this post is about under the skin. consider this your spoiler warning.
Under the skin. Where the truth of me resides (I almost said “lies”).
The character Scarlett Johansson plays in Under the Skin is referred to as Laura in some interviews and press materials but, importantly, is never actually named in the film. She wouldn’t have been given a real name, being born into her strange life on Earth as an adult woman.
I once asked my mother (I never told either of my parents I was trans) what name they had picked out for their first child if that child (me) had been a girl, thinking that I might take that name as my own, but she said they knew they were having a boy before they picked out a name. It is both true that I had a childhood and that I didn’t.
She (“Laura”) moves through the world alone, observing.
I often move through the world alone, and sometimes I feel more like an observer than a participant. Wanting to connect with certain people but not knowing how. There is a sequence in the film, images of faces, expressions, reactions and interactions. A way of seeing humanity, a way of processing the world. When I came out of the film, I saw the faces of people in a different light, my brain cutting the images up, a touch here, a laugh there, everything seeming so foreign, humanity seeming so alien.
People look at her and think she is real, even though she isn’t. She is scrutinized as a woman, by herself, by the imposing male figure who is part of whatever it is she’s doing here, and by the men who want her. She stands up to scrutiny. She blends in, though the film makes Johansson look subtly other, her hair framing her face in such a way as to give it a strange shape, and Johansson herself giving her features an unsettling stillness.
People look at me and think I’m not real, even though I am. I don’t stand up to scrutiny, don’t blend in like she does. I’m scared to use public restrooms because I don’t want to make other women uncomfortable. So because I worry about making others uncomfortable, I’m not as comfortable in my skin as I could be. I am a somewhat different person from the person I feel like I am (“I am not what I am”) because I am aware that, to other people, I don’t always look like what I am. That awareness changes me. If I looked more like me, I could be more me. But, then, isn’t that actually not me, since that’s not who I am, and this is? And so I wonder to what extent our faces reflect us and to what extent they shape us. (One of the men she picks up in the film suffers from a condition that has left his face disfigured, and his presence and their interactions drive these questions home hard.)
She engages in acts of seduction to lure men back to her home. She puts on a performance of warmth for the men but the act is entirely cold. (The death we see one of the men suffer is one of the most literally and figuratively chilling depictions of annihilation I’ve seen in a film.) These acts of seduction mostly take place on the roadside, but one occurs in a dance club. These men don’t know her at all, but they want her sexually, and she takes advantage of that.
I sometimes feel particularly alien at dance clubs and parties. I’ve never felt like there was any power in sexuality for me, and when I see strangers hooking up with each other, I sometimes ask myself if I’ve never engaged in that behavior because it’s not something I want or because it’s something I’ve always felt forbidden from participating in. Is it because I wasn’t interested in sex that didn’t feel rooted in emotional intimacy, or because I wasn’t comfortable with my body? When a crowd of people got onto my BART train after the movie, I couldn’t help but think, If I were going to try to create a calculated connection with one of these people, who would it be? How would I go about it? How do you perform that? It’s not something I’ve ever learned.
She comes to want a real connection with someone, but she is betrayed by her body.
As for me, I will never be able to fully untangle the complexity of my own feelings about my body, much less fully understand how the fact of my being trans has impacted the way others have felt about me and treated me, the willingness or inclination of this particular person or that one to see me as a potential friend, or a potential partner. I feel like love is my only real hope, that in the context of loving and being loved, I can let go of some of that, put the questions behind me and know that I’m connecting with someone who sees me for who I am under the skin.
As she pursues a more human life, we see that, while certain beautiful aspects of human connection will always be off-limits to her as I have often felt they might be off-limits to me, she has one last thing in common with me: she can be victimized like any other woman.
I guess maybe she is a real human woman after all.