Men as Prey: Under The Skin’s Connection to Gay Victimization

CW:  So, just as a heads-up, this analysis is going to talk about sexual assault, rape, and murder involving hetero and homosexual individuals.

It is extremely hard to deny the feminist underpinnings that are at the heart of the film adaptation of Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson’s otherworldly predator of a protagonist takes on the body of a woman in order to lure and then harvest the young men of Scotland, secure in their belief that nothing terrible could happen to them. As the movie progresses, though, she starts to take on a slow understanding and identification with that new form, to the point where she begins to be objectified and victimized herself. This character is ripe for analysis, but I feel that from a bisexual perspective, something begins to show itself by analyzing the film’s alien together with the men she chooses to lure to their deaths. The upheaval of the narrative of the woman victim and the male sexual predator, the flipping of this all-too-familiar story, is a compelling hook to hang the narrative on. It is also reminiscent of something that is also all-too-familiar to the queer male community and has hung over it like a dark cloud. Under The Skin can be interpreted as a look into how the gay community has to deal with opening itself to a dangerous world of predatory and sometimes fatal behavior when dating.

The film’s director, Jonathan Glazer, characterizes the majority of men in his film as being carefree when it comes to sexual experiences and meeting other people for romance. They act and believe that nothing bad can happen to them, to the point where anyone eager to be with Johansson’s alien character is willing to abandon common sense safety measures. Glazer shows a world where men consider heterosexual sex to be something without consequence, most likely due to the fact that they believe that if there is any sexual aggression that will take place, they will be the aggressors. Women are left to wonder if their encounters will turn dangerous, and to take precautions in case they do. This is not to say that woman-on-man sexual violence isn’t real, only that society has objectified women and build up a toxic form of masculinity to the point where such a thing seems to be nonexistent to our culture. The alien’s place in this is that she is an unnatural thing, something that the movie emphasizes when her skin is pulled off and it is shown that she is something like an obsidian mannequin. She upturns what is common convention by working against it. She is the danger that cannot be conceived as existing within the system.

As I was watching the movie for the first time, something gnawed at me. I knew that the themes presented in the first half of the film were very different from the typical image of negative sexual relationships usually portrayed by mass media, but they still seemed familiar in a way that was slightly upsetting. I reflected on my feelings and realized that the concept of men as sexual victims, while not depicted often in horror movies and films in general, is something that is still fresh in the minds of the gay community.

Gay dating does not fall into the clear-cut dichotomy that Glazer portrays in the movie. It would be offensive and an incredible overestimation to say that the strides that individuals, advocacy groups, and political representatives have made to make the world more inclusive have completely solved the issues that we face while dating the same gender. There are a multitude of threats that lie within the orbit of the gay community when it comes to finding people that we love. For men not already out, there is always the threat of being exposed. Being caught with their significant other could remove their ability to come out on their own terms. This could have lasting social and economic repercussions on their lives. There’s an emotional aspect to this too. It can be traumatizing to have something so integral to your sense of self taken from you, especially if it’s in a high-stress situation. For men that are openly gay, living without shame and just allowing themselves to exist with their partner in public places carries multiple risks. Someone might come up and hound them over daring to love each other in a way that this person refuses to accept. Both sides of this couple might be targeted for harassment at both work and home. For every queer man out there that puts themselves out and tries to meet someone, there is always the potential of coming across someone that has terrible intentions. Whether that be a violation or something potentially deadly, the threat is there. Members of the community must consciously push dangerous people out from their spaces or vet individuals in order to counteract sexual predators.

These are not dangers that have just been relegated to a grim past or to homophobic devoutly religious countries. Although Western nations have become increasingly welcoming to the gay community, there are still potentially fatal dangers that come from dating. From 2010 to 2017, a serial killer operated in Toronto and predominantly targeted gay men. As stated in the New York Times, “Bruce McArthur, 66, [ . . . ] was arrested on Jan. 18 and charged in two killings then [ . . . ] three additional murders. [ . . . ] Several of the victims and Mr. McArthur himself had ties to the Gay Village, a predominantly gay neighborhood, according to the authorities.” Members of the gay community there knew that they were being targeted and consistently attempted to get the police to listen to their concerns, but officers refused to even consider that there was an active serial killer in the area until there were already several deaths. The paper also explains that “[ . . . ] men had been vanishing from the Gay Village [in Toronto] for years, spurring rumors of a serial killer. In December [ of 2017], the Toronto police chief, Mark Saunders, said there was no evidence of such a killer — an assertion that prompted outrage just weeks later, when Mr. McArthur was charged.” Furthermore, the fact that McArthur’s targets were mostly people of color may have played a role into lack of police response. Rolling Stone points to an interview of someone familiar with the Gay Village to explain this. “When gay brown men started alerting [police] that brown men were going missing, it was also this time when white people were very upset that immigrants were moving into their own neighborhoods,” says Lisa Amin, a human rights lawyer and LGBTQ activist. “So I’m not surprised that the police who live in those suburbs didn’t care about people going missing. You have officers policing a community that they just don’t give a damn about.”

Police are more concerned about threats to mainstream society over the protection of a more marginalized subset of it. Politicians are more concerned about who has to bake our cakes and who we can adopt from rather than allowing us to engage in the things that make us people. Our problems exist in a systemic blind spot that only gets focused on when we intersect with mainstream heterosexual culture. When Glazer says that men exist in a world of carefree sexuality, the reality is that he is only speaking about heterosexual men. Everything outside of that spectrum involves careful management and a vague worry that eventually something will go wrong.

