Shine On: Transgender Allegory in Under the Skin

under the skin 1Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a vague science fiction picture loaded with images both abstract and very blunt. The content of those images covers many different ideas, but my reading of this picture is specifically about what it means to be a transgender woman in a society that doesn’t see that as normative behaviour. The transgender community is ignored on almost an all-encompassing scale in media, which means we often have to search for the subtext within art to find relatable stories. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is one such example due to its consistent themes on gender identity and the alienation, dysphoria, and reconciliation that comes with feeling like a visitor in your body.  Within Glazer’s allegorical storytelling he sought out to present a narrative of what it means to be human, and while the film does cover that territory, Skin also taps into feelings of an often underrepresented group of women. In a cinematic realm these narratives are almost never told outside of the documentary genre, but Glazer stumbled into something he likely never intended when making this picture. While some of Under the Skin doesn’t expressly represent a woman grappling with her gender identity, many of its scenes do.

under the skin 2The opening scene of Under the Skin is a birth, but the curious thing about this sequence is her arrival isn’t through infancy, but adulthood. There was no childhood for Scarlett Johansson’s character (who I’m going to call Amy for the sake of brevity) that would represent any sense of girlhood so she had to adapt to being a woman very quickly. The complete blank slate of her arrival is represented by the sheer whiteness of the colour palette in the opening sequence. She has nothing except the hand-me- down clothes of the girl brought to her with her arrival to earth, and she seems to take on the identity of this woman. In a later scene, she goes to the mall and seemingly shops for the clothes that this woman would have bought. That line of thought isn’t incredibly different from young trans women finding their footing in womanhood. The role models that you grew up with in your life through family, television, or cinema colour the type of woman you become because you didn’t grow into it and you weren’t socialized to become the person you so desperately want to be. That idea of male or female socialization comes up often within transgender rhetoric as well, and the unknowing of how you’re supposed to act when you haven’t grown into learned behaviour is a feeling that both Amy and transgender women often grapple with upon their first years of having been out in the gender they identify with. For gender variant individuals specifically, the idea of a childhood is often plagued with hurdles that seem nigh impossible to overcome. How do you express your desire to exist as a separate gender than the one you were assigned at birth? The answer to that question for most doesn’t become adaptable until you’re well past your teenage years so the feelings of growing up without a childhood is present for many. Amy’s lack of socialization, and further humanization, has to become a learned behaviour as much as gendered socialization becomes learned over time for transgender persons.

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Glazer follows Amy’s birth with another scene typical to transgender experiences. Alienation intersecting with adaptation whilst shopping. Amy finds herself in a new world, and like many trans women she sees what other women around her are doing and tries to mirror their behaviour. Glazer punctuates this scene with banal images of women trying on make up and looking at clothes, so Amy does the same thing. She turns over a simple pink top and examines lipstick. What’s wonderful about this scene is how he plays it for both its mundaneness and its exploration. For trans women, the idea of clothes shopping for yourself for the first time is often fraught with confusion. When I first went shopping, I know that I bought the first things that I saw that fit well enough and got in and out as fast as I could because it was such an alien experience. It was an entirely new world, one that I felt like I should have always been a part of, but was new and scary nonetheless. It’s a really simplistic scene, but it captures those feelings of unsureness remarkably well. Amy doesn’t linger either, and the minimal amount of clothing and make up she purchases represents that cluelessness that comes with diving in head first to fashion without knowing much of anything on the subject. He closes this moment with Amy putting on lipstick just like all the women she saw in the store. She examines herself in her compact to make sure her face is just right. It’s her first learned behaviour in adapting to what society thinks a woman should do.

Under the Skin 8 Under the Skin 9 Under the skin 10 Under the Skin 11 Under the Skin 12The prospects of dating while trans are frankly quite horrifying. The danger of male violence is around every possible romantic interaction and, while this is also true of cisgender women, transgender women are sometimes murdered before or after sex just for not having the right equipment (something I’ll get into later). What is seen as a larger predator-prey narrative can be dissolved into a metaphor on failed romantic relationships. The first few men Amy encounters in this film fall prey to this darkened room and disappear into a void. Oftentimes read as a black widow narrative I think her pursuit lines up with struggling to find someone who will see you as you see yourself instead. These men are lured by Amy, but when sex comes up things turn disastrous. Glazer flips the point of view from Amy to that of the men in these scenes. I think in their mind they do not see Amy as normal in the way they would most women and their “deaths” are moments of panic over sexuality. The look on their faces as they realize just who they’re dealing with spells panic & confusion. Amy is left to search for a real romantic interest and these trysts with men leave no lasting impact on her. They just further her otherness and her alienation as she retreats back to her van, her safe place, and falls back into introversion. It comes as no real surprise that when she makes her first real connection with another person, it happens to be with someone who has also been ostracized by society. In the middle of the movie, she meets a man that has neurofibromatosis. They connect in a way that she couldn’t with those other men because they don’t understand her being an outcast. He does and their short moment together is one of the more tender parts of the film. Though that happy moment, like all the other happy moments in the film, is incredibly short-lived, it does reiterate Glazer’s empathy for those who exist on the fringes of society because of things they can’t control. After this scene, Glazer dips further into the ice cold, dangerous realism of existing in this world as a female-bodied person.

