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The Invisible Man haunts us the way abusers always have

Fictional stories explain how technology and culture help bad men hide their crimes

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From the 1920s until the ’50s, Universal Studios produced a number of horror movies that were largely adapted from literature. Each creature feature spawned a franchise, the definitive, iconic version of that character in popular culture. Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster. They were, as pop historians will remind you, the films that comprised Hollywood’s first cinematic universe, a constellation of interrelated films that defined horror. As Old Hollywood faded and the studio system collapsed, these horror films became enshrined as the Universal Classic Monsters. Most of these monsters, of course, were men.

After a number of aborted attempts to revive the Universal Monsters over the last decade, 2020 marks the first success: Leigh Whannell’s arresting, critically acclaimed reimagining of The Invisible Man. In Whannells’ film, H.G. Wells’ novel is updated to be a harrowing story of domestic abuse. It follows a woman named Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) as she attempts to escape Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her abusive and manipulative boyfriend after he acquires the ability to become invisible. 

In a smart update from the Invisible Man of Wells’ novel, this one is tech royalty: a man who has accrued wealth and power for his work in the field of optics. His most startling achievement is one that he has kept to himself: a bodysuit composed of cameras and lenses, which allows the wearer to completely vanish from sight, thanks to technological trickery. 

While the nature of Griffin’s abuse is purposefully vague, its severity is made clear in the opening scene. It’s an unbearably tense sequence where Cecilia executes a meticulously planned escape from Griffin’s palatial beachfront home, quietly leaving his bed to flee in the dead of night. 

Cecilia’s flight sends Griffin into a deranged, manipulative campaign of revenge. He fakes his death and dons his suit in order to disappear from the world and begin an elaborate plan to gaslight his ex. He taunts her silently, making others doubt her sanity; he drugs her and sabotages job interviews and arranges some of his considerable fortune to go to her in a posthumous windfall that makes her look suspicious. He is, largely, successful. By the film’s midpoint, Cecilia is isolated from anyone who would care about her. And even though she knows her ex is tormenting her, who would believe her claims of being followed by a person no one can see? 

The horror of The Invisible Man comes from the knowledge that not only would Griffin’s schemes work should such a technology exist, but also from knowing that they already do. The sanity and stability of women are routinely questioned and undermined; the machinations of men who abuse them routinely ignored by other men or, worse, facilitated by them. Men do not need to vanish from literal sight in order to perpetuate this form of gendered evil. They just need a different kind of visibility: an absence of scrutiny. As far as they’re concerned, a man you aren’t looking at might as well be an invisible one. 

Earlier this year, Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley was published, a memoir chronicling the author’s seduction by Silicon Valley. Written with the grim knowledge of hindsight, Wiener details how she abandoned the travails of New York’s exploitative publishing business for the greener, wealthier pastures of the Bay Area. 

The horror of the book unfolds slowly, as the significance of what the men who hire her are building barely register for anyone witnessing it. As a liberal arts major hired to help several startups with the soft skills necessary for customer support, Wiener’s outsider status allows her some perspective into what the people who hire her are doing, but as she notes throughout, not nearly enough. 

any scandal can be weathered if the men in charge can convince investors to continue spending money

Perhaps the most significant portion of Wiener’s story takes place during her tenure at a data analytics startup, a company that built a tool for other companies to query massive amounts of user data in ways that facilitated the monetization of that data: things like customer behavior, targeted advertisements, and intimate records of user activity. At the time, no one using the many tech services born from the Silicon Valley boom knew that these companies even had this sort of data on their customers. No one knew how complete a picture of their lives it could provide. And, most vitally, no one knew the kind of people they were trusting with it. 

They were almost always men — men with a narcissistic vision of a world reshaped by the code they wrote and the venture capitalist funding necessary to make it a reality. These men told themselves they were pragmatists, that what they were doing just made sense, that the world would be better if their products redefined and disrupted the world as it was. These men, who built tools that were adopted faster than any oversight on them could be implemented, had a window into the lives of everyone who used their products. 

Then came whistleblowers who revealed the sheer level of power these startups had come to amass invisibly, a world where everyone was under constant surveillance by the devices they used, where their lives were for sale in a market they weren’t even allowed to know about. 

None of this mattered much in the end. In Silicon Valley, you do not need a viable business to succeed, you just need a growing one. Under this formula, any scandal can be weathered if the men in charge can convince investors to continue spending money on them. 

