The Alien Gender: Under the Skin (2014, dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Content warning: discussions of transphobia, violence, sexual assault

This isn’t a piece about fat characters, but I think a piece about transgressive bodies, especially when it’s such a strong theme in one of the best movies of the first half of 2014, is appropriate for this site. I also wrote a short piece about the perception of time in Boyhood compared with other Linklater films, also unrelated to fat characters, which you can find here on my Tumblr. This is also a work in progress, so feedback would be extra appreciated. I’m not super enthralled with how it’s currently organized, but I’ve been working on it for a hot minute and I wanted to share my ideas.

yesterday i went to the daley center to provide moral support for a friend who had a court appearance.  on the way in, there are metal detectors, with two separate lines for “male” and “female.”  i pretended the signs meant my preference for the security guard’s gender, should the state deem it necessary for a stranger to put their hands in my pants.  i hoped that of the group of folks who would potentially show up, the one friend who knows about my nonbinary gender identity would be there so i could vent to her.  she wasn’t able to make it.

on the way back to the l, a guy stopped me on the street because i’m a “lady with short hair,” and he was selling salon services to “ladies” to do lady things like buy product to enhance some of the hair on my lady body and get the rest of it removed. i usually try to end these kinds of sales pitches as soon as possible, but i was so nonplussed at being categorized as a “lady” every other sentence, i let him go on for several minutes before turning him down.

there’s no space for me here.  you don’t know who i am.

attraction to cisgender women is difficult for me because my internalized transphobia often gets in the way, the nagging proviso to experiencing those erotic or romantic feelings that invariably tells me that she’s better than me, because she’s doing gender “right.”  as you might imagine, those contrasting feelings are prone to arise when i see an actress in a movie.  but i didn’t feel that way about scarlett johansson’s unnamed character in under the skin— perhaps because she is so achingly beautiful in this movie it overwhelmed my hangups, or perhaps because she isn’t a cisgender woman.

of course, that last observation comes from my interpretation of the movie.  we have no information about how she identifies in terms of her gender, if she even has one.  she acts and dresses in ways women are expected to, we see that she has breasts and it’s strongly implied that she has a vulva.  she scores a woman-bingo if we’re playing by binary gender rules.  these are all trappings of her human disguise, though. under the skin (ooh) of her gender normativity is a body and history that subverts expectations.  this isn’t someone who has been designated female by a medical professional, based on her anatomy.  she isn’t human, her body is outside of our human knowledge of what peoples’ bodies look like.  we don’t have the language to describe her body or her identity, and the film doesn’t give it to us.

i read several articles about under the skin before seeing it in theaters when it came to chicago in april.  there was a repeating observation of viewers feeling detached from her, seeing her as a “non-character.”  i was shaken by my reaction to the film, because despite johansson’s reserved performance, i felt a deep sense of relation to her.  i honestly thought there was something wrong with me; i have since realized that odd feeling of recognition stemmed from looking at someone who is disguised as a woman, but just below the surface has a self that is outside the normative understanding of gender.

that last sentence can function both as my reaction to under the skin and as a nano-memoir.

the film begins with the literal construction of her body: her eye is assembled, her voice is trained. the first scene where we see her whole is in the mall, where she buys a fur coat, a second skin that suggests sensuality, that she can access through consumerism.  this is how she acts for most of the film, through the conscious artifice of being a woman, acting out femininity as a means to an end in ways that reflect culturally constructed desires and expectations.

on the prowl, she embodies the phallic mother archetype, the woman who wields masculine power while retaining her femininity (paradoxical in the context of patriarchy). perhaps a more familiar variation on this archetype would be the “modern” woman, who remains sexually pleasing to men while adopting the competitive, unemotional approach to work and sex that men supposedly aspire to.  while the people on the beach react emotionally, struggling to save their family members despite lacking the physical strength to do so, she remains opportunistically focused on her goal.  her disregard for the welfare of a baby seems especially shocking from some-body who is presumed to have an innate maternal instinct.

