Piasecka explores ‘Under the Skin’ in relation to her choreographic practice:
‘More so than men… women are body […]’
(Qtd in Susan Bordo, The Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley University of California Press, 2003: 256-257).
We call the neutral body male and I feel neither neutral nor male.
I experience disconnect from Simone De Beauvoir’s exclamation that ‘woman are cast in the role of the body, “weighed down” […] by everything peculiar to it’.
Can I only ever be weighed down by my body?
n.b. I thought I could fly.
Artist and film critic Ara Osterweil asserts in relation to the film Under The Skin ‘even though what lies under the skin may be incommensurate with one’s visible exterior, anatomy proves to be, as Freud famously claimed, a form of destiny’, and this destiny is one of violence (‘Under The Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female’. Film Quart 67.4 (2014): 45). The trajectory of the alien-disguised-as-woman, a sexy Scarlett Johansson, signals the difficulties and untimely end the alien encounters as predicated (and predicted) by the gender role it undertakes and its embodied reality. Susan Bordo suggests ‘we are creatures swaddled in culture from the moment we are designated one sex or the other, one race or another’ (Susan Bordo, The Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley University of California Press, 2003: 36). In the same work, she asserts that ‘contemporary movies are continually experimenting with the plasticity and deconstructive possibilities of the body’ (36). The film Under The Skin by Jonathan Glazer depicts the plasticity of the human form and its deconstructive possibilities to unsettling and challenging ends. It explores the notion of anatomy as destiny; the film can be read as verifying the link, proposed by Bordo in the above quote, between the designation of a sex and the acquisition of culture.
In the film the alien becomes part of a cultural dynamic it does not wholly grasp as it disguises itself as female. Initially, the knowledge of the capacity of the alien’s adopted femaleness to attract male attention motivates its journey through Glasgow and its surroundings; the plasticity and manipulative ability of the female body to lure men into an abandoned house lead to the men’s destruction. By watching humans on the streets of the city, the alien-disguised-as-woman understands what its female role requires of it and it is capable of replicating seductive human female behaviour. Thus the routine of seduction conditions the alien’s approach to its prey and its own bodily existence. It learns what attracts men in order to sustain its collection of male bodies, substantiating Bordo’s claim that the body is conditioned by habit and routine: ‘through routine, habitual activity, our bodies learn what is “inner” and what is “outer”, which gestures are forbidden and which are required […]’ (16). A choreographer should understand the implications of such a statement.
To quote Jack Halberstam: ‘the training we give men and women pushes each partner into very different relations to sex and to their bodies’ and the alien learns this division (Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. Beacon Press, 2013: 13). The film acknowledges that ‘gender difference shapes experience of public space in patriarchal culture’ (Sherryl Vint, ‘Skin Deep: Alienation in Under The Skin’. Extrapolation 54.1 (2013): 5). Glazer’s film plays with the idea, to cite Professor of Science Fiction Media Studies Sherryl Vint, that a lone woman would sense ‘at least the potential for danger if approached by a strange man in a van [but that the] men see only an opportunity, however slim, for sex with a beautiful woman’ (5). The female body is not seen as capable of operating violently and threateningly hence the alien’s success in accumulating male victims: ‘skin is their object of desire and the men are so enthralled by its captivating spell that they don’t notice what’s happening to their own’ (6). How to undo this blindness?
In the abandoned house it is the men who are active and the alien that is passive despite Osterweil’s celebration of an active female gaze. The men are seeking to initiate sex and the alien denies. The sexual act is never consummated and the alien-disguised-as-woman is typecast in the traditional female role as denier of sexual impulse. Yet, for Osterweil, the ritual seduction of men is an act that gives the female gaze agency. The same critic asserts that ‘she’ looks, ‘not because she is programmed to do so, but because she wants to’; that Under The Skin offers a ‘genuine phenomenology and politics of desire’ (17).
However I cannot escape from what I see: the active female gaze of the alien is undermined but the structural framework at play. The perceived passivity of women, used to the alien’s advantage in the Glasgow section of the film, later causes the alien’s demise in the highlands. In adopting the body of an abandoned corpse the alien unwittingly adopts the bodily destiny of the skin of the woman she puts on. Just as the corpse of the woman ‘presumably killed in an act of sexual violence’ is assumed by the alien, the fate of the corpse is also assumed (45). As noted by Osterweil, the alien’s symbolic act of “becoming woman” leads to the alien’s inheritance of women’s destiny in a culture that can operate violently towards members of the female sex.
In the last sequences of the film, the alien-disguised-as-woman is sexually assaulted and then set on fire by a forest ranger angered by its refusal to submit to his advances. The alien is trapped in a body that invites negative outcomes, showing how the alien-disguised-as-woman’s downward spiral is systematically and systemically produced.
Additionally, the alien’s desire does not belong to itself. It is controlled by the covert mission it undertakes, directed by the sinister male presence that oversees its progress thus questioning the depiction of the active female gaze, questioning the postfeminist ideal of “personal choice”. The alien-disguised-as-woman is part of a male-female dynamic that uses the female gaze and body. The male presence, alien or human (this is never revealed), ultimately condones the brutality the alien-disguised-as-woman is submitted to and does not save his companion from the destruction it befalls.
To use Halberstam’s terminology, the film raises ‘the lingering question [of] why so little changes in the male-female dynamic when so much else ebbs and flows around it’ (15-16). This is a question I cannot escape from! In Gaga Feminism, Halberstam evokes Star Trek’s representation of aliens as men and women following heterosexual modes of intimacy; Under The Skin’s representation of alien life forms depicts the same heteronormative patriarchal power structures of humankind at play within both human and alien worlds. Glazer does not present a radical heroine to counter the constrictions of contemporary society – instead he unveils the hypocrisy of the society the alien encounters and invites the viewer to question the normativity of heterosexual exchanges. He raises questions about a society that encourages women to show desire but not act on it and his depiction of an alien power configuration between Scarlett’s character and the “all-seeing” male presence highlights the contemporary tendency to “support” women in pursuing their desires within a patriarchal structure that ultimately reclaims that desire as its own. The film illustrates one of the dilemmas of postfeminist existence: the double standards of the contemporary female condition. This condition acknowledges that women desire things for themselves and encourages them to pursue these desires but within a system that perpetuates submission of the female form to that of the male. My work begins here. I think about violence and surveillance and start to work on movement.