on females’ fears of an increasingly constricted landscape. Doomsday may bring about a literal end of the world, but women have been walking toward it for centuries with nothing to do but accept it. Michelle’s journey starts like many captive womens’ – thrown around in a car accident only to wake up in someone’s basement. Her savior, a survivalist named Howard (John Goodman) reiterates repeatedly how Michelle should be grateful he didn’t leave her to die – no matter that he’s the one responsible for her predicament in the first place. Societal expectations teach women to put their politeness on autopilot, thus Brooke Smith helps out a broken-armed kidnapper in Silence of the Lambs, or Brie Larson looks for a man’s dog. Politeness and gratitude prove detrimental for women. Once captured, Michelle subverts feminine politeness, using it as a means of securing her freedom.

10 Cloverfield Lane propels the captive woman forward as an individual. Michelle succeeds on her own ingenuity, devising the plan from beginning to end. In fact, Emmett’s eventual demise strengthens Michelle’s resolve without undermining her actions. Michelle plans, executes and succeeds where other movies would have her be saved and/or aided at the end.

As a modern woman, Michelle understands horror movie 101: The woman in the basement never secures a happy ending. But just what is Howard’s end game? Howard presents Michelle with a fallout shelter built to protect her from a threat that truly exists, as she realizes later, complete with all life’s amenities. Though Howard doesn’t appear sexually threatening, the fear of assault remains an implicit terror because, again, nothing good comes from being the woman in the basement! Sex always becomes an unspoken condition for isolated women. And Howard isolates Michelle further through constricting her friendship with others, mainly fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.). Howard makes clear there is to be nothing perceived as affection between Michelle and Emmett so even a simple touch leads to Howard screaming, “NO TOUCHING.” Michelle’s later attempts to escape by lightly flirting with Emmett cause Howard to go through the roof. Michelle is a possession, a doll in Howard’s dollhouse that the audience waits to be exploited.

Saying sex is important in cinema is an incredibly stupid understatement, but as we’ve witnessed in films depicting the post-apocalyptic/terroristic landscape, female sexuality more than anything else, takes on a terrifying form of currency. The main thrust of these movies shows a world where women literally have no control over their bodies, used as nothing more than cattle for repopulation. Mad Max: Fury Road sees the various “beauties” kidnapped and raised to be breeders, their bodies so disposable there’s no quibble with cutting one of them open while they’re breathing to secure their progeny; Naomie Harris’ Selena and Megan Burns’ young Hannah in 28 Days Later are forced to prepare for gang-rape at the hands military men claiming altruism in the continuing of the species, but really just driven by their own misogynistic desires. The slower, more intimate Z for Zachariah takes a different path, watching Margot Robbie’s Ann torn between two men (Chiwetel Ejiofer and Chris Pine), ultimately left with the one who has killed his romantic rival, causing her to escape a life of slavery.

Though Howard’s treatment of Michelle appears chaste on the surface, 10 Cloverfield Lane uses his isolation of Michelle to critique the male savior complex in cinema and the entitlement accompanying it. At one point Howard watches Pretty in Pink, his daughter’s “favorite movie.” The 1986 John Hughes film, commonly cited as a romance, gives audiences the “beloved” stalker, Duckie (Jon Cryer) who berates his best friend/love interest Andie (Molly Ringwald) for denying his advances. Under the teen romance banner, however, the audience is supposed to embrace Duckie. Despite not being the right guy for Andie, he’s still a good guy regardless that he calls her every fifteen minutes, comes by her house unannounced, and sexually harasses her. Like Howard, Duckie believes his gratitude and obsessive admiration for Andie should be rewarded through a relationship. Though Pretty in Pink isn’t a sole offender – look at Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey – it presents a somewhat romanticized example of what Howard seeks from Michelle. She should be grateful for his smothering male attention. Furthermore, father/daughter relationship between Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton underscores the relationship Howard dreams of having with his own daughter– a daughter who has been “turned against him” and driven away – and new replacement daughters.

The world Howard presents Michelle is a domestic nightmare ripped right from a 1950s sitcom, and his intentions with Michelle are meant to place her within clearly defined gender roles. Howard tells Michelle she’ll be the one cooking their dinners and will “learn to love cooking.” But this unasked for role demands Michelle’s unwavering obedience. Like similar captive women in The Phantom of the Opera or Labyrinth, Michelle must “behave” in order to benefit from the presumed fruits of Howard’s arrangement, or survive at all. Similar movies demanding female conformity give the male kidnappers motive for their obsession which usually stems back to outdated notions of masculinity – to father women or bring them to bear. Howard dreams of taking on the daddy role, recreating the relationship he lost with his own daughter through repetition and replacement.

Next: How Mary Elizabeth Winstead Became One of Our Great Genre Actresses

Michelle’s isolation becomes literal once she’s in the fallout shelter, but previously she’s “behaved” and acquiesced throughout her life prior to. Her twice attempted escapes within the film’s first half hour show a woman already at odds with her past, hoping to break free. Revealing to Emmett she knows abuse at the hands of her own father – Howard’s attempts to Daddy her taking on a haunted repeat of her own past – and ignoring a little girl being abused at a store, Michelle introduces herself as a woman who has bore the yoke of male dominance, acknowledging this acceptance hasn’t gotten her anywhere and has, in fact, made her even more scared of the unknown than she already is. Michelle starts out no different than the polite Catherine Martin of Silence of the Lambs or Harris’ Selena, but she wants to become a Furiosa. It is this desire to break out of Howard’s domestic prison, break free of her past, and reclaim her agency as a woman that compels Michelle to devise a new means of escape. When Michelle takes the left turn towards Houston at the end to help other survivors, Michelle refuses to be a victim anymore, reclaiming the captive woman and taking her out of the basement into the light.

Ultimately, the captive woman in 10 Cloverfield Lane explores the nature of subjugation in all its forms. With the fallout shelter acting as American misogyny in microcosm, the alien invasion above shows the grander implication of Howard’s below-ground actions. If we subjugate one group, whether it be based on gender, ethnicity, etc., it opens the door for grander subjugation of all humanity. Whether its alien invasion, terrorist attack or the rage virus, doomsday brings out the worst in us, giving certain groups motive for their continued humiliation and need for control on a group seemingly weaker than them. With what’s happening on the political stage currently, Michelle isn’t just a female protagonist – she’s anyone willing and able to become a fighter.

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Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.