In Raw and We Are What We Are, cannibalism is used as a metaphor to explore what it is to be a woman living under patriarchy, in both the macro and the micro. This is an excerpt from our book, Beyond Empowertainment, which you can purchase here. Read more excerpts here.
Cannibalism as a horror subgenre grew out of the exploitation pseudo-documentary movement known as Mondo films, which originated in the early 1960s. These films explored taboo subject matter in ways meant to shock audiences, and led to notorious films such as Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), and Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980). In these films, as well as newer entries such as Green Inferno (Eli Roth, 2013) and Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, 2015), cannibalism is depicted as the ritualistic practice of a primitive, savage society. The gore is garish and sleazy, often paired with the threat of sexual violence and used to terrorize women cast as helpless victims. However, in the last couple of decades, there has been a strong seam of films where the female protagonists turn the tables and transform into bloodthirsty monsters with a fevered, sexually charged taste for blood and mayhem (Ginger Snaps [John Fawcett, 2000], Teeth [Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007], and Jennifer’s Body [Karyn Kusama, 2009] to name a few).
Jim Mickle’s 2013 American remake of We Are What We Are and Julia Ducournau’s provocative and pulpy debut, Raw (2016), are two films that marry the gory grit of earlier cannibal films with the pretty and predatory protagonists of newer entries to create something haunting and thought-provoking. But here, cannibalism is not cast as primitive with its practitioners savage or subhuman. Neither is cannibalism the result of supernatural interference, or part of a slow transformation into a monster. In these films, cannibalism is a fact of life, a feminine affliction or legacy which festers and blooms in the lives of the protagonists as it’s passed down from mother to daughter. It’s an unfeminine savagery caused and curdled by the pressures of patriarchy, hovering somewhere between a curse, a medical condition, and an enforced sacred ritual. We never lose sight of the fact that these characters are human. The taboo nature of cannibalism in film, eliciting fascination and revulsion, makes it an incisive tool for exploring the often-paradoxical ways women’s bodies and behaviours are treated.
We Are What We Are
In the original version of We Are What We Are (Jorge Michel Grau, 2010), one family’s tradition of cannibalism is complicated when the patriarch dies unexpectedly, leaving the task of maintaining the tradition to his sons. Jim Mickle’s remake trades the grimy streets of a Mexican city for the chilly backwoods of the Catskills, but his film is more than just an American translation — the gender of the new cannibal generation gets swapped, too. Here, after the sudden death of their mother from a mysterious illness, sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose Parker (Julia Garner) prepare for their family’s annual religious ritual, Lamb’s Day, when they and their father will feast on the flesh of a young woman plucked from their rural town. But in confronting the brutality behind the tradition, the sisters begin to question their family’s beliefs and their own complicity.
Like the sons in Grau’s film, Mickle presents Iris and Rose as siblings trapped by damaging family practices. Here, though, it isn’t about establishing a new patriarchal order, but navigating an old one. The Parker family’s tradition puts the sisters at the mercy of their father’s religious fanaticism and pits them against other women for survival. Frank Parker (Bill Sage) loves his family — as long as they obey his rule. When they don’t, he becomes violent. His control focuses on his family’s bodies, specifically what goes into them: he forbids his wife from seeking medical help before her death, controls not only what but when his children eat by subjecting them to days of fasting before the feast, and murders his daughter’s lover mid-sex, his blood pooling on her chest.
The real-world connections are there to make: under similar religious and patriarchal fanaticism, women are cleaved from their reproductive rights, their right to sexual and bodily autonomy, their right to life. In an old, creaking farmhouse lit by oil lamps, and clad in anachronistically nineteenth century clothing, Frank keeps his family away from the temptations and progress of the outside world.
A flashback to pioneer times gestures at the origins of this fastidious adherence to tradition and dark ritual: when ancestors of the Parkers faced starvation in the harsh New England winter, they turned to cannibalism for survival, eating the mother. We see her head dipped in shadow and her nude body arched against a cave wall, flickering in the firelight. The camera lingers on her corpse, inviting us to gaze at her, though she’s incapable of participating or consenting. Nudity in the film is reserved for the Parkers’ victims, their identities distilled down to body parts. Whether she was murdered or willingly sacrificed herself remains ambiguous, because it doesn’t really matter: both conclusions ring true. For the men in this film, and for many in real life, women are bodies before they are people. They are murdered, and they sacrifice their desires, identities, and ambitions to meet the demands of society. Their bodies are sexualised, objectified, commodified, an ideological butchery — always for consumption, in one way or another.
