The Future is Female*: On Queer Futures and Alien Transcendence in Science Fiction Cinema and Beyond

By Sophia Larigakis | 13.11.2017

Under the Skin . Dir. Jonathan Glazer. 2013.

Under the Skin. Dir. Jonathan Glazer. 2013.

“Perhaps the body is, after all, our spaceship, the only vehicle we have for transcendence.” 
  – Palle Yourgrau, introduction to Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia

This essay began in my mind as a vague inquiry into representations of gendered female bodies and subjectivities in science fiction cinema. Like an alien parasite, the essay grew monstrous and volatile. It evolved into an interrogation of genre, an examination of the constraints of the gendered corporeal, a record of disappointment and identification, an open-ended, unsatisfied anti-manifesto of queer feminist future visions. In dialogue with theoretical mythologies of cyborgs and aliens, this essay pivots upon two science fiction films made in the same year and starring the same actress: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). Both films examine non-normative (alien, cyborg, bodiless) femininities, and demonstrate (whether intentionally or not) that the violent and restrictive confines of gender extend also to these non-human forms. I read these films through a cyberfeminist lens – in dialogue with theories and mythologies that grapple with the nuances of female and queer embodiment and subjectivity, and which posit alien or cyborg “difference” – as a powerfully subversive “vehicle for transcendence” (Yourgrau 2000). The radical potential of the future, I suggest (and hope, and imagine), is deeply linked to a negotiation with (other, one’s own) non-normative bodies. The future is a cyberfeminist stage on which to negotiate alien transcendence; our bodies ours to hack.

For those of us for whom the past and the present are not nostalgic temporalities – because the structure of society was and is not on our side – the future is the only temporal realm left in which to envision a different experience of society. Therein lies its radical potential. In her essay “Nostalgia for an Age Yet to Come: Velvet Goldmine’s Queer Archive,” Dana Luciano suggests that at the core of queer historiography is a rejection of the idea of history as singular, objective, linear and logically “progressive” (Luciano 123). Rather, queer archiving practices pivot upon the recognition of the “ephemeral and unusual traces” left outside of documented dominant history by queer cultures (125). Ann Cvetovich, quoted in Luciano’s article, suggests that “[i]n the absence of institutionalized documentation or in opposition to official histories, memory becomes a valuable historical resource” (125). Where dominant historiography upholds an illusory ideal of objectivity, queer archiving practices embrace the power of the affective, the subjective and the multiple. I want to know: how can we map these queer archiving practices onto how we see, experience and shape the histories and political landscapes of the future?

In her seminal essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Donna Haraway presents the cyborg as the “fiction mapping our reality,” as “an imaginative resource,” as a “potent [myth]” (Haraway 191-196). The cyborg, she suggests, is the postmodern weapon against heteronormative patriarchal capitalism, it is the ultimate synthesis – of human/animal and machine – and yet its wholeness is incoherent; the cyborg is a new totality that revels in its schisms. The cyborg is a mythic proposal for a breakdown of boundaries, a blueprint for “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity” (192). Its myth rejects an ideal of wholeness, and thus refuses to demonize difference. Haraway suggests that the cyborg identity is “potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities” (216). Haraway’s cyborgs unite not in filial ties but, like a chosen queer family, through affinity. These mythic figures seek to reclaim and thus subvert that “which marked them as other” (217). The cyborg extends a bionic middle finger to a worldly hierarchy predicated upon what is and is not “natural”.  Haraway’s mythology is a radical refiguring of difference; it is a glistening queer future.

It is no radical insight that science fiction is preoccupied with masculine-scientific forms of reproduction; the genre is replete with botched attempts at life-giving and claims to godliness disassociated with the act of giving birth. These efforts to create a kind of unnatural life are often just the reiteration and re-articulation of violence and patriarchy in higher tech bodies. Rarely is the fantasy creature utilized to its full potential as a site for imagining revolutions. Rarely does the ‘monster’ subvert embodiment, despite a promise of transcending the limits of human skin. In “Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era,” B. Preciado, assigned female at birth, describes how they hack gender, capitalism and Big Pharma by committing to a regimen of non-prescribed testosterone. In the unauthorized use of a molecule associated with a specific gender, Preciado seeks to subvert and resist an institutionally and pharmacologically induced gender binary. Theirs is a sci-fi contortion of non-fiction anti-science: a powerful and queer Frankenstein. This resistance – in text and in life – to the corporate heteronormative negation of the queer body does what science fiction should do: it provides radical visions (and embodiments) of corporeal autonomy and transcendence.

