in Movies

Review: ‘Under the Skin’ Is All About Gender

under the skin

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.

Grade: A

  • iain

    You do know, don’t you, that male-on-male rape is the most underreported crime in the United States? And that women rape? And, further, that women rape women, and rape men, and rape little girls and little boys? And please don’t come back with “yeah, and they learn that from men”, as a woman once said to me at an ACoA meeting when I was trying to share my personal experience, as if a woman cannot act violently unless a man is putting her up to it, or training her to be a man’s proxy in the enterprise of rape.
    Under the Skin is magnificent, but I take issue with your position on the “man=rapist / woman=victim” paradigm.

    • Laura T

      Obviously, this review is generalizing. Film is all about perspective, and in Under the Skin i saw something that you clearly saw the reverse of. But, in talking of rape culture and the fear that women live with, I did not mean to discount men from the equation, nor the pain that they too can suffer from the effects of rape. It’s just that I saw something in Under the Skin that I experience everyday as a woman, and found it so interesting explored with the genders by which rape is usually represented, reversed. It’s not that I don’t think rape happens to men, or that it isn’t committed by women, but instead that, overwhelmingly, women grow up learning that rape can be a consequence of their actions- what they wear, where they go, who they take with them, and whether or not they drink something that’s been left sitting, or was given to them- and men usually don’t- until, of course, it happens to them as well. I wasn’t trying to be insensitive to victims when I wrote this review, but my own experiences and perspective as a woman caused me to see the film in a different way than you did. We all bring our own experiences with us when we watch films or tv shows, and this then changes how we view these media productions. But if anything, Under the Skin raises awareness of male rape, and feminism always should be on the side of the victim and the crimes that were committed against them, because of the patriarchal world view that allows people to view consent as optional. Obviously, you’ve had other experiences, and I’m sorry about that. Thank-you for your comment, and I’m sorry that my words caused any offense. I was trying to make the point that this film uses the exact thing that you have an issue with: women being underestimated, because of the view that they’re always victims.

      • Xavier

        By far the most retarded movie ever made, literally WTF? Whoever made this movie need to not quit there day job, and the only thing Scarlett accomplished is acting like a straight up wierdo. One more thing whoever likes this movie has some serious delusions. Get a life people, and stop doing drugs

  • 두부

    I didnt like it movie much because it repeats the message that uncontrolled women are evil. But eventually it failed. Generally movie rebells the frame ‘ women: victim ,men: criminal ‘ but the aliene was also a ‘woman’…Middle of the scene she was confused with man who took care of and gave hospitality to her. But while having a sex, it seems like he ejeculated into her vagina. She fled the burden of pregnant. And ultimatly she was punished by a bold man in the forest. He tried to rape and burned her . It made mereally uncomfortable