Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics

By Marc Francis

For many, Scarlett Johansson’s recent career choices seem obviously “cyborgian.”  Johansson’s body in Lucy, Under the Skin, and Her undergoes technological or scientific metamorphoses that are deeply enmeshed in governing cybernetic or biochemical networks. This fact alone echoes what Donna Haraway called in her now famous 1985 essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs," a figure “simultaneously animal and machine.”[1] [open notes in new window] Given that Haraway describes the cyborg as a “creature in a post-gender world,” one might be tempted to say that, in retrospect, the cyborg appears as queer as it does feminist in Haraway’s writing.[2] In an implicit move to de-naturalize gender, Haraway writes that the cyborg is,

“not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generates antagonistic dualisms without end.”[3]

What makes Scarlett Johansson’s “body trilogy” (as I am calling it here) so interesting is, in part, its ability to break from gendered notions of innocence, and its refusal of a system of gender and sexual binaries. How then does Johansson—as undeniably feminized human star and elusive cyborg—complicate attempts to claim the cyborg’s symbolic meanings as both queer and feminist?

If the figure of the cyborg, more than thirty years after Haraway’s prescient thesis, is still laden with contradiction (it belongs to no one and has equal potential to be used as a force of oppression or disobedience), consider what weight this bears on the queer and feminist theories that confront the question of embodiment within a so-called posthuman world. Given this problematic, it is tempting to address what Robyn Wiegman in Object Lessons frames as the “discordant temporalities” within which queer and feminist theory “diverge” from one another. With Scarlett Johansson—a star who appears to marshal these many discourses—as guide, I want to trace how the figure of the cyborg in Johansson’s films, as a signifier for systems of capitalist-patriarchal domination as well as their breaks, may supply important tools for framing the relationship between current queer and feminist discursive formations.

As I move among the modes of disembodiment (Her), split-embodiment (Under the Skin), and hyper-embodiment (Lucy) in Scarlett Johansson’s films, I will offer up multiple readings that correspond with varying modes of critique without committing to one over the others. My aim here is not to negotiate the terms of queerness and feminism—sometimes operating coextensively or collaboratively and other times contentiously against one another—rather it is to pinpoint the discursive implications of their limits and openings. In this sense, I depart from more conventional star studies that allegorize the star in order to explain larger cultural phenomena that either affirm or trouble a supposed zeitgeist. Instead, I regard her more as paradigmatic of knowledge production both within the academy and without. I see Johansson as not so much a vehicle or vessel but as a compass orienting us toward tough questions in which we may be invested: What is the future of feminist critique of mainstream and independent cinema? Does it necessarily correlate with that of queer critique? Or does queer criticism—as stemming from feminist concerns of gender construction—do enough to cover its feminist bases, free now to independently roam and explore the open and shifting landscape of sexuality?[4] My hope is that these questions will also uncover ways to critically think and feel through the potential impasses and aporia produced by the trendy so-called “posts” in critical theory—whether postfeminist, postmodernist, posthumanist, or postgender.

In an age where “gender studies” has begun to supplant “women’s studies” on campuses across the country (and other parts of the world), and queer becomes a chosen identity over gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (among others), we may wonder, along with Robyn Wiegman, why queer theory seems to be biting the proverbial hand that feeds it. What has created the rift between queer theory and feminism that legal theorist Janet Halley persuasively locates in her book Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism?[5] It is within the figure of Scarlett Johansson—tracked through the body trilogy—that I situate this ostensible divergence. Throughout this essay, I will demonstrate how Johansson’s body, on the one hand, queered through abstraction, and on the other, objectified and subjugated by misogyny, offers scholars and critics a place to exercise their political desires and concerns. In the end, I will argue that Johansson is emblematic of both the bad and the good—the two sides of the feminist and queer coins—in Haraway’s cyborg. That is to say that at the precise moment that one tries to mobilize the body trilogy to critical ends in the name of one discourse, the other seems to push back with diametric oppositional force. More central to my point, though, is that her critics seem poised to negotiate, claim/reclaim, or repudiate the figure of the cyborg when it would seem most beneficial to retain its contradictory valences. My argument is not that we simply “be of two minds about it,” but that we address and sit with rather than circumnavigate the ostensible split Johansson’s body politics incite.

