I very much discard the term “rape culture”.
During the fall of 2012, a string of sexual assaults were reported in the news, including the Steubenville High School scandal, and for a time was an epidemic of gang rapes in countries consisting of Southeast Asia. The internet became particularly comfortable with using “rape culture” as a way to describe the normalization of sexual assault from the perspective of the aggressors and the affects of such trauma on the victims that experienced it. By adding the word “culture” which usually invokes a sense of family or belonging, there’s something about the two words “rape” and “culture” together that’s highly bothersome to me. Impassioned activists against sexual violence reject its usage as it seems to excuse rapists and degenerates alike with the glazing of a brush that behaviors like these are the new norm of salvaging botched masculinity.
In director Jonathan Glazer’s science fiction film Under the Skin, led by a magnetically foxy performance by Scarlett Johansson, the focus is on a female alien loner that preys on men day and night in Scotland. Her personal reasons for hunting are not entirely clear, but Johansson’s character uses a beguiling seduction to lure whenever the chances arise. As these hapless men follow her lead, transfixed by her casual flirtation and the bewitching invition of sex, they become pawns in her reversal game and mission of (the) weaker sex entrapment.
Under the Skin is both brilliant and bizarre. The dialogue is nary, the towns she peruses are little soulless, and as its audience, Glazer insists you observe what’s happening than being traditionally told what is blow-by-blow. Based on Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Faber’s alien is a femme fatale of the most astute kind. Even when caught in a momentary fender-bender or acknowledging the burgeoning of a “human impulse”, as described by Glazer, she remains calculating and struts with a haunting presence.
If pointing out one of the film’s greatest emotional features it is the cool hubris of the alien’s persona because it is her protection and compass, amongst a sensitive nature that is periodically exposed but certainly tightly bound. As a female character especially, it is truthfully stunning to witness her complexities, showcased throughout in near silence. In connection to other pieces of science fiction and outré work, Under the Skin sits very well next to 2000’s aberrant Requiem for a Dream, and the landmark novel The Left Hard of Darkness in which a universe centered on androgyny and what that means for evolution was created by iconic scribe Ursula K. Le Guin.
In interlinking Under the Skin to “rape culture”, the film does offer surreptitious insight on the notion of this culture’s “acceptance” to the forefront. In a way, the lead alien character is exhibiting “payback time” towards this revulsion and it is quite eye for an eye. The act of women on rampages is a topic filmmakers really delve into when given the opportunity, though the subject matter feels more like a novelty in the pool of women-oriented tales. Referencing Thelma & Louise, and Charlize Theron in Monster, these are just a few examples of when women, or female characters, interject regular retribution towards individuals deemed or even resembling “the enemy”. The alien at one point in Under the Skin does come in contact with such an enemy and the scene is the most galvanizing in terror and calming in resolution.
Female viewers of Under the Skin will understand the alien’s ambivalence towards the world and her interactions with men, while male viewers may be left a bit hypertensive to the reality of how cold our surroundings can really be when women are treated as property, entertainment, and suddenly at times having no choice but to react as if undercover.