Empathetic Feminist Cinema: How Sex, Nudity, Mirrors, and Voyeurism Function to Subvert Scopophilic Expectations in Under the Skin

by Claire Asplund

This essay synthesizes Laura Mulvey and Tania Modleski’s feminist film theories to examine Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin as a piece of feminist film that subverts audience expectations in order to indict the male gaze. This results in a discussion of the real dangers of scopophilia and an assertion that empathetic portrayals of the female experience are essential to cinema.

Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror film Under the Skin uses its alluring premise and star to set up the potential for scopophilic spectatorship. It then undercuts and explicitly indicts these attitudes and behaviors using its protagonist’s point of view and progression, the development of its narrative, its visual and thematic motifs, and most of all, by demanding that the viewer’s empathy for the protagonist grows as the protagonist’s empathy for humans grows. This film has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misused. But by watching it carefully and analyzing it through a lens synthesized from feminist film theories, its uniquely balanced and empathetic feminist morals come to light.

When treated with the process of Hegelian dialectic, Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and Modleski’s response to it, “The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window” reach a more balanced feminist lens through which to view and assess films and their portrayals of women. When a film can engage with both feminist lenses healthily and actively to show the grey space, the problems, the reality, and the solutions, then is synthesized the new argument towards empathetic feminist cinema. According to Laura Mulvey, films merely objectify women for the sake of the voyeuristic male audience. Tania Modleski, on the other hand, insists we reinterpret: we must understand how some films visually and narratively empower female characters, and we should not condemn women for occupying the niche allowed to them by the patriarchy. But Mulvey is pessimistic to believe that scopophilia is so inherent to film, and Modleski is perhaps being flippant and casual; not all films can be reinterpreted to show their feminist subtexts, because currently more films have a misogynistic subtext than not. Under the Skin introduces an example of a more complete and balanced cinema of feminist empathy because it is a synthesis of Mulvey and Modleski’s theories, portraying to its spectators truth about the negative, positive, and complicated aspects of the female experience, while simultaneously subverting misogynistic traditions of cinema in an indictment of the male gaze.

Jonathan Glazer directed Under the Skin in 2013. It is loosely based on Michel Faber’s science fiction novel by the same name. The film takes place in and was filmed in Scotland. None of the characters have names, and most of the characters were played by non-actors, several of whom who were filmed with hidden cameras, their lines of dialogue actually unscripted conversation. It is important to address the way this film was advertised and received by audiences. The commercial and critical reactions to this film are revealing of a problem—Under the Skin is being misinterpreted as a film condoning or even welcoming scopophilia. For instance, the A24 trailer synopsis reads, “A voluptuous woman of unknown origin (Scarlett Johansson) combs the highways in search of isolated men, luring lost souls into an otherworldly lair.” While this is partially the plot of Under the Skin, both this synopsis and the trailer it describes are strangely misleading, putting an emphasis on the apparently sexual aspects of the piece and promising titillation along the way. How is this advertisement strange or misleading? The film is, after all, rated R for graphic nudity and sexual content (and some violence and language), and it features full-frontal nudity from Scarlett Johansson, a modern Hollywood sex symbol who has been hallowed in magazines and idolized on the Internet for a decade. But the commercial emphasis on these details promises nothing more than a provocative skinflick, something Under the Skin is emphatically and fundamentally not. The review site quips are also dishearteningly unconcerned with the implications of its content; Indiewire called the film, “A strangely erotic and unnerving performance unlike anything Johansson has done before” and Deborah Kennedy of Willamette Week wrote, “The lack of clarity is part of the film’s appeal. Under the Skin stubbornly refuses to explain itself, letting Johansson’s voluptuous body do the talking” (Kennedy). Video comments and user reviews, a rudimentary litmus test for the scruples and taste levels of audiences, reveal the regrettably expected. Somehow we have been so socially conditioned under the perspiring influence of the male gaze that even the most disparaging assessments of the film include as a caveat Johansson’s body. This is what Mulvey says film does to women. She is not wrong. More often than not females in film are sexually objectified and narratively passive. The inequality of gender representations is shameful and dangerous. Spectatorship will exacerbate misogyny as long as audiences stay uneducated. At this point in time, all material can and will be abused. With all this information in mind, I doubt Mulvey would ever want to see the film, much less endorse Under the Skin as a worthwhile piece of feminist art. But I believe this public reaction—misinterpretations and inappropriate, out-of-context leering—is bitterly ironic and indicting when the film is read carefully and accurately.