.... hyper-embodiment in Lucy, .... .... disembodiment in Her

Since the 1990s, women’s and gender studies programs have often incorporated and cultivated queer theoretical, philosophical, and social aims, perhaps unsurprisingly because these departments became the primary academic sites for studying gender and sexuality. In fact, one might be hard-pressed to find a women’s and/or gender studies department that does not today offer classes in queer theory. So is the suggestion here that to do “good” feminist critique nowadays one must also attend to the queer, noting sexual and gender ambiguities, transgressions, and overall challenges to existing norms? If queer theory builds upon feminism, expanding its scope through varying concerns, objects, discourses, and subject positions, perhaps we have come to a point where the discursive borders are not so easy to locate. I am reminded here of what Jane Gaines once wrote:

“queer theory is not antithetical to feminism because feminism is a kind of base line for it. Neither is queer theory just one of the many feminisms. Queer theory is feminism and more.”[6]

Though Gaines’ description seems quite apt of the turn towards queer in 1990s cultural studies, Scarlett Johansson, whether we like or not, has come to embody, or disembody, precisely what I would like to call this “crisis of attribution” in the current sociopolitical and academic climate.

Under the Skin, a film in which Johansson plays an alien who is programmed to seduce and abduct men in order to procure their skin for her species (the exact reason remaining unknown), has been both lauded and criticized for its relationship to gender and sexuality. Ara Osterweil comments that the film is “one of the most important feminist interventions in recent cinematic history.”[7] She praises the film for advancing a “radical proposition: to be female is to be alien.” Though Johansson clearly signifies a feminine form, the film’s empowering capabilities, for Osterweil, lie in the alien’s penchant for looking, gazing, or “cruising” the physical world without being fully acculturated into it. Her alienness frees her of the normative protocol assigned to women as eroticized specimens and not eroticizing agents. The tragedy that ensues in the film, Osterweil notes, stems from her external marking as female despite an internal alienness. The misogynist sexual violence inflicted upon Johansson’s body is a manifestation of her punishment for asserting sexual agency forbidden in a male-dominated world.

The alien/cyborg is sexually assaulted in Under the Skin. Incommensurable bodies in Under the Skin

But where Osterweil seems to see a somewhat fluid, albeit belated, process of self-discovery on the part of the alien-becoming-sentient, I see a marked incommensurability between the figure’s two forms of embodiment throughout the film: the human pathos on the one hand and social alterity on the other; the two almost meet but they never do completely. This is best exemplified in the film’s ending, when the alien looks at herself in these two forms. Staring into each other’s “faces,” the black body that lay underneath the skin the whole time conveys no legible affect while tears stream down Johansson’s face. The eyes of the mask that is Johansson’s face even blink to remind us that the human component to this alien can be shed but not so easily annihilated—it exists independently of the body that wears it. The violence inflicted upon first Johansson’s body and then the alien’s body may seem continuous in that the perpetrator’s anger arises from his perceived deception; the targeted and essentialized woman, in such an allegorical reading, is the Other that lacks signification. Yet this bodily split—between the endoskeleton and dermis—could be seen in some ways as a separation of femininity from the body, or feminism from queer theory, for that matter. This scene seems to transform violence against a woman’s body into violence against the queer body—genderless, affectless, and indecipherable. In the end, perhaps there is both continuity and discontinuity within the logic of this violent act against the split body.

Further, the alien does not undergo any fluid process of “becoming” human, and even less so “becoming” woman, in its simulated form or otherwise. Even if there was only a Deleuzian “assemblage” of self—with heterogeneous parts that nonetheless communicate to one other—only a “disassemblage” is reached, revealing that the appearance of any self, coherent or otherwise, was nothing but an illusion in the first place. Donna Haraway’s interest in the image of the cyborg intersects here as she illustrates the cyborg’s ability to disrupt humanist ideals of wholeness and completion. Finding a way to celebrate a certain use of the cyborg, Haraway writes that they are “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”[8] Posthumanists have picked up on Haraway’s ability to elucidate cogently the machine-organism hybridity that is at play within modernity and into the digital era, but what is even more intriguing here is her invocation of the “partial.” The “partial” is not just about hybridity or a kind of yoking but about the pieces, the fractions, the fragments, the particles that do not yield a system of unity through normative aspirations. The partial in Haraway’s terms simultaneously invokes extraction and abstraction. From the Latin meaning “drawn away,” Haraway’s abstract cyborg does not withdraw from discourse: it is abstract because it lacks fidelity to a dream of full recognition, theoretical, rhetorical, experiential, and perhaps even visual.

