Getting ‘Under the Skin’ of science fiction, gender and sexuality

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CW: Sexual violence, violence against women

Genres are malleable. They can transform or expand their scope and they can bleed into each other so much that solid definitions become troublesome. From that perspective, it is best not to define a genre as a specific thing but rather a set of always expanding elements that, when used on their own or in conjunction with other elements, can achieve a narrative aim.

So, if we try to define science fiction and its purpose, we can point to a number of elements that define the sci-fi story: aliens, time travel, spaceships, etc. All these are united under the banner of sci-fi because they’re things that as far as we know do not exist but that use scientific concepts as explanation; and what sci-fi often does is use these elements to explore real world problems and ideas through metaphor.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often credited as being the first science-fiction story, even if it fits just as snugly into the horror genre. It’s about the terror of parenthood and the risk in usurping God’s or nature’s role as the creator, and it explores these ideas through the story of a doctor using science to do something impossible, namely creating life out of stitched together bodies. Frankenstein is quintessential science fiction because it uses the impossible to explore a truth.

One of many thematic ideas that science fiction often deals with are that of gender and sexuality. One of the very earliest examples of a dystopia on screen is Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis; although that film deals with many ideas including wealth inequality, it’s the image of the undeniably feminine cyborg at the centre that most people remember. If you get on a bus right now, chances are that the side of it will display a poster for Ex-Machina (which I have criminally not yet seen, but apparently it’s the bomb), with a very modern rendition of that same image from Metropolis. Many things in genre change, but some stay the same.

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The 1979 Ridley Scott masterpiece Alien tackles ideas of gender and sexuality in a far more horrifying and grotesque fashion. Interestingly, it began life as a script with entirely gender neutral character names (Dallas, Ripley etc.) and then was cast according to the best person for the role, because in Alien‘s fictional future job roles are not seen as gender specific. However, Alien is a film about the horror of sexual violence, and instead of that violence coming from someone in the crew, it comes from a monster.

The alien looks like everyone’s worst surrealistic nightmare regarding sex. Though its contemporary impact has been diluted somewhat through multiple appearances in sequels, video games and comic books (there is a Batman vs. Aliens and it is exactly as awesome as it sounds), the original Alien film presented the creature as something symbolic of sexual violation.

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The alien was designed by H. R Giger, a surrealistic painter, and he combined and distorted numerous aspects of human anatomy, reproductive organs especially, into the design of the creature. It has a penis shaped head, its egg opens in a way that is quintessentially vaginal, and its initial stage as a parasitic creature (called a ‘Face Hugger’) looks like a groping hand. The alien also attacks in a way that is aggressively penetrative; the Face Hugger forces a seed down a victim’s throat, which grows into a penile snake that will come bursting out of the victim’s chest, which in turn becomes the final monster that has a secondary phallic mouth that it uses to burst peoples’ heads open.

Audiences watching Alien might not realise the nightmarish sub-text at first, as the imagery is very much absorbed on a subconscious level, and they might have just figured Alien as a gross monster movie. But these films work best when they play on anxieties and horrors that are commonplace, which tap into the universal experience, and Alien‘s success is partly due to it finding the right psychological buttons to push.

Under The Skin is 2014’s Alien, not just because it also features a predatory extraterrestrial, but because it uses its central monster to represent fears regarding gender and sexuality. But, where Alien‘s monster was indicative of sex at its most distorted and violent, Under The Skin‘s central alien is an attempt to explore the female experience, which makes it great, almost essential, viewing for men.

Despite starring the preposterously famous Scarlett Johansson, Under The Skin is a micro-budgeted art film from director Jonathan Glazer that forgoes typical methods of plot propulsion while unfolding across five movements, each one progressing the central character into a different place. It’s a film that is horrendously chilly and uncomfortable, and refuses to divulge where it’s going until it has got there. Anyone expecting a more typical cinematic experience will be disappointed in the same way a lot of young Twilight fans were disappointed when they went to see Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg’s art film on the recession, where Pattinson rides around in a limo for an hour and a half). Under The Skin gives no easy answers, it shows you things and asks you to find them.

