“Nope nope nope,”[1] said the tabloids, disgusted, “French horror film Raw has inspired such extreme reactions from viewers that cinemas have had to start providing sick bags.”[2] Hyperbolic and wildly inaccurate, the press surrounding Julia Ducournau’s Raw would suggest a gratuitous slasher movie à la Halloween (1978) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). You’d be disappointed to discover that Raw is actually a nuanced depiction of sexuality, identity politics, and, well yes, cannibalism – more David Lynch than Wes Craven.

Raw follows Justine, a young woman who arrives at a prestigious French veterinary school and whose only desire is to fit in with her new classmates. During cruel initiation ceremonies in which the rookie students are dehumanised, vegetarian Justine is forced to taste forbidden fruit – raw rabbit liver. This releases her suppressed cravings and Justine continues to desire meat; however, soon animals aren’t enough to satisfy her as she begins openly to lust after raw human flesh.

Sexuality and cannibalism – both to (admittedly very) different extents taboo in Western society – act as metaphors for one another in the film. When her suppressed appetite is unleased, Justine gains agency over her body. She becomes sexually active and assertive, as female hunger is represented as a metaphor for female power. With the release of inhibition and embrace of fleshy desires and lust, Raw operates within a long tradition of man-eating women in Western mythology, culture, and science.[3] In Christian mythology, Eve, the original fallen woman, is tempted by the allure of potential power and knowledge. Like Justine in Raw, Eve is beguiled into tasting forbidden fruit, awakening a desire for agency over her own body, free from patriarchal control. Appetite and guilt, food and sin, have therefore been interconnected since the creation of (wo)man, according to Christianity. Susan Bordo argues that it has become culturally coded that “women’s appetites must be curtailed and controlled, because they threaten to deplete and consume the body and soul of the male.”[4] Eve, then, is the original man-eater.

Raw is a film all about the body: the sweating, defecating, naked, contorting, and hungry body. Ducournau recently told Rolling Stone that was not interested in depicting women’s bodies as eroticised objects “sexualized to please men or glamorized to set expectations for women […] I wanted to present another option […] A body that sweats, that pukes, that pees.”[5] The film is filled with disturbing, abject imagery of blood and bodies, yet the most graphic and excruciating moment comes during Justine’s first Brazilian wax. Juxtaposed with the film’s other moments of violence, the beauty standard, an everyday ritual for many women, is held up as an absurdist self-mutilation of the female body. “Beauty is pain,” says Alexia, as she peels off Justine’s skin. In another scene, Justine regurgitates her own hair in a public toilet and is given the advice of a well-meaning peer to use her fingers next time. Self-harming beauty and body standards for women, like bulimia and waxing, are made abject in the context of the film and depicted as just as alien as Justine’s new found cannibalistic appetite.

Throughout the film, Justine is “helped” by her sister and peer to pursue normative models of femininity. Raw presents that to become a woman, Justine must adopt the homogenising female act of self-policing one’s body. Naomi Wolf calls the regulation of the female body The Beauty Myth:[6] a myth which exists discursively within society – from the newest diet fad to advertisements displaying the ideal female form to pornography to Weight Watchers to cultural stereotypes to friends admiring each others’ lost weight – all of which cumulating in the normative surveillance and control that socially produces women’s bodies.

Eating has always been a political and gendered issue: whether it is food, success, or sexuality, women have been taught to be less greedy, be constrained, mute, and to make their appetites smaller. Historically, female children have been given less food than their male counterparts,[7] viewed as less important to society despite women being the primary caregivers and providers of nourishment. Susan Orbach writes that “[f]ood is about health for others, but about beauty for herself,”[8] as women are taught to feed their families, their children, their partners, but not themselves. Women serve, men eat.[9]

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2015) is a Korean novel about the body made passive by society’s expectations of femininity and masculinity. Yeong-hye and her husband are in a conventional marriage – he goes out to work every day while she stays home to clean and cook. Yeong-hye is presented as docile and demur, a “completely ordinary wife.”[10] We rarely get any insight into Yeong-hye’s mind; instead the narrative is from the perspective of those surrounding her: her husband, brother-in-law, and sister as Yeong-hye is objectified by each of these gazes. Plagued by nightmares of bodies and blood (similar, to Justine’s night terrors in Raw), Yeong-hye quietly rebels against traditional gender roles and decides to stop nourishing her husband’s wishes and instead focus on her own desire to become a vegetarian.

Around her, the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there were nowhere I could put my feet without threading on them. Beef for shabu-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us from the countryside ages ago, dried croacker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge.[11]

The Vegetarian presents an exaggerated version of the paradoxical relationship women have with food: Yeong-hye subverts the social expectation that women serve and men eat as she refuses to submit to her husband’s appetite for meat and sex; however, as the novel progresses, she begins to eat less and less and becomes thinner and thinner. The anorexic body is an exaggeration of “hyper-slenderness”[12] – the idealised slim female body magnified and distorted. In her plant diet and the self-regulation of her appetite, Yeong-hye embodies and embraces society’s policing of women’s bodies. As Morag MacSween argues, “self-control is […] an essential part of femininity and of women’s relationship with their bodies: women watch what they eat, how they dress, talk, sit, walk and behave.”[13] Yet, Kang also represents Yeong-hye’s self-regulating diet as something empowering: it gives her agency over her own body and desires, and, ultimately, frees her from her stifling marriage.

