Collaborative platform on arts, literature, and thought
by Emma Ben Ayoun, writer
In 2013, Scarlett Johansson became the first woman in the entire history of the known universe to be named Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive twice (she had received the title for the first time in 2006, leaving us to wonder where she might have fallen short in the seven intervening years—not sexy enough? Not womanly enough? Dead?). Leaving aside the utter absurdity of such a title, this is ultimately unsurprising news, considering that, in an entertainment industry known for its fickle attractions, Johansson’s status as a sex symbol has been remarkably persistent—frequently overshadowing her acting in the public eye (consider as an example, most recently, Anthony Lane’s New Yorker profile of the actress, which was so unabashedly leery in its descriptions of the actress’s physical appeal that it managed to provoke a flurry of enraged responses). Johansson has worked with acclaimed directors and taken on many diverse roles in her relatively short career, but, like so many actresses before her, is best known for her looks. This is nothing new. But after seeing Johansson’s two most recent films, Spike Jonze’s Her and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, I was struck by what seemed to me a new and exciting direction for the actress.
Her tells the story, set in a delicately dystopian future, of lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with an operating system, voiced by Johansson. In the more experimental Under the Skin, she plays an alien who drives around working-class neighborhoods of Glasgow in a white van picking up lonely men and harvesting their bodies. Johansson is lusted after in both of these films, but on slightly unconventional, unsettling terms: as a non-human entity, as a cyborg, as a monster.
Scarlett Johansson, starlet, Sexiest Woman Alive, is not so much a person (or even a woman) as she is a locus, a center of a network: a network of public opinion, roles, accolades, titles, fantasies. It makes sense, then, that the next step in her career would be to play one. Her identity is so deeply bound up with her body that perhaps the only way to escape it is to take on roles that trouble the very notion of embodiment. In Donna Haraway’s infamous “Cyborg Manifesto,” she describes the ways in which cyborgs break down the boundary between human and machine, one of many “dualisms” (man/woman, culture/nature, etc.) she deems systemic to practices of Western domination and oppression. In Haraway’s view, these ruptures open up new possibilities for the radical restructuring of female identity.
Cinema’s fascination with sexy cyborgs is hardly new; they have captivated audiences since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. If cinema is a medium of fantasy-projection (in both senses of the word), it is also particularly suited to the cyborg: real worlds filtered through mechanical processes, automated simulacra of the known. Theodore’s love for Samantha is not so many steps away from the love and kinship we feel for characters in films, whose scripted words transcend the screen, cut through layers of technology and fiction to speak to us.
The romance at the core of Her is predicated on textbook fetishism: the mistaking of the part (the voice, unmistakably Johansson’s) for the whole (Samantha, fantasy woman). I would wager that the pain we feel, alongside Theodore, at her absence is heightened by our recognition of her voice and, subsequently, our ability to connect a body and face to it – her physical presence haunts each frame of the film, lingering in the mind’s eye, a fantasy fueled by a reality that is itself slightly out of our reach, not quite real. For the vast majority of viewers, Scarlett Johansson exists primarily as an image, a projection, not a body in space.
In Under the Skin, Johansson’s alien character remains nameless – becomes a very literal “her” to the men around her and, in a sense, to us – but not quite. In a film otherwise populated primarily with non-actors and unknown faces – insistently so, to the point where the camerawork often deliberately obscures the features of individual faces in passing crowds (aligning us further with her alien perspective, unused to humanoid senses) – Johansson’s star shines ever-brighter. She is our only familiar face, in spite of the film’s wry insistence on her anonymity, her stranger-dom, her foreignness on the drab streets of Glasgow. We know her and we don’t know her.
In The Monstrous Feminine (1993), Barbara Creed explores the trope of female monsters, tracing their evolution from Greek mythology through to late-twentieth-century horror cinema. Johansson’s characters in Her and Under the Skin are not officially monsters, but their behaviors—more specifically, the threats they pose to the men around them—frequently invoke the trope’s rich history. Creed cites the sexual implications of the Medusa myth—the beautiful monster who turns all men who look directly at her to stone: to gaze upon her is at once to stiffen and, of course, to die (Creed 1993). In Under the Skin, each seduction follows the same pattern: after a brief, flirtatious conversation, our alien brings men back to a small, unassuming house, where they engage in a gorgeously lyrical, surreal sort of dance: she strips naked and walks backward into a textureless, jet-black world as the man in question, transfixed, approaches her, rhythmic, speechless; the floor then seems to liquefy and, without breaking his gaze or his step, he sinks into the mire. (These sequences are visually stunning and incredibly scored, and verbal descriptions truly cannot do them justice). In one sequence, late in the film, we finally get to see what happens to these men once they have drowned. In exquisite slow motion, we watch their bodies seemingly crystallize before disappearing: the Medusa myth from start to finish. The ability to provoke fear and arousal in equal measure is the uniquely potent weapon of the monstrous woman, from antiquity to the present day—and, according to Her, nothing is bound to change any time soon.