One drawback is that Haraway’s theory, at least in the “Cyborg Manifesto,” does not describe how an affirmative version of the cyborg (as infused with feminist-socialist thought) might decenter the visualized signifier of the female body. If bodily objectification is, as it was with many feminist film theorists of the 1970s and 1980s, still one of the most fundamental and persistent feminist concerns within the field of vision, its need for destabilization requires revisitation.[9] Both Under the Skin and Lucy remind viewers of the historical violence against women’s bodies that much feminist activism and critique has labored to eradicate. The body, in these feminist theories as well as in moments in the films, is not abstract at all but a tangible facet of the world that necessitates protection and rights. In Under the Skin, the scene of near-rape is shot and edited in a disturbingly vivid manner, ending with the alien being immolated by her rapist. Though the near-rape in Lucy is not treated with such severity, it becomes a moment—in line with what has been identified as a “rape revenge” mode—to reverse the attempted rape by killing her perpetrators. In fact, the film is full of reversals, to the point where a psychoanalyst might say Lucy seizes phallic powers that then ultimately guide her to omnipotence. Take, for example, the scene when Lucy pays a visit to the drug lord that implanted the power-inducing drug in her body. Now having reached new levels of dexterity, Lucy stabs the drug lord in his hands with her two knives.

Lucy’s body diffracts or disperses throughout space and time.
Lucy downloads her observations to a flash drive.

Subsequently, Lucy’s body—though seemingly superhuman—begins to lose its form altogether. It is undeniable that Lucy is in the process of “unbecoming” human by turning into matter itself. In her brain’s quest for “full capacity,” Lucy’s body is becoming omnipresent as it becomes abstract—dispersing or, to use the language of feminist and queer science scholar Karen Barad, “diffracting,” throughout space and time. Her body’s permeation of all matter thus is not an abstraction that seeks partiality but totality.[10] Departing from a reading that might align with Haraway’s claims, a feminist and queer argument in favor of the ending could be found within its provocation: imagine the feminine pervading spaces in a male supremacist world (the setting as a laboratory full of male scientists serving as an excellent reminder). The queer gesture then might lie in its ability to extend the possibilities of gender into a dematerialized form beyond the field of vision. What happens when the cyborg is not even detectable to human perception?

Right when Lucy seems to conclude on a potentially radical and transgressive note, aporia arrives with the close-up of a good old-fashioned flash drive, phallic in shape, where Lucy has supposedly downloaded all her observations and calculations. Quite a small device for a woman who has overcome the divisions of space and time. But even before this, we might wonder, as Lucy’s body alters into a black liquid and snake-like consistency in the laboratory, what is the meaning of Lucy’s transmutation into blackness? Her new form seems to connote void, absence, unknowability and contingency all at the same time, confirming what many critical race theorists of the moving image have been able to expose of cinema’s at-times racialized formal attributes.[11] How does Johansson’s repeated resignification in all three films—in Her with a fade to black upon her cyborgian orgasm, and in Lucy and Under the Skin with a metamorphosis into or reveal of black matter—trade on racialized knowledges as a way to unmoor the white body from situated limitations within white feminist and queer discourses?[12]

Though this essay does not seek to confront this worrisome dilemma, still, I reinforce that these films may not be ready to lead us into the queer-feminist posthuman utopia that Haraway’s affirmative version of the cyborg gives us glimpses into. Leaving aside the question of black appropriation, there are also warranted—albeit more generic—feminist critiques of Johansson’s choices that expose her inability to transcend a sex symbol iconography. Given her role as the vamp in Match Point or as a tight-leather-suit wearing action hero in The Avengers, it is hard to ignore the types of roles that shape her star persona. Even in a film like Her, where Johansson is seemingly disembodied—pared down to a Siri-like voice—she is still sexualized.