The monster here, the algorithms and code built to manipulate and use lines and lines of data that comprised our digital lives, remained out of sight because no one ever stepped back far enough to get a clear image of what they were building. No one saw that these software applications were giving the men who built them indiscriminate power to know anything and surveil anyone with complete anonymity. And now, the world has been remade into their playground, theirs to manipulate at scale to get what they want, laughing at government officials who do not comprehend the scope of their power, too slow to do anything about it. Who cares if you know their names or what they look like know? They stayed out of sight long enough to get what they wanted. 

This evil is an old one, and while technology has accelerated it on a massive scale, it was never really necessary. In Kitty’s Green’s film, The Assistant, we never see any crime committed. It defines its monster using negative space, outlining his figure in absentia. Understood to be a story about Harvey Weinstein, The Assistant chooses to explore how men like Weinstein retain power through a story that is both specific and universal. The Assistant limits its perspective to Jane (Julia Garner), the eponymous assistant in the offices of a New York production company that is, like the man who runs it, unnamed. 

The Assistant follows Jane for one very long day in the office. Jane spends much of the film’s runtime doing the most mundane of tasks: opening packages, stocking water and snacks, making copies, sneaking a bite of food in whenever she can. More often, she cannot. 

They were aided and abetted by others, the men and women who helped

While the executive who runs the company is not named or shown, he is present. We hear him bellowing on the phone or in the next room over, a voice with words that cannot be made out, even as their intent is clear. We see his shadow and know of his whereabouts. Jane must arrange travel plans, field angry calls from his wife, and book a hotel room for a young woman who is being flown into town. A woman who her boss, she knows, will visit. 

In perhaps the movie’s only moment of comedy, Jane, who must endure an abusive phone call from The Boss after a minor mistake, is coached by her male co-workers on how to compose an adequate apology email. The laugh, if you can find one in you, is short-lived because it comes with the knowledge that the men helping Jane have decided their careers are more important than doing anything about abuse. There can be great profit in looking the other way.

Despite its limited scope, The Assistant is careful to elucidate the many reasons why its monster is in power. Jane is supported by wealthy parents and a social class that understands that connections can make or break a career. She is socialized to believe that a dream job comes with the cost of never complaining because there is always someone who will put up with what you won’t, likely for less money. She is hamstrung by an HR department that knows women are not liable to be believed by anyone and eager to frame any complaint she may have about her boss’s indiscretions as borne from jealousy. She is surrounded by countless people who also hear her boss scream and berate people, cut checks that are left out of company books; who see the jewelry left behind on the office floor and know why she must wipe down her boss’s couch after a “visitor” is there; who know why that boss would put up a potential new assistant in a hotel. 

This is another truth about how men like this win for so long: they did not become invisible solely by means of their own. They were aided and abetted by others, the men and women who helped, stayed silent, or looked the other way. 

In The Invisible Man, Cecilia is not the only person who is haunted by Adrian Griffin. After Griffin fakes his death, Cecilia is approached by his brother Tom, a lawyer and the executor of Adrian’s will. Tom is the character the film arguably has the most contempt for, a spineless man who agrees to pose as the posthumous specter of his abusive brother. He is initially benevolent as he awards Cecilia her windfall; when Cecilia learns that Adrian has become invisible, he is sympathetic, saying that Adrian had abused him, too. They were both victims in the thrall of an abusive man valorized by his success in a world that vindicated him, he says.

In the film’s third act, Tom reveals that he knows his brother is alive and that he is following his instructions. Crucially, The Invisible Man never reveals Tom’s level of complicity. The audience never learns if Tom is under duress like he claims or if he is a willing accomplice. We never learn because it does not matter. Adrian wins time after time because he is concealed, and he is concealed because he is brilliant and celebrated for it. This gives him the cover, and the power, to keep people within his grasp and to extend the reach of his abuse. 

Powerful men of Adrian’s sort are everywhere. They became so because they were afforded anonymity, they were brilliant, they were out of the public eye. They were monstrous because they were unseen.

The problem is that these men know that remaining unseen is how they remain in control. The problem is that only a few people ever manage to see them for what they are in the first place. The problem is that when they tell us what they’ve seen, we never believe them because the monster hasn’t come for us — yet.