How Under the Skin Took a Challenging Look at Womanhood

The first time we see the nameless protagonist of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin she’s stripping a dead woman of her clothes so that she can wear them herself. By the film’s end we discover that her flesh itself is more garment than organ, concealing an ink-skinned alien being. Her nature is inscrutable, a multi-layered performance uncertain in motivation, goal, and feeling. What the audience sees amounts to little more than ripples on the surface of a being fundamentally unknowable to them. 

In many ways the fragmented, seemingly contradictory layers of the creature resemble the delicate balancing act of learning and performing feminine identity. First there is the woman as a performed archetype — the woman as culture understands her — then the underlying individual psyche with its own unique points of connection to the outer self, and finally the woman as an object in the eyes of others. Under the Skin inspects femininity not as one thing or one experience but as a collage of images and interactions constantly undergoing demolition, rewriting, and censure. It’s one of film’s most complicated and challenging looks at the foundations of womanhood.

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The Performed Feminine

The film’s first act follows Johansson’s character — named in the credits as “the female” — as she attempts to pick up a series of men with the goal of luring them to abandoned buildings where she is able to lead them to a featureless black space called the Void. The female’s tactics are understated. She relies on her appearance and the enticement of her openness to draw men in, asking them trivial questions about their lives — perhaps to make herself seem insubstantial and unthreatening, perhaps to identify victims unlikely to be missed. This self is entirely outwardly oriented. The female displays minimal emotion outside the pursuit of her purpose. She is less real when not performing.

The film’s first third is devoted to the female’s long, aimless conversations with men and her attempts to sort through them for desirable victims. She dresses herself and does her makeup without apparent emotion. She leaves her prey to drown in the featureless blackness of the Void without a word, undressing perfunctorily as she lures them onward. She is bait for something bigger. An anglerfish’s glowing lure. Is that greater beast the predatory nature of heterosexuality? The pursuit and abuse of feminine bodies? The architecture of the nuclear family, the Void a kind of womb, the ritual of seduction and consumption a vicious metaphor for marriage? Any answers, if they exist, are hidden behind her facade.

The Interior Feminine

Concealed within the camouflage of the female’s purpose is that purpose’s true object. Here the film employs its most ambiguous and violent images. Hollow sacks of skin drifting limp under the surface of the Void. A conveyor belt loaded with unprocessed meat and wet with sloshing blood which carries the remains of the female’s prey into some unknown foundry, or perhaps an organ. These are not the processes of the female’s own body, but they are the end result of what she spends her every waking moment doing. As such they have the clearest connection to her inner life and emotional state.

The female’s first glimmer of confusion and independent action comes when she picks up a deformed man walking to the grocery store at night. At first their conversation is identical to those she held with previous victims, but it soon tilts toward the subject of the man’s loneliness and the hate directed against him when he appears in public during the day. Her pity for the man leads her to spare him, and to the complete collapse of her persona. The system supporting that persona turns immediately against her, unable to cope with her merciful act. The first sign of her true self, the self least permissable for a woman to display, leads directly to pursuit and murder.

The Desolate Feminine

As the motorcyclist who has been her handler kills the deformed man to cover her tracks and then sets off in apparent pursuit of the female, she leaves her van and her enigmatic mission behind and sets off into the Scottish countryside. From this point on she no longer speaks. She is shown, like a short-lived summer moth, to be unable to eat. In this third act she is defined almost solely by the perceptions of others, namely men. She takes minimal action. She displays little emotion. She is a thing to be acted upon — a familiar state for women.

Fear seems to be her only recognizable driver. She flees the home of a man who at first cares for her after finding her alone and disoriented on a bus, then attempts to have sex with her. She flees from a rapist who finds her sleeping in a hiker’s lodge in the woods. Only when her disguise tears when he grabs at her does she stop running, kneeling in the forest to peel away her false skin and turn it over in her hands. The thing within inspects the woman without. This is the state in which she is destroyed. Her self-knowledge is abhorrent to the man who moments before sought to penetrate her body. She is monstrous to him not because she poses a threat, but because she has revealed something he cannot understand. She is monstrous because she exists.

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