The most immediate, formal, and narrative subversion this film employs is its protagonist. The film is from the perspective of the alien, which is “female” and remarkably detached, and as such functions as a direct counter to scopophilia. It instead functions to invite the audience to identify with Johansson’s character, and to observe as she observes. Her growth into an empathetic being is essential to the growth of the spectator, and despite the actress’s reputation for sex appeal, empathy, not titillation, is the real achievement in this film. She is beautiful, because she is Scarlett Johansson. But often the coldly natural lighting from the rainy Scotland sky greys her face and emphasizes its divots, bumps, and bags. The film insists this tone throughout. Under the Skin has none of the codes or cues of the erotica it is misinterpreted as. In fact, its aesthetic is most often sparse, grimy, cold, detached, and ambiguous—codes of the horror genre in which it resides. There is no gloss in this film (actually, the glossiest thing to speak of are frightening images: the black mirror of goo into which the men wade; the alien’s shining pupil constructed in the first minute of the film, and the obsidian core which lies under Johansson’s deceptive exoskeleton). Its score is haunting, muffled, decaying, a repetition of the same strained refrain and a rhythm almost like exhalation. Under the Skin stays elusive and unsettling from beginning to end. It keeps us at arm’s length for the first half of the film. No characters have names. Some of the plot points are deliberately vague, and at least interpretable, if not inconclusive. But by reading into the film language, the most important themes about voyeurism, beauty, sexuality, gender roles, humanity, identity, empathy, and rape present themselves, able to be arranged into scores of significant and weighty theses.

This film has four visual, thematic, and narrative motifs that seem to be overtly inviting dialogue with existing feminist film theory. These motifs are beautifully intertwined in their usages and their interpretations. The subjects of mirrors and looking, nudity and sex are the basis of Under the Skin’s teardown of scopophilic expectations and the building blocks of its empathetic feminist agenda.

The most prevalent motif in Under the Skin is that of looking and being looked at, watching and being watched. The film opens with the abstracted construction of a humanoid body. As a black pupil is slowly aligned within a rod, a female voice sounds out vowels, consonants, and words. The eye is a lens and a projector. It reflects and absorbs. It represents identity, consciousness, humanness, and, in the case of Johansson’s character, a disguise. This introductory imagery cues the audience into the discussion of spectatorship and voyeurism the film wants to have.

The mirror motif, a modification of the looking motif, accomplishes three things: it points out the danger of the male gaze; it signifies the protagonist’s evolution (with each turning point, she looks at herself in a different, fuller way); and ultimately, it opens discussion about the relationship between humanness, identity, and empathy. Mirrors signify and literally function for self-reflection. The first time Johansson’s character has a mirror experience is when she has stolen the clothing from the discarded woman who appears to be dead or dying. She exchanges a glance with the prostrate mannequin, completely void of compassion. Inexplicably, this woman’s face resembles Johansson’s, and though she silently weeps, Johansson shows neither recognition nor emotion. At this point she is the active, aggressive taker and looker. Her alienness makes it impossible for her to feel sympathy. In the next portion of the film, having just visited the mall to investigate what is expected of her as female human, Johansson applies coral lipstick using a compact mirror in the driver’s seat of her van. This signifies the surface level of her disguise and her humanity, as well as her calculated nature as seductress. Then her hunt begins.

In a montage of point-of-view shots, Johansson drives around the streets of Scotland. She stares out with apathetic, emotionlessness concentration. The camera always follows men. Its POV shots carefully and coldly inspect males of every age, class, and race. (In an intriguing production note, this portion of the film was actually comprised of unscripted footage captured on a hidden camera. The film is, in fact, partially a documentary of unguarded and unaware people.) Her voyeuristic power becomes her sexual power, and using a practiced helplessness and charm, she entices men to come to her home with her.