Her is funny, moving and romantic—not exactly a horror film in the strictest sense—but its emotional landscape is nevertheless marked by the blend of “fear, love and confusion” that Haraway identifies as emblematic of cyborg culture. On one level, Theodore’s fear is a universal, deeply human one: as Samantha becomes more and more intelligent and engaged with the world, she drifts further and further away from him, needing him less and less – leaving him jealous and afraid of abandonment. But I would argue that there is another fear at play here, in Creed’s terms of the monstrous-feminine – the fear of the phallus rendered futile by a disembodied woman.
Theodore’s arousal can manifest itself basically exclusively through masturbation, instead of finding its telos in another body: an endless, desperately self-reflexive cycle, the circular loading-screen symbol (itself laden with anticipation and frustration all at once) made sexual, physical, come, as it were, to life. Genitalia replaced with a voice: another monstrous-feminine trope comes to mind, that of the vagina dentata (the toothed vagina). Once again, the threat to male wholeness—that is, the possibility of castration—is fully bound up with desire and sexuality, the permeable boundaries of human bodies, the desire to lose oneself in another and the fear that such a loss might be irreparable. Her is no Teeth, but Samantha clearly exists at the alluring and scary intersection of vagina and mouth.
David Hogan, in Dark Romance, describes the conflict of sexual difference—the “insistence upon the adversary aspect of man-woman relationships” (Hogan 1986)—as central to the female-monster-driven horror film. Both Her and Under the Skin fit perfectly into this mold, firmly demarcating sexual difference and rooting their drama therein. In Her, Theodore’s inability to sustain a healthy relationship with a woman is as much a problem for his relationship with Samantha as is the fact that she is an operating system; in Under the Skin, sexual difference and heterosexual attraction are central to the plot (sexual attraction, coupled with the fact that, as a woman, she is perceived as non-threatening, are the reasons that men repeatedly enter the van). But the terror does not end there; Hogan notes the female monster’s “sexual ambivalence that is at once enticing and ghastly” (Hogan 1986). Samantha and the alien never really lose their cool, never seem vulnerable or pathetic in the way that the men around them do. These characters, despite being defined within their narratives by their status as objects of sexual desire, remain elusive, evasive, (literally) untouchable.
Men are, in a sense, played for fools in these films—willingly risking their lives, their sanity, seeking out their own undoing—but Samantha and the alien are not really to blame: they are not cruel and knowing seductresses, preserving instead a naïveté (the innocence of the inhuman, having never, as Haraway puts it, been “born in a garden,” sidestepping human genesis) that allows them to remain sympathetic in spite of their uncanniness. Samantha is unremittingly earnest, wide-eyed (so to speak) and wondrous – incapable, at first, of even understanding how her unquenchable thirst for knowledge might be devastating to poor Theodore. The alien in Under the Skin seduces straightforwardly, automatically; she hypnotizes her victims, but she herself operates in something like a trance, barely deviating from her tried-and-true scripts. She is coded as much as Samantha is — the film opens with a long sequence in which we hear her voice wrapping itself around the sounds of English consonants and vowels—and so, in spite of her ability to inflict very real damage to other bodies, she herself evades guilt, even in her moments of harshest violence; she doesn’t know any better.
It is difficult to avoid the parallel to a social fear that has existed since the advent of the Internet—a fear of the impact that the intangible and virtual can (and do) have on our physical bodies (as early as 1991, Haraway wrote that “our machines are frighteningly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert”). I wonder whether there is not a second fear at play here: a fear of what, exactly, happens to women and their bodies in a world of cybernetic loops and virtual identities. If Scarlett Johansson is the Sexiest Woman Alive, it is because we have made her thus, made sexiness, made womanhood, and thrust her in the crosshairs; and that very making—the constructedness, the scriptedness, of female identity—is revealed and demystified in these inhuman women, creatures at once incomplete and capable of surpassing us.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Glazer, Jonathan. Under the Skin. Film4, 2013.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Hogan, David J. Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film. New York: McFarland, 1997.
Jonze, Spike. Her. Annapurna Pictures, 2013.