Under the Skin’s Weird Feminism

Surprisingly, Scarlett Johansson’s alien succubus has a lot to tell us about what it’s like to be a woman.

Sady Doyle

A still from the trailer of Under the Skin.

Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under the Skin is one of the most pro­found­ly weird fem­i­nist state­ments you’ll ever see. In con­ven­tion­al sum­mer-movie terms, this thing has almost noth­ing going for it: There’s almost no dia­logue. The cast is large­ly unknown, and often ama­teur. Chunks of the movie were shot using the dis­guised actor engages with unwit­ting civil­ians” method per­fect­ed in such mas­ter­pieces as Bad Grand­pa and Borat. The plot ranges from obscure” to impen­e­tra­ble.” (I watched it pret­ty close­ly, and had been prepped fair­ly well before­hand, and I had no idea why the sto­ry kept cut­ting away to an omi­nous guy on a motor­cy­cle until I read the film’s Wikipedia page.) None of the char­ac­ters has a name. We are asked to root for a pro­tag­o­nist who kills a baby. There’s a down­er end­ing. Just about the only thing Under the Skin has in com­mon with the cur­rent #1 movie at the box office—Cap­tain Amer­i­ca: The Win­ter Sol­dier—is the pres­ence of Scar­lett Johans­son. And the only tra­di­tion­al sell­ing point, when it comes to choos­ing the for­mer over the lat­ter, is that in this one, Scar­lett Johans­son gets naked.

Johansson, in these scenes, is the Anti-Feminine: fully in control, wholly unemotional, entirely disconnected from other human beings, and utterly terrifying.

Of course, the first time we see Scar­lett naked, she’s strip­ping down the corpse of one of her vic­tims, so that she can wear its clothes. Also, she’s doing so in a glow­ing, white, fea­ture­less void that may or may not be meant to rep­re­sent an alien space­craft. Also, and despite the plen­ti­ful pres­ence of Full Frontal Scar­lett, we actu­al­ly get far more of nude men and their exposed penis­es — in terms of both quan­ti­ty and screen time — than we ever do of naked breasts.

So, you know. It’s not a pop­corn movie. But it is one of the most beau­ti­ful things you’ll ever see in a the­ater: That impen­e­tra­ble plot moves at a state­ly pace, guid­ed by a cam­era that can find ter­ror and beau­ty in the sight of trees blow­ing in the breeze, fog and sea-spray spi­ral­ing off the coast, or a float­ing corpse. It’s also got a plot that should please any giv­en gen­der-stud­ies major: It’s a movie about an alien (that would be Johans­son) who learns to be a human woman, and pro­found­ly regrets the les­son. And, before she’s ful­ly inter­nal­ized that role, she has a bad habit of seduc­ing and destroy­ing men.

It’s hard to sum­ma­rize the plot of Under the Skin with­out either giv­ing too much away or forc­ing a def­i­nite inter­pre­ta­tion on what is pur­pose­ful­ly oblique and ambigu­ous. (Although the movie is, tech­ni­cal­ly, an adap­ta­tion of a nov­el — by Michael Faber, who also did some fab­u­lous­ly smart things with gen­der in his best­seller The Crim­son Petal and the White—it devi­ates wild­ly from the plot con­tained there­in.) But here’s one attempt: Scar­lett lands on our plan­et, does the afore­men­tioned corpse-strip­ping, and sets out in her van to har­vest the men of Scot­land. She goes about this process with the frank effi­cien­cy of a preda­tor in the wild; she can mim­ic a human being just well enough to pull over her van, ask for direc­tions, and assess and cap­ture her prey. If they have friends or fam­i­ly near­by, she takes their direc­tions and moves on; if they’re unat­tached, she offers them a ride and, even­tu­al­ly, sex in her apart­ment. (The hid­den cam­era” is used in these scenes, to cap­ture the las­civ­i­ous and/​or baf­fled reac­tions of actu­al Scot­tish men try­ing to cope with the fact that they’ve been picked up on the street by a brunette, inex­plic­a­bly British-sound­ing Scar­lett Johans­son.) Her apart­ment,” as it turns out, is an infi­nite black void, which none of these men seem to notice or even real­ly mind. Once there, she slow­ly walks away from them, they strip and fol­low her, and the floor turns into black goo and swal­lows them whole. (These men, giv­en the indig­ni­ties they’re sub­ject­ed to, were pre­sum­ably actors. Unless some­one com­mit­ted to six weeks of green-screen work in the nude just to see Scar­lett Johans­son take half her shirt off, which … well, come to think of it, that also seems pos­si­ble.) What hap­pens to the men after­ward, I think, is some­thing the view­er should be allowed to dis­cov­er on his or her own.

