Alienating the Gaze: The Hybrid Femme Fatale of Under the Skin

Alicia  Byrnes, New York University |

In her seminal essay ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,’ Donna Haraway adopts the cyborg as a feminist icon because it undermines the identity-related binaries governing patriarchal order. Irrespective of the merit of Haraway’s theory, films such as The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Teknolust (Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2002) indicate that the science fiction genre has consistently portrayed cyborg and other hybrid bodies as female. I argue that such a gendered representation can actually be fruitful for feminist revision. This paper will analyze how Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 film Under the Skin appropriates the figure of the femme fatale for a science fiction context to expose contemporaneous gender politics.

Under the Skin’s unnamed heroine is a hybrid: she is an alien cast in the image of a human woman. She is by nature uncanny. In her female coding, the heroine is both familiar and unfamiliar and thus appeals to both feminine and alien allegories. Glazer immediately positions the spectator to adopt her perspective; the first part of the film is structured around point of view shots detailing the heroine’s pursuit of male prey. Vivian Sobchack argues that filmic endeavors to inhabit alien subjectivity are scarce. She explains,

Attempts at stretching our perceptions by using a subjective camera to represent alien consciousness are relatively rare in the [science fiction] film, probably because—dependent as they are upon the viewer’s comprehension—such images must extrapolate from human vision and therefore cannot attain the inventive and speculative freedom they pretend to.[1]

Under the Skin is successful in its depiction of an alien perspective because of the interplay between this point of view and its human facade. While the portrayal of the alien’s subjectivity may be dependent upon human modes of perception via its corporeal coding, it is nonetheless radical because the human perspective in which it is cloaked is somewhat anomalous within cinema: that of a female gaze. The two perspectives support each other; the alien conceit allows for the aggressive female pursuit rendered, and vice versa. This feedback loop yields a provocative position regarding contemporaneous gender politics: for a woman to act in this way (and get away with it), she must be alien.

The heroine’s murderous project aligns her with the paradigm of the femme fatale, a figure ‘defined by [her] sexuality, which is presented as desirable but dangerous to men’.[2] The paucity of scholarly work focusing on the representation of the femme fatale within science fiction is surprising given her aptness to the genre. Mary Ann Doane’s theorization of the figure evokes uncanny imagery synonymous with the hybrid heroine:

Her most striking characteristic, perhaps, is the fact that she never really is what she seems to be. She harbours a threat which is not entirely legible, predictable, or manageable… transforming the threat of the woman into secret, something which must be aggressively revealed, unmasked, discovered.[3]

Science fiction, with its ideological function to ‘[challenge] known categories’, seems a fitting home for the femme fatale because she undermines patriarchal systems.[4] The femme fatale is a ‘potent lightning rod for male anxieties,’[5] testing male unity through her aberrant sexuality. Barbara Creed ascribes the femme fatale’s destabilizing powers to her complication of currents of sexual selection; the femme fatale manipulates structures of human sexual selection (where the male is routinely dominant), by using her allure to ‘arouse and control male desire’.[6] The stakes of this subversion are intensified in the context of the science fiction film, where the femme fatale’s inhuman capabilities often not only problematize male power but also endanger the human species. In the 1995 Roger Donaldson film Species this trope is explicated through the cyborgian femme fatale’s desire to procreate with a human male, an endeavor that would originate a new and potentially threatening species. Contradistinctively, in Under the Skin the heroine’s destruction of male bodies would inevitably lead to an endangerment of humanity.

OpeningUnder the Skin begins by depicting preparation for the heroine’s human performance. Audible during the prologue, which illustrates the construction of a human eye, is the heroine’s rehearsal of vowel sounds—“fuh-duh-kuh-tuh-zz”. The recording, taken from one of Johansson’s actual vocal training sessions, denotes a meta-textual trope of transforming to become Other. The heroine is subsequently depicted in her human suit of skin as she dons the clothing of a female corpse, quite literally adopting a woman’s aesthetic. Johansson is an actress practiced at roles exploitative of her voluptuous physicality, playing the femme fatale in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005), and numerous superhero films within the Marvel universe.[7] Her womanly figure is utilized here as a reductive image of femininity. Clumsily dressing herself the heroine seems unaware of her body, pointing up her relationship to it as a practical entity; her appearance works as bait in her pursuits. She next retrieves the car that will facilitate her abductions: a large white van, a criminal cliché in itself.

