Why Female Cannibals Frighten and Fascinate

The danger and appeal of the insatiable woman in Raw, Santa Clarita Diet, and The Lure

Expensive / venusty888 / shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

“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.

For decades, cannibal women have appeared in a range of film genres. They’re often portrayed as literal monsters—because it’s much easier to accept a person eating someone if viewers are told they’re actually a demon, like the titular uber-babe in Jennifer’s Body (2009). But there are plenty of examples of human women who charm and eat men, with an early example being 1970’s Die Weibchen, which is set at a women’s health spa where men are meat. There are also cannibal horror-comedies, such as 1973’s Cannibal Girls and 2009’s Doghouse. People-eating turns up in horror-dramas like the 1989 cult film Parents and Jim Mickle’s 2013 remake We Are What We Are; in both films, the mothers knowingly prepare food for their families using victims their husbands kill. The horror genre is rife with female cannibals, with particularly graphic examples being Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001) and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002).

Like many of those films, Raw isn’t exactly easy viewing. It’s likely many people first heard of Raw from a spate of headlines declaring the movie was so gruesome that some audience members needed medical attention. (As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw bragged in the headline of his review: “I didn’t faint … ”) While the carnage in Raw is harrowing, it’s specifically designed to help illustrate Justine’s dark evolution. The scene where she’s peer-pressured into eating meat by both her sister and her classmates is one of many that harken back to other coming-of-age stories. A moment in which Justine’s class is drenched in blood, for example, recalls the infamous prom scene in 1976’s Carrie. Ironically, this peer pressure opens up a space for Justine to question society’s expectations about eating, and to embrace her abnormal cravings.

While the premise of Santa Clarita Diet is obviously inspired by the horror genre, it’s really a family-centric black comedy that aims to shock with over-the-top gore. Barrymore’s Sheila Hammond is a middle-class, 40-something realtor living with her husband Joel and their teenaged daughter Abby. After Sheila dies in an absurd scene featuring more vomit than her body could’ve possibly contained (just one instance of gleefully offensive content), she reanimates with an enthusiasm for life and commits to a new high-protein diet of human meat.

The Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure is strikingly different from Raw and Santa Clarita Diet in both tone and style. The fantastical horror-musical follows two beautiful mermaid sisters with entrancing voices and a hunger for humans who take to land to perform at a seedy nightclub. Unlike Sheila and Justine, both everyday women who turn into something frightening, the sisters Golden (Marta Mazurek) and Silver (Michalina Olszanska) are non-humans who can pass for mortals (just add water, and their shiny, massive tails are revealed). The film draws from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and emphasizes the ghastliness of the original fairytale—beneath the glitz there is horror and a profound sadness. With their fine looks, Golden and Silver embody the common warning that beauty can conceal danger. Golden’s sharp teeth first emerge when she’s in her mermaid form in the bath; their purpose is revealed when she effortlessly seduces a man whom she devours.

It’s significant that the grotesqueness of these women’s eating habits—their proclivity to gorge on human flesh—is rendered through beautiful bodies. Portrayals of female hunger in visual culture more broadly are tangled up in social expectations about how women manage their bodies, expectations shaped in part by fad diets, targeted advertising, and celebrity culture. Eating is thus not just about nourishment, but also about appearance. It’s why when celebrities admit that they like fast food, too, or that they don’t like dieting either, they seem relatable in a way that can feel carefully orchestrated. When these “rule-breaking” women happen to be gorgeous, their rebelliousness becomes that much more appealing.

Similarly, the attractiveness of Sheila, Justine, Golden, and Silver gives them a kind of permission to engage in less socially sanctioned forms of eating. Their appearance helps shield them from judgment about their shocking behavior, whether their feeding is played for humor or horror. These women’s voraciousness when they handle meat—with their hands, gnawing, covered in blood—reinforces the idea that the act of eating itself is unsightly, if not repulsive.

In Raw, the scenes where the sweet-looking Justine eats meat are sickening in their impressive realism. Santa Clarita Diet, too, regularly emphasizes the fact that the boundlessly cute Sheila is eating not anonymous meat, but actual people with distinguishable body parts, like her snack-bag of fingers, as well as her ubiquitous travel cup (swapping out the popular wholesome green smoothie for blended meat). It’s horrifying, too, when The Lure’s lovely Golden rips apart her food: Her remorselessness suggests she still views humans as flesh to be eaten, unlike Silver, who’s earnestly pretending to be one of them.

