(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 2/3, The Female

under the skinThis is the second section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Part 1 can be found here and should be read first.

The Female
Now that I’ve examined Ava—and laid the theoretical foundation for most of my argument—I turn to Glazer’s film and, more importantly, to the simulation of a woman at its center. Though she is an otherworldly alien (rather than a manufactured AI) The Female too expands notions of the cyborg while occupying a place in the world of simulacra. Unlike Ava and Furiosa, there is nothing visibly mechanical or obviously artificial about the The Female’s appearance. She looks like a human woman, and there isn’t a scrap of metal or technology anywhere on her. Though an alien, her simulation of human femininity is so complete (at least on the surface) that no one can detect it with their eyes alone. In fact, like Ava, The Female in UtS can also be said to push simulation into hyperreality. As Elena Gorfinkel notes, Glazer’s film “tracks the movements of an alien predator in disguise, played by the sex symbol of our precarious times, Scarlet Johansson. Our alien-star body is a woman too womanly, painfully brought down-to-earth with tacky black wig, fake fur coat, acid washed jeans and heavily rouged lips” (Gorfinkel). Dressed in clothes taken from a dead woman (who was likely a sex worker), The Female—played by one of the most frequently objectified women in Hollywood—fully embodies a particular image of femininity and sexual desirability. She is an image of woman pushed almost into the realm of caricature.  Whatever her true “origin or reality” is, viewers of UtS never receive any concrete information on that score (Precession 1). Though she is not manufactured as Ava is, the Female too is a replication of woman without a clear “referential;” she is both a simulation and “a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Thus, she might as well be a woman even though she isn’t one. As Baudrillard says of a simulated robbery, “There is no ‘objective’ difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or the other. To the established order they are always of the order of the real” (Precession 20). So too is The Female regarded by the “established order”—that is by the people she around her, and especially by the men she seduces—as a “real” woman. Though her lack of interiority betrays her near the end of the film (more on that later), her exterior is never regarded as alien—the truth of her simulation is impossible to see.

Situating The Female within the image of the cyborg is no simple task. Both fully human and fully alien in her own way, The Female certainly “transgresse[s] boundaries” and “open[s] up productive ways of thinking about subjectivity, gender, and the materiality of the physical body” as cyborgs do (Balsamo 155, 157). And yet, the figure at the center of UtS is hardly a “technological object” in any literal sense (Balsamo 152). Still, in “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics,” Marc Francis connects The Female’s “indecipherable” body to Haraway’s cyborg (Francis). In doing so, Francis also notes that “the figure of the cyborg […] is still laden with contradiction,” rendering it potentially useful for “confront[ing] the question of embodiment within a so-called posthuman world” (Francis). Surely, Glazer’s film is deeply concerned with “embodiment”—with what it means to have a body and with what types of bodies should be allowed to exist. However, this does not change the fact that The Female is not a cyborg in a straightforward or material sense. As Anne Balsamo writes, “Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). The Female is “other,” but not because she is a mechanical hybrid with any overt connection to the world of technology. The Female does the work of a cyborg without actually being one. A simulation of woman, she also simulates the cyborg while existing as something else.

Moreover, with The Female at its center, UtS (much like EM) demonstrates the collapse of all distinction between human and other under postmodernism. As Sobchack argues, “Alien Others have become less other […] They have become our familiars, our simulacra, embodied as literally alienated images of our alienated selves” (Sobchack 293). Though she is not actually a human, The Female’s status as simulation prevents her from being read only as “other,” which considerably complicates interpretation of UtS. Here, Balsamo’s claim that “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious,” is useful, even if The Female only simulates the cyborgian (Balsamo 149). Simultaneous status as human, alien (and possibly, cyborg) aside, examining the fears that The Female taps into is one way of untangling Glazer’s creation.

