By mainly taking into account the film Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013), how has the representation of women changed in the post-gender and highly-technological society of the 21st century?
From the early days of film where females were presented as either a damsel in distress or an illusive femme fatale, to the 21st century, there has been a shift in the representation of those who perform as a woman. Characters have grown in their complexity, and travel through binaries as a method of expression – a reflection of the modern feminist movement. Notably, the information age has sparked a third wave of feminism, activists who see beyond binary gender, recognize intersections of oppression, see lived experience as a uniting force, and use technology to create a circuit of liberation. A scholar who foresaw this development in identity is Donna Haraway, who published “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in 1984, which will be the academic basis of this essay’s discussion of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film, Under The Skin.
In her essay, Haraway uses the cyborg as an allegorical conduit for her theory of how women and humans will develop and be represented in a technological age. She describes the cyborg as “ a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway: 1984, p.50). Social reality is the construction of shared experience as a basis of collective identity (such as feminism), rather than biology (which is obsolete within post-gender theory).The cyborg stands between binaries of human and animal, organism and machine, imagined and material – this allows for entirely new projections of self that not only confuse boundaries, but deconstruct them.
The cyborg carries an affinity with woman, as they are both regarded as the “other” within the system they work in. This leads to the more likely representation of a woman as cyborg, as both come from a place of oppression. Just as écriture féminine moves between the binaries formed by the patriarchy, the notion of the cyborg crushes them as signs of a bygone human era. In order for the post-human to progress, one must first be allowed to flourish outside the rules of naturalistic patriarchy.
Under The Skin (2013) explores the concept of the cyborg within its unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johannson). Immediately, their rejection of concrete identity is signalled by a lack of name – a marker of definition in human society. Their motivations are not known, neither is their origin, or what they really are. Presenting as a human female, and performing as such, they seduce men and sink them into a void, where it is assumed they will be turned into energy or food for the protagonists home. Please note, this essay will refer to the protagonist using gender neutral pronouns (they/them), as they are post-gender, and terms such as she/her are linguistically tied to the biological female.
The first aspect of a cyborg identity is the fusion of animal and human. Throughout the ages the connection between the two has become strained due to capitalist patriarchy placing the human at the top of the food chain – people are the apex predator, and animals are reduced to pets or food. Although in the guise of a human, the protagonist is an animalistic predator, stalking and capturing their prey in order to feed. They watch from their van, and lure men to their deaths by appearing attractive – much like the mating ritual of the black widow spider. This characterization of woman is rarely seen within the patriarchal system, men are the powerful and dangerous predators, and women their weak prey.
The binary of organism and machine , and thus its combination, is what immediately evokes the image of the cyborg – a human with mechanized limbs, or futuristic implants that allow the wearer to use their eyes as a screen. However, the two elements are often kept at a distance (for now) due to their origins. All organisms are born – whether this be through sex, pollination, or cellular reproduction, they all come from some form of ‘parent’. This is partially responsible for the gender binary that is placed on organisms, there must be a biological man and woman for procreation to take place. The machine, on the other hand, has no parent (unless you consider capitalism to be a father figure) – it is manufactured, there is no birth , only scientific construction and programming, thus rendering biological reproduction irrelevant. The combination of organism and machine therefore creates a space where gender is obsolete, there is no need for the act of fertilization to take place in order for a post-human cyborg to come to life. Under The Skin’s protagonist has no known origins, the only form of creation we see is at the beginning of the film, in which the protagonist takes the clothes, and human identity, of an unknown woman. This fusion of procreation and manufacturing creates the protagonist in the image of Haraway’s cyborg.
Whilst it is clear that the protagonist is not a machine in a literal sense, it is never made clear if they are biologically gendered (as an organism would be). Their presentation as female acts as a tool, with their performance of sexuality never fully utilized within sexual contact – apart from one scene, when the protagonist, seemingly scared by the encounter, stops just shy of intercourse to inspect their body.
Further to this, Haraway suggests the final element of women being characterized as cyborg lies in the confusion of boundaries between the material and the imaginary. This questions definitions of what is real and natural, and when does something become other than that. Referring to the imaginary as semiotics (signs and meanings), Nina Lykke explains “The cyborg of virtual reality tends to absorb the material into the semiotic. The material is constructed as potentially changeable by semiotic, sign producing acts, programming and reprogramming” (Lykke:1996, p.85). The protagonist is an example of this. They take on feminine semiotics, performing the gender by wearing skirts, red lipstick, and using coquettish behaviors – which then gives the material body a convincing masquerade as a human woman. The material takes identity through the construction of a fictional reality, which takes the character full circle back to Haraway’s initial explanation of the cyborg.
Representations of women as cyborg are becoming more frequent within film as the tangible possibilities of humanity and technology become evident, and thus more threatening. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), presents a humanoid machine that is programmed to act as a female – blurring the lines quite literally between organism and machine, aswell as the boundaries between the material and the imaginary. The viewer questions what is “real” in regards to natural and artificial behavior and performance, as does the male protagonist who develops romantic feelings for the cyborg.
A similar situation takes place in Her (2013), in which a man falls in love with his computer operating system. Entirely a intangible artificial creation, Samantha (the OS) performs a feminine personality, despite being post-gender, and something even beyond post-human. They are code, they are frequency, they are the essence of the cyborg.
Representations of women in modern cinema seems to follow the trends of feminist theory of the time. In an era where negation of gender binary is becoming more accepted, the media reflects this. As binaries break down within society, and mobile phones become a technologised limb for humans, the cyborg begins to represent everyone , not just the biologically female. This, however, is the aim of the cyborg, to reject the naturalistic identities of humanity, and to create affinities through lived experience rather than ones place within heteronormative capitalism patriarchy. Just as the protagonist from Under The Skin, we will all soon embrace the creation of self outside binaries, and reject naturalistic tendencies in favor of our technologised future.
Ex Machina. (2015). [DVD] Directed by A. Garland. England: Film4.
Haraway, D. (2000). A Manifesto For Cyborgs : Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s. In: G. Kirkup, L. Janes, K. Woodward and F. Hovenden, ed., The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader, 1st ed. London: Routledge, pp.50 – 57.
Her. (2013). [DVD] Directed by S. Jonze. USA: Annapurna Pictures.
Lykke, N. (2000). Between Monsters, Goddesses, and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science. In: G. Kirkup, L. Janes, K. Woodward and F. Hovenden, ed., The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader, 1st ed. London: Routledge, p.85.
Under The Skin. (2013). [DVD] Directed by J. Glazer. England: BFI.