Remembering the Ice Bucket Challenge after watching Jordan Peele’s Us
The following blog contains spoilers for the Jordan Peele film, Us.
Being so-on-the-button with the latest trends and cultural happenings, I just got round to watching the two year old Jordan Peele film, Us. After a spot of next-day-processing when out on my daily rounds, I was able to tease out the themes and nuances of the film. When I say “tease out the themes and nuances” I really mean “scramble desperately for a hot take to write a blog about”. My first notion was, “Aha! This film was all about imposter syndrome! I bet nobody’s written about this aspect of the film! It turns out that lots of people have written about the imposter syndrome aspects of the film. Lots.
So I mused to myself about another part of the film, Hands Across America, a mid-80s charity event where Americans formed a human chain across the country. We first see the event referenced during the opening scenes where the protagonist, Adelaide, watches on her bedroom TV as a child. Later on in the present day, doppelgängers of Americans climb up from their underground tunnel lodgings, wearing red boiler suits and carrying fabric scissors to murder their karmic twins and take their places. When the grisly deed is done, the doubles converge to hold hands in their own version of the bourgeois Cold War gesture.
If this image stands for anything, it is that of the failed revolution. It symbolises the tragedy of falling back onto the same ways of existing after toppling an oppressor, to clear them from the spaces of power only to mimic their behaviour when taking their place at the summit. Just because the supplanters of the oppressors fall back on the same gestures, does not mean that the gestures have the same meaning. In a sense the doppelgängers do not understand that their carefully coordinated campaign of mass murder was more a symbol of their collective unity than the gesture they embark on after the deed is done.
Whether Hands Across America was a vapid gesture or not, it was at least able to raise millions of dollars for local charities. Much like the other great gestural charity event of the mid 2010s: The Ice Bucket Challenge. Just in case you needed a reminder, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a phenomenon that seemed tailor made for the early(ish) days of Facebook and YouTube. A person would film themselves pouring a bucket of ice water over their own heads, would mention the charity it was all in aid of and then nominate some other people to take up the challenge. Some of these nominated people would do the same thing and the chain would continue.
The thing that I found interesting about the Ice Bucket Challenge was how it started off gaining prominence as celebrities took up the task. For the celebrities it was an opportunity to demonstrate that they were up for a joke, showing themselves to be fallible humans who also make funny noises and faces when freezing liquid is tipped over their heads. When they challenged other people, it was usually other celebrities within the same A-Lister sphere. The whole thing was a brand centric flirtation with humility.
A few weeks later, buckets of ice over famous heads had become passé. Nobody wanted to be the Ice Bucketer that has run out of A-Listers to challenge. It was at this point, that the Ice Bucket Challenge took on an uncanny second life: normal people started to do it. The Normie Ice Bucket Challenges reached a peak that might even have surpassed the celebrity videos when a three year old girl was doused in cold water and exclaimed “F***ing hell!”
The meaning of the normie Ice Bucket Challenge varied considerably from the implied meaning of the celebrity ones. While the celebrity videos created a sense of humility, that they could take a joke in the name of a good cause, the normie Ice Bucket Challenge videos were all about doing something because famous people did it. The gesture was the same but the meaning of that gesture was entirely different. While social media appeared to have levelled the playing field, the differences between the glitterati and the hoi poloi were as well pronounced as always. In the same way that the doppelgängers in Us were not joining hands for a charitable cause, many of the normie Icebucketers weren’t raising money for the ALS association, even though they sometimes mentioned the charity (because that was the form that the celebrities observed).
Nevertheless, the Ice Bucket challenge raised millions of dollars for the ALS Association. While it was not attached to an act of revolutionary violence as the doppelgänger human chain of Us was, both examples communicate how an underclass can lack the necessary means of expression in the midst of their servitude or liberation.
When a people can only express themselves through the gestures of those that they have overthrown, all acts of liberation, whether violent or civil, will dissipate into meaninglessness.
So, how was that for a piece of cutting edge, contemporary cultural commentary? Be sure to tune in two years from now when I give my blazing hot take on what connects Squid Game to Kony 2012.
Thanks for reading this,