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A Girl Has to Eat: When Cannibalism Meets Female Sexual Empowerment On-Screen

raw and santa clarita diet

One taste is all it takes. So goes the tagline for Chocolat, the 2001 movie starring Juliette Binoche as the gifted chocolatier bewitching Johnny Depp, but does that apply to human flesh, as well? It does, at least according to a new wave of TV shows and movies focusing on women and their unusual cravings.

From Sheila (Drew Barrymore) in Santa Clarita Diet to Justine (Garance Marillier) in Raw, the Belgian-French coming-of-age cannibal movie that made audiences throw up at that famous finger scene, these characters’ hunger for human flesh often has erotic connotations. While society might frown upon such an appetite, it stands for an unprecedented, powerful form of female sexual liberation.

“What’s new?” one might ask. Sexual cannibalism—the act of cannibalizing one’s mate before, during, or after copulation—has always been a prerogative of female members belonging to some insects and arachnid orders.

Think of the praying mantises eating their mates’ heads off during sex, a nightmarish image borrowed from the animal realm, scaring men out there ever since that scene in Chris Columbus’s comedy Nine Months, with Hugh Grant imaging Julianne Moore feasting on his brains.

Although this is not a rule during copulation, animal sexual cannibalism is more common in females rather than males. Insects and spiders do so for various reasons—first of all, as a foraging strategy. Females assess the nutritional value of males compared to their value as mates and act appropriately.

According to a study by Katherine L. Barry, Gregory I. Holwell, and Marie E. Herberstein about cannibalism and increased fecundity in praying mantises, eating one’s mate “had a significant positive effect on both female body condition and ootheca mass,” the latter being the egg case of such insects. In moderately sexually size-dimorphic species, as with most praying mantises, the relatively large males make for bigger, more nutritious meals.

It is undeniable that the survival element is key to all the cannibal women of both big and small screens. To name but a few, both Sheila and Justine dislike the taste of raw animal meat once they have sunk their teeth into human flesh. And yet, there’s also a genuine sexual enjoyment to it, not to be confused with vorarephilia, the erotic desire to be consumed by or to consume another person, which normally refers to swallowing the victim whole. Sexual cannibalism is as messy and dirty as sex itself.

A virgin, Raw‘s Justine comes from a strictly vegetarian family, a constraint which is not hard to imagine as an allegory of traditional religious values opposing premarital sex and sexual pleasure. Her path to a less socially acceptable diet will lead her to discover and accept her own explosive, feral sexuality. In Netflix zom-com Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila is a subdued realtor, wife, and mother in the eponymous Californian town. Following a little vomit incident, she wakes up undead and finally starts indulging her sexual impulses.

As she experiences an unprecedented desire, Sheila says she hunts and kills prompted by “a tingle in her vagina” and tells her husband all the charming details about that time she orgasmed when eating a human liver. While it’s true that female fictional characters practicing sexual cannibalism have always been quite a common trope, they used to be the product of the male gaze and regarded as arousing, but ultimately monstrous entities to either be defeated or saved to reinforce the damsel-in-distress cliché.

1989 B-movie Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death features a tribe of beautiful cannibals dressed up in succinct Amazon costumes, falling into the trite male fantasy of dangerous and wild, but also attractive female antagonists. Significantly, the film was written and directed by J.F. Lawton (credited as J.D. Athens), who would go on to be the screenwriter of Pretty Woman, a huge hit that attempts to restore the honor of the protagonist, a fallen angel waiting for a man to redeem her.

Back to cannibal women, there’s a lack of humanity in the usual fictional depictions in cinema and TV. Megan Fox’s character in Jennifer’s Body is a demon and becomes even more attractive when she starts snacking on guys. The models and makeup artist in Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon cannibalize the pretty innocent girl played by Elle Fanning due to a mix of jealousy and attraction. None of them show a sign of humanity.

Trouble Every Day, by French director Claire Denis, is the epitome of that lack of humanity. Coré (Béatrice Dalle), who cannibalizes her partners, is described as having a condition that prevents her from having social interactions. She is kept in the attic by her husband, a doctor, just as Mr. Rochester quarantined his wife in Jane Eyre. Similarly, the two women perish in a fire, death being the only way to restore the social order.

No more than a beast, Coré can no longer speak. While she dies, the protagonist, portrayed by Vincent Gallo, obsessed with her and showing symptoms of the same ferocity, manages to escape and ends up having intercourse and killing a young woman before returning to his big-eyed, unaware wife, with whom he doesn’t enjoy having sex.

Despite cannibalism being linked to sexual enjoyment in the previous examples, such primordial instincts go against social norms and need to be suppressed or punished by their narratives. On the contrary, what’s positive and revolutionary of female characters in the new sexual cannibal stories is that they hold on to their humanity. While vegetarianism is no longer an option for Justine, her teenage angst and feelings towards her friend Adrien haven’t changed.

Santa Clarita Diet is even more relevant in this regard. Sheila still loves her husband and daughter and would never hurt them, yet she asks them to accept her new, better self. What’s more, her renewed sexual desire blooms with no trace of guilt, as it should be.

(image: Netflix, Focus World)

Stefania Sarrubba is an Arts and Culture journalist based in London. When she is not adding movies she will probably never see to her infinite watchlist, she likes spotting urban foxes, making plans and engaging in passionate conversations about women’s rights. Read her annoying tweets on @freckledvixen.

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