There’s an overlap between the members of our community most vulnerable to victimization and the victimized men in Under the Skin. Consider that the alien’s preferred choice of victims is single men without families or friends. There is a section at the beginning of the film that shows the protagonist driving around and meeting with different men, inquiring about them and their home situation. When they mention local ties, she immediately moves to break off conversation and drive away. Many queer men live without familial support. Many runaway and homeless gay individuals find themselves in that state because of being kicked out of the home. The alien preys on individuals that are socially isolated, something that many gay men face after coming out. Several of McArthur’s targets were gay immigrants, people for whom this already-debilitating isolation is further magnified due to their status as outsiders.

The protagonist has her own support structure that help her to hunt down these men, and at times occasionally cover for her failures. The importance of the alien not working alone when it comes to drawing parallels between the feminist message of Under the Skin and a queer analysis of the film cannot be understated. Sexual predators may work in isolated one-on-one instances, but they never operate by themselves. They exist in a world that supports them. Often, we see this in cultural and governmental failure that leads to an environment where these people are allowed to hurt others freely. How often is it that society tends to disregard the victims in rape situations or shame them into not speaking out? How much harder does it become when those victims are part of the gay community? A simple lack of internal care is enough to enable individuals in these communities, as well. As Rolling Stone points out, “What happens to men and women [of color] outside the village is a complete fuckin’ mystery to most of the people around here,” says Brian de Matos, an activist alongside Amin with the grassroots group Queers Crash the Beat. “I guarantee you if it’s not happening to a white gay man in the village, nobody cares. [ . . . ]”

It’s important to note that the first person that we see is a motorcylist that’s part of this support system. The first way he interacts with the alien is by coming across the van that she uses throughout the first half of the film, already parked nearby. This fixer parks next to it and then carries an incapacitated woman up from a nearby field before dumping her into the vehicle’s trunk. We then immediately cut to the alien looking over and undressing her body. The biker acts in concert with her up until she abandons her abduction of men. This enabler and three other bikers that he meets with after she leaves protrude an aura of menace as the film cuts back to them occasionally to show them searching for her. However, it is somewhat clear that their main goal is to retrieve her in order to continue their original plan in some fashion. Whether this involves replacing the alien or resetting her mental state is not mentioned. In any case, these four men are as embroiled in luring and harvesting men for their bodies as the protagonist is. They are perpetuating a system with the alien built on the suffering of a group of men that will not be mourned if they are violated or even killed. It can be read that these individuals stand-in for a society as a whole that equips the protagonist with what she needs to carry out her role and even provides a sort of pressure for her to do what she does. The movie hints at this systematic failure when the alien is pulled into a group of women in one scene and taken to a club, where she finds another man that she successfully harvests. We enter this setting in a place where sexual predators already have a way to exist that is supported by the mainstream. The alien has no oversight and can exist unseen in a community. The world of Under the Skin is one built and readied to facilitate the arrival of the protagonist and support her existence.

These two points synthesize well with the ending of the film, where the protagonist is destroyed by a would-be rapist terrified of what she is underneath her skin. Lacking her support system (which never ends up finding her and ends the film frustrated in a snowy field) and its backing, and socially isolated (relying only on a mostly one-sided relationship for shelter and education about the world around her), the alien is found in a secluded area by a sexual predator and then murdered after his attempt to violate her fails. The parallel is there, but ultimately the movie keeps us from taking the mistaken opinion of seeing this as some of comeuppance. A person who had started to develop empathy and identify with their past victims was in turn victimized for starting to pull away from her old life and take the first steps to embracing something new, a final horror on top of all the other deaths to drive home the terribleness of this entire victimization process. No one is deserving of this. It is objectively an evil visited upon people that only serves the perpetrator.

Glazer has a message that he wants to get across, and he does so with a clarity of purpose that makes his film a hard-hitting commentary about how sexual objectification ultimately destroys both women and men, reducing the former to literally skin-deep imagery that masks the individual underneath and the latter to raw productive flesh and blood. He showcases male victims so many times that it is definitely worthy to analyze this movie as stating something about them. Even if his main focus is on the alien protagonist, it is impossible to say that he did not want his male audiences to think about themselves in that victimized position. The men in this movie live attempting to make connections by putting themselves out to someone they never would expect to hurt them. They exist in a hostile world where no one is looking for them if they disappear. As he places the male audience in that vulnerable state, Glazer ends up also making them deal with what many gay men already have to face. Male viewers are made to see themselves in these men and how they often just disappear from the movie without any follow-up or closure or care from the world around them. This identification could help heterosexual men realize just how difficult it is for us to deal with these situations. I see this as opening the eyes of people to become more empathetic to queer men in a way that might get ignored if we just tell them about the dangers we face. Science-fiction, fantasy, and horror have always been used as ways to get mainstream readers to consider the issues and plights of minority members where usually they would be turned off by their own bigotry from a more overt approach. Under the Skin parallels and thus showcases some of the biggest threats that gay men face to a straight audience due to its focus on sending a message direct to that heterosexual perspective.

Accordingly, Under the Skin‘s message slots well into being a showcase of how the gay community is not a world of free sex and pleasure that right-wing demagogues would suggest that it is, but a marginalized community that still has to deal with many negative consequences for simply attempting to make connections with one another and find love. In this way, it joins itself to the feminist message already at the heart of the film and reminds viewers that our safety from predation is just as important as their own.

I’m a fiction writer who’s slowly dipping my toes into writing for online publications about things that I love and resonate with me. You can reach me at daniel.alarcon@spartans.ut.edu.

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