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.”