The image of the mother, the first victim of this tradition, echoes all the other times we’ve seen a woman’s body used without identity or agency. In 2016, the Tumblr page Headless Women of Hollywood was launched by comedian Marcia Belsky, highlighting the standard but dehumanizing practice of using women’s bodies, fragmented, deconstructed, and fetishized, to sell things. In 2011, the website Fat, Ugly or Slutty collected screenshots of misogynistic messages received by women gamers; much of the randomized hostility was centred on their unknown, unrepresented bodies. And women know this from their daily lives; whether posting pictures on social media or walking down the street, strangers feel entitled to air their views on women’s attractiveness and desirability (or lack thereof). Desecrating a woman’s body, through slurs or objectification or violence, is often the preferred tool for hurting or invalidating her. And cannibalism, after all, is all about the desecration of another’s body to sustain your own.
Sadly, under systems of oppression, similarity doesn’t mean solidarity. Back in the present day, Iris and Rose are forced to kill a woman they know from town who has been chained up in the cellar by Frank. The brutality of their murder is immediately followed by the reassuring, sanitizing practices of ritual: the sisters gently wash the body, drain the blood from the wrists, modestly place towels over the nude corpse, and use red lipstick to mark out the various cuts the way a butcher might mark up an animal carcass. The ritual is a way of reframing the horror, enabling the sisters to cope with and normalize the perpetuation of violence.
Mickle is clearly fascinated by what we justify under tradition and make palatable with words like ‘modesty’, ‘honour’, ‘sanctity of life’. The Parkers justify their brutality as a service to God; this isn’t so dissimilar from the erosion of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy that we’ve seen in a society as ostensibly egalitarian but increasingly God-fearing as America. The Parker sisters might look as fragile as the tissue-paper pages of a bible, with their ghostly complexions and pale, billowing nightgowns, but when necessary, they are capable of shocking violence. Despite their reluctance, they kill the captive woman because it’s what they’re expected to do. The options open to them are limited; they’re either daughters, protected from their father’s predation so long as they agree to facilitate it, or they’re potential lambs for the slaughter.
When Iris and Rose commit this murder at Frank’s behest, they become predators, too, borrowing some of their father’s power. They become complicit in patriarchy in order to survive it with an act that is ugly, confrontational, and barbaric — as it should be — and Mickle makes the viewer as uncomfortable with it as Iris and Rose are.
We’ve seen some women oppose the #MeToo movement, emerging to defend men accused of sexual assault and rape, most strikingly President Donald Trump, figurehead of western capitalism and patriarchy. In this light, Iris and Rose’s compliance with Frank’s violent religious ritual is not so farfetched.
The sisters accept their responsibilities with resignation, carrying the weight of fulfilling the sacred ritual that keeps the family in God’s favour even while it corrodes inside of them. They feel unable to voice their concerns or resistance, so they go through with it anyway. Just to get it over with. Just to be safe. Despite the horrible things the sisters do, it’s difficult not to sympathise with their version of self-preservation.
But Mickle signals that a reckoning is coming. It seems we are watching the crumbling of a rotting patriarchy, foreshadowed in the biblical levels of rain falling throughout the film and in Frank Parker’s own bodily disintegration. Frank is suffering the effects of Kuru disease, a neurodegenerative disorder caused by cannibalism (which, we learn, took his wife’s life first). A raging storm knocks loose the bones of past victims from their burial place in a riverbank, flowing downstream towards town and possible discovery. The riverbank crumbles as the bones fall, like the foundations of an ancient citadel, and watching this, Frank wails inconsolably. His household kingdom is built on the bones of women; all power structures, Mickle reminds us, are built on victimization. We are waiting for the sisters to seize their moment and escape, or be taken down by the oppression that’s governed their lives. What happens is a mix of both, something not so easily navigated.
Frank’s final, limping attempt to reassert control is to kill his daughters and himself by poisoning the human-meat stew as the family gather for the Lamb’s Day feast. Family annihilation is a particularly dark crime, mostly committed by men who feel, in some way, emasculated. Iris and Rose refuse to eat the stew, rejecting the toxic sustenance of the patriarchal status quo, made from the chopped-up bodies of their peers. Instead, Rose sinks her teeth into her father, and Iris joins her. Together, they quickly overpower their physically weakened father. They tear chunks of flesh from him with a fevered animalism. In the same way that Frank’s shaking hands and the apocalyptic weather seem to foreshadow the growing tremors of resistance in the sisters, so this film prefigures what we’re now living through: women standing up and unshackling themselves from trauma.
But Iris and Rose’s conditioning isn’t so easily set aside: the violence against their father is one more way patriarchy has forced the sisters to become monstrous, matching the brutality of their oppressor. At first it’s self-defence, but it quickly becomes something much darker. The girls glance up at one another for a brief moment across their father’s dying body. There’s no more fight in him, and they could stop if they wanted to; instead, they continue eating him, now with ravenous pleasure. Frank Parker dies, spread out like Jesus on the family dinner table, with a smile on his face.
