Ten minutes into Under the Skin, I realized what was happening.
This was a film that was brazenly subverting rape culture and the male gaze.
The first time she approaches someone, Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character stops a boy on the street, asking him for directions. She then asks him what he’s doing, and when she finds out that he’s meeting someone, her face drops. This isn’t a film with a helpless female lead, or about helpless female characters, as far too many thriller films easily fall into the trap of being. Instead, Under The Skin isn’t really about a female character at all. It’s about a creature that adopts the shell of one, using her new form to trap victims that mistakenly take her as harmless.
It’s not the image that Johansson provides as a succubus roaming for prey that proves so powerful, but instead the alternative perspective she provides when she’s driving her van, on the hunt for unsuspecting men. The camera lingers on men walking – of all ages and appearances – and the predatory way that it’s shown is so familiar… Because this is what women experience all the time. How many movies linger on the images of women? Countless numbers, but I can’t recall ever seeing a parade of men quite like Under the Skin shows its viewers. The film shows a female character that systematically looks at and hunts out men – especially those with no one to go home to. Men, walking along the road, who have never before had to consider their safety, be embarrassed of catcalling, or worried about what they’re wearing and how that matters. Suddenly they are, in the world of Under The Skin, being looked at. Viciously.
If Under the Skin were a film about a man hunting women, I can already imagine how it would have gone down. Girls, getting into cars with strange men? They should have known better. But the truth is that the men and women who act the way that Johansson does in this film – and they do exist, in different forms – are lacking humanity (as Johansson’s character shows us, stripping away her human skin) and are the ones that should be punished. Victims shouldn’t have to know better, and in Under the Skin they don’t, because as men, they’ve never had to.
Under the Skin is a film all about gender – Johansson’s character becoming a woman because of how underestimated she becomes when wearing the costume of femininity. Men, meanwhile, are surprised when it turns out that she’s lied to them, and has trapped them.
If the roles were reversed in this film, a woman would have known better, and that’s exactly why women are blamed for the crimes that happen to them because of their gender. In a world where women always have to be cautious, and are to blame for their attackers’ actions (What were you wearing? You must have led him on somehow), Under The Skin is a fascinating film that subverts these everyday accusations, and is a movie that is about so much more than just an alien going around killing people.
It’s a film about the costume that this alien chooses – the female skin – and the power that it can carry.