Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Alienation of Female Sexuality

Female sexuality has always been a controversial topic to depict on film. Some feminists, such as Bonnie Sherr Klein and Catherine A. MacKinnon, have accused pornography of “objectifying” women, and argue that any form of sex depicted involving women is produced exclusively for a “male gaze”. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin provides a strong rebuttal to this notion in an unusual way—offering an outsider’s perspective. By casting the sexually curious female as an alien from another planet—literally alienating both her and, by extension, the viewer—Glazer allows us to step out of our own social constraints and look at the picture as a whole.

Under the Skin centers around an extra-terrestrial played by Scarlett Johansson; unnamed in the film but given the name of Isserly in the original book. She arrives in Scotland, her true form concealed inside the body of an attractive young woman. Under the employment of a mysterious man on a motorcycle (played by Grand Prix champion Jeremy McWilliams), Isserly is tasked with seducing men who are then lured into an old house where they are drowned in a black fluid that breaks down their bodies. As Isserley spends time living among humans on Earth, she begins to question her own purpose and, growing comfortable in her new skin, tries to become human. However, despite her efforts, the film constantly reminds us that she is not of this world, and questions just what it means to be “human”.

Throughout the film, Isserley is constantly, and literally, alienated from the world around her. To the average viewer, Scarlett Johansson stands out as she is the only recognizable name to appear (though motorcycle enthusiasts may be more familiar with Jeremy McWilliams). The rest of the cast consists of a mix of unknown actors and random people on the street with whom she interacts in character, unaware that they are in a film or talking to a world-renowned actress. A recurring motif throughout the film is her walking against the crowd, always facing the opposite direction of the movie’s extras and thus displaying a lack of conformity, making her constantly stand out.

By both literally and figuratively alienating the central character, the film also alienates the viewer and places them in a position to experience an alien perspective on the world around her, and in particular the idea of sex. The protagonist experiments in various ways of seducing men, but does it less out of pleasure and more in a machine-like routine way. She lures men to their doom not because of any actively malicious intent, but simply because that is her job (presumably overseen by the motorcyclist).

The first time the heroine finds herself experiencing any real pleasure is when she encounters a deformed man suffering from Neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson). Upon encountering this man, she finds herself drawn to him and, upon finding out that he has no friends, invites him to touch her body. During this scene, Isserley challenges the claims of MacKinnon and Klein that sex on film is purely intended for a male gaze by seducing a man with a visible deformity, an act which causes the audience feel uncomfortable, making it clear that this is not for anyone's exclusive pleasure.

The idea of pleasure in sex is something Isserley sees as completely alien and struggles to comprehend, as is notable when she finally experiences real sex after being taken in by a friendly young man. During this scene, the protagonist appears to act indifferent while her friend experiences pleasure, though she herself does appear to eventually start to feel something during their intimate moment. When the man removes Isserley’s pants, while she tries to help him, displaying a sense of confusion as though the entire process is new to her. The man then climbs on top of her, seemingly in control. Isserly’s expression seems to suggest that she is feeling something, but is unsure what. In another close-up on the man’s hand, he begins to remove more of her clothes.

As the two embrace, the protagonist's expression starts to suggest that she is experiencing pleasure, but finds herself confused. She pushes aside the man, moves toward the edge of the bed, and shines a lamp into her vagina, apparently checking to see if something has happened. The man stares at her in confusion and says “you don’t like it?” She simply throws aside the lamp, apparently having seen no change in her genitals. Both she and the man are confused about what has just happened. Isserly is confused about having found pleasure in sex, while the man is puzzled by her being unsure about liking it.

In her documentary film, Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, director Bonnie Sherr Klein takes the stance that pornography in general is anti-feminist, allegedly because it “objectifies” women for a purely male gaze. Other feminists such as Gayle Rubin argue that the “anti-porn” movements are in fact detrimental to feminism. In reality, pornography is being used as a scapegoat for contemporary social problems, and the real solution is to provide better recognition for female sex workers and encourage more women in the porn industry to move behind the camera and produce films for female audiences.