By killing their oppressor, Iris and Rose have still perpetuated his regime. Their victims may no longer be women, but the cannibalistic ritual lives on. Iris and Rose have learned from Frank that power is always transitive; it must be exercised over someone else, and that’s where its pleasure lies. The girls leave, holding tightly to their family’s bible, ready to start their tradition elsewhere, but perhaps, with their own rules. The jaunty end-credit song says it all: ‘For really, she’s a good girl / It was me that made her bad’.
In We Are What We Are, cannibalism is a means to explore complicity and women’s relationship to power under patriarchy. In Raw, it’s more amorphous, not an enforced tradition but a mysterious desire innate only in the women of the family, an uncontrollable hunger that emerges in young adults. Ducournau is dextrous with her metaphor; the multiple and often conflicting interpretations of cannibalism reflect the paradoxical ways women and their bodies are treated in society. The film gives gory expression to the painful contortions women have to perform on their bodies and identities to be accepted. Because cannibalism is taboo, and a particularly female affliction, Ducournau also taps into the idea of womanhood itself as taboo. Ducournau shocks us into seeing things in a new light, but resists literalism and easy answers.
Lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is dropped off at vet school and taken under the capricious wing of her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), during the first week’s hazing rituals. After eating raw meat as part of one of these hazings, Justine develops strange hungers and discovers that Alex too has these appetites. But while her sister, alone and isolated at vet school, embraced cannibalism and even turned to murder, Justine tries to resist. Unlike the Parker sisters who face their cannibalism together, the sisters in Raw discover it separately, kept in the dark by their mother. In We Are What We Are, cannibalism is a dark, private celebration which binds the family in a culture of complicity that upholds the status quo; in Raw, it’s an innate part of the girls’ humanity, hidden away even from each other.
Ducournau’s film made waves for its hyper-realistic depiction of cannibalism and body horror, a throwback to the kind of violence that lured audiences to outré classics of the genre. There’s a subversive frisson to seeing this kind of taboo behaviour: we can delight in it, with the dubious comfort of knowing we’d never actually participate. To some, women’s bodies and sexuality hold a similar mix of allure and revulsion. The sisters’ mother is an example of this mindset. An oblique presence in the film, she is governed by self control, abstinence (strict vegetarianism) and, as we discover at the end, sublimating her cannibalism into the quiet, safe sanctity of marriage. Though she is the source of the sisters’ strange appetite, we never hear from her directly; her opinions and struggles are communicated through her husband while she maintains the aloof, conservative air of women who choose not to teach their daughters about their own bodies because the subject is improper.
And so, at some moments in Raw, cannibalism is presented as a kind of animal desire awakened in Justine’s body which she knows to feel ashamed of, in the same way that Alex admonishes her for her unshaven armpits and ungroomed bikini line. Even the setting of the vet school serves to underscore this idea of strict monitoring as a form of social security: a place set up for the care of animals is a threatening, clinical environment filled with unconscious bodies wired up to machines. The dreamy visual of a horse galloping on a treadmill echoes how monitored our natural states are. During the course of the film, Justine learns that when it comes to her innate impulses, what’s natural must be curbed and disciplined, or given into entirely.
Cannibalism offers the sisters a way of experiencing an unregulated part of their nature, of shaking off the social and bodily discipline mandated by a patriarchal society; perhaps this is why Alex, in contrast to her mother (Joana Preiss) and Justine, embraces it. Initially, Alex seems like a role model for Justine: bearing no traces of her repressive upbringing, she’s liberated, popular, and promiscuous. Secretly, though, Alex is torn. She cares what people think of her body hair, confessing to Justine that she’s been painfully waxing it for years, and insists Justine must do the same to fit in. When Justine balks at eating raw meat during her hazing, Alex tells her to ‘just do it’ — suspecting it might ignite her sister’s desire, too — the way girls in other coming-of-age stories encourage their friends to have sex for the first time just to get it over with. Alex’s status in the student social hierarchy is conditional on her pandering to its expectations, whereas cannibalism allows her to be in touch with something more free and authentic.
The connection between cannibalism and authentic expression is made clear in a scene which places it side by side with the discomfort of trying to fit into society as a woman. Alex insists that Justine must wax her bikini line, and it’s the one moment Ducournau unabashedly goes for the gross-out: shot in alternating close-ups of Alex (chagrined) and Justine (indignant), we hear the sounds of the hot wax getting stuck in Justine’s pubic hair as Alex tries unsuccessfully to rip it out. She gets the scissors to cut off the wax; a mishap with the blades leaves her fainted on the floor and minus one finger. By contrast, when Justine finally gives into her cannibalism and nibbles on her sister’s severed finger, the music swells: it feels transgressive yet revelatory. We are encouraged to take pleasure in Justine’s act, because she is enjoying it. It’s what she really wants. As violent and gross as it is, Ducournau presents cannibalism as innate to both of the sisters — a biological impulse, but also a kind of truth that will prove hard for them to suppress.