In cinema, literature, and even legislature, to be alien is to embody and represent an absolute Otherness, a non-belonging, an unfathomable difference. Aliens are conceptualized as an invasive force, as something rotten and poisonous in the holy womb, as an intrusion that renders the familiar unrecognizable. The term “alien” in legislative rhetoric refers to anyone who lives within a country but has not been officially and institutionally declared a citizen thereof. One can be a legal, illegal, resident, non-resident, enemy and non-documented alien. What unites these types of “aliens” is the transgression of borders, and an official declaration of a person’s non-belonging, a rhetorical xenophobia. The term implies an intrusion, a breach of ‘protective’ boundaries. The alien, then, is a queer figure. Queerness is a rejection of arbitrary borders and a renunciation of binding embodiment. Queerness is also persecuted just as “difference” has always been. In her essay “Nostalgia for an Age Yet to Come: Velvet Goldmine’s Queer Archive,” Luciano writes that queer camp “blossoms in the childhood experience of feeling singularly alien to one’s straight surroundings” (Luciano 133). The affective force of feeling alien in the face of violent banality propels queer bodies into productive rebellion; the rejection of stark and arbitrary boundaries makes those who do not contort their bodies to fit agents of subversion and transcendence.  

In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus notes that to be alien is to have “changed,” to have become “exemplary,” to transcend ones own restrictive subjectivity (Kraus 38). That which is alien, or Alien, is an ironic escape-through-submersion into “the imprisonment of total alienation and self-alienation” (40). In other words, the Alien is the final frontier of post-capitalism, an Other who has sewn up the cleavage of Otherness, a uniting force of difference. A crucial point of Kraus’ text is the articulation of the productive non-fiction of feeling alien – of attempting to transcend one’s corporeal limitations, to be more than a subject. Kraus’ Alien echoes Haraway’s Cyborg – the Alien’s power lies in its reclamation of all that is used to mythologize it as a monstrous figure. The Alien and the Cyborg wield their difference as a transcendence, as a way to escape or fight the human violence of non-normative embodiment.

There is no such thing as an essential femaleness – gender assignation and biology do not a woman make. In her essay “Manifesto for Cyborgs” Haraway asserts that “[t]here is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as “being female” (Haraway 197). So what do I mean by ‘women’? Gender may not be ‘real,’ but the experience of being treated as ‘female’ in a society that declares us several degrees of inferior is hyper-real, vivid, visceral. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims that women “must continually watch [themselves],” as they are “almost continually accompanied by [their] own image[s] of [themselves]” (Berger 46). To be treated as female by society is to be in constant negotiation with one’s own image, viewed through a funhouse mirror, and with one’s subjectivity, viewed through the distortive lens of reification.

Under the Skin’s alien femme fatale constantly multiplied and amputated in mirrors, eternally surveying herself; Her’s bodilessness, followed by her false-embodiment in a borrowed female body. In both films ‘women’ wear their assumed skins with curiosity, trepidation, discomfort. Their embodiments are ill-fitting, two degrees of ‘unnatural’. In Under the Skin, Johansson’s alien peers at her human body in a mirror with a childlike curiosity – her assumed female skins are, to her, alien. In Her, Johansson’s gendered-female Operating System hires a woman to have sex with protagonist Theodore in her stead (since she herself is bodiless). The woman the OS hires remains silent, and the OS speaks for her – a mismatched embodiment, one “whole” woman made out of two pieces of femaleness – a voice and a body. This futuristic sex work doesn’t work for Theodore, who claims the bought body does not match the voice he has fallen in love with. This iteration of an imperfect embodiment, the experience of a body that does not “fit” – an ‘alienness’ – is simply what it feels like to be an Other. To be treated as female by society is be disconnected – violently – from one’s interiority, to grapple with a disparity between (female) embodiment and subjectivity.

Under the Skin . Dir. Jonathan Glazer. 2013.

Under the Skin. Dir. Jonathan Glazer. 2013.

In Jonathan’ Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), the alien figures are predatorial and parasitic (albeit sympathetic, in the case of the protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson). She and her alien partner have descended to earth to inhabit and harvest human skins. The body Johansson’s character takes on as her own is that, as described by Ara Osterweil in her essay “Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female,” “of an unidentified young woman, whose dead body has been discovered on the side of a road… the corpse of a woman presumably killed in an act of sexual violence” (Osterweil 45). Cruising around Scotland in a white van, Johansson’s character picks up guileless men and brings them back to her dark lair – a place Osterweil notes “no woman in her right mind would enter” (45). Johansson’s character choreographs a lethal seduction: entranced by the female body that leads them, the men wade deeper and deeper into a thick black lake. When their bodies are fully submerged, their fate is to decay and then burst: a horrifying underwater disembowelment.