The alien leads her “victims” into a dark space, the floor of which is a glossy, black expanse, mirror-like but physically absorbent; they drown inside of this mirror while pursuing her. I interpret this imagery as an overt reference to Lacan. In their pursuit of sexual gratification, these men are caught in an impossible physical manifestation of the mirror stage, a limbo between recognition and misrecognition, reality and fantasy. Laura Mulvey uses Lacan’s mirror stage as a metaphor for film and the cinematic experience, explicitly commenting on the cultural misogyny of male spectators projecting their sexual desires onto the objectified females they see on screen. This practice is indicted in Under the Skin when the protagonist’s victims, male scopophiliacs, instinctively follow Johansson’s body until they are hopelessly submerged in the extraterrestrial goo. Furthermore, Johansson’s character never looks at her victims as they slip away, expressing not only the disconnect between the alien and humanity, but also the disconnect between the viewer and the viewed, which disconnect is part of the dangerous irrationality of the voyeuristic male gaze.

One of the most chilling sequences occurs when Johansson is pursuing a diver on a grey beach. Nearby, a young family has a crisis as their pet dog gets caught in the waves, and then as the mother tries to rescue it, followed by the father. Their toddler screams on the shore, totally abandoned and too helpless to ever survive. The alien watches from a distance with a shaky camera POV shot and the sociopathic objectivity of a nature show documentary, and she leaves.

The female protagonist’s looking and watching during the first half of the film is occasionally interrupted by instances of her being gazed at. She asks men if they think she is pretty, aware that this is significant, and hopeful that it is true, because her extraterrestrial profession of skin harvesting relies on it. She subverts the male gaze that she does not fully understand, turning her victims’ scopophilia into their death wish, and they take the audience with them as they sink. But as a naïve alien who has until this point been successfully playing the traditionally male role of the active and sexual protagonist, she is not privy to the social and cultural oppression that the world has only begun to nudge her with. A man at a club pursues her incessantly. While stuck in traffic, a stranger sends her a rose. When driving through a parking lot at night, her van is mobbed by men, aggressively telling her to get out and come with them. She is in danger, but she is too new to know it.

A major shift in character occurs when Johansson picks up a man with neurofibromatosis. The process of looking and being looked at changes. When she coaxes him into her van, she looks at the deformed man differently because he is different, while he can barely bring himself to look at her because he has never expected to be treated kindly, or viewed with anything but disgust, much less with apparently romantic interest from a gorgeous stranger. Their conversation still has the trappings of a calculated allure, but she speaks with the man in a different way than we have seen her do before. For the first time, looking is not just icy assessment with the intention to seduce. Looking is empathy. She takes him to her lair, and the mating ritual begins as we have seen many times before. But she does not complete the procedure; instead, she lets him go. It is after this interaction that Johansson looks at herself in a mirror hanging on the wall in her home. At the beginning of the film, she was able to hold her humanity in the palm of her hand in the form of a compact mirror. Her self-view has expanded because of the mercy she showed the man with neurofibromatosis, and this is represented in the larger mirror that she looks in. This motif develops with the protagonist’s development. She runs away after releasing the deformed victim, frightened that her superior (a silent motorcyclist who checks in on her occasionally) will punish her. The protagonist receives compassion and protection from the kind man who takes her in when she is lost, cold, and frightened. Johansson looks into a full-length mirror at this point and examines her body. Her self-reflection encompasses all of her now, indicating a psychological and emotional fullness. Her capacities for human empathy have become whole now that she can see her whole body. The relationship with the kind man turns into a mutually empathetic one which is deep enough to become romantic, the genuine essence of the actions she so coldly performed at the beginning of the film.

The protagonist, an alien disguised as a beautiful woman, always presents the perspective of a woman’s body both while looking and being looked at; but through her alienness, it presents a detached and cold point-of-view that progresses into something that has understanding and sympathy. Rather than project our ego onto the protagonist’s so that we might identify with him and objectify what he objectifies, Under the Skin has lead us to the place where our spectatorship has become synonymous to Johansson’s perspective, which is incomplete, alien, and female, and it supplicates us to empathize with others of all kinds.

