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Margaret Atwood writes in The Robber Bride that woman in every form is a male fantasy: even womanhood as actually performed by women. There is an “ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” Certainly Scarlett Johansson as the alien skinwalker in Under the Skin becomes her own voyeur, internalizing the reactions of others, imagining and wondering about her body as an object.

Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 art-horror film Under the Skin opens in the dark bowl of an iris; From its beginning, watching, looking, seeing, and the greedy consumption of images are major themes.  Under the Skin is a disturbing adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, in which an alien being inhabits the body of a human woman, unbeknownst to those she encounters. This sci-fi set up is used, to great effect, to explore very terrestrial dynamics: the politics of public and private voyeurism, gender difference and straight sex. Under The Skin is an art film with a relatively small distribution and audience; however, with Scarlett Johansson’s thoughtful, effective lead performance, it becomes a model for what an intelligent, female-led sci-fi film can be. Throughout Under the Skin, Johansson’s unnamed alien navigates the strange subtleties of performing womanhood: she watches women apply makeup, she observes how they walk, she wears the clothes of a dead girl. She is building a woman from the outside in. Her purpose: to lure men into an unmarked white van, promising sex but delivering oblivion. Johansson trawls the streets like a typical predator, watching for hours, her kohl-darkened eyes flicking from rearview mirror to window and back. Finally, a likely victim accepts a ride. She takes him to an empty home where she strips her shirt. As he follows her into the room, taking off his clothes, he sinks slowly into black liquid.

Soon, she meets another man in a bus. She has become curious: what happens next, normally? He cooks her dinner, provides her with a room, takes her on romantic walks. She becomes fascinated with the body she has stolen, an unknown tool. Nude and by the light of a candle, she contorts it into submissive postures before a mirror, trying to understand its deadly appeal. What is it really for? She attempts to have sex with the man from the bus only to stop him in pain as he enters her. Shocked, she grabs the lamp from the bedside and holds it to her crotch, seeking out the inconsistency in herself: the opening that somehow doesn’t leak her blackness. The alien’s transformation into human woman appears to be complete when she becomes the victim of sexual violence rather than its perpetrator. Her attacker chases her through the woods, determined; he scratches at her back, loosing her skin, which is deteriorating over its alien form. He runs away, having seen too much of her actual figure. Peeling off her woman-skin, Johansson reveals her alien self: a black hole made mannequin, the most female of spaces, the unreflective, unknowable void. She stares fascinated at the face she wore to entrance others.

What does it mean to be your own voyeur? Are we all having sex in someone else’s skin? Are we also impersonating women? We see ourselves from the outside, self-evaluating, performing to the specifications of that interior watcher. We become a projection of ourselves, the man within, our voyeuristic interest—are we even still present? Or are we simply black voids of intention, supporting the skin of women? These concentric circles of voyeurism are compounded by the act of watching the film itself, the central voyeurism of cinema as theorized by Laura Mulvey. The casting of Scarlet Johansson, the only known face in the film, adds to this effect: the audience is hungry to watch her watching others, watching herself. Under The Skin also relies on hidden-camera footage to capture Johansson luring men into her van, another layer of voyeurism.

Under the Skin is a high-concept sci-fi horror film that explains very little while asking a lot of questions, relying on audience assumptions, the keening, mysterious score, and Johansson’s subtle acting and beauty to keep viewers engaged. Glazer’s film circles issues of gender and violence, attempting to reverse normal sex dynamics and postulate a truly frightening female predator. However, it is clear he directs for a male audience; a woman watching Under the Skin is likely to identify positively with Johansson, irritated at the men constantly accosting her. She is more likely to be thinking about her own experiences with pushy, overconfident men than to be horrified at the artfully rendered killings in the film. The stylish photography and score attempt to focus the fear on the woman-as-predator, but the true horror element is the very pedestrian female unknown: the not-self generated within women, the secret part of herself, dark and consuming, un-watchable.

This theme is echoed in other recent sci-fi films headlined by Johansson, like Lucy and Her, both of which in some way confront that ultimate male fear—the hidden world of the woman unwatched. Her’s artificial intelligence Samantha is completely incomprehensible—she’s inhuman. Her infinite consciousness and incorporeality give her space to develop an inner self. When confronted with the truth that his handheld lover is conducting hundreds of similar affairs and is writing an advanced theory book, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is shocked and heartbroken: in his mind, Samantha’s world was limited to his handheld device, their conversations, his face. Her unknowability is his heartbreak, and though director Spike Jonze may have wanted audiences to focus on the love story, many were more fascinated by Samantha’s mind—the possibilities suggested by her untapped, ostensibly female consciousness.

Luc Besson’s futurist Lucy also poses Johansson as a fount of potential; after accidentally rupturing bags of a new mind-enhancing drug sewn into her stomach, her brain’s capacity is “unlocked.” She ultimately becomes capable of manipulating time and matter before evolving beyond the bounds of her physical form entirely and entering the environment as millions of conscious particles. Lucy was criticized for its rather convoluted and silly plot, but Johansson’s performance and Besson’s action and sci-fi pedigree (The Fifth Element, The Transporter) allowed it to bring in nearly $44m in its opening weekend.

In addition to Under the SkinLucy, and Her there is also Johansson’s continuing role as spy-warrior Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers franchise (she was heavily featured in last Spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier). All this—plus recent rumors that she has been tapped for Ghost in the Shell and a Black Widow standalone—puts Johansson at the head of a burgeoning push to add some gender diversity to sci-fi and action/adventure films. Johansson pulls in big audiences; Lucy’s successful opening weekend outsold the Dwayne Johnson-led Hercules, against the predictions of critics. She makes interesting choices because she can now afford to. Johansson is at the peak of her career, fueled by massive Marvel audiences and widespread name recognition thanks to her earlier films like, Lost in Translation or The Other Boleyn Girl. Johansson’s outspoken criticism of the superficiality of most female roles, her pushback to sexist film reporting and her recent projects mark her as a changemaker in sci-fi.

Second Dimensions is a new column written by Jess Lempit on the intersection of gender and science fiction.