The Problem With The Word "Woman" In 10 Cloverfield Lane

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
Warning: Here are spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Read at your own risk.

The most unnerving scene in 10 Cloverfield Lane has nothing to do with the supernatural. It has to do with the goddamn patriarchy.

10 Cloverfield Lane is the surprise “spiritual successor” to 2008’s Cloverfield. Without giving too much away — but still, spoiler alert! — the plot goes along the lines of this: After a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up and finds herself in a basement. Her injured leg is chained to a wall. She’s being kept there by doomsday survivalist Howard (John Goodman), who insists he saved her from an apocalypse. The only other person present is the somewhat dimwitted Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who confirms that something bad is going on. He helped Howard build this bunker, and rushed to get there for safety when he saw disaster hit.

But, for most of the movie, the most distressing threat is Howard, who seems to have some creepy plans for Michelle. The bunker is stocked with teen magazines. Howard says that they belonged to someone named Megan, who he claims is his daughter. Howard tells Michelle: “Megan was a good cook. You’ll learn to love cooking.” Does he want Michelle as his sex slave? His maid? His daughter? Whatever his intentions are, they are unsettling.

This all brings me to the scene: The three bunker mates are playing a word game. Emmett is giving clues. Howard gets the first word, “little.” To prompt Howard to guess the next word, Emmett says that it’s what Michelle is. Howard comes up with “girl,” “child,” and, finally, “princess.” He’s flustered. The word is “woman.” Emmett was trying to get him to say “Little Women.”

Howard’s inability to find that word is chilling and indicative of how he has infantilized Michelle. He’s more likely to call her a “princess” — a ridiculous suggestion in context — than what she actually is: a “woman.” One possible explanation is that in Howard’s mind, the scenario is similar to Beauty and The Beast. Though Belle is initially frightened of the Beast, who has imprisoned her, she learns to love him. Of course, that is not how 10 Cloverfield Lane is going to go.

Howard — though bizarrely amusing at certain moments — is anything but lovable. At one point Michelle, being the smallest person present, must climb through a duct to fix the bunker's air filter. Alone, she finds a bloody message scrawled on a small window to the outside. It says, "Help," and was written from the inside. She also encounters a bloody earring, matching the one in a photo Howard showed her of Megan. Michelle brings the information to Emmett, who tells her that it's not actually Megan pictured, it's a local girl he recognizes. That girl went missing. Howard is not merely an eccentric pining for his daughter, and Michelle isn't the first woman he's held captive.

The screenplay leaves much of Michelle’s past deliberately obscure. Still, it’s clear that men have been a thorn in her side. She wants to design clothes. She’s fleeing a relationship possibly gone sour when her car is hit. In a lengthy monologue, she alludes to an abusive relationship with her father, and how her past inaction has frustrated her. Part of the joy of the movie is finding out how Michelle is going to defy the forces surrounding her, and realizing the extent of her ingenuity.

Sure, there’s maybe a devastating attack unfolding outside, but the scariest villain is a man who sees a woman as his property.

And the most exciting thing? The woman fights back.
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