Be(ware) The Swallowing: When White Girls Eat Each Other

Homoerotic cannibalism in THE NEON DEMON, JENNIFER'S BODY and RAW.

By Lea Anderson · @leaeanderson · June 29, 2021, 1:07 PM PDT
Ella Rumpf and Garance Marillier in Julia Ducournau's RAW (2016).

As far as monsters go, the cannibal is likely the most historically, politically, socially significant figure of at least the last five to six centuries. It is the monster that has quite literally shaped the totality of modern society, the monster from which other monsters derive. “Cannibal studies,” as Vincent Woodard notes in The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism Within US Slave Culture, is, like all monster theories, an intensely incorporative endeavor: the composite of several disciplines ranging from Christian theology to postcolonial studies to queer theory (far less disparate subjects than one might think).

For the sake of clarity, homoeroticism in this context is to be understood as distinct from homosexuality in that, to use Woodard’s definition, it “implies same-sex arousal and draws attention to those political, social, and libidinal forces that shape desire, and, ultimately, the homosexual act.” In this use, it’s similar to Eve Sedgwick’s concept of homosocial desire and bonding which, she posits, with regard to cishet men, occurs through an act of triangulation involving an objectified feminine body. In horror, we see this perhaps most clearly in Dracula, wherein the conflict between the vampire and Van Helsing plays out through Mina, whose body becomes the literal vessel for their struggle.

When Woodard “couples” homoeroticism with cannibalism and approaches this subject from an intersectional lens, he identifies how white homosocial bonding – regardless of gender – has been predicated on the consumptive desire of Black flesh, labor, and culture, and validates the numerous claims of white cannibalism leveraged by people of African descent across the diaspora for centuries. My point is not to say that all white people are cannibals; rather, that white supremacy as an ideology and framework through which one engages the world, is an ideology of cannibalistic compulsion, as is capitalist-patriarchy.

While the historicity of white cannibalism has obviously been repressed, Woodard’s exhaustive research reproduces many of these accounts which I won’t include here (Sherronda J. Brown’s “The History of Consumption and the Cannibalistic Nature of Whiteness” is a great place to start). I do, however, want to make note of two separate but connected instances, to which both Brown and Woodard also refer. The lynchings of Nat Turner and Claude Neal occurred a century apart, in 1831 and 1934 respectively, but both included the ritualistic consumption of their flesh by white lynch mobs. In Neal’s case, this included forcible auto-cannibalism as well, the spectacle of which wasn’t enough to sate them, so they attempted to coerce Black members of the surrounding community to partake in these acts of consumption as well.

My purpose in reproducing these horrors is to call into question the oft-used metaphor of parasitism to describe imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within many branches of leftism. The parasite by definition sustains itself on organisms different from it. The cannibal, by contrast, consumes others explicitly like it; a rendering of The Swallowing predicated on sameness rather than difference. The metaphorical use of parasite, thus, works to affirm the distinctions propagated by eugenicist white supremacist race science which seeks to establish an imaginary speciesism, particularly through racial and sexual difference. When Woodard describes America and other imperialist states as “cannibal nation[s],” it is to say that humans who desire power can only create and maintain said power through the perpetual consumption of other humans – a consumption that occurs on planes spiritual, symbolic, material, and libidinal:

“When black Americans described instances of the eating, cooking, and consumption of flesh in slave narratives, newspaper articles, speeches, testimonials, sermons, and autobiographies, they not only questioned the national body politic but also tried to understand why and how they had become so delectable, so erotically appetizing, to a nation and white populace that, at least rhetorically, denied and despised their humanity.”

Woodard frames this dissonance through the question, “’How does it feel to be an edible, consumed object?’ In other words, how does it feel to be an energy source and foodstuff, to be consumed on the levels of body, sex, psyche, and soul?” Which is all really to say, what does it mean to be cannibalized?

Brannon Hancock’s The Scandal of Sacramentality: The Eucharist in Literary and Theological Perspectives does a lot of work to illuminate the ideological sources of these impulses and their connection to Christianity as a tool of white supremacy. Here, he describes bodily consumption as “an act of communion based upon and evocative of love. Indeed, to take the body of another into oneself is the deepest form of human intimacy, and in this way, ritual cannibalism, even when the victim is an enemy, is a deeply sacred act.”

