Early in Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, audiences see a large pool of white goo. From it emerges an object, drenched and dripping but soon recognizable as a woman’s body. The manufacturing process for this cyborg is unrecognizable but the body that emerges from it is distinctly familiar to filmgoers. It is the body of Scarlett Johansson.
Scarlett Johansson’s casting made international news before Ghost in the Shell’s release–for good reasons, but ones not at issue here–so it is unlikely that anyone would be watching the film unaware of the lead actress. But even if you didn’t know who was on the bill, you would probably recognize that body. The last decade of Scarlett Johansson’s career has seen the actress taking roles that explicitly focus on the nature of her physicality; that is, her body and voice. That might sound unremarkable for an actor. The body and the voice are the most basic tools in the acting toolkit; they are the hammer and nail every actor uses to build a performance. But something more exhaustive is underway with the physical nature of Johansson’s work. She doesn’t just make films that present an actress using her body for a role. She is making work that is explicitly about bodies, about the way bodies relate to the minds that inhabit them.
She makes movies, in short, about embodiment. Embodiment expresses the relationship between the mind and the body. The word embodiment comes from academe; it’s a subject of study in Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics, Robotics, and other fields that investigate the relationship of the thinking mind and the acting body. In these fields, embodiment emphasizes the role of the physical body in determining our mental and intellectual selves. Existence is a duality, comprising of a mind and a body that are separable, but identity combines them into a single reality.
The embodiment that Johansson’s work explores is different from the objectification of women or the commodification of bodies for profit. The commodification of a woman’s body is part of the film industry at every level; it’s baked into the process of filmmaking (the very act of casting is commodification) and into the thematic elements of a film (what it means to cast person X in role Y changes the meaning of the story being told).
Johansson’s career has not been separate from commodification. Her body and voice have always set her apart. She’ been named Sexiest Woman Alive, after all, numerous times by numerous magazines. Since her breakthrough role in Lost In Translation, Johansson has been known as much for her appearance and her voice as for the roles that she takes.
Barely a review passed of Lost in Translation that did not mention her low voice (one of the reasons that Sofia Coppola cast her in the film) and the way the filmmakers rely on her physical features (her body is literally the foreground of the film, which opens on a close-up of her backside in see-through underwear). Elvis Mitchell, reviewing Lost in Translation in 2003, wrote of Johansson “using her husky voice to test the level of acidity in the air,” and in a bit of curious foreshadowing, said her “lazy eyes and lush lips” function “almost as a parody of Japanimation.”
That commodifying has continued in Johansson’s work. Most notably in the Marvel films, where Black Widow fills the role of Female Hero in a series dominated by White Male Heroes who really could use a woman to help shore up ticket sales. But even in that role Johansson has been able to push, ever slightly, towards her more considerate exploration of embodiment. Black Widow has transformed from an also-cast in Iron Man 2 to a woman with a mind, a body, and a human past in Avengers Age of Ultron.
What makes Scarlett Johansson unique when it comes to women’s bodies as commodities is the manner in which she embraced, and then manipulated that transaction. Commodification is about the sale of bodies for pleasure; embodiment is about what it means to have a body at all. It’s about the relationship of a body to the identity–intellectual, spiritual, emotional–that inhabits that body.
In psychology, embodied cognition posits that how one understands the self and the world is shaped by the entire organism. In artificial intelligence, embodied agents are AI programs in physical bodies, that allow the intelligence of the robot to grow based on the body’s interaction with its environment. Both of these concepts are based in the inseparability of the mind from the body.
Embodied cognition and embodied agents are central plot devices or thematic elements in Scarlett Johansson’s science-fiction work in the past decade, and that work has created a unique film series. Call it an embodiment quartet: Under The Skin, Her, Lucy and Ghost in the Shell.
Not all of these films are particularly successful pieces of cinema (in my opinion, each is a little bit worse than the film that precedes it), but each role depends upon the specific physical character of Scarlett Johansson’s body or voice, and asks what it means for various Scarlett Johanssons to be embodied inside a single woman’s body.
So intertwined are the thematic interests of this quartet of science-fiction cinema that it seems justifiable to conclude that Scarlett Johansson is obsessed with the relationship of bodies and minds, with embodiment.
Under the Skin asks what it means to physically embody a human women with a non-human mind. In the film, Johansson’s body is literally a costume, worn by an extra-terrestrial who seduces men and harvests them. The more time this creature spends in this human skin, the more human her behavior becomes. She begins to sympathize with men who were previously her prey, and even pursues companionship, as her emotional identity and physical appearance become aligned. The creature becomes fully human, perhaps, when a man tries to rape her, and failing, murders her.
Her, released the same year as Under the Skin, unfolds in the opposite direction. The film asks what it means to be a disembodied recreation of a woman, to exist only as a voice. Johansson voices the part of Samantha, an operating system for smartphones. The central relationship concerns a man who develops an intimate relationship with his Samantha, eventually falling in love with her. The fact that Samantha is completely disembodied from physical reality, that she exists only as a voice, means little to the romantic bond she shares with this man. Eventually Samantha ends her participation in this (and thousands of other relationships she maintains) when artificial intelligence evolve and determine to no longer participate in the lives of humanity.
Lucy pushes the concept of embodied cognition to its most science-fictiony conclusion, using the myth that humans only use 10% of their brain to to ask what would happen if a human body was able to fully access 100% of the brain at once. When Lucy gets accidentally mixed up in an international drug exchange, she is injected with a drug that unlocks her unused brain capacity. As her brain power increases–audiences see the percentage unlocked flashing on screen–Lucy finds her body capable of heretofore impossible tasks. As her brain capacity climbs, Lucy’s mind is able to penetrate other minds and objects, before eventually becoming a being almost of another plane, able to disembody her physical self into non-physical reality.
Ghost in the Shell inverts the scenario of Under the Skin and Her, asking what it means to pair a human mind with a manufactured body. Johansson plays Major, a cyborg woman with a human brain. She is the first of her kind, and experiment in AI-Human hybridity, property of the government and made for law-enforcement. Major eventually learns that her memories and mind are being manipulated by the company that made her, and she begins exploring the life of her previous physical self, which has no relationship to the woman/robot hybrid that currently exists.
Each of these films participate in the fetishization of Scarlett Johansson’s body, almost necessarily. To organize a film around the body, voice and mind of a woman is to objectify the parts, to disassemble them and consider each individually. These movies depend upon almost unrestricted access to the concept of Johansson’s physicality, and the actress apparently welcomes the scrutiny in pursuit of expressing her obsession.
The film camera is a tested, powerful tool for objectifying women. The eyes of directors–and audiences–are programmed already to objectify a woman’s body into parts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the four films of this quartet were written and directed by men. Scarlet Johansson’s participation in films that undertake objectification as a means to understanding the embodiment of an individual underscores her own obsession with the subject. The actress has talked about her objectification numerous times in the past, most recently telling Time Out London that sometimes “I don’t feel like being objectified in that way. But sometimes, I’m like: Okay, it is what it is. It’s a choice you make.”
When audiences see Scarlett Johansson, the actress, they are being asked by the woman herself to find in her body something more than the object on screen. To find more than the magazine covers that she knows objectify her, and to see the work of an artist who demands viewers see beyond her body and look at the choices behind the movies.
The choices Johansson has made–specifically the roles she has taken in pursuit of this interest, this embodiment quartet–offer an opportunity for audiences to reflect on bodies and on the very nature of film as a commodifying, objectifying art form. To challenge how we view all bodies on film, starting with the body of an actress who has been objectified, purposefully and unintentionally, and who has responded by participating in films that dissect that very body into component parts.