Under the skin 13 Under the Skin 14 Under the Skin 15 Under the Skin 16 Under the Skin 17 Under the Skin 18The transgender themes only intensify in the second half of the film when Glazer becomes obsessed with mirrors and Amy’s realization of her own body. This hyper-awareness leads her to feel (or at least seem like she feels) comfortable living in it for the first time. For a moment, her body doesn’t feel like something she’s just carrying around, but, rather, a home. There is one scene in particular that is striking and plays differently from every other moment in Under the Skin. Amy stands nude in her room bathed richly in warm colours like red and yellow instead of the normal blacks and washed out greys of Scotland. Her body shines in the presence of this room and she walks slowly to a mirror to examine herself. She twists in front of the mirror and looks at her form. Her body language indicates that it feels right. The music swells slightly as she turns around and looks at her soft back tracing down into softer curves. Her body has always been pale and ghostly, something of a mystery up until this point, but here it breaks through like the sun. Amy is an alien, so human emotions are often a struggle for her, but in this moment her thought process, and Johansson’s stilted facial expressions seem to connect mentally with the reconciliation of her body into some form of hopefulness. It’s not the charred black alien flesh that she is used to. She looks in the mirror and sees herself – a woman, a human, her body. Mirrors are mortal enemies of those dysphorically inclined, as bodies feel foreign almost constantly. Gender dysphoria is a crippling haze that unfurls into every pocket of your flesh until it feels like your skin needs to dissolve off your body. A negotiation of self-love while still recognizing the struggles of your own shell is often concurrent with day to day transgender life. Those times when you can really see yourself as yourself are the very brightest moments. When Amy notices her body for the first time, it is not unlike the lights that pierce through the fog of dysphoria.

In society, transgender women are constantly being told that their bodies are outlets for disgust , which does nothing but unfurl all of that self-hate and loathing. Disposing of it is a nigh impossible feeling, but occasionally there are bright spots in the land of dysphoria. I can only speak for my own experiences personally, but transition doesn’t fix everything. Finding your true self is an odyssey of a task. However, the scene where Amy begins to view her body as real is magnificently close to those moments when mirrors lose their villainy and just become reflective objects.

Under the skin 19 Under the skin 20 Under the skin 21 Under the Skin 22 Under the Skin 23However, as I mentioned above, those moments are often fleeting and can be capsized by moments of dysphoria at any second. Under the Skin‘s examination of gender dysphoria becomes especially apparent in the scene when Amy opens herself up to sex with the man she’s been lodging with. In that moment, Amy panics when she realizes that her genitals don’t match up with her body. It’s not because she has a penis, but instead we are left to assume she doesn’t have a vaginal cavity.  Amy at this point has been following a guide book for what she thinks human beings are supposed to do, and more specifically women, but this is something she cannot achieve. She opened up her legs and expected to experience something magical, but her body completely hijacked those feelings. She’s locked out of a pleasure in a way that many transgender women who have dysphoria around genital discomfort experience. It’s a different kind of dysphoria for transgender bodied women than what Amy experiences, but it echoes a similar feeling. When you want nothing more than to experience sex the way you imagine it in your head, and it’s not granted to you, it legitimizes a lot of those unsure feelings about the body. The subtextual transgender allegory of Under the Skin is strongest in this respect. The very specific problem of not having properly working genitals is not something that is often navigated in cinema. However, that singular moment of a woman staring into herself and seeing she doesn’t add up gives the film a very resonant moment for many women who feel the same. Scarlett Johansson delivers one of her finest moments in the picture here as well. The majority of her performance carries weight because of simple facial reactions that generally only go as far as “sly, confused, panic, acceptance.” The discomforted stare she has while looking out of a window after she realizes she cannot have sex signifies a purely human emotion: pain.

Under the Skin 24 Under the Skin 25 Under the Skin 26 Under the Skin 27The final moments of Under the Skin are gut wrenching and fear inducing. Amy is a woman and Jonathan Glazer does not gloss over the inherent danger in possessing that body and being that gender. Sexual Assault and murder are rampant all around the world, and so many women die at the hands of aggressive men. Under the Skin ends with Amy suffering such a fate, but the reason for her death isn’t because she’s a woman, rather that she’s posing as one in her murderer’s eyes. When a man tries to rape her, he sees this, and, in his horror he sets fire to her. In his eyes he was cleansing the world of something not human.

This is not a fantasy ending in a science fiction picture. This is a reality. As of March 3, 2015 a transgender woman has been murdered or committed suicide every single week this year. Amy is not explicitly a transgender woman, but she represents one in my eyes because her pursuit of finding her humanity is parallel to finding womanhood. We all find the version of ourselves that fits. We all eventually come into our own, but some of us pass on just as we are figuring those things out, and like in Under the Skin Amy died at the cusp of her humanity. She died because she tried to exist on Earth as a woman and a man didn’t see her as anything other than something horrifying. That hits incredibly close to home every time you click on a link that says “Transgender Woman found Dead.”

Under the Skin 28I’m at once repelled and drawn to Under the Skin because it so closely resembles the mindset I live with as a trans woman. It’s one of frustration, discovery, and occasionally fleeting moments of happiness. I don’t think Jonathan Glazer intended to say so much about existence on the intersection of being trans, but that’s what’s so engaging about this movie. It’s so very opaque that it’s easy for any woman to slide a relatable experience into its frames. I just happen to see a lot of my own feelings here, and I live with the reality of being a trans woman. I keep coming back to the scene where Amy stares at herself in the mirror and finds truth in her body. When I view myself, I look for that every day. I don’t often find it, but sometimes I do, and that scene specifically is a focal point in cinema that’s important to me. Though there is no happy ending in this movie, I’m hopeful for one with women who relate to this film. Under the Skin is not a pleasant picture, but it rings true, and that gives me a level of happiness despite its near immovable darkness. Relatability isn’t everything in cinema, but when you hardly ever see someone like you in movies, those characters become meaningful. Amy is Important. Under the Skin is my movie.