With this in mind, many of the anxieties that The Female appears to be a product of include the reproducibility and the simulation of the human. According to Doane, “The concept of the ‘body’ has traditionally denoted the finite, a material limit that is absolute […] For the body is that which is situated as the precise opposite of the conceptual, the abstract” (Doane 110). But as Doane goes on to note, that which is finite can be reproduced (Doane 112). From this, it follows that if humans are “clearly quantifiable” and can be reduced to a “material limit,” then technology can recreate them artificially (Doane 110, 112). Fear of such reproducibility runs throughout UtS and “The Precession of Simulacra.” In line with Sobchack’s claims, The Female renders the familiar and the alien one in the same, and as Baudrillard writes, “Everywhere, in no matter what domain—political, biological, psychological, mediatized—in which the distinction between two poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and thus into absolute manipulation—not into passivity, but into the indifferentiation of the active and the passive” (Precession 31, emphasis in original). To be in the presence of The Female in UtS is to “enter[] into simulation,” into a mode of existence that leaves one open to “manipulation” and that confuses the “the active and the passive” (Precession 31). Thus, nearly all of the human men that interact with The Female are rendered helpless and lose their lives. Here I turn to Amy Herzog’s description of the film:

“We are introduced to the streets of Glasgow through her manufactured eyes, she, an unnamed alien sent to Earth, to Scotland, for purposes that remain elusive. She is a worker, an operative who cruises the city looking for easy marks, single men with few entanglements. She seduces, she hunts, but not for herself. Instead, she gathers these corporeal goods to be farmed, liquefied, and extracted, their residue collected and distributed for some unspoken use […] Her labor rests ultimately in the value of her simulated body as an object of desire.” (Herzog)

As a simulation, The Female can be read as a claim to the limitations and to the reproducibility of the human. At the same time, the way she kills men—by luring them into an incomprehensible void that one might describe as “The desert of the real itself”—makes a terrifying case for the material, finite nature of the human (Precession 1, emphasis in original). Once they’ve entered the strange, dark, and horrifyingly empty space that serves as The Female’s home, the men are absorbed by its limitless, illegible depths. There, they are reduced to nothing but floating skin and bloody goo—to meaningless, shapeless material and nothing else.

The way The Female comes to her end further demonstrates UtS’s concern that humans are—or may become—nothing more than simulatable material. After encountering (and sparing) a man deformed by neurofibromatosis—whose appearance sets him apart from her other victims and whose material body is already damaged—The Female effectively starts going-off script. Instead of devoting all her time to finding, seducing, and liquefying lone men, “She pursues small, constitutive pleasures, appetitive, aesthetic, sexual, self-confirming, that signal corporeal and sensory self-awareness. An impeccable worker until she is not, we are shown the limits of her imperfect corporeal and behavioral mimesis” (Gorfinkel). Try as she might to collect certain experiences—to eat, to have sex, to form human connection—The Female is repeatedly shown to be incapable of such things. Unlike Ava (who Nathan claims can easily experience pleasurable sex), The Female is not made to be penetrated; “Her body has not been designed to ingest” (Herzog). Her “impenetrable” body consists of “impossible orifices”: a mouth that rejects chocolate cake, a vagina that cannot be entered (Gorfinkel). She cannot be added to. The “material limit” of her body is “absolute” (Doane 110). The finite nature of The Female’s form betrays her simulative status, and such betrayal swiftly results in her death.

Though alien, The Female is perceived and treated as “real” woman up until the very moment when the material reality of her body is revealed, exposing her as simulation, as a dangerous thing capable of “short-circuit[ing]” reality (Precession 2). After failing to have sex with a man, The Female runs off into the woods, where she is found by an unnamed logger, who attempts to rape her. As she runs from him, her skin is torn, revealing a solid, black mass underneath. According to Lucas Hilderbrand, “dehumanization” in UtS “is coded through blackness” (On the matter of blackness). However, while I have no desire to disagree with Hilderbrand, I’m more concerned with the way in which The Female’s black form is evidence of a finite materiality than I am with blackness itself. As Gorfinkel notes, there is something “illegible” in the truth of The Female’s form—her body cannot be expanded through ingestion and, once revealed, it cannot be decoded either (Gorfinkel). “The revelation of” The Female’s “black” inner form “becomes the ultimate absolute evidence of [her] non-humanity” (On the matter of blackness). Beneath her simulated skin, The Female is impermeable, concrete, and cannot be breached, and her inner form looks much more like hard plastic than it does flesh. For the logger to see this aspect of her—and to be faced with the fact that he initially read her as human—is for him to face the deceptive power of simulation and the reproducibility of the body simultaneously. And so, “Immediately her aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. This sequence marks when other characters finally fail to recognize her as human within the narrative” (On the matter of blackness, emphasis in original). Her simulation comes to an end.

