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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

why movies like Under the Skin and Nymphomaniac are not feminist


Have a look around the Web, and you will find lots of reviews by lots of critics stroking their metaphorical beards and nodding sagely and declaring that the cinematic orgies of supersexed-up and frequently naked women they just saw in Under the Skin and Nymphomaniac are powerfully feminist. Um-hmm, powerfully feminist. These guys have gone practically Yoda-esque as they discuss the purely philosophical aspects of films that are about watching sexy women be sexy and do the sex with lots of men. (It is mostly male critics who’ve decided this, but since most critics are male, this was inevitable, though some of the minority of female critics agree. Also: some critics, male and female, don’t think these films are feminist. Still, both films are in Fresh territory at Rotten Tomatoes.)

But: Is this the poster of a feminist film? I ask you. Scarlett Johansson’s slim white hairless naked legs (or the slim white hairless naked legs of some anonymous model we’re supposed to believe is Johansson), either engaging in a coy little-girl pigeon-toed stance or, perhaps, about to kick away that bit of silky, lacy nothing we’re meant to take as the panties or some other frilly lingerie she has just dropped. What is feminist about this? This is sexualized female nudity. It literally turns an actual, real woman (the actor or model) into a faceless sex toy. Ah, but wait! In the film, the Johansson character does have power… but it’s of an exclusively sexual sort, the supposedly awesome power to turn men into drooling horndogs who will walk open-eyed and willingly into their very deaths for the chance to bone a beautiful woman.

Not only is this not feminist, it’s misandrist, the notion that men are mindless sex machines. And feminism is about smashing gender-based nonsense for all genders, because it hurts everyone. So that’s another mark against this film. (I think many men — critics, movie fans, and everyone else — tend not to get bothered by this widespread negative stereotype because it doesn’t actually affect them in any way. I mean, no one has ever suggested that perhaps a man shouldn’t be President of the United States because what if his uncontrollable boner accidentally hit the Nuke The World button? The idea that men are being driven around by their dicks doesn’t stop them from getting to be in charge of everything while also, quite contradictorily, being perceived as more rational than women.)

Under the Skin earns, in the eyes of some, its feminist cred because it is apparently critiquing, somehow, the misogynist state of the world. See, cuz the Johansson character is actually an alien in human form who needs human men for some nefarious alien plot that we are never made privy to. And human men are easy prey because they don’t fear women the way that women fear men, and so the Johansson character’s job is made so easy because of this unfair reality. Presto bingo: Feminist!

Except it isn’t.

One of the problems here — and it’s the same problem with Nymphomaniac, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg is a woman relating her lifelong sexual adventures to a man — is that it’s a tad suspicious that male filmmakers have chosen to critique misogyny by engaging in what looks like misogyny. There are better ways to critique misogyny than by crafting stories about women who use their sexual power — the only power they appear to have in these stories — to behave in sexually predatory ways… and then narratively reassuring the viewer that these women feel shame and guilt about it, and will be punished for it. If this is wrong, movies, why are you dishing out more of it?

The larger problem is that these films act like what it means to be a woman is purely about sex and bodies, purely about interacting with men in no other way than a sexual one. (This is not true, any more than it is true that being a man is only about having a male body and having sex as a man.) These movies engage in nothing more than stereotypical male fantasies about women. Nymphomaniac features a sequence in which two teenaged girls roam a train seeking out men to have sex with, when in reality, two teenaged girls on a train would be seeking to stay as far away from horny creepazoids as possible. Overall Nympho is about a woman who wants to have sex without love or attachment, another stereotypical male fantasy. Skin is about random men being promised sex with someone who looks like Scarlett Johansson (that they never get it is beside the point; they die, but in a state of sexual bliss). Oh! And Skin is also about showing that ugly men deserve to be treated with kindness by beautiful women (when this happens, it’s how we know that the alien predator is starting to sympathize with her victims).

And yet, both movies are sex-negative, featuring women who prey on men and don’t even enjoy the sex themselves. In Nympho, the woman hates herself for how she has lived. In Skin, the “woman” is punished for her behavior.

Actual feminist movies about women’s sexuality, on the other hand, might allude to the fact that women enjoy sex, including also women who are not thin, white, and conventionally attractive. (There are plenty of plain, fat, scrawny, and otherwise not conventionally attractive men all over both movies, enjoying sex or the prospect of it enthusiastically and without shame or guilt.) An actual feminist movie about women’s sexuality might offer the small, brief fantasy of a handsome man speaking kindly to an ugly woman for two minutes.

Under the Skin and Nymphomaniac — both made by men, it must be noted again — treat women not as people, but with awe and fear, as weirdly not-men, as inscrutable Other… literally Other, in the case of Skin’s alien. What drives these women? What do they want out of life? Neither seems to know for herself, and we are left to ponder how mysterious they are.

The vast majority of movies are about male protagonists, and yet we don’t see movies that pretend that men’s interactions with other people and the world are only about sex. (The only film — the only one — I can think of that even comes close is Shame. And Michael Fassbender’s sex-addict character there is far more believably a fully rounded human being than either of these films even bothers to attempt.) We don’t see movies that throw up their hands in the face of male motives and male desires — we are shown those motives and desires as perfectly understandable.

A feminist movie would show us women’s motives and desires as perfectly reasonable.

Maybe it seems normal and natural to male filmmakers such as Jonathan Glazer, who made Under the Skin (based on a novel by a man), and Lars Von Trier, who made Nymphomaniac, to see women as only about sex. Maybe, to them, it’s the obvious way that women deviate from maleness. But here’s the thing: Women are more like men than unlike. Maybe male filmmakers need to start noticing the similarities rather than the deviations. Because an actually feminist movie would not pretend that women are mysterious sex monsters, but generally want the same reasonable things out of sex — and out of love and life — that men do.

h/t Nikki Baughan for pointing out that poster to me

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