Q: Has the portrayal of violence in films gone too far?
A: I’ve never had much interest in excessive gore (e.g. most slasher films, with some exceptions), but I’m very keen on other depictions of violence in films. I think social violence, or how people harm each other at micro and macro scales, is an underexplored film motif (as demonstrated by the hungry reception of Jordan Peele’s social thrillers).
An example of social violence that often gets superficial treatment is beauty — which is a complex of expectations for appearance, behavior and belonging. Beauty is critical to how we navigate groups and relationships — to how we’re nurtured, neglected or brutalized.
Beauty at its essence may be a paraphysical thing that predates oppression, but I have not experienced commodifications of beauty that aren’t violent. In ‘The Fetishism of Commodities,’ Karl Marx outlines how commodification perverts inanimate objects into sellable products — tethering them to a matrix of branding or commercial signification. The same process can be wrought upon animate human forms, creating perversions of beauty.
Under the heel of white capitalism, beauty is commodified into white beauty, and people are thence subjected to untenable desires for brightness, luxury, symmetry and smoothness. When beauty is made into this tightrope, it becomes especially burdensome for those of us who are beholden to femininity, not least women.
In this blog post, I’ll examine three films wherein women internalize (and then externalize) the violence of white beauty: Helter Skelter (dir. Mika Nanagawa, 2012), Jennifer’s Body (dir. Karyn Kusama, 2009), and Ma (dir. Tate Taylor, 2019). In all three films, the protagonists are sirens. They use combinations of looks, wits and emotional manipulation to lure victims.
Helter Skelter, adapted from Kyoko Okazaki’s manga (1996), is heavy with metaphors about beauty’s commodification into whiteness. The film follows an investigation of illegal cosmetic surgeries that disfigure patients (similar to Hedare Beauty Co. in that notorious Catwoman movie). The investigators wax poetic about disastrous beauty standards, with the lead (male) detective musing that female celebrities are walking collages: “The sum total of our desires.”
Skelter’s protagonist, Lilico (Erika Sawajiri), is a fashion idol who achieves beauty through sketchy surgeries, but due to side effects, her skin deteriorates alongside her career and sanity. It doesn’t help that she’s treated like a corporation by her staff, wherein her looks are her merchandise. Her lead stylist and mentor regards her face like a jewel, telling a colleague: “I’m putting Lilico’s face in your hands.”
Lilico lives in decadence, but she’s too maddened by her beauty aspirations to enjoy it. Her surroundings are instead lurid reflections of her helter skelter mind, and she’s haunted by a spectral, impossibly white butterfly.
In her pursuit of impossibility, she lashes out at people who are most vulnerable to her — especially her doleful assistant, Michiko Hada (Shinobu Terajima). Irritated by the contrast of Hada’s sincerity with her own artifice, Lilico seduces her and the man who loves her, dazzling them both with her airbrushed body. When they’re under her spell, she instructs them to melt and carve the faces of two women she envies — projecting her fear of ugliness outward instead of confronting it. Despite its perks, lily-white beauty brings Lilico more suffering than stability, and losing it is her only chance at freedom.
Mirroring Lilico, the namesake of Jennifer’s Body is powered by a fragile state of beauty. In this film, doe-eyed Needy (Amanda Seyfried) defends her hot succubus friend (Jennifer, played by Megan Fox) as she seduces and destroys a slew of men. Jennifer sees herself as a god, and the people she encounters are playthings of varying import. Needy is her favorite plaything, and like Lilico, Jennifer is willing to overpower men who get too close to her ‘favorite.’
Jennifer’s beauty is both a weapon and a means of survival. She uses her body to seize her desires, but if no one desires her, she’ll wither. Thus beauty manipulates her just as much as she manipulates it. Jennifer being a white character doesn’t mean white beauty isn’t her double-edged sword too, though she isn’t as rattled by it as Lilico is: Jennifer behaves as if her power is eternal — as if she couldn’t possibly lose.
In Ma (2019), Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer)’s sense of invincibility is similarly deluded, though she doesn’t have the same assumption of beauty as Lilico and Jennifer. Sue Ann is not considered a dream woman. Sue Ann is trapped in time, forever reliving the sexual rejection of her teenage years. As a Black woman in a mostly white town, she hasn’t ever been deemed the most attractive or popular person, so she’s had different means of endearing people to her: acts of service. She attracts youth to her home by offering free liquor and fun.
Her semblance of generosity (and people’s eagerness to exploit it), is what enables her to enact revenge on her high school tormentors. If they hadn’t marginalized her, they might have seen her coming.
I’ll close this post with a meditation on ugliness, the antithesis of beauty: I think Ma’s Sue Ann is lovely to behold, but her world doesn’t agree. The film doesn’t spell out why she’s on the ousts of beauty, but it’s observable by comparison: she’s too dark, too wide to belong. I want to hold concern here, for the isolation we can experience when we aren’t other peoples’ ‘beautiful.’
While Sue Ann could have been better rendered by Black writers and directors, people like her exist (in the sense of being embittered by cruelty, longing, and consequent grudges). I understand the urgency to represent Black beauty, but there’s still work to be done in contemplation of Black ‘ugly.’
‘Review: Helter Skelter’ (Cinema Strikes Back)
‘Review: Beauty Is A Dangerous Obsession In HELTER SKELTER’ by Patryk Czekaj
‘Jennifer’s Body’ by Joseph Laycock
‘You Probably Owe “Jennifer’s Body” An Apology’ by Louis Peitzman
‘“Ma,” “The Help,” and the Vexing Collaborations of Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor’ by Doreen St. Felix
‘I Don’t Owe You Beauty’ by Mihran Nersesyan
‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ by Karl Marx