Through its storytelling, The Vegetarian engages with competing feminist arguments about the effectiveness of body protest. For some feminists, the anorexic is a symbol of rebellion, as a means through which women can protest their oppression, quite literally, on the body. Historically body politics and hunger strikes have been at the heart of civil rights movements; most famously evidenced by the prison force-feeding of the Suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi’s fasting in protest of British rule in colonial India, and the Irish hunger strikes during The Troubles. For marginalised, oppressed, and imprisoned minorities, protesting with the body becomes a last resort after one’s freedom and voice is taken away. Susan Orbach explicitly connects the anorexic to the protester: “Like the hunger striker, the anorectic is starving, she is longing to eat, she is desperate for food. Like the hunger striker, she is in protest at her conditions.”[14] In The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye is undoubtedly protesting: rebelling against the patriarchy’s restrictive gender roles and her confinement within the domestic home. However, she never states her cause or explains her motives, hardly surprising as the majority of eating disorder cases are initiated by the inability to express rage and frustration and the desire to feel in control.

Artist’s impression of a prisoner being force-fed. Published in the Illustrated London News, April 27, 1912. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

While it is easy to make comparisons between the anorexic and the hunger striker – both are using the body as a means of protest and both are likely the result of social inequalities – it is important to remember eating disorders are serious illnesses. Susan Bordo is more cautious than Orbach to call the anorexic a successful political prisoner. Bordo emphasises that eating disorders have two outcomes: on one hand, they are “liberating, transforming, and life-giving”[15] by temporarily fulfilling the anorexic’s desire for control; however, they also reproduce the same regulating forces which objectify and fetishize the female body. While the self-control of the anorexic creates a feeling of agency for the sufferer, Bordo suggests that these feelings are themselves produced by the same oppressive forces which regulate social notions of “femininity”, subscribing to the same ideology which limits the space available for women’s bodies. When 6.4% of adults suffer from eating disorders, and 20% of anorexics die from their illnesses in the UK,[16] it can hardly be celebrated as a subversive or feminist action for women’s equality.

The Vegetarian presents anorexia’s physical side-effects without glamourising or eroticising Yeong-hye’s body. Similarly, Raw does not celebrate Justine’s new-found appetite as something desirable. Instead, both the novel and film articulate the inability of their protagonists to express their frustration and anger as their bodies are policed. Bodies that are Other – non-white, non-male, non-able, non-cis bodies – are inherently political bodies, regulated and controlled by discourses in power and government. When 25% of the world’s population live in countries where women do not have reproductive rights;[17] when a man who, on record, admitted to sexually assaulting women became the President of the United States of America;[18] when British women have to prove they were raped in order to claim benefits because of a new child tax credit reform that has been dubbed a “rape clause”;[19] and when, on average, one in four women will be victims of domestic abuse and two women will be killed every year by abusive partners,[20] the female body undeniably remains a social, political, and economical battlefield. The Vegetarian and Raw present two women who are expressing their frustration and desires through their appetites, bodies, and hunger. In presenting exaggerated and grotesque images of women’s hunger for something more, something beyond that which is socially available, both Kang’s novel and Ducournau’s film subvert and interrogate the relationship between physical and symbolic hunger and power. The kitchen has never been so self-destructive, empowering, and terrifying: swallowing you whole and spitting you back out.

 

[1] Katie Baillie, “Horror film Raw is so gory a cinema has been handing out sick bags”, The Metro 24th March 2017. http://metro.co.uk/2017/03/24/horror-film-raw-is-so-gory-a-cinema-has-been-handing-out-sick-bags-6531748/

[2] Jack Pusey, “Cannibalism horror film Raw is so gory cinemas have to provide sick bags”, Daily Star Sunday 22nd March 2017. http://www.dailystar.co.uk/movies/598991/raw-horror-film-cannibalism-french-vomit-faint-gory

[3] Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004): 116

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tim Grierson, “Inside ‘Raw’: How a Female Filmmaker Made a New Body-Horror Classic”, Rolling Stone March 9th 2017. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/raw-how-a-female-filmmaker-made-a-body-horror-classic-w470614

[6] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (London: Vintage, 1990)

[7] See Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: 116-120.

[8] Susan Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, (London: Hamlyn, 1979): 21

[9] In March 2017, culturised’s Eleanor Dumbill wrote about this socialisation of women into gendered expectations of appetite in relation to George Eliot’s The Mill on The Floss: https://www.culturised.co.uk/2017/03/jam-and-idleness-jam-play-and-the-socialisation-of-girls-in-the-mill-on-the-floss/

[10] Han Kang, The Vegetarian, trans. Deborah Smith, (London: Portobello Books, 2015): 4

[11] Ibid. 9

[12] Bordo, Unbearable Weight: 170

[13] Morag MacSween, Anorexic Bodies: A Feminist andSsociological Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa (London and New York: Routledge, 1993): 193

[14] Susan Orback, Hunger Strike (London: Penguin, 1993): 82-83

[15] Bordo, Unbearable Weight: 177

[16] https://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-beat/media-centre/information-and-statistics-about-eating-disorders

[17] https://www.womenonweb.org/en/page/619/abortion-laws-worldwide

[18] “US election: Full transcript of Donald Trump’s obscene videotape”, BBC 9th October 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2016-37595321

[19] Rachel Revesz, “Government attacked for ‘regressive’ rape clause by Equality and Human Rights Commission”, The Independent 23rd April 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/ehrc-letter-theresa-may-government-rape-clause-child-tax-credits-reform-a7697531.html

[20] http://www.lwa.org.uk/understanding-abuse/statistics.htm