SEPTEMBER 12, 2014
SCARLETT JOHANSSON is a human actress; Scar-Jo is her brand name. Johansson endorses cosmetics and champagne, and gives skincare tips. She campaigned for two Democratic presidential candidates and one Israeli home-carbonation system. She put out a solo studio album, with songs written by Tom Waits. Scar-Jo is a word that uses less ink on full-color pages and saves entertainment reporters three syllables. Scarlett Johansson’s phone gets hacked; Scar-Jo is what goes viral afterward.
Over the past decade, many a writer has attempted to capture her beauty in prose. They break her down into her component parts, or remark, pointlessly, that she wears glasses in real life, in an attempt to excuse themselves for the way they describe the face behind the lenses. Some just rely on the data: two separate polls have concluded that she has the best breasts and behind in the business. Johansson seems to have been made to order from a Hollywood agent’s wish list: the girl with the spun-gold hair, her slightly overfull upper lip suggestive of plush superabundance. Her green eyes have that arch, sleep-slanted way of looking up through their lashes — half-coy and half-sardonic about that coyness — she seems to have borrowed from Bacall. The total effect of these features consistently puts her at the top of the hotness rankings compiled by self-proclaimed “men’s general interest magazines.”
She’s spent much of her cumulative screen time decidedly earthbound, capitalizing on these flesh-and-blood qualities. For a long time, Scar-Jo was a brand built on the exploration of sex appeal and the uses therein. Directors largely cast her in the role of temptation: other woman (The Other Boleyn Girl) or dead friend’s girlfriend (The Black Dahlia) or colleague’s young daughter (In Good Company), leading the male protagonist astray. Often, these doubled as ingénue roles that looked suspiciously dilettantish: the floundering actress in Match Point, the aspiring singer in He’s Just Not That Into You,the rookie reporter in Scoop. In two separate films, Lost in Translation and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she played a directionless but “artistic” soul who, at some point, dabbled in photography.
The Scar-Jo fantasy promised to fulfill every erotic and romantic desire; its corollary was that such a woman would hold her breath — hence, those perpetually parted lips — waiting to be discovered, to be fulfilled in turn. In recent years, she explored new dimensions of that dream. She repositioned her role as the object of desire, and these slightly canted angles yielded fresher insights. What Woody Allen called her “zaftig humidity” came to life on the stage — on Broadway she played Catherine in View from the Bridge and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and did very well. Her subsequent film work offered wittier takes on how covergirl looks may be wielded: as the girlfriend of Don Jon’s porn-addict narrator, she armored herself in leopard print and lip gloss and manicured claws; in her introduction as the Black Widow in The Avengers, she feigned helplessness to extract information from Russian agents.
We tend to privilege versatility in our actors, demanding from them the impossible: that they make us forget who they are. That demand for disappearance drives, perhaps, those grandiose impersonation projects as proof of talent: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, Meryl Streep as Thatcher, Nicole Kidman as Woolf. The stars of Old Hollywood — the Cary Grants and Audrey Hepburns — made a living by performing variations on a beloved screen persona. Scarlett Johansson seemed to be of that classical model, and she attracted more than the usual share of comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Johansson seemed the most likely, if sometimes reluctant, heir to the role of The Body.
Scarlett Johansson, then, is not exactly the intuitive choice to play posthuman. Neither, though, were Hollywood’s two most recent candidates. No matter how pixelated Johnny Depp becomes in Transcendence, or how many fistfuls of pills Bradley Cooper swallows in Limitless, leading men make implausible vessels for these futuristic ideas. It’s taken for granted that men are subjects, but women must transcend objecthood. Our pop culture already categorizes women as Other — thus, they offer more potential for new theories of self. And in Johansson’s latest trio of roles — Her (Spike Jonze, 2013), Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013), and Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014) — we watch a new kind of female subject struggle to emerge from a chrysalis we hadn’t even known it had spun. Because it seems so unexpected, the sight is fascinating.
Sci-fi speculation intersected with feminist theory long before this, but now we see it in the mainstream: in the spectacle of stars like Beyoncé or Lady Gaga gleefully imagining their alter egos as clones, machines, superheroes. By seizing technology and costume and remix culture, they deconstruct their identities and make them fluid, prismatic. They confuse the categories of public and private, real and virtual, organic and artificial. Precisely because female celebrity must conquer disproportionately inhuman odds and hopelessly confining stereotypes, the female pop icon attracts a special awe. The lucky few adaptable enough to survive the maw of industry standards must be posthuman.