she caters to a “typical” straight male fantasy: a gorgeous woman who finds you interesting and propositions you.  the static shots from hidden cameras in the van during these scenes even suggest the low-budget voyeurism of amateur porn.  i haven’t heard anybody who has seen under the skin question the believability or logic of this sequence of events that repeats itself and flows without hesitation from the men, even when she brings them to dilapidated buildings– despite driving a large, windowless van– then into a room with a physics-defying lighting scheme.  however, she is simultaneously embodying the male role in this scenario, calling out to the object of her desire from the driver’s seat, an interaction that plays out in popular fantasy (e.g. bang bus) and reality (e.g. multiple times every day out of car windows across the globe). her third victim is first seen hollering at her from a car window; later, a male driver stuck in the same traffic jam as she sends a rose to her van.  she fulfills a dual role in this fantasy, allowing the straight male viewer to simultaneously imagine what it would be like to be propositioned by scarlett johansson and what it would be like to be as alluring as scarlett johansson in his traditionally gendered role of propositioner, the role he may even resume as soon as he drives his own vehicle out of the cinema parking lot.

Under-The-Skin-trailer-2

the scenes of the seduced men being devoured are heavily coded as feminine.  mica levi’s score is buzzing and mechanical, but the soundtrack of the men descending into the blackness to their fates is an eerie deconstruction of music from a seduction scene in a more conventionally romantic movie.  (levi described this part of the score as something the character puts on like makeup.)  the act of killing is not the physical violence associated with masculine-coded combat, although we see from the beach scene that she is capable of that kind of violence.  no, this killing is the climax of an act of seduction that is never consummated, man brought to ruin through the promise of sex.  she undresses as she walks away, hips swaying and glances beckoning, the man in pursuit. here she embodies another archetypal paradox: she is walking the line between virgin and whore, simultaneously sexually available and untouched. it is as if she has learned how to be a woman through the lens of commercialism: her gender performance is intensely focused on attracting, ingratiating, persuading, creating the illusion of uniqueness and intimacy when each interaction is ultimately the same thing.

her lair’s physical aspects symbolize cisgender women’s bodies.  where means of violence in movies are commonly and often iconically phallic, the consumption of the men by the blackness is vaginal.  beneath the surface is womblike: darker than the surface where she walks, the naked men look small and indistinct, like fetuses, and are suspended in a liquid.  the third victim reaches out to touch the previous victim, both of them in a regressed state of helplessness.  their fate is to have their insides sucked out, leaving limp bags of skin. we don’t know her reasons, but it is a vivid depiction of the culturally ingrained fear for men of being sucked dry by a seductive woman, for financial or emotional security.

images of glasglow street life are transposed on each other, building into a kinetic golden haze from which her visage emerges, aphrodite arising from the foam of social embodiment.  however, she is reflecting femininity of a culture where to be feminine is to be vulnerable.  her balancing act of passing as a woman is unsustainable, as going through the world as a woman leaves her open to violence, such as when the group of young men attack her van, demanding she get out of her seat of power.

the change comes when she picks up the man with facial deformities. people with disabilities are marginalized in many ways, including commonly having their gender identity or sexuality denied or ignored by the able-bodied people around them.  he is not playing by the normative script of her seduction; he doesn’t enter their interaction with the assumption that she would be sexually available to him.  she has to convince him of the situation’s reality, which requires making more of a connection with him.  there is more negotiation, more probing questions, beyond assessing how long before someone would notice him missing.  he questions the reality of the situation; instead of the static hidden camera shots, we see a closeup of his hands as he pinches himself, then him looking around her lair.  on some level, he realizes the artificiality of the situation, which speaks to a hidden truth.  “look at me,” she commands him, ostensibly to direct his focus towards the seduction.  she is in closer proximity to him than the others, fully naked in front of one of her conquests for the first time.  he is not the only one being commanded to look, for it is this scene where we first see her featureless alien form, her true self.  he asks if he’s dreaming; she confirms that he is.  even if this is a way of pacifying him, she is admitting that the seduction is an illusion, that she is an illusion.  after the man with facial deformities descends into the blackness, we see a closeup of her in profile, with a mid shot of her alien form superimposed over her.  we see her true, transgressive body.