The heroine’s first “cruise” is initially depicted via a montage of point of view shots. Her car patrols a busy street of Glasgow as the camera presents views of unwitting male pedestrians through the windshield. Men of varying age, race, and size are evaluated as they stroll the streets, looking at their mobile phones, listening to music, watching for traffic. The montage represents an inversion of the cinematic construct of female objectification, here the female gaze appraising men through the shielded screen of her car. The voyeuristic nature of these shots evokes Michel Foucault’s understanding of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a mechanism used in the surveillance of inmates ‘for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.’[8] Significantly, feminist film theorists have argued that the self-censoring effect of the Panopticon is explicative of woman’s experience under patriarchy; ‘defined in terms of visibility, she carries her own Panopticon with her wherever she goes, her self-image a function of her being for another.’[9] This analogy is enunciated here by way of subversion; the peculiarity of viewing unsuspecting men as objects for female disposal underscores the omnipresence of the male gaze under which women are scrutinized.

After she turns into a backstreet the camera reverses to present the heroine in close up. Her expression is blank but her gaze relentless as she scours the street for her first victim. The camera returns to her point of view and depicts a young man trudging a lonely stretch of the sidewalk. This image points to a fundamental criterion of her selection process; she preys on men who are alone. She pulls to the curb, honks her horn, and rolls down the passenger window as the young man approaches the car. Using her charming British accent, she asks for directions. This is her pick up line; the heroine feigns the womanly disposition of helplessness—damsel in distress—and thus situates her suitors to assume control. With her shaggy, black hair, heavy eyeliner, and cumbersome fur coat she is visually evocative of a werewolf, the dualistic European folklore icon that encompasses ‘both human and animal—the one ideally communal and sociable, the other solitary and fierce’.[10] After the male pedestrian provides directions she enquires, smiling, “Where are you going?” He explains that he is on his way to meet someone and she relents, leaving him with his life.

The exchanges between the heroine and the men she picks up are provocative in terms of undermining male hegemony. Glazer’s approach to filming Under the Skin is in the vein of cinema vérité; during production, the van that Johansson drives was fitted with hidden cameras and she approached actual male pedestrians on the streets of Glasgow and engaged them in largely improvised conversation. This tactic allows for anomalous cinematic moments where Johansson’s allure is tested on her unwitting male passengers. It is interesting to observe the men’s response to their objectification; here the film’s science fictional conceit and production experiment overlap. The heroine’s alien-status and murderous project fosters for the cinematic spectator a sense of anxiety, and even empathy, as we contemplate the male passengers’ fate. In a later scene the heroine picks up a disfigured man who concedes that he’s never had a sexual encounter, and propositions him to return home with her. As a spectator I fear for this socially marginalized man who hesitantly accepts the heroine’s invitation in hopes of satisfying his primordial curiosities.

Such feelings of identification become complicated by the verisimilitude of the interactions. The civilian men are not cognizant of the heroine’s diegetic function, they are merely reacting to her seductive behavior. When she offers one man a lift he replies, “Ah, why not?” It is difficult not to speculate about the plausibility of such a response were the gender roles reversed; it seems likely that woman’s common sense would dissuade her from accepting such a proposal. Once in the van the men seem pleased to be subject to the heroine’s flirtation yet some appear unnerved by the setup, one man even fleeing upon viewing the derelict house where she takes her victims. The heroine’s diegetic agenda thus feeds into the male civilians’ experience, some suspicious of the brazenness with which she propositions him. From either a cinematic perspective or that of the male passenger, there is something startling about encountering a woman with such agency. As Ara Osterweil remarks, ‘how strange to experience the female gaze saturated with desire but unencumbered by care.’[11] Under the Skin provokes the suggestion that for woman to be liberated from her internal Panopticon, she must be inhuman.

LiquidThe driving scenes speak to Creed’s theory regarding the femme fatale’s complication of patterns of sexual selection; here the heroine uses her agency and allure to upend male hegemony. The scenes depicting her ultimate capture of the men elaborate this trope, the heroine engaging her victims in what screenwriter Walter Campbell calls a ‘sexual trance’: ‘they are transported and their imagination is leading them on, and they are betrayed by their own instincts.’[12] One such scene depicts the heroine and her victim in a void of darkness. As her siren song plays she paces through the abyss, undressing as she goes. Her victim appears hypnotized as he follows her and mimics her behaviour. Once he is naked the floor beneath him morphs into a pool of liquid and he wades in uncaringly, his gaze fixated on her. A later sequence reveals this man’s fate; when one of the heroine’s new victims enters the pool of liquid, the view from beneath the surface is revealed. The men are suspended within a boundless black space, evoking connotations of a womb. The former victim’s skin is pruned and filmy and his bones brittle. He is depicted in a long shot as he drifts in the void, his body appearing bloated and almost infantile. Suddenly a snap is audible and his insides vanish, leaving only a floating case of skin. Here it seems that the heroine mutilates her victims using reproductive mechanisms; they undergo a process of reverse fetal development and are ultimately returned to their origins in a stream of bloody lava.