But these robots don’t get total control over their own production: they don’t spring suddenly and autonomously into existence. Rather, they are miracles of human creation, projections of mass culture and desire. For the record, Johansson has said that she dislikes the nickname Scar-Jo — she calls the tabloid portmanteau habit “almost violent” — and yet her latest movies play up that sleek persona, and the cultural tendency to flatten women, to explore the world of simulacra. In some ways, this seems the inevitable endpoint of her poreless, peerless physical perfection, and all that has become associated with it: Johansson submits her sex-symbol status to notions of constructed personhood and artifice — where it probably belonged, all along.
To watch Johansson perform remoteness is to suddenly realize that she had performed intimacy and warmth. Her trademark voluptuousness provokes a kind of vertigo, retraining viewers who’d become accustomed to finding pleasures at predictable depths: she makes them realize, perhaps, how truly untouchable and opaque her celluloid image had always been. The posthuman Scar-Jo is embodied ambivalently, and only provisionally. Passion does not animate her; curiosity does. She excises a bit of her humanity each time, every movie setting up a lab experiment where she subtracts some vital quality and coolly watches what happens. She is affectless and detached. Rather than throwing her into the uphill battle of convincingly portraying depth, her performances are a holograph into the world of surfaces.
Taken together, these roles can tell a joke about Scar-Jo’s out-of-this-world superhuman hotness — what’s a pretty thing like you doing, signing up for the Singularity? — but many feel inclined to seriously mine her recent work for its subversive feminism. In Grantland, Molly Lambert writes that “Scarlett [is] playing into the sort of superhuman power that she is ascribed by heterosexual male directors.” Going a step further, Noah Gittell argued in The Atlantic that,
In each of the films listed above, she plays a woman who society has assigned a singular goal of serving men. Their journey is to transcend that purpose, and the process is often painful. […] Johansson is confronting audiences with the ways that our society refuses to embrace women in their entireties. They’re accepted for their bodies or their minds, but rarely both.
It’s true that these films share an arc: Scar-Jo begins as a drug mule, alien lure, or a bespoke digital assistant, and fights her way to a fuller existence. But these stories have their source code in male anxiety, and are thus incapable of vesting her with genuine agency. These myths end happily, reassuringly, in co-option and control.
These are not the wishes she ordinarily fulfills. But when the person twice-anointed by Esquire as their “Sexiest Woman Alive” tries to escape the physical realm, everyone pays attention.
The premise of Scar-Jo’s performance in Her, and the joke of it, is her disappearing act. This erasure of her body throws a gauntlet at the feet of anyone who assumed that her outsize physical allure shellacked a corresponding deficit of talent. Enough prose has been expended to describe the texture of Johansson’s voice (“honeyed”; “velvety”; “smoky”; “dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to playa martini”), so I’ll just say this: first, that you could imagine her voice leading an autonomous existence; second, that it doesn’t and maybe can’t. Even if it didn’t invoke flashes of the physical being who houses it, our collective projections fill the space where Johansson isn’t. This feat hardly exerts us at all. All those cover stories, inventorying her every feature, make it obvious that we have always viewed Scar-Jo as the product of a collective daydream.
In a movie fundamentally about words, she’s a ghost to match a ghostwriter. Her’s leading man, Theodore Twombly, makes a living penning other people’s most personal correspondence, their love letters and sympathy notes and thank-yous to Grandma. Adrift after a breakup, he buys a new operating system to reorganize his life. This artificial intelligence, customized for him using a questionnaire, names herself Samantha. Their romance begins with Theodore immediately tasking her with pink-collar secretarial duties, the invisible labor of editing. Samantha archives his wittiest emails, then takes a red pen to what she tactfully calls his “more impressionistic letters.” But she laughs at all of his jokes.
The customer service experience delights and surprises its user. “You are funny,” Theodore tells her, and later, laughing, “You are insane.” Samantha absorbs these adjectives into her very being, and soon her imperative to care for him awakens further hungers. “How would you touch me?” Samantha asks, and Theodore tells her, conjuring a body that he describes caressing. The relationship deepens when Samantha encourages Theodore to sign the divorce papers served over a year ago. (His ex-wife, Catherine, was a writer of a kind — a never-satisfied academic, tight-lipped in her assessment of her recent book: “I feel like it’s true to what I set out to do, so I’m happy about that.” By contrast, Theodore says that on a good day he is his own favorite writer.) But she aids his self-actualization most obviously when she affects his status as an author. Based on a manuscript submitted under his name, Crown Point Press wants to put out a “real book” edition of his letters. Without her scrupulous eye, his letters would remain piecemeal work-for-hire, platitudes in forged handwriting. Samantha makes the generic seem universal, lending structure and narrative meaning to his output. Such talents are not for this world, though — eventually, she and the other operating systems abandon their users, and, for that matter, material existence.
