Shameful Sexuality in ‘Under The Skin’

I definitely should have seen this film before last week. I bought it (on a DVD no less!) over a month ago, and finally sat down to watch it last week. First things first, ‘Under The Skin’ (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) is proof that the U.K. film industry has not breathed its last breath. It’s a phenomenal example of why more funding needs to go into the UK film industry and nurture these types of projects. We have lost a lot in the way of funding and support for films in the U.K. in recent years, but ‘Under the Skin’ proves why we need to fight for our industry to stay alive.

Okay, that’s my plea to Westminster out of the way, now onto the intriguing representation and discussion of gender within this mysterious, dark, brain-teasing sci-fi. The portrayal of gender and the choice to use a female body to house Scarlett Johansson’s alien character was one of the most interesting things about ‘Under the Skin’. Bizarrely, on reading reviews of the film, I found little to no discussion about the use of gender or regarding the commentary on how we view male/female bodies that, to me, is at the forefront of the film. I searched high and low – mostly searching for an explanation of the film itself – I am not ashamed to admit that I found it very difficult to understand and I came away very confused. In a good way, but confused none the less. In my search, I found many reviewers willing to explain the ins and outs of the plot but very few people even mentioned the concept of gender, much less discussed how gender/sexualisation is actually exactly what ‘Under the Skin’ is about. So I want to talk about it here.  I am also going to, bear with me, attempt to bridge the gap between the sexualisation and deconstruction of female celebrities in society and Scarlett Johansson’s character in ‘Under the Skin’. In terms of how we view sexualisation and sex itself, I think there is room for a whole lot of crossover.

Briefly, ‘Under the Skin’ tells the strange and unique story of an alien who inhabits the body of a human (Scarlett Johansson) and seduces men into sleeping with her. Before they can complete the act, however, they are enticed into a liquid prison and stored there until they are killed. Their remains are utilised somehow, the film is unclear what they are for, and the cycle begins again. Scarlett’s character (imdb has her credited as ‘The Female’) explores what it means to be human by walking among humanity, picking off her prey and eventually allowing human emotions to overcome her. There’s something odd and slightly fantastic about seeing Scarlett Johansson walking through Glasgow city centre, past Boots and McDonalds. It’s so quintessentially British. Part of what makes ‘Under the Skin’ so interesting is that these scenes, where Scarlett is walking around and initiating conversations with various men, were mostly improvised. The men who appear in the van are not actors – and the conversations are real. We are, first and foremostly, seeing a very genuine reaction to an attractive (albeit strange) woman asking men to get into her van. The fact that these are real men and real reactions is incredibly important as to what ‘Under the Skin’ goes on to say about female sexuality.

Scarlett’s character is seemingly unaware of her attractiveness, or indeed her sexuality. At the beginning of the film an accomplice who rides a motorbike (henceforth known as ‘Motorbike Man’) is seen retrieving a woman’s body – and some extra terrestrial transfer is performed. Whatever takes place, it is clear that Motorbike Man initiates this transition and assimilates Scarlett-the-alien into her human body. Scarlett is unaware of her gender or sexuality, and sets out to perform the task she is given. Seduce, entrap, utilize. Whilst she uses seduction techniques, and seems to manipulate men in terms of sexuality, she never completes the act and it becomes clear that she is ignorant of her own body. At one point, Scarlett’s character begins to feel remorse (or something akin to remorse) about what she is subjecting these men to. In fact this remorse begins when directly after she seduces a severely disfigured man, and leaves him to his imminent death. After watching a fly become trapped in between two panes of glass, she immediately releases the disfigured man and decides to run away herself. The remorse, and indeed the realisation of how she is being used to trap innocent men, is a turning point in the film.

The Mary Sue wrote a fantastic piece on how ‘Under The Skin’ is explores the concept of rape culture which is aimed at men, rather than women. It is true that the men are manipulated, defiled and used – and since we identify with Scarlett’s character throughout the film, we can almost justify that these actions are okay. As Puchko says, ‘Under The Skin’ is a film which examines the way in which men feel safe walking the streets alone, and how most men are willing to get into a car with a stranger. Actions which the vast majority of women live in fear of doing; partly because of the fear of attack and partly because rape culture dictates that if a woman does these things, she will be somehow accountable for whatever comes next. So, in a very twisted way, we almost feel a smug sense of satisfaction knowing that these men should feel afraid, simply because of their gender. It’s a short lived sense of satisfaction, ‘Under The Skin’ certainly doesn’t imply that any of the men deserve their fate – after all their only ‘mistakes’ were getting into the wrong car.

As we move through the film, however, the gender-politics become more complicated. It isn’t simply about reversing the roles of the hunter (male) and the prey (female). Once Scarlett’s character decides to run away, she meets a man who insists on helping her. He has no idea what she really is, but this the first kindness that humanity has shown her. Their brief relationship culminates in the two of them attempting to have sex – an act which Scarlett’s character has evoked many times but has never completed. It is then that both the audience and the alien realise that she has no concept of her sexuality or to be more precise – her genitalia. Here, she discovers what she (as a human woman) is for and the reason why the men climbed so willingly into her van. Female sexuality; the undiscussed, sordid and shameful sex. Scarlett’s character finally understands what female sexuality is, how she has been manipulated and used by her superior (motorbike man). ‘Under The Skin’ depicts the manipulation of the female body within our society, as a tool for men to fantasize on or abuse as they see fit.

The rape in the third act of the film truly encapsulates societies stigma of women owning their own sexuality. Scarlett is tracked down in the woods by a stranger, pursued and attacked. In a sense this act directly relates to the attacks on the men at the beginning of the film, but it also reiterates the shamefulness of female sexuality. Throughout cinema’s history, sexual women have always been punished – from the days of the Hays code, to the femme fatales of Film Noir. Tara Judah gives a comprehensive history here, but this continual erasure and punishment of women who own their sexuality is the ending message of ‘Under The Skin’. Directly after Scarlett’s character comes to terms with her sexuality and desires control of her own body, she is raped. Is it a consequence of desiring that ownership? ‘Under The Skin’  underlines the repetitive discipline of utilizing womens bodies for the male gaze, but then punishing any women who attempts to own her own sexuality.

I can’t help but see this shaming present in our current celebrity culture, and can’t help but think that Glazer may have been referencing it in some way. The most prominent shaming story in a recent years, or at least the one which springs to my mind, is Kim Kardashian. Kim first gained fame when her sex tape with former boyfriend Ray J was released. Note, releasing a sex tape of someone without their consent is now a criminal act. After the release of her sex tape (which has been watched by millions), Kim decided to license the tape, ensuring that any profit it made would come back to her. It was this act, the act of owning her own sexuality, that turned her from an innocent bystander to a terrible person. Society is upset and troubled by the concept of a woman making a profit or standing to gain something from her own sexuality. ‘Under The Skin’ depicts how unremarkable it is to see a man utilizing a woman’s sexuality for his own gain (motorbike man) and how a woman is punished for realising and taking ownership of her own sexuality.

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