Johansson as the neurotic vamp in Match Point

New York Magazine’s blog, Vulture, noted that the role of Samantha, the operating system with which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love, was originally assigned to Samantha Morton. Spike Jonze, the film’s director, commented that once working on the film, “the team” “realized that what the character/movie needed was different” from what Morton and Jonze had created together. Vulture writer Mark Harris went on to comment that, “whereas Morton could sound maternal, loving, vaguely British, and almost ghostly, Johansson plays the role as younger, more impassioned, and with more yearning.”[13] Johansson as the Eve Harrington and Morton the Margo Channing, the sexist modalities of casting and re-casting based on appeals to mass consumption play out seamlessly in this example. Here voice is literally Christian Metz’s “aural object,” a sound that cannot be extracted from its source.[14] Still, do we negotiate all the queer possibilities that Her cultivates? We find out towards the end that Samantha is in love with 641 people besides our protagonist—a number that Joaquin Phoenix’s character cannot even begin to compute. What then is said about the tired state of monogamy and intimacy in an age where technological change might expand queer potential?

Something queer about Samantha’s 641 romantic partners.

In an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sophia Nguyen repudiates such a fantasy. She describes Johansson as a “product of a collective daydream.”[15] Noting the actress repeatedly plays “directionless ‘artistic’ souls,” Nguyen argues that Johansson performs more from a place of curiosity over passion that continually diminishes opportunities for female agency. “Hence,” Nguyen writes, “those perpetually parted lips—waiting to be discovered, to be fulfilled.” Instead of applauding the ending of Under the Skin as a feminist intervention as Osterweil does, Nguyen describes a character who “gropes blindly in the air, rather than fully extending, and grasping.” And it also seems hard to ignore the extent to which we still spend so much time—as we once did in Lost in Translation—quietly gazing at Johansson’s exhibited and sometimes exposed body in Under the Skin. Watching her as she drives through the Glasgow streets, getting glimpses of her almost nude body as she seduces her soon-to-be male carcasses, I cannot help but wonder why we might think it odd that she is objectified at the same time that she is allowed to transgress gender expectations: this dilemma seems like nothing new. This kind of impasse lies at heart of so-called “postfeminism,” but we might also see it as a queer-feminist mismatch, an incommensurability that either recasts feminism as backwards, as it is in Janet Halley’s view—with the signifier “woman” presupposed to be subordinate—or queer as excusing female objectification for the sake of encouraging new paths for unruly modes of desire and pleasure.

However, to pit one discourse against the other—though it seems viable enough—may be insufficient. Robyn Wiegman frames this issue as one of "disciplinary regeneration”—the seeming divergence or splintering off of discourses—in which we embrace the illusion that we have left behind established methodologies and epistemologies in pursuit of new ones. “The problem is not what we cling to,” Wiegman writes, “but the way we convince ourselves that we don’t.”[16] Wiegman’s intervention is aimed at several theorists as she moves across cultural studies in her book Object Lessons. In one particular chapter, though, she is concerned with Janet Halley’s proclamation that maybe—just maybe—it is time to “take a break from feminism.” Halley wishes to see how queer theory might help us reimagine desire free of feminist knee-jerk reactions against more anarchic pursuits of pleasure.[17] For Halley, feminism cannot shed the influence of the Catherine MacKinnon logic that many propagated especially in the 1980s; this stance was (or still is) poised to essentialize female sexual victimization and subordination as the feminist issue. For Wiegman, though, feminism is far too slippery of a signifier to warrant such a provocation. It resists singular narration and definition, and therefore Halley’s claim appears to lose its footing. In fact, though Wiegman does not come right out and say it, I would argue that Haraway’s feminist and queer cyborg manifesto precisely befits Halley’s dream—and it does so by way of critiquing Catherine MacKinnon for her “totalizing” theory as well![18]