when leaving the lair, she stops and gazes at herself in a mirror for a long time.  this largely wordless film leaves much to individual interpretation; some see the change in her as an attempt to become human, or growing empathy with humans, but i see this moment as the first time she truly confronts her human disguise as it contrasts with her alien self, and her ability to perform her previous gender role is subverted.  she frees the man with facial deformities, leaving him naked in a field, mirroring her own state: vulnerable, wandering through an unfamiliar environment.

she abandons her van on the side of the road and wanders through a fog bank, emerging on the other side. she is no longer able to perform as an idealized paradox of woman, but is still in her woman disguise.  without the end of seducing victims into her lair, what is her means?  her womanness does not exist on its own as an authentic identity for her, it is a disguise that fulfills a function.

she seems repelled by sensuality: she is without her fur coat, and cannot ingest chocolate cake.  she has lost her phallic power both in terms of external symbols and personal drive.  she wanders aimlessly, at the mercy of the elements; she trades in her van for a seat on a bus being driven by a man who warns her that she is underdressed for the cold.  she only vocalizes to admit to the concerned man that she needs help, after he asks her repeatedly.  the vacuum left by the loss of her formerly powerful gender role practically fills itself, the concerned man and bus driver write vulnerability onto her.  she replaces her own coat with the concerned man’s, and takes shelter in his guest room instead of her van and alien lair. she has become the damsel in distress.

when i first saw the film, i balked at the idea that the concerned man would have been as generous and trusting if not to a beautiful young white woman, but on the second viewing, i similarly wondered if she would have accepted his offer if he wasn’t a decent-looking man.  the closest she comes to interacting with human women is when a group of young clubgoers sweep her along with them, where she looks so confused that it borders on concern. i am skeptical that her performance of femininity includes interacting with women.

she has no script for the care she receives from the concerned man.  she remains silent and passive as he helps her in the ways he assumes she needs help.  he carries her over a puddle, leads her tentatively down a set of stairs. she initiates sex with him, but does so by childishly holding her face to him for a kiss and takes a passive role during their lovemaking, lying still under him in his bed, still wearing her lacy pink camisole.  it’s ambiguous as to how much of this is due to her genuine love for him and how much is due to not knowing how else to drive an interaction with a human being, grasping at scraps of knowledge of how to act in this new permutation of femininity.

the sex scene becomes arguably the most jarring and sad scene of the film when she realizes mid-coitus that something is horribly wrong.  she pushes him off her and inspects her crotch with a light before tossing it aside despondently.   oliver balaam of abstract magazine read this moment as her discovery that the engineers of her human body did not factor in her ability to have sex or take pleasure in it when constructing her disguise.  i saw her shock as the realization of what is expected of her body during sex, something that had not been part of her femininity informed by normative marginalization of honest discussion of sex, and her rejection of it.  i can understand balaam’s interpretation, even if i’m not willing to dismiss my own in favor of it, because both of us saw her distress at a sexual role that had been constructed for her by outside forces (either others of her own kind or human cultural expectations).

again, she is alone, on foot, this time in the wilderness.  the final sequence of the film could be interpreted as the tables being turned on her, but i don’t think it’s that simple.  i don’t believe that the scene was constructed as poetic justice; rather, i think it builds on her interactions with the concerned man and speaks to the inescapability of being seen as vulnerable when one is feminine.  there are parallels between the logger’s victimization of her and her victimization of her male passengers.  the conversation he strikes up gauges her lack of power (she is alone and unfamiliar with her surroundings), much like the line of questioning she conducts with her passengers.  the bothy is her third place of rest in the film.  unlike her lair or the concerned man’s home, it is a public place, accessible to anyone. away from her alien directive, or the expectations of a romantic relationship with the concerned man, she sleeps peacefully.  her prone form is superimposed over the trees being tossed in the wind, suggesting that she is able to find a comfortable, natural state in this solitude.

