He Said/She Said: Dissecting the Gender Politics of Under the Skin

By Dear Cast & Crew

Mailed on July 31, 2014

A special Dear Cast & Crew postcard exchange in which Christopher Redmond and Di Golding dissect and determine if there's more than meets the eye to Jonathan Glazer's lats film.

Warning: Contains spoilers.

Dear Di,

After seeing Jonathan Glazer's new art-house/Scarlett Johansson skin-flick Under the Skin, I couldn't stop thinking about you. I mean, come on, a heartless woman preys on men, using her sex appeal to lure lonely souls off the street and feed her seemingly insatiable appetiteā€¦

Wait, let me explain.

From your first review for Dear Cast and Crew, you've been able to call a spade a spade, and a dick a dick. You have a good read for female characters getting sidelined or standing-in for the audience. So help me out. I walked out of Under the Skin feeling, yes, dazzled by its technical achievements, but much more confused about its gender politics. It sure wouldn't pass the Bechdel Test, but worse than that, I think it might be a borderline chauvinistic film. The artistry certainly makes it feel less exploitive than a film like Species, but if we break it down, I think Under the Skin might even be more offensive to women.

I will argue that, but wanted to hear your thoughts first.

Talk to you soon,


Dear Christopher,

Sadly, this is not the first time a ruthless, man-eating character has caused my image to be conjured up, so I'm going to take it as a compliment.

The only thing I knew about this film prior to viewing it was that the men Scarlett Johansson's (unnamed) character lures into her windowless white van were not actors. Glazer filmed them on the sly and got releases after. This, to me, was as fascinating an aesthetic technique as the hyper-stylized lighting and the buzzing, thumping score.

Women who have been harassed on the street by creeps in cars (yes, all women) know the feelings of violation, frustration, and guilt that come from being objectified. Watching Johansson cruise the streets of Scotland, hunting for prey among the unsuspecting young males, I must admit I felt a rush of power. Not that I agree with her motives, but it's rare to see a female character, (outside of soap operas and cartoons) so savage and remorseless. It was almost this feeling of: "See? We can be sociopathic murderers too!"

If anything, I felt the men were being equally exploited here. Glazer's guerilla-style hidden camera trick serves to reinforce the stereotype of men being so intent on getting laid, so lacking in impulse control, that they will literally let their dicks lead them to death.

Eagerly awaiting your reply,


Dear Di,

Okay, so it sounds like you relished the way Under the Skin took the Inglorious Basterds approach to correcting women's historical role of being preyed upon by men. Fair enough! Though I would argue that cinema's long tradition of femme fatales, or even a character like the one Charlize Theron played in Monster, makes it strange that Glazer succumbed to the most basic stereotypes about the sexes to make his point.

For example: what's the very first thing Scarlett Johansson's character does once she assumes her identity as a woman? She goes shopping. Not even for anything useful. She just browses around a mall, as if that's some sort of female primal instinct. She rubs her hands across expensive furs, handles delicate silks, and picks up a bit of make-up. If the film is telling us she's learning what it means to be a woman, it's certainly a man's perspective of what it means to be a woman. Kind of like the way the camera lingers on her ass as she struts between stores, which is probably meant to simulate the male gaze, but instead only indulges it.

I actually think the film was more concerned with creating sympathy for the men. None of them seemed to deserve what was coming. Even the brutal act that occurs against Johansson's character at the end felt like the film's attempt to create catharsis by dispatching the villain. Not a whole lot different than machine gun blasting Hitler in the face.

Dammit, I already invoked Godwin's Law. Does this mean I lose?


Dear Christopher,

I admit I'm not above enjoying a juicy revenge flick! And yes, femme fatales are not a modern concept. However, Theron's serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, was a real person, with a highly publicized backstory and lamentable childhood to inform her choices. And although that doesn't excuse her murderous tendencies, it certainly gives us a broader scope of character that at least attempts to encourage empathy. Johansson's character is born before our very eyes, and is the protagonist of an extraterrestrial bildungsroman. In fact, I would posit that this 21st century female creation is a direct comment on how women are still undermined in our society.

Assuming Johansson's character had to learn about human females from what resources she had available to her - media in print, film and television for instance - it's no wonder her first course of action would be a trip to the mall! Haven't we been told for years that sex sells? Females in film and television are three times more likely to be seen in sexy attire than their male counterparts. If she typed "how to attract men" into a search engine, I doubt it would tell her to cultivate a great sense of humour and a nice personality. As for the lingering ass shot, perhaps Glazer was antagonizing the audience, particularly the males, as if to say, "Yes, she's a heartless psycho with no obvious redeeming qualities, but admit it, you'd still hit that."

Could it be that Glazer was taking a dig at the pervasive culture of victim blaming and shaming with his attempt to create sympathy for Johansson's male prey? Of course they didn't deserve to die, but then maybe they shouldn't have been out at night, or getting into cars with strange women, or wearing baggie pants and hoodies. Geez, it's almost like they asked for it. The third act of the film sees Johansson's attempt at humanization - trying food, learning to trust, engaging in intimacy, communing with nature - and for her trouble, she suffers a horror that seven in ten women have faced. If she wanted an authentic female experience, she unfortunately found it.

Coincidentally, in 2010, while engaging in a year-long shopping abstinence to prove, among other things, that women are complicit in succumbing to media persuasion, I created my own version of Godwin's Law. Called Golding's Law, I theorized that the sooner you get a hyperbolic Nazi/Hitler reference out of the way, the sooner you can get back to intelligent discourse and respectful debate. Just acknowledge the elephant in the room and get on with it.

Word to the wise: steer clear of goose-stepping elephants. And sexy aliens in hot-pants.