Halley welcomes a more reparative pursuit or approach to the politics of sexuality that would advance “irrational” queer desire “in love with the edge,” expressing “contempt for the average, the everyday, the reassuringly persistent.”[19] Wiegman is skeptical of such “divergentist” optimism. For her, this effort constitutes a kind of ironic “convergence” or reconsolidation of identity knowledges “into some form of sameness [that] is the necessary move to generate difference.”[20] On the one hand, queer theory might proceed with “taking a break from feminism” in the hopes of being more “deconstructive” and “playful,” and where it can, exploiting and converting the operations of sexual othering to more fruitful and reparative ends. On the other hand, queer theory might crucially miss all the moments that feminism has diverged from itself, critically, socially, and institutionally. Feminism in these moments, Wiegman seems to argue, announces its own instability and fragmentation, and moreover, it could serve as illuminating fodder for queer theory’s varying social imaginaries. For me, Scarlett Johansson’s body trilogy occupies precisely this nodal point where queer theory and feminism might diverge but where they also might cross into one another, where they might diverge from themselves and create new convergences, ones that I myself as a pupil of reigning definitions of feminism and queer theory might not even be able to see. While the body trilogy appears to invite opposing reading practices, in actuality, it invokes a history of crossed genealogies, mixed traditions, and confused borders. Feminism could look awfully queer in readings such as Ara Osterweil’s of Under the Skin, or it might not, just as queer can take with it the best lessons of feminism, or again, leave some of them behind.[21] My point here is that attributing ideation to particular critical discourses--especially when their genealogies are interwoven--is itself a politically fraught endeavor that might be best handled with self-reflection and even uncertainty.

The cyborg depicted in Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy may be received, to quote Haraway, without inherent “celebration nor condemnation” but as a framework to think critically about the social, the scientific, the visual, and the discursive alongside one another.[22] In the films’ gesture towards abstracting the female form, we may be better off putting aside the politics of reclamation and negotiation, to instead reflect on the feminist or queer political desires or fears that these films might tap into. Utopian or realistic as they may be, Wiegman argues, these desires remain tethered to identity knowledges.[23] I would like us then to consider, in closing, what it would mean to put our divergences aside for a moment, to explore where desires for wholeness or partiality might lead us, not by effacing our identities but by critically occupying them.

And then there is the issue of Scarlett Johansson more specifically. In his crucial writing on film stars, Richard Dyer has explicated the affective and ideological paradoxes that emerge from star adoration within a capitalist cultural logic. They are commodity forms, Dyer tells us, yes, but they are also projections of spectators’ complex and lived desires. Or in less psychoanalytic terms, stars represent the open horizon on which spectators’ desires might be invited to play out, for better and for worse.[24] Scarlett Johansson can be understood as a site of heterosexual male fantasy, one that visual studies has deemed dubious at best, and yet her body trilogy is also one where (dis)embodiment does more than connote subjugation. It jettisons naturalized figurations of femininity and fashions decidedly inhuman and cyborgian characteristics into more questionable and at times painfully unknowable forms. This is precisely why Osterweil and others embrace her alien ontology in pursuit of new feminist pathways. However, this avowal and alignment can happen only so seamlessly because those political desires might be arduous to name; it might be difficult for them to find discursive refuge when they get into trouble. Again, I am not suggesting we commit to one course over the other, as Halley encourages us to do. Rather I propose that we attend to both the fissures and blurred boundaries that keep our disciplinary hopes alive, even when we are uncomfortable to do so, even when this causes us to disclose our own confusion or ambivalence.

While mindful of the pitfalls that might dog attempts to diverge from a prevailing epistemological framework, still, I would like to reorient myself away from those familiar tensions on which star studies turn (e.g. private/public, individuality/commodity, genuine/constructed self) to envisage instead the star as embodying schisms in critical intellectual thought and even politically-inflected cultural production at large. The star here serves as a site of sociopolitical desires that might continually shuttle between the fantasy of emancipatory potential and the suspicion that its exploitation lurks just around the corner. Is this not the painful but rehearsed reality that manifests itself when one attempts to frame a star’s narrative by way of recuperative practices? It is an impasse that many film and media scholars who study stars know all too well. Donna Haraway and Robyn Wiegman might therefore encourage us to relinquish those dreams and anxieties of wholeness and unity that tend to be the source of the problem and that, as it turns out, undergird a substantial amount of critical theory. Haraway and Wiegman respectively demonstrate that cyborgs, disciplines, and discourses are all fragmentary, heterogeneous, contradictory, insubordinate, and (mostly) free of inherence. We might do well for ourselves to take heed of this axiom. And yet still I sit here with the pieces, taking stock of the body trilogy, waiting and hoping for Johansson to point me in at least some direction.