Unlinked from food, hunger can be a metaphor for other things, most often sexual desire, and it’s not hard to see a connection between the carnivorous and bedroom appetites of these cannibals. In Raw, Justine experiences a sexual awakening alongside her newfound hunger for humans. Since Justine is a virgin, her nascent teenaged sexuality is portrayed as dangerous for potential partners. She’s plagued by a heady combination of feelings, hormones, and needs that she cannot understand or control—yet another salient theme in teen-centric films. What makes Raw so notable and poignant is that it doesn’t approach Justine’s feelings in a patronizing way. She isn’t drawn as a silly, immature girl, but as a carefully realized character whose motivations have very real consequences for those around her.

Santa Clarita Diet in particular is heavy-handed with its fixation on sex: In its opening scene, Joel unsuccessfully tries to initiate sex with his wife and sighs about her reluctance. But death supercharges Sheila’s libido, to the point where her constant demand for sex becomes a source of jokes; she insists, for instance, that even the Target sign is erotic to her. What saves the portrayal from veering into borderline-judgmental treatment of female desire is that Sheila remains picky even in her lust: Her sleazy co-worker’s disturbing attempt at seduction means he becomes her first human meal.

Silver, who appears as a teenager like Justine, becomes infatuated with a human man, Mietek, and experiences the powerful feelings of first love. And like Justine, Silver’s desire is so strong that she’ll do whatever it takes to be with him, despite Golden’s warnings. When the selfish Mietek says he only wants to have a sexual relationship with a human, Silver makes the drastic choice to undergo surgery to become human. Silver captures the way a woman might bend to societal pressures and change herself to please a lover, whereas the more violent and flesh-hungry Golden is sure of who she is and cannot understand her sister’s willingness to give up her body.

Freed of so many “normal” inhibitions, these cannibal women are also free toin the parlance of female empowermenttruly become themselves. In Raw, Justine revels in the autonomy she has at her minimally supervised new school and develops an independent identity. After developing a taste for human flesh, she continues to test the boundaries of what’s acceptable, enthusiastically pushing past even the most debauched behavior of her peers.

The cannibal mermaids in The Lure are also forced to consider how their identities change outside of the sea, and in proximity to their food. Golden and Silver play at being human, living with a family of singers and working at the nightclub. But Silver goes against her true nature and decides to live among those she’d otherwise eat, finding empowerment via choice. Though Golden doesn’t seem to understand, she remains on land out of love for her sister.

Meanwhile, Sheila, after her transformation, appears to be driven solely by her id: She buys a Range Rover, goes out dancing, and remorselessly murders for food. Except for her people-eating, Sheila 2.0 is all-around better. Her husband is thrilled by their revitalized sex life, her enthusiasm suits her career, and her neighbors suddenly befriend her. Sheila’s teenage daughter is the only character who expresses concern, wondering if her mother can still feel love. Cannibalism thus serves as a metaphor for Sheila’s liberation: By “dying,” she’s released from the boredom of her previously formulaic life as a woman trying to “have it all.” In many of these cases, characters draw power from indulging in what might be humanity’s biggest taboo—and having crossed that line, they’re less afraid to cross others.

Cannibal women in pop culture continue to reflect deep and persistent social fears about female autonomy. The physical danger that characters like Justine pose to those around her aligns with the belief that women’s bodies should be monitored and regulated—an idea that plays out in debates about issues like reproductive health. The way Justine is shamed by her classmates echoes how sex, bodies, and desires are often marked as sources of embarrassment. Sheila, too, is initially mocked for her increased libido, which eventually becomes a source of fulfillment.

On the surface, these characters still reflect stubborn stereotypes—they’re beautiful, manipulative, and deadly. But they also turn these traits around to offer an image of resistance to society’s demand that women keep their appetites under control. If viewers can get past the stomach-churning sight of a girl biting off a boy’s lip or of a woman munching on human fingers, they may find themselves empathizing with such acts of liberation, however symbolic or messy.