Dear Di,

Golding's Law. I can see the Reddit thread now: "Revenge-loving feminist encourages Nazi talk!" I just hope the backlash doesn't touch me. But seriously, I love your take on the reverse victim-blaming. There's probably more to that if we dissect the "sex" scenes in the film.

The climax scenes are - strangely, beautifully - completely sexless. Stranger yet, they're completely joyless. Johansson's character is never allowed to enjoy her sexuality. I think Glazer hoped this would help him avoid turning this into a sexploitation film, but, in the end, it might do something even worse: instead of having ownership over her man-eating tendencies, he frames them as just another compulsion - like needing fur jackets and expensive silks. And becauser of that, the film seems to be saying, in the way it closes, that she's the one who deserves to be punished.

One could argue that rather than understanding the real power of being a woman, she's simply existing as women do in a patriarchal world. But why should she? Can't we assume she's a higher form of intelligence? If not, what's the point of making her non-human? Not just so we can justify a long mirror sequence where Johansson marvels over her own naked body, I hope. Because even though the nudity isn't salacious, there's just as much of it here as there is in Species.

But then again, I am a man, so I shouldn't complain about where I get it from, right?


Dear Christopher,

I conceived the tongue-in-cheek Golding's Law to be used in any discussion, not just those regarding gender, but if the trolls on Reddit so desperately need to be fed, I'm happy to oblige. Just wait til they find out I'm vegan. A feminist/nazi/vegan thread is troll-bait nirvana. It's so perfect they'll think it's a trap.

On the topic of intelligent beings setting traps, even higher life forms need their dirty work done. I saw Johansson's character as a worker bee, a drone sent to do a seemingly simple job which she executes in the most expedient way. Her actions aren't the product of compulsion, but are simply how she completes the tasks she's been assigned. Enjoying sex isn't even a consideration, so why should she have a functioning libido or organs that aren't just for show? It isn't until she walks off the job that she begins to have agency over her decisions.

When Johansson asks her prey, "Do you think I'm pretty?", she's not being coy. She genuinely doesn't know, or even understand why she might be perceived that way. When she stands naked before the mirror and inspects her body, it's like she's trying to decipher a code: _what is it that men find attractive? _It's a question as old as time, and thankfully, for the fashion and beauty industries, there is no right answer.

What makes Johansson's character so compelling is that she's an alien, and not a woman. That she flirts with so many female stereotypes and yet never manages to get the balance right is a reflection of how impossible it is to define womanhood in the 21st century. Had Glazer conceived of the lead role as a male, he'd have delivered yet another misogynistic slasher flick, albeit a pretty one. I'd be willing to wager it wouldn't have been interesting enough to warrant this kind of rollicking exchange.



Dear Di,

No question, Under the Skin is worth dissecting. All this room for interpretation is great, but wouldn't you have appreciated just a little more clarity? A slightly more focused social commentary? I don't think the film would have sacrificed any of its intelligence by giving the audience a bit more of a narrative thread to hold onto, and perhaps a more defined political stance to debate.

Even the fact that she's not human isn't explicit until the last moment. A lot of our discussion has hinged on that understanding, but what's actually "under the skin" certainly isn't what Glazer cares about. If you go in to this film cold, you'd think you were watching My Psycho Sex Vacation in Edinburgh_. _And in a way, I think that's closer to the story Glazer wants to tell. As soon as we justify Johansson's actions with sci-fi logic, then the commentary becomes secondary. Glazer's forcing it right to the surface. He wants her character to stand for something more than just an alien drone trying to figure out why men are attracted to women. He puts her through this terrible cycle of murdering men, only to have her see man's inner beauty when she encounters an extra-lonely social misfit with a heart-of-gold. It's actually pretty cliched when you spell it out. Which I guess is why he didn't.

Ultimately, the film does has a lot to say, but I think Glazer wants us to read his mind instead of just coming out and saying it.

Wait, maybe he understands women better than I thought!

Oh boy. I better leave the last word to you.



Dear Christopher,

I just heard that Michael Bay is attached to direct My Psycho Sex Vacation in Edinburgh. Man, he works fast!

I'm fairly certain I speak for both of us when I admit that the downside of watching so many films is that we can smell a contrived plot twist or superfluous character arc from miles away. I enjoyed that Under the Skin wasn't spoon-fed to me. In no way was it predictable, or easy, and, as such, I felt constantly challenged, both intellectually and emotionally. A stronger narrative might have made some audience members more comfortable, but I fear it would have alienated (pun intended) filmgoers like me who too often feel underserved.

In the first act of the film, before I realized Johansson was not who she appeared to be, I thought we were dealing with a Bernardo/Homolka scenario. I thought she was an uber-sociopath, a monster completely devoid of humanity. And yet I found her wholly compelling. When she first coaxed a man to his inky demise, I thought the death was being portrayed metaphorically. When it became clear she wasn't of this earth, I didn't feel like Glazer was being cute, nor did I think Johansson's primary objective was to answer any deep questions about the human psyche. I struggled to understand her motives until I realized, hey, maybe I don't have to.

The voyeuristic implications say more about the audience than they do about the filmmaker. Watching anyone, whether they're male, female or alien, as they stalk human prey is both repugnant and utterly fascinating. So many moments - the abandoned toddler, the disfigured man, the attempted rape - play with our sympathies and force us to question where our collective moral compass should point. Johansson's character doesn't do anything that a human isn't capable of doing. Is it easier to accept her horrible actions when we realize she's an alien? Or is it less difficult than coming to the grim realization that, under the skin, maybe we aren't that different from her.

With highest regards,



Dear Cast & Crew

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