After the hazing ritual, Justine resisteds cannibalism for some time, scarfing down raw chicken in the cold, middle-of-the-night light of the refrigerator. But after her first taste of human meat, she finds resistance more difficult and begins staring hungrily at her colleagues. Once she does, Alex invites her to experience the power cannibalism can give, too. Alex isn’t subtle about her hunting technique, getting a primal thrill from running out in front of cars on a deserted road and feeding on the exposed brains and viscera of the dead passengers. There’s a vampiric edge to the image of Alex, bloody-mouthed, bending over her prey. To us, and to Justine, she looks monstrous, but Alex sees herself as near-invincible, someone who can walk away from fatal car accidents unscathed.
Here, the metaphor shifts, and cannibalism becomes a window into how the individual hunger for power can make oppressed people turn on each other. Justine’s first experience of this untamed side of herself and of empowerment comes at the expense of permanently injuring her sister. Once the cannibalism is out in the open, the sisters are at odds with one another. Justine sees a possible future self in her sister’s unhinged brutality, and reels from it. She is conflicted, trying to navigate a way of appeasing her desires without losing control entirely.
Alex has found a way to conform in public but also embrace her desires in secret; Justine doesn’t want this division of self. She rejects Alex’s invitation to join in killing and eating local drivers, but doesn’t turn her sister in, either. Alex, hurt by Justine’s rejection, retaliates by humiliating her in front of their peers, spreading a video of Justine drunkenly snapping like a dog at the dangling arm of a corpse. This ensures Justine will never have access to the tenuous respectability and safety Alex has cultivated for herself. Then Alex goes one step further: she murders and cannibalizes Justine’s roommate, who also happens to be the first man Justine has ever been intimate with. Justine took her finger, so Alex takes her lover, and she does it by embracing the very nature Justine is trying to evade.
In another film, the sisters’ perverse appetites would be a straightforwardly empowering force, allowing them to transcend female ‘weakness’ and enact vengeance on symbolic oppressors. But Ducournau isn’t interested in pat endings or clean metaphors. Alex pays dearly for embracing her authentic self; she ends up in prison, leaving Justine to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma alone. There is no tidy resolution, no restorative exorcism. Her father (Laurent Lucas) reveals his own bitten and scarred chest, and reassures Justine that she will find her own way through it. Confronted with two such stark choices embodied by her sister and her mother, Justine looks right at us, and takes a breath. By the end, these three women are isolated from one another as a result of exploring their natures, and they’re worse off for it.
The realism of the violence in both We Are What We Are and Raw brings us closer to it. It isn’t gleeful or bombastic or sleazy the way it is in other cannibal films; Justine, Alex, Iris, and Rose are not subhuman, primitive savages, far removed from anything we recognize. There is no such comforting distance here, and the filmmakers know that makes it scarier. Mickle’s and Ducournau’s films understand and confront the fact that cannibalism is not a lack of humanity but a dark part of humanity. Systems of oppression are part of humanity, and we’re all involved in them in some way.
There’s a reflex among horror audiences to see a monstrous woman meting out violence and call it empowerment. In films like Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, the literal monstrousness feels empowering because however destructive it is, it’s a power that grows out of and reverses the characters’ victimization. The social weaknesses and vulnerabilities placed on women by patriarchy are transcended by the girls’ newfound supernatural powers. There’s no reason for you to be weak anymore when you can rip a man limb from limb, right? The supernatural element allows there to be a ‘pure’ state for the women to revert to, so their humanity is usually still available, still a choice.
We Are What We Are and Raw complicate this empowerment narrative. The young, pretty, white girls in these films all get a chance to act out the violence which usually victimises them in the genre, but they don’t have super strength or magical powers; they just want to eat people. The ‘evil’ driving their violence is an internal imperative, a result of conditioning, rather than an external force. Sure, the girls all make it to the end, but so does what they’ve been fighting against. In these films, there is no knife-wielding maniac to defeat; the villain is patriarchy itself, that all-encompassing yet invisible and intangible entity, and it lives within the bodies of the survivors, a burden they have to manage alone.
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Want to read the rest of the book?
This is an excerpt from the book Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and the Struggle for Female Agency.
The book contains 20+ chapters on films such as Thelma, Raw, and Perfect Blue.