On Bird Box, Disability, and Access

Bird Box — the psychological thriller starring Sandra Bullock as Malorie, a young woman vying to save her two young children from creatures driving people to commit suicide — has invited much speculation from viewers trying to understand its “true” meaning. Perhaps, as Michael Harriot argues in a piece for the Root, the film’s underlying meaning lies in its connections to white supremacy and the failures of white people to recognize their complicity in acts of institutional racism. Or perhaps, as was explored in a piece for the AltPress, its hidden significance lies in the message it conveys about the stigmatization of mental health. Nonetheless, despite director Susan Bier’s discussion of how Sandra Bullock “trained with somebody who teaches blind people how to navigate — how to, through sound, figure out distances — so she had training in how to move around without looking,” few (if any) pieces have explored the relationship between Bird Box, disability, and accessibility. This glaring omission underscores the forms of ocularcentric ableism characteristic of Western audiences (the presumed consumers of the film). This piece, then, looks to highlight for nondisabled readers and viewers the ways in which Bird Box actively grapples with disability as a means of demanding access and equity in (inter)national policy and praxis.

Set in a post-apocalyptic United States, the movie spends a great deal of time enumerating the copious ableist ways in which nondisabled society is inhospitable to disabled bodies. Perhaps the most poignant representation of the detriments of inaccessibility of nondisabled social structures is the moment in which Malorie, Tom, Charlie, Lucy, and Douglas venture to the grocery store. Leaving the safety of Greg’s house for the first time to stock up on rations, the survivors must figure out a way to replenish their supplies without experiencing visual contact with the creatures. After they blacken the windows of their car and cover them in newspapers in order to fully (or as fully as possible… occasional sunlight peers in, which remains fascinatingly untainted by the creatures) obscure their vision, the group ventures into the perilous suburban neighborhood. Using the car’s GPS, Tom navigates the vehicle along the predetermined course, a course that ought to be static and unchanging. And yet, along the way, the group discovers that, despite the fact that the road should be the same as always, the landscape has changed: deceased bodies are haphazardly littered across the ground such that the car’s wheels crush unexpected bones, curbs jut out earlier than anticipated, and the creatures subtly begin infiltrating the car (though they do not fully disturb the passengers). This moment underscores a critical issue within nondisabled society: its ongoing malleability, coupled with the rudimentary inefficacy of its infrastructure (as exemplified by the GPS), renders it overwhelmingly difficult for people with disabilities to navigate. It is an inherently inaccessible space, one which makes even those areas that claim to hold possibility for folks with disabilities a struggle to traverse. Indeed, the very fact that Tom must turn his own tires (rather than have someone externally transform the landscape) illuminates the ways in which nondisabled society places the burden on people with disabilities to conform their bodies to nondisabled standards. The film thus demonstrates how, rather than adequately accommodate folks with disabilities by adapting the terrain to their needs, nondisabled society instead demands that people with disabilities assimilate or be lost in the process.

Upon reaching the grocery store, the group has their first encounter with those who, on the one hand, appear immune to the influence of the creatures and yet, on the other, have likely been corporeally dominated by the creatures as evidenced by their active promotion of the creatures’ mission. These being — who we would benefit to understand not simply as mentally ill, but as socially ostracized and stigmatized, as living on the fringes of a society that refuses to make itself amenable to their needs, as well — look to persuade the group to expose themselves to the creatures. On more than one occasion, they succeed: one man grasps and leads to Charlie’s death, another (Gary) leads to the death of both Cheryl and Olympia, and a third contingency ultimately kills Tom. That these demon(ized) figures look to “un”-blind the protagonists highlights the multifaceted and complex nature of attitudes towards disability. Whereas the deaf community, for example, takes tremendous pride in their rich culture and language, nondisabled communities look to override disability by imposing “corrective” corporeal transformations such that the disabled body parallels and mimics the nondisabled (with deafness, this might be something like a cochlear implant). In so doing, dominant, nondisabled figures concurrently normalize nondisability as the only form of acceptable, embodied experience, and reinstate the marginalization of disabled flesh. That the protagonists of Bird Box actively resist their “un”-blinding as a means of self-preservation — and that the film valorizes Malorie in her ability to maintain her blindness — illustrates how it looks to: (1) refuse the narrative conflation of disability with inadequacy and incompletion; (2) re-situate the impetus for “corrective” measures such that they become socially unacceptable; and (3) celebrate bodies with disabilities.

What does it mean, then, that Bird Box reaches its ultimate conclusion in the sanctuary, a transformed school for the blind? In the space of this new society — one predicated on the mutual cohabitation of disabled and nondisabled bodies — a sense of harmony thrives. Here, we learn, disabled and nondisabled children play together without attention to their physical differences; adults with disabilities successfully warn and attenuate their peers to the threats that outside forces impose on them; and nondisabled adults reciprocally contribute to the community by offering the forms of labor that they can in exchange for their safety. Contained within the walls of the sanctuary is both the dissolution of hierarchy and the possibility for people both with and without disabilities to thrive. The post-apocalyptic world (e.g., nondisabled society) gives way to what appears to be a utopian space: it is a place both physically and socially navigable for all people. The film’s end — with Malorie smiling and staring at the chirping birds (understood both in historical context and in the fact that they are now uncaged as representatives of freedom) — marks the universal liberation of people with disabilities from the constraints imposed upon them by societies built to be unequal, inaccessible, and inhospitable.

Of course, there are other ways of reading and understanding Bird Box: as a feminist reclamation of the woman’s body as a site of refusing her status as a receptacle for a male/masculine imaginary; as a critical intervention into attitudes surrounding adoption and foster care (as Malorie refuses to make the “Sophie’s Choice” to sacrifice either of her children); as the manifestation of racial dynamics within the United States and abroad; as an anagogical representation rife with eschatological meaning about the coming Messianic Age; as a reinstatement of hegemonic constructions of gender (“Boy” and “Girl” typify this); or as the epitome of the tumult that a journey for intersectional justice will inevitably require. That said, Bird Box’s most poignant resonances seem, to me, rooted in its advocacy for people living with disabilities circumscribed within and hampered by nondisabled society. It calls for the realization of a more perfect society marked by meaningful inclusion, access, and equity for people with disability. In so doing, it encourages the reimagination of both physical infrastructures that infringe upon disabled bodies and sociopolitical attitudes surrounding disability. It is through its invitation to transform both of these schema in tandem that Bird Box “never lose[s] sight of [what’s at stake] for survival” in the lives of disabled folks subsumed within a nondisabled world.