At the end of UtS, The Female is punished for simulating woman, for not having the penetrable orifices promised by her appearance, and for calling both the materiality and the limits of the body into question. Unlike mere “pretending,” which “leaves the principle of reality in tact,” “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the imaginary’” (Precession 3). Once unmasked as simulation, The Female’s existence becomes intolerable. Interestingly, the revelation of The Female’s interior also shows that her prosthetic is woefully incomplete, that it does not extend beyond the surface. Once that prosthetic—in the form of her incredibly realistic skin—is damaged, she is all but powerless. If only her entire body were simulation. Unlike Ava—whose body is more coherent and whose status as simulation enables her to manipulate and destroy everyone who seeks to control her—The Female’s true nature leaves her vulnerable. In EM, to be simulation is to be both monstrous and powerful; in UtS, the simulation remains monstrous, but is also doomed.

As with my examination of Ava, I’d like to end my section on The Female with a quick consideration of her emotional capacities. Like Ava, The Female too is deceptive; perhaps, as simulation, she has no choice but to be. The men who go home with her expecting sex don’t receive so much as a kiss before her otherworldly void swallows them whole, and she continually plays the part of a human woman. Like Ava, The Female interprets the emotions of others and performs humanity without actually experiencing noticeable feelings herself. As Herzog writes, she “learns quickly how to survey her marks, to read nuances in human behavior”; and yet, she herself “lacks […] the faintest traces of empathy” (Herzog). As deceptive and as vile as her actions often are, The Female watches the people of Glasgow and leads numerous men to their death “without a trace of emotion or reaction” (Loving the alien). Moreover, Glazer even goes out of his way to include a scene which makes it clear that her “lack of empathy” isn’t restricted to the men she feeds to her void (Gorfinkel). In the scene, “she goes to the sea and watches a man who attempts to save a couple from drowning nearly drown himself; she hits him on the head with a rock after he washes ashore. It’s not a mercy killing, just a killing” (Loving the alien). After killing the man, The Female ignores—and indeed, appears wholly unaffected by—the cries of the dead couple’s young child. The baby wails and wails on the beach, but The Female is unfazed. When Ava leaves Caleb to die, one gets the sense that she may be punishing him (either for selfishly objectifying her or for proving so easy for her to manipulate). However, when The Female ignores the screaming baby on the cold, rock-covered beach, there is nothing personal in her actions. She leaves the child to die, because she can’t feel a thing for it.

UtS’s chilling beach sequence highlights The Female’s inability to experience human emotions, despite the completely convincing realism of her appearance. Consequently, when The Female does seem to be (even if only slightly) touched by empathy later in the film, viewers should hardly find it surprising that the moment spells the beginning of the end for her. In attempting to enter the realms of human connection and emotion, The Female exceeds her own limits and sets off a chain of events that ends in her violent immolation. In Gorfinkel’s words, “The alien exhibits a chilling lack of empathy […] Yet after an encounter with a victim whose face suffers the congenital scars of neurofibromatosis, she is moved […] Shortly, Johansson’s alien goes off the rails wandering away from her directed task” (Gorfinkel). A finite simulation, The Female is only designed for a limited scope of interactions and behaviors—and the moment she acknowledges anything like emotion or starts seeking experiences other than those she is meant to have (a male-coded alien followers her around on a motorbike like a sort of watchdog), she begins approaching her demise. Gorfinkel makes this connection between The Female’s death and her emotional limitations more explicit writing that, “The skin of the alien cannot touch the human atmosphere without being snuffed, burned out, defaced,” because she is one in “pursuit of an impossible interiority” (Gorfinkel). Just as The Female’s body cannot ingest anything in the name of pleasure, so too does her being lack the ability to be expanded through any emotional experience. Moreover, while Ava uses her ability to simulate human connection to secure her eventual escape, The Female’s lack of emotional range robs her of the human connection she seems to crave near the end of the film. While simulating emotion has its value in UtS, Glazer seems to ascribe potential (though for The Female, unattainable) benefits to truly feeling in a way Garland does not.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 3

[A previous piece on Under the Skin can be found here.]

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