What are the implications of this symbolism and interpretation with regard to the understandings of godliness, sovereignty, and power foundational to this country’s formation and identity?? How does it interact with, say, the revisionist narratives around slaveowners’ supposed love for their slaves? Or abusers’ love for the people they abuse? Or how a CEO relates to their employees, or a politician to their constituency, or a celebrity to their fans? Or even how we create ourselves? If this is what it means to love, then it is as Simone Weil stated, that “We love like cannibals.” Except that “we” is not universal, and these modes of relation don’t actually require a sacrificial negro to locate their pulse.

The Neon Demon, Jennifer’s Body, and Raw are all studies of specifically white femininities that use variations of homoerotic cannibalism to explore themes of gender formation, sexual formation, friendship, siblinghood, beauty, power, and feminine monstrosity; illustrative of Arabelle Sicardi’s thesis that “beauty is terror” and Bhanu Kapil’s statement that “sex is always monstrous.” While their depictions of The Swallowing can/are certainly read through a lens of queer desire and becoming, I wonder what we miss when we refuse to engage with their whiteness, and the compulsion toward cannibalism foundational to its ideology?

the neon demon.png

The Neon Demon (2016)

When Sicardi says that “beauty is terror,” it is to recognize that beauty is and has always been a tool of power. Always constructed, obfuscating, and often terrorizing, beauty is a weapon both offensive and defensive in nature. To address beauty as terror, thus, is a framework with far-reaching implications that lends itself well to analysis of projects like Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, obsessed as it is with a very specific type of beauty, the cannibalistic nature of the fashion and beauty industries as a whole, and the many terrorisms they can and do inspire.

Elle Fanning stars as sixteen-year-old Jesse, an orphan and aspiring model in Los Angeles. She meets makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone) at a photo shoot, who introduces her to fellow models, Sarah (Abbey Lee Kershaw) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), otherwise known as “the bionic woman” for the plethora of cosmetic surgeries she’s undergone. In one of the group’s first interactions, Ruby disaffectedly muses about how, according to beauty companies, women are more likely to purchase lipstick shades whose names reference either food or sex. “Black honey, plum passion, peachy keen,” she recites, then turns to Jesse. “Are you food, or are you sex?”

The question undercuts every interaction Jesse has throughout the film, from the photographer she sort of dates (Karl Glusman), to the manager of the scummy motel where she lives (Keanu Reeves), to her agent (Christina Hendricks), and every other industry professional, all of whom look at her and see “that thing”; the capacity “to walk into a room and it’s like in the middle of winter, you’re the sun”; “nothing fake, nothing false. A diamond in a sea of glass.” Often, the question’s answer is that she is both food and sex, but mostly food. What they actually see is the unattainable. When a designer says of her, that “true beauty is the highest currency we have,” Jesse internalizes this quite literally, and deepens her investment in her own beauty. She appears to miss the second part, when he says, “Without it, she’s nothing.”

Everything about the poesy of the film’s dialogue, the camera’s gaze, its lighting and aesthetic choices, are designed to convince the audience to agree with this estimation of Jesse/Fanning as the most beautiful and beguiling creature to ever walk the earth. But is this so? Or is her body just long, impossibly thin, pubescent, and so white as to be almost translucent? That with only her eyes, she can flit between child-like helplessness (because she is a literal child in this film) and the intensity of Alexandre Cabanel’s “Fallen Angel”: a range and aesthetic that embodies the pinnacle of European white supremacist beauty standards. Why is it significant that Ruby can’t help but repeat how much she loves Jesse’s skin?

In her final soliloquy, Jesse takes ownership of her mother’s claim that she is “a dangerous girl.” She says this in the knowledge that beauty like hers is exalted, unattainable, and therefore inspires both hatred and awe. She is fine with this, as in, she knows her beauty will be used to make others hate themselves and doesn’t care. She wants her body to be a site of homosocial desire and bonding for peers who covet and envy her, themselves misled by cultural conditioning that affirms the belief that beauty is capital which equates to power. Jesse recognizes this hunger in them, but critically underestimates the degree to which it also makes her a prey item. Or, as Sicardi puts it, “beauty is dangerous because it trades in power, and power yields nothing without demand.”

