“Women & Horror” is a four-part series of features on horror films directed by women.
Content warning: This article discusses plot details, which include descriptions of violence and cannibalism.
Female sexuality is often closely linked to monstrosity. For example, tracing back to classic mythology, sirens were known to lure men using their inherent sexuality to devour them. This notion of women using their sexuality from lesser to larger monstrous and aggressive degrees is still prevalent in stories and media today. As horror critic Barbara Creed argues in her book, The Monstrous-Feminine, the connection between females and monstrosity is “almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions.” Essentially, the perceived source of a female’s monstrosity is in what makes her different than a male.
In Raw, writer-director Julia Ducournau centers the film’s narrative on the awakening of a young woman’s sexual and cannibalistic appetite, which in its way falls right in line with Creed’s argument. It, therefore, comes with little surprise that this awakening of appetites emerges after a build-up of scenes emphasizing the fear of being different. From bloody hazing rituals, to a bikini wax, and a doctor visit, Raw exemplifies the horror of conformity and how social pressures openly reveal one’s feared differences and ultimately their monstrosity.
The question of “normal” versus “different” is presented early on in Raw, when Justine (Garance Marillier) moves into her veterinarian’s school campus housing and is subjected to bizarre hazing rituals from the school’s upperclassmen. She is dragged out of bed by masked students, made to crawl in the dark on the floor, and then thrust into a party, shuffling from body to body. Unlike her fellow first-year classmates, she is confused and looks lost, isolating her from the people around her. She finally finds her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), in which the audience is introduced to her butt shaking to the music—establishing that Alexia is a female sexual being, in contrast to Justine, who is clearly not yet.
The difference between sisters is immediately apparent, as well as Justine’s discomfort with her new environment. This intensifies in one of the following scenes when the new students are drenched in blood before taking a class photo and then forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine, being a vegetarian, refuses to eat the kidneys at first, and Alexia tells her to not start her year chickening out. “They’re watching,” she says and puts the kidneys into Justine’s mouth. Justine being forced to consume meat, in order to not stand out, serves as a trigger to her awakening appetites.
From that point on, her body starts a transformation, making her feel even more different than her peers. She tries to mitigate those differences by going to the doctor for a rash and letting Alexia give her a bikini wax. The latter, which ends with Justine nibbling on Alexia’s severed finger, shows how Justine is willing to tolerate the pain of conforming to patriarchal beauty expectations to lessen her difference to others. However, it backfires as the botched bikini wax results in greatly contributing to Justine’s growing hunger.
The film’s earlier scene at the doctor’s office addresses difference more directly. The doctor visit is important to the film’s narrative in several ways. For one, it confirms that Justine is a virgin, which is another thing that separates her among her peers. The doctor prescribes the same cream that Justine later finds in Alexia’s cabinet—alerting the audience that Alexia may also be a cannibal. However, the scene goes beyond that, pausing the narrative action for the doctor share an anecdote about a fat girl who needed blood drawn and was rejected by other medical professionals because she was too fat to find a vein and was sent home and told to lose weight. The anecdote serves to show how much value is placed on being seen as normal, and when difference, in the case of the fat girl, is seen as a form of monstrosity, it is rejected. Even more sinister is the implication of the mob mentality that pressures people into feeling they need to change when they cannot live up to uniformed and often impossible standards.
In her story, the doctor did not care if the girl was normal or not, she was able to easily find a vein and draw her blood without commenting on her weight—her difference. In her capacity as the writer-director, it seems as if Ducournau operates similarly to the doctor. Throughout the film, she notes the differences between Justine and others, but she is not preoccupied by solving them. In fact, Raw’s final scene, which reveals that Justine and Alexia’s appetite for human flesh is inherited from their mother, indicates that this difference cannot be “fixed” and is still indulged as evidenced from the scarring on their father’s chest. The final shot of his chest is symbolic of what acceptance looks like, of what it means to reject conformity and embrace monstrosity.
Raw is available to rent or buy on VOD services.