Clearly, if life from another planet ever came to earth, it would be a sexy female alien wanting to fuck you to death. Kristen Cochrane looks back at the femme fetale alien trope in film, and how Under the Skin flipped the script and harnessed the “alien gaze” ;)
~!~SPOILER ALERT FOR THE FILM AND BOOK UNDER THE SKIN~!~
Despite being written in 1985, it seems like Donna Haraway’s watershed essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” is more popular than ever, especially with the expanse of contemporary discourses on both gender and cyborg theory (e.g. are we cyborgs if we have extensions of our self, like iPhones and laptops, to increase our productivity?). And considering that the currrent cultural conversation is so focused on questions of the human self, and where one can fall on various continuums of gender and desire, perhaps the next questions is: What about the subjectivity of the alien?
Have you ever noticed that depictions of aliens in movies, TV and literature are often scary-yet-sexy females? Like the trope of the evil bisexual, or that of the “slut” who always dies in the end of a horror film, the alien cinema subgenre of science fiction invariably features a femme fatale archetype. Does this say anything about how we view women in our contemporary society? Or how we view the “Other,” whether it is someone of another nationality or someone with a sexual orientation or gender identity different to our own (among many other examples).
In recent theoretical and critical history (i.e. where we look back and think about whether certain characterizations or representations are damaging to social progress), the femme fatale has been seen as a negative stereotype. In cultural works, the femme fatale has been dangerous, but also sexual, which then forged a link between strong, sexual women and danger. However, more recently we are realizing that the femme fatale character can actually hold a lot of potential for social and sexual emancipation. Fundamentally, the femme fatale doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if we use it in a way where the power flows from the female character’s perspective and experience. If the femme fatale has control, agency, and dignity, is it still a socially problematic and harmful characterization? Maybe not.
Alicia Byrnes argues that Jonathan Glazer’s arthouse thriller film Under the Skin (2013) highlights this possibility. In Under the Skin, an unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland in a van, picking up male hitchhikers, and taking them to a surreal, black setting where they sink into an abyss. It’s all very metaphorical. However the film is adapted from Michel Faber’s book of the same name, which answers all the questions that the film didn’t. The book employs the subjectivity of Isserley, the unnamed woman in the film adaptation, but it also alternates narrative viewpoints of the men she picks up In the book, Isserley’s physical attributes are vastly different from Scarlett Johansson—she is a patchworked human who is described as unattractive by the men she picks up. Isserley has very large breasts, and the men spend a lot of time deliberating on them during their internal monologues, often in lurid and salacious detail.
One of the many narrative circumstances that the film does not explain is that Isserley has been contracted to lure physically fit men to be consumed as a delicacy on the extraterrestrial planet she’s from. The human meat that is being harvested is highly valuable—think caviar—and only the upper classes of her planet can afford it.
Glazer’s film also leaves out the degradation that Isserley suffers in this high risk job. Not only has her body been degraded by painful plastic surgery to resemble what her planet’s denizens thought human men would find attractive, but she is physically and sexually assaulted on one of her journeys. The description of her sexual assault is candid and horrendous. Almost equally unpleasant is the horror of how they feed and fatten up the human men before sending them to the mother planet.
With a posh southern English accent, the unnamed character drives a van around the Scottish highlands and speaks to local non-actors who become part of the film’s universe.
While the book uses other strategies and devices to illustrate pockets of Isserley’s own autonomy and agency (which I really do not want to spoil because the book is highly compelling), the film adaptation proves fruitful in re-assessing the so-called negativity of the femme fatale archetype. Film scholar Alicia Byrnes writes:
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.
What Byrnes argues is what Michel Faber’s book cannot convey—where the point-of-view angle is used to show where the unnamed woman (or Isserley) looks. And Glazer’s use of a cinéma vérité method of using local non-actors with a hidden camera angle helps exhibit the surprise that the men exhibit when a woman (especially one who looks like Scarlett Johansson) speaks to them and shows an interest in their lives. She’s friendly in a subdued way, she asks where they live, and she asks what they do for work. It reverses traditional, heteronormative gender performances, and subsequently suggests that something is amiss.
The filming confirmed this sense of unease. In an interview with io9, director Jonathan Glazer said that “Scarlett’s character is made to attract men,” but that when she would talk to random men and try to pick them up, for the most part, the men didn’t react “in the way you would expect if you were to write this as a piece of comic-book fiction. Scarlett Johansson pulls up, [and] in you get… some were suspicious. Some were wary. Some were frightened. You see a whole range of complexity of how men do respond to that scenario.”
For an expert opinion, I asked my film scholar friend Guillaume Potvin. He’s seen, like, every movie, and I’ve always seen him as the kind of person who is pro-feminist and actually does something about it rather than just bragging that he’s a “feminist.”
Guillaume told me that he’s never seen the alien femme fetale trope done as well as in Under the Skin, and can only think of the 1995 film Species as using this trope in the same way. The problem, he said, is that science fiction films almost always have a recurring trope where men are preyed upon by a monstrous, sexy, femme fatale. Meanwhile, the sexy female alien character is often undressed for heterosexual male viewing pleasure. “Under the Skin works from a male viewer’s stance because it’s Scarlett Johansson, but it denies you any kind of viewing pleasure because it’s so creepy,” Guillaume told me, “which goes to show how the only way we can conceive of a female character who reverses the gaze is by having it come from another planet.
While the Michel Faber book is more explicit in how and why Isserley stalks men as prey and then kills them, the film adaptation uses a more artistic, surreal exposition
Film and gender scholar Ara Osterweil has argued that science fiction is inevitably a genre that is about Otherness, but that “the smartest examples of the genre also reveal something essential about the world we live in.” Under the Skin could be read as a treatise on many topics, but Osterweil believes that the film (and by extension, the book) is really a meditation on femininity:
Under the Skin advances a radical proposition: to be female is to be alien. As the film eventually reveals, all of the aforementioned questions are inextricable from gender. In spite of the fact that the appearance of sex may only be skin deep, even alien forms of life become subject to misogynist violence when they are gendered female.
Osterweil’s argument highlights how female aliens are frequently sexualized in a gross, exploitative way. While researching this essay, I Googled “female aliens in film.” The first page of results listed ten results — nine of them were listicles on the “10 hottest female aliens,” which lends credence to Osterweil’s claim that the archetypes of the science fiction genre (like gendered aliens), reveals the ongoing gender roles that are prescribed to us, IRL. Put differently, when aliens are male, they are just aliens. But when aliens are female, they are hot, sexy aliens. Which is fine, but until we see some hot sexy alien dude listicles, it looks like the most amenable strategy to this disparity is to make clever use of the femme fatale as a political tool of subverting the male gaze. If Under the Skin can execute it befittingly, then there’s hope for the science fiction genre.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.