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The central character is an alien in the form of Scarlett Johansson. Her purpose is to prey on men and lure them to their doom, which has them sinking into a viscous black sludge and slowly digested over a period of time. The ultimate purpose for what is happening to the men is never divulged; I imagine it is a form of sustenance for the alien but can’t be sure. Under The Skin is loosely based on a novel which may go into more depth on this matter, but I haven’t read it, so I shan’t mention it again, nor factor it into my conclusions.

Under The Skin gives men a chance to experience the fear of predation as a woman. A strange man driving around in a white van offering lifts to women is a weird and suspicious thing, while a strange woman doing the same (as Johansson does) is not viewed as suspicious in the same way. The men she approaches aren’t scared, and why should they be? They don’t fear rape, it is not part of their reality, they are not the victims of rape culture so the scenario has no threat for them. Except in Under The Skin, getting in the van ends in a horrifying fate for these men. Just how it can do for women in reality.

When we meet Johansson’s Laura (as she is referred to in the Blu-Ray’s extra features but never in the film), we see her stripping down the corpse of another woman and clothing herself with her accoutrements; she goes to the mall, buys lipstick, and then goes on the hunt. What this sequence shows us, is an alien mechanically making itself appealing as a woman for men. Everything she does, everything she is, is crafted to attract them. Within fifteen minutes, we see through this alien’s eyes the inherent unfairness. I’m not for a minute saying that a woman’s use of make-up and clothing is solely used to impress men, but that is how a patriarchal society often sees it, and Under The Skin criticises that paradigm.

As she looks for victims, we see how a variety of men approach Laura and communicate with her. Some are aggressive and some are awkward. We see through her eyes, the kind of frightening catcalling and aggressive behaviour she is subjected to because she is a woman. Some of these moments aren’t dramatizations; director Jonathan Glazer decided to have Scarlett Johansson drive around in a van filled with hidden cameras and a lot of her interactions with people are genuine, which is an even more scathing indictment to what is wrongly considered acceptable behaviour for men, and how appallingly normal this behaviour is.

It’s tough viewing, but the point is clear. The alien is experiencing daily life as a woman, and this level of harassment and threat is the daily reality for a lot of women. One man approaches her in a club and uses dominant and aggressive body language (his hand is firmly placed on the wall, blocking her exit), yet satisfyingly he leads himself to his own death in the black sludge.

In the third act, Laura picks up a man with neurofibromatosis. It is this man who triggers a change in Laura. All previous men have been awful in their own way; the man in the club is particularly creepy in a way that would be upsetting to a normal, non-alien woman. But the man with neurofibromatosis is the not the same as the rest, he’s not a predator. So she lets him go. This is a major breakthrough for the character, as in a previous scene Laura stood by and watched two people drown, killed another, and left a crying baby alone (in one of 2014’s most effective horror movie moments). However, the character is now beginning to feel things, to have a sense of empathy, to think of herself as a woman.

This exploration of empathy, and how it defines what it means to be human, is an important part of Under The Skin and Laura’s experience with the deformed man causes her to abandon her mission and start exploring her new-found humanity. This leads to tragedy.

At the finale, Laura meets a jovial logger who engages her in conversation. When she falls asleep in a nearby cabin, she awakes to find him molesting her. She runs. He pursues. When he catches her, he pulls her to the floor and attempts to rape her, tearing her skin and revealing the alien body underneath. Upon seeing this, he pours gasoline over her and burns Laura to death.

One can see this as a standard look at how humanity fears what it doesn’t understand, that the logger killed Laura because he was horrified by the fact she was a monster underneath. That’s a fair interpretation.

But let’s look a little deeper. When the logger rips her skin, he doesn’t look at her body but at his hands in horror, he’s looking at himself and is horrified by what he has done. But rather than making amends, he burns Laura to death. It is a very visual indictment of the way modern society often deals with victims of rape. They are the ones burned, they are blamed for the crime occurring, they are told that they shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt, they shouldn’t have been drunk, they shouldn’t have talked to a guy.

That may be a pretty far flung interpretation for some and certainly relies a lot on allegorical reading, but even if we take the film as it is shown, and think about the more literal idea that the logger burnt her because she’s an alien, than the finale still says some interesting things. Yes, Laura was burnt because she is an alien, but she was attacked in the first place because she is a woman.

Callum Birrell