Arts and Entertainment

Girl, Ravenous: Female Cannibalism in Media

An investigation into the grotesque film craze sweeping the zeitgeist: women who are hungry for something they shouldn’t be.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“The eating of a person is the ultimate way to dignify that person and keep her with you forever, while at the same time [destroying] her and [dominating] her,” asserts Yellowjackets producer Jonathan Lisco. And he’s not the only one. Media has increasingly highlighted themes that are increasingly taboo and difficult to swallow in complex, rough-around-the-edges, enigmatic female characters as a way to subvert the male gaze—the purposeful depiction of women to cater to the heterosexual male view. Female cannibalism in movies is becoming a staple of film culture. Movies such as Jennifer’s Body (2009), Bones and All (2022), The Lure (2015), Raw (2016), and TV series such as Yellowjackets (2021) and Santa Clarita Diet (2017) portray girls’ consumption of flesh as something carnal and animalistic—a hunger that is erotic, almost fueled by unnatural desire. These associations between passion and cannibalism are not new, but we seem to be in a golden age of the twisted chick flick, with the girl-eating-girl. It’s perverted, but it’s impossible to look away.

But what is the deeper context behind it? Female cannibalism can be interpreted as a response to slasher film culture, where the “final girl” trope emphasizes how the pure, virgin girl is saved from victimization. By twisting the narrative and making the female character so monstrous, the audience is forced to confront the raw nature of female ambition. A common connection between these films is equating cannibalism to female sexuality, with the suppression and ultimate release of uninhibited appetite. This is especially true in Julia Ducournau’s critically acclaimed 2016 film Raw, which follows lifelong vegetarian Justine as she gets her first taste of meat—rabbit kidney during a hazing ritual—and spends the rest of the movie chasing the itch and fulfilling her cravings by consuming her friend’s fingers, her boyfriend’s bottom lip, and even the limbs of a corpse. She reaches a sexual climax by tearing the flesh off of her own arm. The analogy is clear: once she gets a glimpse of what she has abstained from her entire life, its unexplainable primal pleasure makes it impossible for her to tear herself away. In an interview, Ducournau explained that she “wanted the cannibalism to become a punk gesture against this patriarchy.” In a way, it can be argued that reducing the woman to her most basic animalistic tendencies serves to empower her. It’s like a depraved, sadistic communion.

Jennifer’s Body (2009) is the ultimate cult classic that launched the popularization of this genre. The horror movie starring “it girl” Megan Fox was considered a box office flop when it was first released. Most critics attribute this to the fact that it overused Fox’s sex appeal in its marketing when the film had deeper queer, feminist overtones and only got its recognition as the avant-garde rape-revenge concept that it is years after its release. The plot really begins to kick off once Jennifer is reborn as a demon after being taken advantage of by sleazy indie band members. It highlights just how illicit and taboo female cannibalism is. Simultaneously, it keeps just enough of the coming-of-age vibe to leave viewers deeply unsettled by queen bee Jennifer Check’s transformation into a succubus who gratifies her hellish hunger by feasting on boys’ flesh and homoerotically seduces her best friend.

The film has long been a hallmark of queer horror; whether it’s due to the infamous “coming out” dialogue, which is canonically about the act of feasting upon people’s bodies, but could just as well be about Check’s bisexuality, (“I thought you only murder boys?” “I go both ways,”) or the scene where Fox passionately makes out with co-star Amanda Seyfried before trying to take a chunk out of her neck. The resurgence of the film’s cultural impact in the decade after its release proves one thing: when women feast, the whole world stops to watch.

But how is it possibly different from when the media has the man doing the cannibalizing? Instances of male cannibalism, such as Hannibal (2001), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Doctor X (1932) don’t carry the same connotation. While both can share themes of gratifying sexual urges, the male cannibal is often subject to less inner turmoil. He is portrayed as a more classic villain, often also being a serial killer, a sociopath, or a general aggressor. The female cannibal retains an air of lucidity even while satiating her impulses, like she is simultaneously hyper-aware and detached. Many cannibal films starring women involve reclaiming a definition of femininity or rejecting the need to be overpowered by men. Male cannibalism rarely holds the same implication of craving systemic revenge. In a way, the man consumes for fun, while the woman consumes for power. She has something to prove.

When viewed through a lens of feminist horror, cannibal movies use the most extreme vehicles as a motif for monstrous female power—not just blurring the lines of violence and sex, but freeing women from morality altogether. Often through the subject of a coming-of-age narrative, the insatiability of the girl is put into play, and people relate. Though Jennifer’s Body was a flop at first, the modern feminist movement has harnessed the vigor of the female cannibal, and now the genre is growing. It’s clear that we, as an audience, are tired of seeing Mary Sues, innocent victims, and films that barely pass the Bechdel test. We want a female rage that is complicated to sympathize with, hard to swallow, and liberating to relate to.