“Go on—eat it.” With these words, the 16-year-old vegetarian protagonist in Julia Ducournau’s Raw is urged to consume meat by her older sister and classmates at her new veterinary school. When Justine (Garance Marillier) refuses, her sister Alexia forces the meat into her mouth anyway, in a violent and bloody hazing ritual. The incident triggers within the pretty, shy, and brilliant student a sudden and overwhelming desire for flesh—namely, human flesh.
With the arrival of this stunning French drama, released in the U.S. last Friday, the strange archetype of the female cannibal seems to have entered the zeitgeist. Much like the leads in the new Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet and the 2015 Polish film The Lure, Justine is compelled by a hunger that’s both deviant and truly dangerous. In Santa Clarita Diet, Drew Barrymore plays a sweet suburban cannibal, and The Lure, like Raw a festival favorite, stars two young people-eating mermaids. (That both unusual foreign films garnered enough interest to secure U.S. releases this year is remarkable.)
Having spent the last five years studying the female cannibal (an admittedly odd subject even in academic circles), I’ve been fascinated by how the subject has gained more mainstream visibility of late. While the female cannibal isn’t new to pop culture, she’s relevant in ways that go beyond shock value, by capturing ever-present social anxieties about gender, hunger, sex, and empowerment. These new works center on women who, in addition to eating humans, negotiate and subvert expectations for how women should look and behave. They’re motivated by physical hunger but also by sexual desire, making them an extension of the femme fatale—the beautiful woman who deceives and ensnares men. In eating flesh, characters like Justine simply redirect this fear from the metaphorical to the physical. There’s a persistent stereotype that women will “suck men dry”; well, these ones will literally devour you.