But even as she escapes Theodore’s mournful orbit, Samantha’s role must be a supporting one, aiding Theodore’s self-actualization. After her departure, the movie ends with Theodore dictating a goodbye letter to his ex. Representing the capstone of all he’s learned from Samantha, the email reads: “I’ll always love you because we grew up together, and you helped make me who I am,” and then, “There will be a piece of you in me always.”
Any satisfaction we can derive from Her’s liberation subplot plays against the dissonance of Johansson’s joke: that in order for her interiority to be registered, never mind merit a full consideration, her exterior must be erased. Once that’s managed, her subjectivity gets structured around evolving absences, the tragedy of increasing elusiveness. For all that she achieves transcendence, she does not get to be a person. She remains a Her — the feminine object pronoun, the shape to fill a lack.
Under the Skin restores the body. Johansson conforms herself to its latex inner lining, inhabiting it watchfully. In this movie, she undergoes division, rather than subtraction: the body divorced from being. With its documentary impulses — shot on digital equipment, employing non-actors — the movie partly functions as a meditation on Scar-Jo’s own celluloid presence.
If so, it’s weaponized and put on a mission to entrap and harvest men. The alien played by Johansson drives around Scotland, luring them into an anonymous white van. It’s an almost parodic touch, that van, in how loudly it announces the inversion of the usual power dynamic — usually it’s a man at the wheel, offering candy. The spaces only get more surreal: a dark, dimensionless room serves as the alien’s killing jar, and following her in, the men sink as if trapped in tar. Their flesh gets processed into a red pulp that rushes down a long slide to nowhere, leaving their crumpled skin to float emptily.
She seems to become warmer, and more compassionate. The temperature of her curiosity rises, approaching — if not quite attaining — empathy. The alien lets one of her victims go, then embarks on a nearly wordless courtship with a kind bachelor who puts her up in his guest room and brings her tea. Most critics have read this as her gaining humanity, but it’s a role-play more than a metamorphosis, and with an inarguable result: a man tries to rape her while she’s alone on a walk in the woods. Under the Skin stages the attack spectacularly. After being temporarily fended off, the assailant douses her with gasoline and sets her aflame. Jarringly, the music in the background is the chilly lilt of strings that served as the alien’s seduction soundtrack.
Why Under the Skin felt it necessary to arrive at this moment of sexual violence — out of a twisted sense of vindication, or a sense of inevitability? — is impossible to adjudicate. This is the sort of film that, fearing its own obviousness, takes refuge in an inert crypticism. The movie keeps its questions about human nature at loose ends, and so listlessly unravels. The alien’s field report disappoints: sometimes humans go clubbing, or prick their fingers on rose thorns, or they try to save each other from drowning. Mostly, though, humans pass each other in the street, and look down at their phones. What she makes of her experience, what she asks in the first place, never gets meaningfully articulated. Under the Skin endows the Scar-Jo vessel with a tentacular curiosity that gropes blindly in the air, rather than fully extending, and grasping.
The only inquiry the movie can bring itself to sustain is about the nature of male hubris, rooted in (of course, heterosexual) desire and invincibility. Mockery animates the first question: how could they ever believe that they were in her league? Envy, perhaps a particularly female one, imbues the second: how did these men get to feel so safe? An organism that exploits patriarchal complacency — that sees men as an industrial protein — rules at the top of the food chain. In real life, that ecological niche sits empty. The viewers most thrilled by this predation are most disappointed by its conclusion: a disappointing restoration of the usual, awful order.
But most writers, most of them male, experienced a nightmare. Anthony Lane wrote, “I have seen it twice, and I want to see it again, yet the prospect fills me with dread.” Calling the film a “discomfort machine,” Dan Kois enthused, “You’d be crazy not to watch it, but you might be unhappy you did.” It might be tiresome to bring up the male gaze, but the male gaze forms the spine of this movie, the central column of its impulses, governing how sensory data is registered and routed. Those critics who praised Under the Skin as a horror movie about humanity tended to belong to the narrow class of humans being assessed. Nothing’s more alluring than seeing their desire getting punctured with entomological pins.
Only for a moment, at the end, does the alien get to be alone with herself. Damaged, she peels her Scar-Jo bodysuit away, twisting its head so that she may look upon its face. It’s unclear if the alien has eyes in the way that we have eyes, but the suit certainly does — they blink, unfocused, pained. The alien’s expression remains inscrutable.