When Sarah and Gigi cannibalize her flesh, in one way, they showcase the impact of industries that thrive on the casual exploitation and consumption of real people. In an earlier scene, Gigi details a long list of surgical procedures she undergoes so she can “wear a ponytail,” then declares, “Besides, nobody likes the way they look.” Jesse’s reply, “I do,” is the very quality that pushes homosocial desire into homoerotic cannibalism. By devouring her flesh, they hope to take her youth, beauty, its knowledge, currency, influence, and permission toward self-possession into themselves as sacred qualities.

Ruby’s consumption, however, is distinct. A necrophiliac, occultist, and classic predatory lesbian, she stokes competition between the three models in order to position herself as a safe place for Jesse, until her sexual advances are rejected – at which point, Ruby eats her, bathes in her blood, lounges in her grave. Jesse is food, but she’s also sex, or rather, sex as compulsive consumption.

It goes without saying that this is problematic representation (representing in fact, the limits of representation as a tool). If we recognize and accept that Ruby’s character is a vacuous trope that demonizes queerness, what does she in turn reveal about the mechanics of the white imagination? How does alignment between queerness and the predatory in turn cannibalize queer people, including those who are white?

jennifer's body 2.jpeg

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

The thing about Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) is that she’s sort of amorphous as a monstrous figure. A succubus, a demon, a witch, a “cannibal psycho,” a predatory bisexual top, and traumatized hot girl rape victim slut, all the many faces of the monstrous feminine coalesce in her body, the film’s subject by title, though it’s her best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried) who acts as its narrator. This interplay between protagonist, subject, and object – how the Hole reference is both double entendre and red herring – illustrate the extreme homoeroticism that accounts for the totality of this movie’s subtext. If the queerness of Stoker’s Dracula is predicated on the eroticism inherent to patriarchal homosocial bonding, Jennifer’s Body is the precise inversion of this formula.

Folks will contest my situation of Jennifer within the lexicon of homoerotic cannibalism because, according to the film, she is transformed into a demon-possessed succubus, the result of a satanic ritual gone wrong. But this doesn’t really address the fact that Jennifer’s behavior and personality traits don’t actually change from one side of her transformation to the other – they just become more literal. Jennifer is mean to Needy. Controlling and diminishing in ways it’s impossibly easy to confuse for camaraderie, particularly when you’re young. The power dynamics of their relationship were such that she was already feeding on Needy long before she decides to materially eat her. Further, the majority of the boys she chooses to eat in the interim are selected for reasons that, again, have more to do with Needy than any actual desire on Jennifer’s part.

Ahmet (Aman Johal), the only character of color, a foreign exchange student, is the first to be eaten the night of the fire / rape / ritual / transformation. But prior, Jennifer goes to Needy’s house, an encounter that culminates in a very sexual scene in which Jennifer, flesh-hungry, pushes Needy up against a wall, takes deep breaths of her, then runs out into the night. To Jennifer, this refusal demonstrates her love for Needy, but she’s still hungry so she hunts Ahmet instead. Before she eats him, she asks, “Does anyone know you’re alive?” a double entendre of a question that speaks to conditions of social death existent at intersections of race, ethnicity, citizenry, and nationality, and which points to her consumption of him as being distinctly racialized.

Jonas (Josh Emerson) comes next, the jock whose best friend – Jennifer’s former fuck-buddy – died in the fire. Then Colin (Kyle Gallner), the emo goth kid from Needy’s writing class who Jennifer shows precisely zero interest in until Needy claims he’s “a really cool guy” – a statement that spurns an immediate one-eighty response from Jennifer. She invites him out that night and eats him (his body later described as “lasagna with teeth”), a scene that cuts between Jennifer feeding and Needy having awkward, distracted sex with Chip (Johnny Simmons), her dumb boyfriend, while telepathically tuned into her bestie’s shenanigans. The subtext is that Jennifer satiates her desire for Needy, either by eating boys Needy approves of, or who in some way recall their relationship; that when she consumes their flesh, she is, in a way, feeding on Needy’s admiration to achieve a literally transcendent form (a transcendence that, in the beginning, was merely implied through the filter of Needy’s desirous perception).

The specific cannibalism she exemplifies can be encapsulated in Simone Weil’s observation that we love others “as food for ourselves,” an impulse that, when fed, makes us “love like cannibals.” It also exemplifies toxic white femininity in action, predicated on “lov[ing] only what one can eat,” or rather, what is palatable. When Needy interrogates Jennifer – “what do you mean, ‘when you’re full?’” – Jennifer’s immediate response is to gaslight her with suggestive threats questioning her mental health and acuity. Their conflict culminates in Jennifer’s decision to manipulate, seduce, and eat Chip, which goes far beyond her need for substantiation, evidenced when she instructs him to “say I’m better than Needy.”