The use of nude bodies is usually a cinematic decision with a singularly scopophilic purpose, too often perpetuating the contemptible idea that women’s value comes from their being looked at more than anything else. But the nudity motif is used in Under the Skin for more purposes than simply appealing to the voyeuristic expectations of its audiences. A passive viewer expecting a piece of erotica can misinterpret the film as pornographic and pleasurable, but in doing so the film itself indicts them for misconstruing its messages. At the same time, Under the Skin also works to counter the Mulvey-esque viewer. Its plurality of tones and situations and its almost continuous subversion of expectations speak against making any simple evaluation about sexual content in films, or the implications of women’s bodies and how they are used.

In the opening sequence a motorcyclist picks up a woman’s body from the side of the road and puts her in the back of a van. The interior of the van is a blank white space where Scarlett Johansson quickly takes the woman’s clothes off and puts them on herself. As Johansson works, she is completely naked, but matter-of-factly, and with no glamour or posturing. This detachment and objectivity is indicative of the character’s alienness. The unsettling nature of the scene also clues the audience in to the fact that this film is not going to be titillating in the way they may have anticipated. The lighting and framing obscure the details of the protagonist’s body, but it is not a coquettish withholding—it is a narrative de-emphasis, and an aesthetic statement of tone. This scene is decidedly nonsexual. The film never seeks to flirt. At this point, it seeks to frighten. By the end of the sequence, Johansson is dressed and staring indifferently at the other woman, who is now nude herself, a stiff, strange, pale twist of a corpse who sheds a tear.

The next time Johansson’s nude body is visually emphasized is when she plays the role of seductress. She takes off her own clothes when she coaxes the men into the black expanse of her lair and leads them from a distance, which shows that in this realm, she has full control of her body. Her autonomy is never violated because before the men can catch up to her, they are already sinking. She is given the sexual power here, as well as a physical power that is nothing if not extraterrestrial; the nude, eager men slip into the mirror floor and get caught there like insects in amber as she walks away freely above the surface, unclothed but untouched, her mission accomplished. Her victims are clearly experiencing sexual pleasure from looking, and her body is being used to lure, but the expectation for consummation and sexual pleasure is subverted by danger, horror, and absence. I interpret this as simultaneously a provocation and a direct indictment of the male gaze. Since spectators tend to project their own egos on the male characters they see on screen, the result is potentially a shared obliviousness and insane sexual optimism, which gets both sets of males, the fictional and the real, literally and symbolically trapped and harvested when they follow Johansson’s naked body into the abyss. This is a complicated employment of nudity. She is objectified, but purposefully so, and while maintaining narrative and sexual power, the film dares its viewers to misunderstand her beckoning.

But Mulvey’s ideas about male-female portrayals are further complicated when the motif of nudity in Under the Skin is subverted to make an argument about human empathy. In real life interactions between men and women, there is multiplicity and plurality. Lots of films ignore this truth, insisting instead that these relationships align with male/active and female/passive binaries, and that these relationships also tend to be sexual (and thus, will probably result in problematic representations in the cinema). When Johansson’s character is lost, cold, and vulnerable for the first time, however, a bus driver worries she might catch a cold, and a kind man gives her a coat and a place to stay. In this part of the narrative, interactions with men means more layers to wear, lent out of genuine concern for her wellbeing. This proves that Under the Skin does not have a singularly negative view of men. It does not suppose that the male gaze is always sexual, objectifying, and destructive. In this case, the observations of men helped to protect the protagonist.

When the kind man on the bus takes her home with him, he brings her a cup of tea, sets up the heater in her bedroom, and tells her goodnight. After the cut, Johansson approaches a full-length mirror in shadows, lit red from the little heater. She is naked. She bends her knees, flexes her toes, turns to look at her back. She inspects herself with a childlike curiosity. We are allowed to intrude into this personal moment of bodily discovery if we remember that this is her moment, not ours. This use of nudity is so quiet and gentle that gawking is clearly not welcome; here, she seems to associate her nude body with her humanity for the first time.