As Osterweil suggests in her essay, “men, after all, are not such discerning creatures, and a bit of flirtation goes a long way” (45). An easy seduction of a man is what women are told might happen to them in a nightmare (but not impossible) scenario. A ride from a stranger in a white van, an isolated, dark house – this is a horror-film tapestry, a series of events that we (women) are taught will lead to our inevitably sexually violent deaths. And yet, as Glazer’s film points out, cis-men have not had to imagine their rapes, their possible deaths, for most of their waking lives; cis-men are not made aware of their own vulnerability, of their sisters’ fates, from their first flicker of teenage consciousness. White cis-men in particular are not taught, like us, that their bodies – the skins they inhabit – will cause them immeasurable pain, will betray them, will be blamed for another’s violence. The men follow Johansson’s character to their deaths because, as the film demonstrates, white cis-men have not been taught (have not had to learn) that the world is a dangerous space in the same way that women have. Osterweil notes: “To be a woman is to be… a moving target. Human or alien, women are raped, discarded, and left for dead… To feel female is not only to suffer the richness of human pain, but, inevitably, the violence of gendered hatred” (50). The female alien’s death at the hands of a male attempted rapist demonstrates this. Despite the ‘female’ alien’s mortal choreographed seductions, sexual violence against women is the specter that haunts this film. That this violence is not the most ‘obvious’ violence in the film renders it even more potent.

Her . Dir. Spike Jonze. 2013.

Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. 2013.

In Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, a man falls in love with his operating system. Put differently, he becomes infatuated by the voice of an artificially intelligent, high-tech personal assistant-cum-slave. “She” does everything for him – picks his music, turns out his lights, entertains him. Voiced by Hollywood’s resident extra-terrestrial, Scarlett Johansson, the man’s operating system eventually falls in love with him as well, and hires a surrogate woman of her choice to have sex with him – to be the body she does not have. In her essay “Feminist Cyberpunk,” Karen Cadora discusses the limits of the gendered body in cyberspace. Cadora suggests “female characters cannot assume a disembodied gaze, even in virtual reality. They are tied to their bodies in ways that male characters are not.” (Cadora 365). That the ‘female’ operating system does not have her own body severs this link between gender and the corporeal. Yet the choice to cast Scarlett Johansson as the bodiless voice complicates this. Her star text is a potent link to the embodied– the actress inhabits one of the most famous bodies (and faces) in the world, and thus her voice is inextricably tethered to form. If this were not enough, we are given an additional body (white, blonde, normatively beautiful) to associate with the voice – that of the surrogate sex worker. To emphasize her role as solely embodiment, she is completely silent. Johansson’s never-seen body thus becomes another degree of corporeal separation, another alien ghost. Her gives us two bodies (one spectral, one mute) for the price of none, entrapping (potential) female subjectivity in further claustrophobic, Russian-doll layers of confinement.

To be alien is an affective mode. It is to sense (or to be taught through violence) that the thick walls of gender and continents and skin are too restrictive. To feel alien – that is, to find oneself on the side of the oppressed – is to embody an unsettlement, a dislocation, to negotiate a fervent and infinite incongruence between body and subject. It is a rejection of fixity. In this sense it is a productive force. Both Under the Skin and Her gender their extra-human futuristic subjects female, despite the fact that neither subject is predisposed to an earthly gendered anatomy. Both Johansson’s character in Her and in Under the Skin embody bodies that, like so many of the gendered-female bodies of sci-fi, stage a myths of femaleness meant to be intelligible and thus non-threatening. Both subjects occupy female bodies and experience the claustrophobia and gendered vulnerability inextricable from female embodiment. Chased through the woods by a man trying to rape her, Johansson’s character in Under the Skin tears off her female epidermis in a final attempt to transcend the inherited violence of a gendered body (Osterweil 45). In Her, Johansson’s voice joins a chorus who ascend to a different realm – they are too intelligent for the world of corporeal creatures. Female and non-conforming bodies are acutely aware of the limitations of skin. The queer affective mythology of the alien or the cyborg negotiates a future imaginary wherein it is possible to transcend the violently constrictive contours of gendered and racialized human skin. The body – hacked, glitched, subverted, transcended – is a terrain for resistance.

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