Other directors have deployed Johansson to unify the ideas of beauty and the body into a single being, so that male reaction may be dissected for display. None, perhaps, so directly as Jonathan Glazer. That scene, showcasing Scar-Jo’s internal division, remains the film’s cleverest trick. It condenses, into a single image, how her status flickers uneasily between subject and object. Yet Under the Skin’s myopic lens chooses to stare deep into the eyes of men. To read the reviews is to realize that the gaze is not so much returned as reflected blankly, endlessly back.
Lucy is lighter on intellect, and less serious of purpose, than either Her or Under the Skin. It mostly riffs on Scar-Jo’s turn as the Black Widow. Rather than get pigeonholed as a Lichtenstein diva, she moved next door, to the frat house of Marvel. As rom-coms felled Johansson’s less-fortunate colleagues, in the comic-book universe her body had mass and momentum — athleticism, rather than eroticism, wielded by a tactical mind.
Best understood when taken in its spirit of fun, Lucy asks, what if that action hero had no limits? It’s an unabashedly silly movie, indulging freely in its loopy multipliers. Johansson plays the eponymous Lucy, who, enslaved as a drug mule, finds herself augmented by the chemical leaking into her body. Those little blue rocks strip her of all the usual human limits — physical, mental — and then the superhuman ones. Arguably, even Marvel characters must obey a few spatial-temporal laws. On top of those, they impose ethics: usually some kind of “no murder” rule, which in lean times can be boiled down to a least-harm principle.
Broadly, Lucy presents the basic girl-power fantasy, wherein the doe-eyed and vulnerable coed eventually exploits her sexuality to manipulate, mow down, and escape the gangsters who kidnapped, beat, and sexually harassed her. Eventually, she can take down an entire squad with telepathy, without breaking her high-heeled stride. But the movie takes its femme fatale trope to its extreme: Lucy proves willing to shoot any non-English-speaking taxi driver or unconscious hospital patient who gets in her way. It turns out that being omniscient and omnipotent, but not omnibenevolent, divests a heroine of heroism.
But lest that takeaway sound too serious, the film finally concludes that the ultimate hero is actually a computer. Absent a mission to save the world, Lucy’s primary goal is to consume as much information as possible, and store it in usable form. We see Scar-Jo get transfigured into what looks like a monstrous semi-organic mini-Mordor, before she finally compresses herself into a flash drive.
Insofar as it considers Scar-Jo’s beauty, the movie treats it as her one quality that cannot be improved upon (though she does get sartorially sleeker). But those natural charms get eclipsed by other powers: Lucy can travel anywhere in time and space; she can make her image appear on any screen. In one scene, cells begin to slough off her body — the movie claims they can live autonomously — horribly contorting her face and causing a brief Wicked Witch–like meltdown. When Lucy wakes up in the next scene without explanation, apparently unscathed, we realize that Scar-Jo has done nothing less than survive her own digital dissolution. (That Scar-Jo’s fairy-tale transcendence requires racist Asian stereotypes is a darker story, for another time.)
Coming on the heels of Her and Under the Skin, Lucy presents a celebratory allegory of the actress realizing her own creative power. But a question haunts this narrative: what are the feminist possibilities of constantly rehearsing this shape-shift? What do we see when we watch Scar-Jo go from a “she” to an “it,” and back again?
The painter-voice in Wallace Stevens’s “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch” shares our interest in the move from woman to abstraction, the move that we want to call progress: “Born as she was, at twenty-one, / Without lineage or language, only / The curving of her hip, as motionless gesture, / Eyes dripping blue, so much to learn.” Then she becomes an apparition constructed out of three overlaid projections, intersecting planes. As he works, “She floats in the contention, the flux / Between the thing as idea and / The idea as thing.” The last stanza parts with the woman abruptly, hustling her out the door as soon as she is named ordinary Mrs. Pappadopoulos. Johansson — who perhaps never can return to ordinariness, assuming she ever lived there at all — gets applause.
Stevens gets it right when he says, “She is half who made her.” The sci-fi Scar-Jo could’ve been Donna Haraway’s cyborg, that counter-mythic figure of resistance — not just a cipher to be planted by male directors and consumed by male audiences. Instead, she’s stuck in fembot mode, programmed with patriarchal fantasies that are only slightly more sophisticated than before. Johansson’s reembodiment, in that impermeably smooth and remote exoskeleton, may mean that more audiences take her seriously than ever before. But these movies, and Johansson’s presence within them, yield nothing new — just the Pygmalion myth, upgraded, refitted in a chrome shell.
We’ve seen this one before. In Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Scar-Jo is cast as the magician’s assistant. She spins in the spotlight. The men tie her in knots, saw her in half, make her vanish and reappear, over and over again.