It’s not that Needy arouses her, it’s being perceived as “better” than Needy that arouses her; the conquest of it. Which, of course, has more nutritional value, shall we say, from the mouth of someone who loves her. Jennifer’s “man-eating” cannibalistic behavior stems from what seems like and can certainly be read as homoerotic desire but can also be read as predicated on sourcing a sense of power and superiority from the body of another – and what does that sound like?

The big unanswerable question of this film, for me, is not whether Needy loves Jennifer – that much is obvious. It’s whether Jennifer loves Needy or if she just loves that she knows and can rely on the fact that Needy loves her? When Needy narrates wistfully at the beginning that “sandbox love never dies,” what does that mean as currency and consumable? What does it mean as power?

raw 2.jpg

Raw (2016)

The first thing we learn about Justine (Garance Marillier) and her family is that they’re vegetarians. The second, that they’re veterinarians. The film opens with Justine’s arrival at veterinary school, her parents’ alma mater where, despite their legacy and the presence of her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), she struggles to fit into the hedonistic party culture of the campus during rush week. As part of an indoctrination (hazing) ritual, Alex essentially force feeds her raw rabbit kidney, from which a severe rash develops. Then the hunger starts.

Raw is unique among these three because the cannibalism it depicts is not only homoerotic and homosocial in nature, but also incestuous. The first human flesh Justine tastes is that of her sister, whom she spends the earlier parts of the film making futile attempts to connect with – until they find common ground in their particular appetites. Unlike the other films, Justine’s consumption bonds them, even as their relationship dynamic becomes increasingly tempestuous with her changing temperament. Justine undergoes a complete transformation over the course of the week into someone considerably more bestial.

The film’s body horror is one thing, but writer-director Julia Ducournau’s obsession seems more so in ponderance of the boundaries between the human and animal. In the natural world, cannibalism is scientifically common. It’s also common within human civilizations, even as we pretend it isn’t, even as its practice is naturalized through structural power. The feminine cannibals in Raw trouble the entire category of the human as distinct, separate, and apart from the rest of the natural world, the presumption on which all of human civilization is constructed.

In an early cafeteria scene, a student raises the question, “If you treat a monkey in a zoo or African reserve, are you as careful as a doctor during normal surgery?” We are, of course, to presume that by “normal,” he means “human.” The question is whether animals deserve the same level of care as human beings – but doesn’t stop there. The subject then turns to bestiality and its experience from the perspective of the animal. “Legally, I’m not sure ‘monkey rape’ exists,” Justine’s roommate and friend, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) says, to which she responds, “Sure it does. Animals have rights… I bet a raped monkey suffers like a woman.”

The philosophical, moral, and ethical question Justine raises about the value of animal life is really a question of sovereignty: whether or not one believes the sovereignty of living beings is to be inherently valued and respected. Generally speaking, we are taught to value human life above anything else – except that we don’t. And particularly not if it requires the denial of cravings for comfort and luxury, even if the experience of said luxury is entirely parasocial.

Human sovereignty is created through subjugation of the natural world, which is why the quickest way to devalue a person is to equate them with an animal. The questions of care, of “monkey rape,” and whether a raped monkey suffers, are questions white people have wondered out loud about Black and Indigenous people – and particularly those with marginalized gender and sexual identities – for centuries. What are we to make of the fact that France, the colonial power from which Ducournau hails, refuses to reimburse Haiti for the capital collected as “repayment” for the “theft” of “property,” i.e. human beings? What are we to make of the United States’ refusal to pay reparations? Or Jeff Bezos’ refusal to pay taxes (and his desire to secure Amazon as a monopoly)? Or the Kardashians’ consumption of Black culture (but also Black women’s bodies)? How is any of this not cannibalism?

At the end of Raw, we discover that Justine and Alex inherited their cannibalism from their mother, explanation for her rigid vegetarianism. If we move beyond the monstrous feminine, what are the implications of this choice when we recognize the nuclear family structure as a creation of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? And what does it reveal about what it means to love within the white imagination?