Finding feminism Under the Skin

Oliver Balaam unpicks the feminist themes and fascinating gender politics of Jonathan Glazer’s new film, Under the Skin. Spoilers follow. Trigger warning: sexual assault.

Under the Skin is a very difficult film to recommend. It’s light on dialogue, heavy on symbolism, often baffling and aggressively artsy. If you can stick with it though, it’s one of the most rewardingly layered and profoundly affecting science fiction films you’ll see in a long time.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as Laura, an impassive alien of unknown origin who uses her feminine wiles to seduce men and lead them, naked and erect, to her otherworldly lair. Far from the exploitative skin flick this synopsis might lead you to expect, the film is actually stridently feminist: dealing with objectification, sexuality and body image both sensitively and poignantly.

The film’s opening sequence ambiguously depicts the android-like construction of Laura’s body. We hear her practicing her diction, in the hopes of fitting in with the humans, while we see her eye assembled in microscopic detail. “Bu-Buh-Buh. N-N-Nuh-No” — she struggles to articulate as a phallic cylinder is inserted into a hole, forming the pupil of her eye. Thus our central themes: consent, corporeality and gaze, are elegantly established.

The film isn’t always this graceful though and, as Laura becomes more human, the film becomes more grounded. Soon we trade glossy surrealism for the unrepentant greys of a perpetually overcast autumnal Glasgow. Much has been written about how some sections of the film were shot on the streets of Glasgowwith hidden cameras, but the unsettling air of reality television seediness that this adds to the film cannot be overstated.

We voyeuristically follow Laura as she drives around Glasgow in a Ford Transit, seducing wide-eyed males who can’t believe their luck, and are quite right not to. It’s a knowing reversal of the white van man trope, and there’s a disconcerting and palpable tension between what you know to be happening in the film’s fiction (an alien seductress preying on men) and what is actually happening in that van (Scarlet Johansson is enduring the clumsy advances of real life Glaswegians).

Even more than most women, Johansson knows what it’s like to be objectified. The search auto-completions that appear when you type her name into Google are “hot”, “selfie” and “pregnant”; three predictions that have nothing to do with her as a person or an actor, and everything to do with her skin and what’s underneath it. Like Laura, she is acutely aware of her status as an object of desire, but doesn’t want to be defined by it.

As well as a metatextual comment on Johansson’s fame, Under the Skin also functions as a coming of age tale, and reflects the wider struggles of young women living under patriarchy. Laura knows that her body attracts men like flies, but she doesn’t yet know how to exercise agency over it, or how to use it for her own pleasure. On her planet, as well as on our own it seems, women aren’t taught that it is okay to seek their own pleasure, and are only expected to further men’s. That, Laura comes to realise, is some intergalactic patriarchal bullshit, and in the latter half of the film she sets out on a on a quest to take control of her body and her fate.

Along the way she finds love, only to discover that due to her construction (a process that’s heavily implied to have been overseen by men), she can’t consummate or find pleasure in it. The scene culminates in a heartrending moment when; scared, panicked and lamp-in-hand, Laura frantically inspects her own genitals, trying to work out what’s wrong with them. This is just one example of how the film deftly layers surreal metaphors in order to address body dysmorphia, transgender issues, sexual violence and more, on an almost unconscious level. It’s one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen on film.

And then there’s the ending.

By this point in the film Laura has let her guard down. She’s trying to live as a human being rather than an object, as a “she” rather than an “it”, but the men she meets simply refuse to stop objectifying her. The last man she meets sexually assaults her and in the process, tears her skin and reveals her true form, an androgynous black skinned alien.

Laura’s attacker is so fixated on her surface beauty that he’s shocked and repulsed when he’s forced to recognise the life form underneath. Violently rejecting that which he doesn’t understand, he pours a can of gasoline over Laura and burns her alive. We watch, as her ashes float back into the atmosphere.

As well as working on a heartbreakingly visceral level, the ending layers metaphors about rape, and the way it destroys the victim’s sense of identity, about hate crimes, and their roots in misunderstanding and ignorance, and about much more. It speaks to feelings that, as a cis white male, I’m unlikely to ever truly understand, but it also speaks to some that I do: an overwhelming sadness that male violence against women so commonplace in our world, and an overpowering rage against a society that normalises this violence.

Men are not socialised to see women as equals, or even as humans, and Under the Skin knows this. It takes normalised concepts like gender binaries and patriarchal structures and, by refracting them through alien eyes, forces us to face up to them. We cannot end the pattern of male violence against women without consciously examining its root causes, however mundane they may initially seem. This kind of self-examination takes courage, so it’s my hope that courageous feminist films like Under the Skin will break into the mainstream, sparking important conversations and leading the way.

This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine on 14th July 2014.

Two time Emmy award viewer.

Two time Emmy award viewer.