Doane recognizes reproduction as a dominant trope within the science fiction genre. She suggests that films such as Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Blade Runner thematically grapple with contemporary developments in reproductive technologies, the films reflecting the patriarchal anxiety that these advancements will ‘put into crisis the very possibility of the question of origins, the Oedipal dilemma and the relation between subjectivity and knowledge that it supports.’[13] While the femme fatale is typically ‘represented as the antithesis of the maternal—[she is] sterile or barren,’ due to science fiction’s preoccupation with procreation, it is fitting that the figure should riff on reproduction as a source of her power here.[14]

The heroine’s mission is curtailed when she frees one of her victims—the disfigured man mentioned earlier—moments before his ultimate capture. Having let him go, she pauses in front of the mirror that hangs at the foot of the stairs to the womb-space. The heroine slowly assesses her image and then flees the derelict house. This scene is explicative of Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’, the formative moment where the infant child recognizes their image in a mirror and begins to establish an independent relation to reality.[15] Likewise, Under the Skin’s heroine ostensibly identifies herself via her corporeal façade, adopting her prosthetic skin as her own and in turn psychologically detaching from her alien origins. However, akin to Lacan’s infant whose image is merely a gestalt, the heroine’s perception of her humanness proves illusory.[16]

With her newfound self-awareness the heroine abandons her devices of abduction—the urban setting, the van, the house containing the captive chamber—and is in turn rendered vulnerable to the patriarchal diegesis. Glazer emphasizes this shift when she arrives at the Scottish highlands. She is depicted sitting in a bus shelter, visibly distressed, when the camera presents her point of view: a man leaning against an adjacent fence is gazing at her through the transparent walls of the shelter. She is next seen riding the bus. The bus driver scolds her for dressing inappropriately. She’ll “catch a death of cold” wearing her hot pink, low cut top he tells her, crystalizing the fact that she is no longer in control; now driven by someone else, her aesthetic construction is not a ploy but a source of victimization. The man eyeing her at the bus shelter offers to take her in.

MirrorA poignant sequence occurs during the heroine’s stay with this hospitable man. She stands naked in her bedroom in front of a full-length mirror, studying her body. This shot articulates a metamorphosis from the first image of the heroine presented on screen, where she awkwardly dresses herself seemingly unaware of her exterior. Here she seems attuned to her physical body, appreciating her womanly form and her ability to move and control it. The heroine is thus dismayed when she subsequently attempts intercourse with her host and discovers that beneath her prosthetic genitalia lies a hard interior; she is fated to her origins. The heroine’s realization of her alienness has interesting implications for Under the Skin’s feminist allegory. Her discovery concretizes her function as purely aesthetic; she is built to signify sex, but is denied its pleasure. Kate Stables concludes her essay on the femme fatale of 1990’s cinema by pondering the ramifications of presenting an excessively sexual, sociopathic, and victorious woman onscreen: ‘once the figure of woman is comprehensively sexualized on screen, all females are reduced to form and (fucking) function.’[17] Under the Skin could be understood to respond to this idea via its science fictional conceit; here woman’s sexuality is commoditized to the point where her pleasure is eliminated from the scenario.

The film’s final sequence takes place in the woods of the highlands. The science fiction trope whereby the Earth’s terrain is portrayed as ‘alien and hostile’ is typified here.[18] The heroine, still dressed in her urban garb, navigates a minefield of tall trees with jutting branches. She trudges aimlessly along the marshy, rain sodden ground and eventually comes across a wildlife serviceman. He stops her, shiftily questioning her whereabouts and whether she is alone. The exchange is eerily evocative of the heroine’s former pickup tactic, Glazer foreshadowing the man’s sinister intentions. When she meets the serviceman again later he chases her and tackles her to the ground, ripping off her clothes in preparation for her rape. His assault inadvertently punctures her skin, exposing her alien insides. The man, horrified, absconds as she peels off her corporeal suit, cradling her human face in an attempt to preserve it from destruction. When he reappears he douses her in gasoline, sets her alight, and leaves her to perish in the woods.

Given the paradigmatic femme fatale’s generic destiny to be exposed and eliminated during the course of the narrative, it would be easy to read the trajectory of Under the Skin’s heroine in causal terms.[19] I contend, however, that the film yields a feminist binary by way of alien assimilation. In the first part of the film set in Glasgow, the heroine, aided by her extraterrestrial naiveté and devices of capture, engages her female gaze without worry of retribution. Whereas once she develops a connection to her prosthetic body and attempts life as a human female she becomes subject to the controlling and ultimately fatal gaze of men. The heroine’s evinced inability to function sexually underlines the inexorability of female oppression under patriarchy; regardless of her biology, to inhabit the image of woman is to live in peril.

