Under the Skin can be read as a metaphor for the representation of women in film and other visual media and its dehumanising effect on women as a whole. In its objectification of women, these industries lay bare the desire for vacant female flesh; a body, not a person. As far as they’re concerned, there is nothing under the skin, and so, in the absence of any human traits, we find Scarlett Johansson’s alien creature.
Serving then as the embodiment of a vacant female character, Scarlett Johansson fulfils her primary function successfully; she looks damn good. In this way the men around her can fill the void that their desire has created by attempting to fuck her and she is more than happy to let them try. For you see Scarlett Johansson’s alien is the epitome of a sexual predator, a literal man eater. But this status is made complicated by the men on motorbikes that track Johansson throughout the film. As a highly sexualised female, we presume that these men are within her control. When they bring her the body of a fully clothed dead woman, whom she strips and wears the clothes of, we watch with the understanding that she has somehow ordered them to do this.
And yet as the alien begins to develop more human qualities, crucially when she is valued for the first time beyond her appearance by the disfigured man, we begin to realise it is in fact the men on motorbikes in control of her, racing to undo her act of mercy towards her victim and hunt her down. This realisation of who is in control and who is not dismantles the idea perpetuated in visual media that to be sexualised is to be empowered. That’s right we’re looking at you Samantha Jones, a la Sex and the City and the other female role models that, beyond their declarations of what they gain from being sexualised, merely reinforce the hollowness of characters created by and for the gaze of men.
But what if, as a female, you are not desirable enough to be sexualised? Then you must serve the other function of the vacant female character, you must become a mother. Not objectified for their looks, but still utterly hollow on account of being defined by this single role. The most disturbing moment of Under the Skin comes when a child, no more than two years old, is left to drown alone on a beach by our alien friend. As harrowing as this scene is, it perfectly conveys the rejection of this secondary female character function, almost revelling in the sheer indifference of Scarlett Johansson towards this squalling infant.
The second half of the film marks the crucial change in Johansson’s desire to become more human and begs the question, what do we do with a female character that does not fit the role of the mother and has outgrown the role of the sexual partner? Well, kill her of course! And so it is with sadness that we watch our dear alien friend go up in flames, dutifully halting her humanisation and dying the death of a martyr, an embodiment of the hollowness of female depiction that tried to break free into a developed character and was punished for it.
And yet in many ways death was also her escape. In a stark display of just how damaging these depictions are to real women, we witness the horror of her attempted rape and thus her rejection of the role of sexual partner. By dehumanising the women we watch through a camera lens, making them nothing more than a body with a sole function, Under the Skin directly implicates visual media in these kinds of acts against women. Under the Skin is a visceral wake up call to all of us, bombarded with and numbed by the objectification of women. As consumers of this imagery, to what extent are we ourselves implicated within this scene? It is a troubling question that we can only answer by denouncing this objectification and speaking out against it.