Johans­son, in these scenes, is the Anti-Fem­i­nine: ful­ly in con­trol, whol­ly unemo­tion­al, entire­ly dis­con­nect­ed from oth­er human beings, and utter­ly ter­ri­fy­ing. After one mur­der on an iso­lat­ed beach, she leaves a victim’s baby to be drowned by the ris­ing tide, not out of mal­ice, but because she seem­ing­ly doesn’t under­stand what a baby is or why it mat­ters. When she’s con­front­ed with oth­er women — a group of them hus­tle her into a club — she shows the same blank incom­pre­hen­sion. She only uti­lizes human facial expres­sions or lan­guage while she’s chat­ting up poten­tial vic­tims, and even there, she seems to be stuck using a few use­ful phras­es — do you have a girl­friend,” you’re very hand­some,” do you think I’m pret­ty,” etc. — like a tourist who’s learned them from a guidebook.

It’s clear that the movie wants to say some­thing about gen­der, even this ear­ly on. Just look at those seduc­tion scenes: Johans­son talks, the men answer her. Johans­son leads, the men fol­low. The men strip — and are sub­ject­ed to some very objec­ti­fy­ing full-frontal shots — and Johans­son keeps her clothes on.

But the real action of the movie, and the tru­ly smart com­men­tary, picks up where all the man-drown­ing leaves off. One of Johansson’s poten­tial vic­tims, a dis­abled man, sets some­thing off in her — empa­thy, pity, or sim­ply com­mon feel­ing for some­one who seems as iso­lat­ed and ill-at-ease in his body as she is — and she lets him go. Enter Omi­nous Man With Motor­cy­cle — her alien han­dler, as per the Inter­net — and his attempts to track her down. Scar­lett aban­dons her apart­ment of doom and goes on the run, even­tu­al­ly shack­ing up with a rel­a­tive­ly kind­ly gen­tle­man. It’s at this point that she becomes an entire­ly dif­fer­ent crea­ture, less preda­to­ry Alien than strand­ed E.T. Her baf­fle­ment as she attempts to eat human food, or watch tele­vi­sion, isn’t cute, pre­cise­ly. She stays chilly and off-putting­ly blank through­out. But it’s hard not to sym­pa­thize with her new­found pow­er­less­ness and her total incom­pre­hen­sion of the world around her. In this half of the movie, every­thing shifts, and revers­es itself: Men talk, and Johans­son stays qui­et. Men lead, and Johans­son fol­lows them. Johans­son gets an objec­ti­fy­ing full-frontal shot, and the men keep their clothes on. And, yes, even­tu­al­ly, she learns that there is more than one way to be a preda­tor, and more than one way to become prey.

There’s a lot to praise in Under the Skin: It is just unspeak­ably beau­ti­ful, and deeply scary, and it often man­ages to be both at the same time. It’s pro­found­ly orig­i­nal and dar­ing. It’s the rare sci-fi film about aliens that for­sakes cool space­craft and explo­sions, and gives us some­thing that tru­ly feels alien, whol­ly oth­er than human and quite pos­si­bly beyond human under­stand­ing. And, most impor­tant­ly, it man­ages to put us in the shoes of that Oth­er: By giv­ing us a movie that doesn’t work like any oth­er movie, it forces us to see the world through the eyes of some­thing that doesn’t think like humans think. That it actu­al­ly man­ages to cre­ate sym­pa­thy for that crea­ture, after we’ve seen it do sev­er­al unspeak­ably gory and baby-endan­ger­ing things, is noth­ing short of miraculous.

But, then: There’s anoth­er seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that we’re taught to see as Oth­er, to dis-iden­ti­fy with, and those peo­ple often do quite a lot of talk­ing about how they feel they’ve been stuck on a plan­et that’s not made with them in mind. Under the Skin doesn’t just try to make us see the world through the eyes of a human-devour­ing, baby-drown­ing alien invad­er. It tries to make us under­stand what it feels like to be a girl. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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