[1] Vivian Sobchack, “Images of Wonder: The Look of Science Fiction,” in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, 2nd edition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 94.

[2] E. Ann Kaplan, “Introduction to 1978 Edition,” in Women in Film Noir, 3rd edition (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 16.

[3] Mary Ann Doane, “Introduction: Deadly Women, Epistemology, and Film Theory,” in Femmes Fatales (New York: Routledge, 1991), 1.

[4] Barbara Creed, “The Future of Evolution: Science Fiction, Deep Time and Alien Species,” in Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2009), 89.

[5] Kate Stables, “The Postmodern Always Rings Twice: Constructing the Femme Fatale in 90s Cinema,” in Women in Film Noir, 3rd edition, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 166.

[6] Barbara Creed, “The Darwinian Gaze: Sexual Display, Sexual Selection and the Femme Fatale,” in Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2009), 189-190.

[7] Ironman 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2014).

[8] Michel Foucault in Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, “Feminist Film Criticism: An Introduction,” in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, eds. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams (Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1984), 13.

[9] Doane, Mellencamp and Williams, “Feminist Film Criticism,” 14.

[10] Kathryn A. Edwards, “Introduction: Expanding the Analysis of Traditional Belief,” in Werewolves, Witches, and Wandering Spirits: Traditional Belief & Folklore in Early Modern Europe, ed. Kathryn A. Edwards (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2002), xv.

[11] Ara Osterweil, “Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female,” Film Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4 (2014): 47, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2014.67.4.44. This paper was prepared prior to the publication of Osterweil, who expresses similar viewpoints with subtle differences.

[12] Walter Campbell, “Under the Skin: The Script,” Film 4, accessed November 24, 2014, http://www.film4.com/special-features/interviews/under-the-skin-the-script.

[13] Mary Ann Doane, “Technophilia: Technology, Representation and the Feminine,” in Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, ed. Sean Redmond (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 185.

[14] Doane, “Introduction,” 2.

[15] Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits: A Selection, 5th edition, translated by Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004), 6.

[16] ibid., 4.

[17] Stables, “The Postmodern Always Rings Twice,” 179.

[18] Sobchack, “Images of Wonder,” 117.

[19] Kaplan, “Introduction to 1978 Edition,” 16.

References 

Campbell, Walter. “Under the Skin: The Script.” Film 4. Accessed November 24, 2010. http://www.film4.com/special-features/interviews/under-the-skin-the-script.

Creed, Barbara. “The Darwinian Gaze: Sexual Display, Sexual Selection and the Femme Fatale.” In Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema, 183-220. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2009.

Creed, Barbara. “The Future of Evolution: Science Fiction, Deep Time and Alien Species.” In Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema, 88-138. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2009.

Doane, Mary Ann, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams. “Feminist Film Criticism: An Introduction.” In Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams. Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1984.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Introduction: Deadly Women, Epistemology, and Film Theory.” In Femmes Fatales, 1-16. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation and the Feminine.” In Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, edited by Sean Redmond, 182-190. London: Wallflower Press, 2004.

Edwards, Kathryn A. “Introduction: Expanding the Analysis of Traditional Belief.” In Werewolves, Witches, and Wandering Spirits: Traditional Belief & Folklore in Early Modern Europe, edited by Kathryn A. Edwards, vii-xxii. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2002.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” In The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader, edited by Fiona Hovenden, Linda Janes, Gill Kirkup and Kathryn Woodward, 50-57. London: Routledge, 2000.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Introduction to 1978 Edition.” In Women in Film Noir, 3rd edition, 15-19. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Ecrits: A Selection, 5th edition, translated by Bruce Fink, 3-9. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.

Osterweil, Ara. “Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female.” Film Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4 (2014): 44-51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2014.67.4.44.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Images of Wonder: The Look of Science Fiction.” In Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, 2nd edition, 64-145. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Stables, Kate. “The Postmodern Always Rings Twice: Constructing the Femme Fatale in 90s Cinema.” In Women in Film Noir, 3rd edition, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, 164-182. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Bio

Alicia Byrnes is a Screen Studies PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She received her M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University, her B.A. Honours in Screen Studies from the University of Melbourne and her BComm in Media from RMIT University. She has previously presented on documentary cinema and her areas of research include feminist film theory, documentary film theory and Suburban Gothic cinema.

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