The love scene is the next time unclothed bodies are presented. For the first time, Johansson does not undress herself; in a gesture of vulnerability, trust, and real romantic interest, she allows the man to undress her. She has a smile on her face, gentle, and a little distant, but more a genuine expression of emotion than she has previously seemed capable of. His kindness and companionship have led to this moment. The score here is different for the first time, still a repeated string glissando, buzzy and a little distorted, but without the ominous beat, and more melodic—an alien version of a romantic theme. In dimly lit, fuzzy, warm close-ups, they kiss each other, the camera intimate. (It seems important to note that an unusual equality is achieved in Under the Skin. We see nude men as often as we see a nude Johansson, and with the same objectivity. These bodies are probably not received with the same interest by the audience, but that is due to Johansson’s femaleness and her notorious sex appeal. The spectator might treat the nude characters differently, but the film does not.)

Sex is a motif inherently associated with nudity. But as revealed in the previous paragraphs, though the promise of sex is quite nearly a narrative constant in this film, Under the Skin is actually free from sex completely. The aforementioned scenes are sexual situations, indubitably. But because they are not “consummated,” the film demonstrates that the concepts and personal practices of promiscuity and seduction, bodily familiarity, intimacy, and rape do not have to involve a traditionally expected and socially acceptable end result of sexual “consummation.” This deepens and complicates arguments about sexuality and challenges social structures that insist on defining sex and rape and love as one thing and not another. It is simultaneously another mechanism of cinematic subversion. The expectation for sex to follow nudity is a Pavlovian response to the visual codes established by an image-driven society. So, with the intent of resisting scopophilic fetishes and fixations, Under the Skin withholds and shows us what we have been conditioned not to anticipate.

Just because the protagonist does not technically have sex with the men she picks up does not mean that she does not lure them into a terrifying destruction—this film argues that there is danger in looking; the male gaze has repercussions in the world of Under the Skin. It is possible that in this scenario, Johansson represents pornography or any other scopophilic material. She plays the role of a beautiful, distant, unattainable but irresistible promise of sexual fulfillment. It is not sex that harms these men; it is the pursuit of something gazed at.

The film does more than warn, it redeems. The alien’s interaction with the man with neurofibromatosis affects her in such a way that she chooses to release him, and then chooses to run away, foregoing the violent, sexual ritual which she had been assigned to carry out as many times as possible. The narrative understands her; just because she did those things at one point does not render her incapable of change. What might be labeled as a character trait of sexual promiscuity (despite her intentions, her awareness of the situation, her alienness, and the actual facts of her so-called “seductions”) is abandoned because her experiences have changed her thinking. She somehow understands the weight of sexuality now, and her next interaction of this nature is completely different.

The love scene with the kind man is the first (and only) positive representation of sex in the film. They attempt to have sex, but something is not working. With a look of confusion Johansson bolts upright and scoots to the end of the bed, grabs a lamp and examines herself. The music cuts and the man and the audience wonder what is wrong. Being an alien, there is something about Johansson’s character’s physiology that makes sex impossible. (In fact, in an earlier scene, when she orders a piece of cake only to choke on the first bite and spit it out, the implication that I interpreted was that she does not have real orifices.) It is a surprising moment, wholly subverting the cinematic tendency to idealize sex. A close up of her profile, shaking slightly, eyes wide, shows that she is affected. This is not a casual experience free of repercussions. It is sincere, but it is also complicated and confusing, and it ends abruptly.

The variety in the narrative’s sexual encounters is significant. They function to increase the protagonist’s capacity for and understanding of humanity and help her to change into an empathetic being. These scenes communicate rebellion against unhealthy expectations about sexuality and sexual experiences, in both film and real life situations.