Rubin's suggestion is not even considered in Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, in which Klein only offers information that furthers her own argument. She cites one specific type of pornography, in which torture is staged, and uses it to argue that all pornographic films are therefore movies are equivalent to snuff films depicting actual abuse of women. No reference is made, for instance, to the work of Barbara Hammer, a lesbian filmmaker who produced pornographic films intended for lesbian audiences as early as 1973, or feminist porn stars like Annie Sprinkle. Though the arguments of both sides are aimed at pornography, their ideas extend beyond a single genre and are relevant to film in general.

The mysterious protagonist of Under the Skin has a child-like attitude toward sex and finds herself curious about it, which draws some parallels to the similar character of Lena (Lena Nyman) in Vilgot Sj√∂man’s 1967 art film I Am Curious (Yellow). Similar to the tragic heroine of Under the Skin, Lena is a young woman curious about and trying to understand sex. She experiments with it through her encounters with various men, and in many of them she is the one responsible for initiating the experience. Lena is a sexually active young woman who challenges the ideas of MacKinnon and Klein by engaging in what they might consider “pornography” and displaying pride in doing so. Under the Skin uses a different approach, by treating sex as something literally alien. By making the protagonist herself an alien struggling to understand it, Jonathan Glazer is able to criticize common attitudes about how sex is often depicted.

I Am Curious (Yellow) provides an early example of a film challenging the ideas of anti-porn activists by presenting a sexually active female lead who “experiments”, fully embracing her sexual encounters and displaying pleasure within them. What distinguishes Under the Skin from I Am Curious (Yellow) is in how it challenges the ideas of Klein and MacKinnon. Instead of simply presenting an attractive woman gaining pleasure from sex, it uses the alien approach to criticize the lack of understanding towards female sexuality.

Unlike Lena, who is precisely the opposite of MacKinnon or Klein’s views on female sexuality, the protagonist of Under the Skin is at first an embodiment of their ideas. She interacts exclusively with men and, at least at first, it is only the men who experience true pleasure during her encounters. Her emotions seem almost forced. When she smiles there is a sense that she is only doing it because she understands she is supposed to, a feeling which constantly reminds the viewer they are not seeing her real face. Every time Isserly lures a man into her house, she puts herself on display for his pleasure, carefully stripping her clothes in a machine-like way. This is precisely in line with how MacKinnon and Klein have interpreted pornography. It starts off resembling the anti-porn claims regarding sex, but gradually shifts to be more in line with opinions expressed by Gayle Rubin.

By having the protagonist represent the ideas of pornography as “objectifying” women for the pleasure of men, Jonathan Glazer is able to demonstrate how confusing this same notion is when she finds herself experiencing sexual pleasure. However, these ideas emerge in a distorted and twisted form, with the female in control and using it to manipulate men. As her quest to become human progresses, she begins to question who she really is—and by extension whether she is capable of enjoying sex. This leads to something of a “sexual awakening” that forces her to question what she sees as “normal”, or—more accurately—MacKinnon and Klein’s distorted ideas of sex in contrast to the reality proposed by Gayle Rubin.

MacKinnon and Klein are convinced that any depiction of sex on film is detrimental to feminism, and that filmmakers are incapable of anything more than displaying women’s bodies for the pleasures of men. Rubin has argued precisely the opposite, suggesting that while there are cases of women being abused in the porn industry, the correct solution to the problem is to promote better treatment of women and produce pornographic films for female audiences, which has happened with filmmakers like Barbara Hammer. By showing both sides through the eyes of an alien, Jonathan Glazer is able to examine their respective views and criticize them through a new perspective.


  1. Very interesting read on a film that is a true shape-shifter. I don't think I'll ever see Under the Skin the same way twice.

    1. Those types of movies can be really interesting. That's what I love about people like David Lynch.

  2. Brilliant piece! Well done. I had problems with the movie eliminating so many things I liked in the book, but this is just written so well. I haven't seen I am Curious (Yellow) but I want to compare it now based on this.

    1. I still haven't read the book, so I can't say anything on that area; but to me the movie was so fascinating in how enigmatic and strange it is.

  3. Well done...John. I love your take on this movie. This movie really challenges the status quo about female sexuality in film. I am also curious about "I am Curious (Yellow). Would like to know more about that.

    1. I am Curious (Yellow) isn't actually a film I'd recommend. It's one of the better European art films I've had to watch but that's not really saying a whole lot.