Under the Skin Official Trailer

once more, her freedom and solitude is not a state where she can find and assert her own identity; rather, the logger makes her a victim.  while being pursued through the woods, she attempts to drive away in the logger’s truck, but is only able to make herself more vulnerable by setting off its alarm, in direct contrast to the power and agency afforded her by her van.  the same music that scored her seductions plays sickeningly over this scene. there is a significant difference between the two:  rather than being a mysterious, abstracted act of violence that leaves the audience wondering her motives and goals, we know exactly why he is chasing and subduing her, what he sees, and what he intends to do.

her disguise has been coming apart– lipstick gone, fur coat replaced with a borrowed one; jeans and boots dirty, and finally, when her human skin tears in the logger’s hands.  she has endured mounting strains over the course of the film: the gendered cycle she is expected to carry out over and over, despite knowing that she being seen as a hollow illusion of herself;  the confusion and lack of direction once she leaves that forced disguise behind; the new identity she gains on the bus, and how she is unable or unwilling to achieve the romantic/sexual satisfaction tacit to that identity;  her ultimate inability to escape violent power struggles.  her disguise, her attempt to function in a system that was not constructed for her and never considered her existence to begin with, cannot be sustained.  she removes her skin, revealing a featureless, androgynous alien with skin like starstuff.  she holds her beautiful face in her hands, the eyes through which she perceived the human kyriarchy now gazing at her true self.  despite its authenticity, this is a self that cannot exist for long, that will not be allowed to exist, as the logger returns to set her on fire.  this stands in sickening parallel to the very real dangers that transgender women often face if they are discovered to be trans.  (note: in this comparison i am not suggesting that transwomen are “wearing a woman disguise”– transwomen are women– as she does in the film, rather that these are people who risk harm when they are discovered to subvert social expectations about their bodies.)  she collapses at the edge of a field as snow falls, the black smoke of her remains ascending to the sky she presumably came from and dissipating, as white snowflakes descend on the camera.  perhaps it is a natural elegy for her, or perhaps it is the way of the world overtaking and dissipating her.

under the skin speaks to the toxicity of gender roles, how the expectations that the place on everyone can be misleading at best and destructive at worst.  in it, i see an outsider who stands as an allegory for how i try to maintain my woman disguise through enacting roles written on me by others, and my fears of what will happen if that disguise tears too much.

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4 comments

  1. I just saw this movie this weekend, and I’m still digesting it. For a movie with so little dialogue, there was so much happening – proof that snappy dialogue and contrived plots aren’t necessary to drive a powerful story. I actually like movies where there’s a lot that’s left open to individual interpretation, though I know that there are some viewers who prefer to be guided to a conclusion. All in all, I felt that it was disturbing, and really important, especially its rather horrifying ending. When the credits ran, I was like…wow, I don’t even know what to think or how to feel right now. Thanks for your analysis – this is a movie I feel like I need to watch a few more times to really wrap my head around everything that was happening.

    1. I totally agree, there’s something about Under the Skin that feels highly symbolic, but since it’s so bare bones at the same time, the experience of watching it can feel a little disorienting. I first saw Under the Skin in April, and I knew it meant something big to me, but it didn’t really click until this past month when I knew I had to write it all down, and even doing that took a week. There’s the desire to jump on every scrap of information you’re given and process it to death so it fits into a more familiar watching experience, but the pacing and score and imagery make you want to do the opposite and just drift in it. I’ve seen movies that felt impenetrable before, but I think this was an unusual circumstance where I felt like I knew what it was about, but still didn’t really know what to *do* with it… if that makes sense.

      Also considering it’s so sparse and slow, there are a lot of different things you could take away from it. Apparently the novel its based on is something else entirely, and is an allegory for animal farming… and on top of that, I recall hearing a film critic comment that the movie is constructed to be in conversation with the book. What.

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