Flesh and Femininity: How Body Horror in Raw Externalises Female Sexual Awakening

Julia Ducournau’s directorial debut Raw follows 16-year-old Justine as she attempts to navigate the complexities of becoming a woman alongside her newfound and unconventional desires. Coming from a high-achieving family of entirely vets and vegetarians, Justine is ready to start her first year at vet school, where her older sister, Alexia, also studies. During some time-honoured and intense hazing rituals, the ‘rookies’ are drenched in pigs’ blood (Carrie, anyone?) and forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys as a form of initiation. After eating meat for the first time, unexpected consequences emerge as Justine is overcome with an all-consuming craving for human flesh.

Gif Link: Giphy

Justine’s painful transformation into a cannibal mirrors her complicated transformation into a woman. Gory images and body horror externalise Justine’s coming of age journey as she discovers herself and her sexuality. Our antiheroine feels a great amount of shame around eating meat, comparable to the shame that we as women feel around female pleasure and masturbation. In a disturbing yet empathetic scene, Justine attempts to steal a burger from her university cafeteria. As the gravy seeps through the pocket of her white and pristine veterinarian coat, the shame she feels at being caught is painful and familiar. Later that night, as she raids the fridge to ease her cravings, ripping apart raw chicken breast with her teeth, we feel the shame alongside her. The painful changes in her body are not only an externalisation of her shame but a representation of the universal struggles that young women go through. The raw meat causes Justine to come out in a severe rash across her whole body, mostly concentrated on her stomach and thighs. The visceral sound of her obsessively scratching and ripping off her own flesh is haunting.

Justine’s craving for meat coincides with her own ‘sexual awakening’ as she becomes obsessed with the thought of her roommate Adrien’s flesh. As they sit outside a gas station eating shawarma, it is clear that Adrien is not only the first person to introduce Justine to sex, but he is also the first person to introduce her to meat and to encourage her cravings. Ducournau flips conventional techniques and assumptions as she utilises ‘the female gaze’ to frame Adrien as the object of desire as opposed to Justine. Dancing in front of her mirror to an explicit song, Justine truly embraces her sexuality while getting ready for a party, intent on seducing Adrien. Leaving behind a lipstick stain on the mirror, Justine’s energy is intoxicating and empowering.

Gif Link: Giphy

Raw also provides interesting commentary on public shaming and the role of social media in modern-day womanhood and female sexuality. At several points throughout the film, Justine feels shamed and ostracised by her peers. In one scene, she is covered in blue paint, forced into a closet with a stranger (who is covered in yellow paint) and told not to come out until they are both green. Justine ends up tearing off a chunk of his lip (whether it was out of fear, pleasure or a mix of both is up for debate) and is labelled as “insane.” Later in the film, a video is leaked of Justine at a party. Intoxicated, she is taken to the morgue by her sister Alexia and a group of peers. The leaked video shows Justine looking animalistic and possessed as she tries to eat a corpse while the crowd gathered around cheers and hollers. Coming into yourself has never been easy as a woman yet it is even harder to do so while surrounded by camera phones. The societal desire to ‘capture’ women at their worst or most vulnerable destroys lives.

Gif Link: Giphy

Raw is not exactly the most conventional coming of age film, and Justine is not exactly the most conventional protagonist. While the flesh-eating experience of cannibalism is (hopefully) not relatable, the universal story of a woman coming into herself most definitely is. Gruesome and gory images not only make for an incredible horror film, but they externalise the insecurities and struggles that young women face. The fear of being labelled as a “slut” or a “prude” offers no freedom or balance in between. Becoming a woman whilst being judged against impossible and contradictory standards is exhausting and inhibiting. The fear of being seen as “too much” of this or “not enough” of that is an uphill battle that we can never win. Raw is profoundly and unexpectedly personal. Ducournau’s empathetic storytelling ensures that even the most nightmarish and grotesque moments are ultimately grounded in a universal experience. We are challenged not to judge or vilify Justine, but instead see her as a mirror and a friend. Flesh and femininity are eternally intertwined, and we should never shy away from the ‘ugly’ aspects of ourselves.

Francesca Sylph

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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