SPOILER WARNING: Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
How does a thing define what it is? And what happens when this definition subverts everything about the thing that is adopting it? These are the questions that Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) dares to ask. But while these questions may at first seem overly vague, Under the Skin is not as it directly calls into question female identity, and what happens when a female to become aware of herself and subvert what the men that make up the world around her think that she should be. The female vessel for these questions and occurrences comes in the form of an alien, referred to by no name in the film but as “The Female” in the credits, who spends its days driving the roads of Scotland looking for men to seduce and harvest. This is how the audience is introduced to The Female, as a predator, casually stripping the clothes from her first victim so that she can clothe herself. As the film continues, The Female is portrayed as a femme fatale, and to the men who lust after her see her as nothing other than an object of desire. But as the film progresses, The Female evolves and begins to see herself as female, and it is tellingly only then that her problems begin.
What Under the Skin argues is that the world is not accepting towards any woman that dares to define herself as opposed to letting the male gaze do so. The Female is able to effectively lure and dispatch of numerous men with little to no problems when she is playing in to what the men expect of her. This fact is not exclusive to the human men either. The lone other alien being, labeled as “The Bad Man”, also has presumed expectations of her. He is the one that first provides clothing for The Female, and he later intensely gazes upon her as if to ascertain her motives and desires. But when The Bad Man appears in his bare alien form, he is a faceless enigma, with no features to define him to almost a generic degree of plainness. But as The Bad Man is defined by his lack of definition and his fierce resistance to anything human, The Female slowly becomes more defined by her human form.
The Female begins to enter her “mirror stage” shortly after she seduces a man who holds a different perception of her than any of the other men whom she has preyed upon prior. The man, who suffers a deformity on his face, is the only one not to display a raw entitled desire towards The Female, and this leads to her reconsidering what she actually is. Exiting the room after she has completed her hunt, The Female comes into contact with a mirror. Pausing to stare at it, she experiences a Lacanian moment. The Female sees herself truly as a she for the first time, and suddenly she is no longer content to simply follow the role that the males surrounding her have set for her. She frees the man, and then begins a search for herself across the Scottish countryside.
But Under the Skin is not so positive or naïve as to state that everything works out well for its female protagonist. The Female encounters much hostility as she attempts to define herself. From violently choking on a piece of cake in a restaurant, to enduring the various concerns and approaches of different men, The Female’s journey is not an easy one. The world is much more resistant towards her now that she is no longer fulfilling the roles that were set for her. Even as she begins to live with a man who does not seem to have any blatantly harmful intentions, The Bad Man is relentlessly searching the countryside for her, presumably to pull her back into her old role of conformity and predetermined actions. He is not successful in this search, but his work is done for him by way of the hands of a human man. In one of its most damning statements, Under the Skin does not allow its female protagonist to escape from the oppression that she faces, and her end is brought about simply because she dared to not bend to the will of a man.
In the end, The Female is sexually assaulted by a forest worker and then burned to death by him after their fight results in her alien form being revealed. To the worker, this woman that has defied his actions becomes something alien to him. The film illustrates this by having the forest worker come face-to-face with a literal alien, but the meaning of this encounter runs much deeper. The forest worker succeeds in literally stripping away the skin that The Female covers herself in, but after she sheds her standard female form he is afraid of what he sees. When The Female defies the actions of a male and defines herself, she becomes alien and no longer female to the onlooker, though she certainly still considers herself so. Indeed, she is female, but her form is one that is new and different and not defined by anything that can be found in the contemporary world. Whereas when The Bad Man is witnessed in his alien form his face is without detail, The Female’s face maintains her female features even when she sheds her skin. She is still female, even without all of the cosmetic details that are necessary in order for any male or societal figure to define her as such. She is no longer a female to the forest worker because she is no longer a victim. She has broken his definitions, and what he sees scares him so much that his only reaction is to violently destroy it.
Under the Skin does not mince words when it comes to its assessment of the state of the female identity in contemporary culture. While it does not state that it is impossible for a female to define herself as such, it does argue that the male society around her will be generally, and in those cases strongly, resistant to any change that subverts their expectations of what a female is. The Female discovers as such as she attempts to be female. Discovering that she is not anatomically complete only further serves to reinforce the notion that the environment that forged her did not create her so that she could define herself. Unable to break free of the bonds that her past holds over her, The Female returns to nature in an attempt to discover herself in another way. But even here she cannot escape the societal impositions, as she comes into contact with the aforementioned forest worker. As bleak as the events are, Under the Skin does not hate men, as several of its male characters are sympathetic and concerned towards The Female even as they expect nothing in return. Despite this, the majority of the actions perpetuated towards The Female expect her to conform to the male-defined idea of what a female should be. The Female dies because she ultimately refuses to do this, reduced to nothing but ash as the snowfall covers any trace of her existence.