Scarlett Johansson's 'Under the Skin' Proves Nudity Doesn't Mean Objectification
Jonathan Glazer's third film, the sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, is unique. Mostly in that it's a challenging experience for audiences — from its lack of decipherable dialogue to complete disregard for answering the societal questions it poses. The former music video director devoted nine years to adapting Michael Faber's novel by the name name into the film that was released in early April. And clearly, hard work pays off — as Under the Skin , which stars Scarlett Johansson, had an impressive opening weekend in limited release. But what's even more impressive and, to be honest, refreshing about Glazer's film is how it presents full-frontal nudity.
You probably are already aware, whether you've seen the film or not, that full-frontal nudity is involved in multiple scenes. You also probably know that Captain America star Scarlett Johansson, does full-frontal nudity for her role in Under the Skin. Because, and mind you, the actress is very aware of it, that when "nudity" and "Scarlett Johansson" appear in the same sentence, that a section of the population's ears perk up. But this isn't the type of nudity you think it is — sure, it's Scarlett Johansson and she's flawless — but this film isn't about sex. Instead, it presents the nudity as a storytelling device and succeeds in furthering Johansson's character's journey — rather than objectifying the actress inside the role.
While doing press for Under the Skin, Johnasson told reporters about her decision to take on the revealing role:
I think in some ways you have to, um, sort of look at the nudity and you think, you know, you assume it's going to be, like, a screenshot for someone. So you kind of have to weigh the value of, you know, the risk that you're taking. What's more — is this gratuitous, is it something that, you know, is this a vanity project? Or is this an important part of this character's journey to self discovery — like, what's the gain?
And in the case of Johansson's character, the nudity serves as just that. As an alien that's more or less studying human life — more specifically, male behavior towards women — her nudity is less about seduction and more about exercising power at first. In conjunction with a backwards walk that's more predatory than something out of a sexual fantasy, that Johansson attributed to her time walking in heels in New York City, the character's early partial nudity is effective in making her strong as well as threatening.
It wasn't until later in the film that Johansson appeared completely nude, after she meets a young man on the street who's suffering from severe disfigurement. The young man was played by Adam Pearson — a London resident that suffers from neurofibromatosis, a disease that causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on nerve tissue — and it's during his time with Johansson's alien that we see a shift in the character. Pearson recently opened up about how Johansson helped him challenge stigmas attached to his condition, but it's his character that helps her in Under the Skin.
After picking him up, like many men before him, they share a moment that shows that Johansson's character is capable of a semblance compassion. Later, when she takes him back to her super sci-fi lair, she gets completely nude — something the character doesn't do with any of the other men — and in that moment, the nudity isn't about being nude, it's about Johansson's transition from using her body as a weapon to exposing her vulnerabilities to a man with many of his own. Pearson also ends up being the only man that Johansson allows to leave the lair — which is a huge moment for her character, who's preyed on the men she's brought there up until that point.
There was a possibility that that important nude scene and character transition would never make it into the film, Johansson revealed:
Of course Jonathan, the last thing he wanted to do was take the audience out of the story and have like, this nudie alien shot or whatever. It was not his intention at all. And certainly, going into it, we talked about it and he was like, 'I do not want that so if that's going to be — if that's at all apparent or becoming like, if the value of this as a means of storytelling is suddenly overshadowed by the freak factor of it — for lack of a better term — then I'm not going to put it in.'
The actress admitted that it was easier for her to get into the moment and let go of her insecurities — the possibility and assertion that Glazer wouldn't include it if it wasn't appropriate to the story. But we're glad Glazer decided the footage was worthy, especially in that scene with Pearson. Even in the film's later scenes where Johansson's character meets a man that she connects with on an almost-emotional level — the nudity functions again as a part of the character's journey towards vulnerability and understanding human condition. In both instances where Johansson bares it all, there's a sense that the character is awakening and discovering pieces of herself that she didn't know she had. She's not sexual about being nude, she's more inquisitive and emotional about seeing herself in this vulnerable way.
So, where Under the Skin and nudity are concerned, it doesn't exist to distract, objectify, or serve as comedic relief — it exists as a symbol for, as Johansson put it, the character's journey to self discovery. As she evolves and grows emotionally, the nudity functions as an expression of her new-found vulnerability. Which makes it powerful and liberating and just more in general than "Scarlett Johansson does full-frontal nudity."