Mirrors and looking, sex and nudity—all four of these motifs culminate in the sorrowful, frightening climax of the film. After finding herself incapable of accomplishing the physical function of sex with the first human for whom she has learned affection, Johansson has run into the forest in fear and confusion, looking for solitude. A forest ranger approaches her. He warns her about the slipperiness, he tells her to be careful, he asks if she is alone. This interaction echoes the one with the bus driver, implying this new stranger’s sincerity and concern. But she is deceived. She finds a bothy to sleep in, a strange refuge for hikers, walkers, wanderers, an indoor place so ancient that it feels outdoors, with exception of the brightly colored things left behind and the cold white neon lights. She zips up her wet, large, jacket (speaking directly against victim-blaming rhetoric which accuses rape victims for the choice of clothing they wear) and scoots herself along the dirty floor to sleep, small and alone in a corner. Johansson awakes when a muddy hand gropes her. She jolts upright and runs. In a terrifying sequence of identical framing and identical cutting, the forester catches up to her, and the original musical score returns in a horrifying role reversal of predator and prey, victim and villain. Their frames converge and he pins her to the forest floor. They wrestle. She struggles. He chews gum as he rips her clothing apart, and in the film’s final brush with nakedness, her bare skin is not sexiness; it is defenselessness. She stares up for a moment as the sky begins to snow. A whole new level of nudity is achieved when her human epidermis is violently torn under the hands of her would-be rapist. Her original form, a featureless obsidian creature, limps away when the forester bolts in fear and disgust. The black alien holds its fleshy exoskeleton disguise in its arms, and Johansson’s human face blinks back, broken and separated pieces of self looking at each other, a final mirror for the loss of humanity and the destruction of a soul.

Then, according to Mulvey’s ideas about spectatorship, the projections of our narcissistic egos encounter a damning bait-and-switch. In a menacing handheld point-of-view shot, we, the spectators, become the thwarted rapist and the determined murderer approaching. He, the forester, and we, by proxy, douse gasoline on the featureless victim, betraying the protagonist whose skin we were only just occupying. Johansson’s black body burns. The ash floats upward as the snow begins to fall.

This final employment of uncovered bodies is sexual in nature, but the frightening sexuality, the most intimate kind of harm and hurt. When this despicable goal is denied, a man kills a woman. This is despite her narrative power, her sex appeal, her sexuality, her growing humanity, and the experiences that taught her empathy. This shift solemnly reminds us that our actions, our beliefs, and our spectatorship can harm women, including the women we have come to know and trust.

As proved by some of the reaction to Under the Skin, Mulvey is correct to be wary of scopophilia and the dangerous power of the male gaze. Cultural misogyny is so omnipresent that until spectators become more educated about feminism and equality, even intentionally subversive works like this one will likely be misused and misinterpreted. In empathetic feminist cinema, the truthful situation about commonplace oppression of women works together with the truth about the plurality of the female experience, both positive and negative, particularly in regards to male-female relationships. There is variety and richness and multiplicity, sorrows, joys, and complications, and cinematic representations of these truths require subversion of scopophilic tropes. Both Mulvey and Modleski agree that there ought to be more active female characters with visual and narrative power. In empathetic feminist cinema, female protagonists can help audience members gain empathy towards women and their experiences, since the projection of the spectator’s ego is placed in the perspective of a woman and is then able to with the scope of her identity and the scope of her experiences.

When viewed as a careful whole, Under the Skin achieves a sublimely empathetic clarion call. It carefully and sincerely expresses many sides and angles to ideas about sexuality, gender roles, bodies, etc., but ultimately it undercuts scopophilic expectations in order to portray the perspective of a complicated and victimized woman, declaring that sex politics as they currently stand are not working to protect, understand, or fully value women. In response to Mulvey, the female protagonist is a multidimensional character, shifting, hard to define, but important and active, and always more than just an objectified shell of a sexualized body. Her looking becomes our looking, and her looked-at-ness is a crucial and indicting part of her experience instead of a pleasurable part of the male spectator’s. In accordance with Modleski, the sexuality and niche femininity of Johansson’s character also contribute to the depth of her identity, but the narrative and form of Under the Skin make it clear that the female identity is riddled with certain misogynistic societal oppressions that can only be overcome by empathy.

Bibliography

Kennedy, Deborah. “Under the Skin.” Review. Willamette Week [Portland, OR] 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2014

Modleski, Tania. The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window. Film Theory & Criticism. 7th ed. New York City: Oxford UP, 2009. 723-735. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory & Criticism. 7th ed. New York City: Oxford UP, 2009. 711-722. Print.