Why are we so obsessed with cannibalism?
Between ‘Fresh’, ‘Yellowjackets’ and the upcoming Timothée Chalamet vehicle ‘Bones & All’, eating people has never been more en vogue.
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
It’s the ultimate symbol of savagery. It’s the fate which civilization has allowed us (so far) to escape, but which lingers on as a warning about the primal violence that exists in all humans, lurking just beneath the surface. The concept of cannibalism has been expressed across culture quite broadly, from Enlightenment-era philosophers like Thomas Hobbes all the way through to Heath Ledger’s Joker (stay with me, please). In The Dark Knight (2008), he famously sneers: “When the chips are down, these civilised people will eat each other.” — the devolution of society into intraspecies violence is an idea which is centuries-old, and one that Batman is all too familiar with.
Now, it seems the cannibal inside us has never had more of a cultural reach. The last few months have seen the release of some notable works about cannibalism. Fresh (2022) is a romantic comedy-cum-thriller about a woman who becomes ensnared by a cannibal, while Showtime series Yellowjackets (2021) follows a high-school soccer team whose plane crashes in the Ontario wilderness, who may or may not resort to cannibalism in an effort to survive. Looking ahead, Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino is shooting Bones & All. Starring Timothée Chalamet and Chloë Sevigny, it’s a horror film about a cannibalistic young woman living on the margins of society. A thread running throughout all three, of course, is the primary role that women play in the narratives, both as victims and perpetrators.
The first half hour of Fresh is like the kind of early 2010s Zooey Deschanel-esque indie that doesn’t really exist anymore. After this point, it makes its inevitable pivot to horror: it’s not so much that it combines genres as that it veers wildly from one to the other. In terms of its structure and story, it’s not wildly dissimilar to any number of films where a woman gets locked in the basement by an evil man and has to escape before her time runs out. But the slow-burn nature of Noa’s predicament — particularly the gradual maiming she is facing up to — gives the film a uniquely disturbing edge.
Even if we assume she’ll eventually escape, as narrative convention would dictate, it seems increasingly doubtful that she’ll leave intact: in one nightmarish scene, she wakes up on an operating table to realise that Steve (played by Sebastian Stan), grinning maniacally and dancing around to a synth pop song, is removing her buttocks. Similarly, her unseen cell-mate’s gradual descent into madness and despair, heard from the other side of their walled cells, gives a grim foretaste of the fate that awaits if she cannot break free.
Throughout history, cannibalism has been a metaphor for all kinds of things; in Fresh it’s mostly about misogyny with a side serving of class antagonism. For a start, it makes the unfashionable but interesting suggestion that cosmetic surgery itself can be read as a kind of patriarchal violence against women. Feminist writer Carol J. Adams, in The Sexual Politics of Meat, makes a connection between the butchering animals and sexual violence against women, and argue that a similar objectification enables either act of savagery. In Fresh, women are literally fragmented, objectified and consumed: reduced to meat, carved up and devoured by the patriarchy, as represented by a rich white guy and his wealthy clients.
As well as being an enthusiast himself, Steve runs a niche business catering to the “the 1% of the 1%” who feel entitled to satisfy their every desire, no matter how depraved. He only eats and sells women, he tells Noa, because “that’s where the market is”, which suggests both misogyny and the wider predations of the elite: two things, unlike poor Noa’s buttocks, that cannot be neatly cleaved. From Jennifer’s Body (2009) to Julie Ducournau’s Raw (2016), the 2000’s and 2010’s saw a spate of films in which cannibalism was reclaimed as an act of female agency, an expression of monstrous femininity and animalistic desire. Fresh reverses this trend: the man is very much the aggressor, and while the female characters do eventually exert a great deal of agency in defeating him, their own moral virtue is left intact.
Yellowjackets — a kind of modern, gender-reversed twist on Lord of the Flies, takes a different and more traditional view of cannibalism. Here it functions as a symbol of the latent savagery that exists within us all, and the survival instinct at its most base. Cannibalism is presented as the very worst thing you might do in order to live: the story nods to the Donner party (a group of 19th century pioneers left snow-bound in the Sierra Nevada) and the Uruguayan rugby team who crashed in the Andes in 1972, both of whom resorted to eating one another. However, the cannibalism in Yellowjackets is all hypothetical and, according to some fan theories, could simply be a red herring.
As critic Doreen St. Félix wrote of the show in The New Yorker, “possible cannibalism is the least interesting thing about it.” Yellowjackets cuts between the time of the plane crash (1996) and the present-day. We know that the now adult characters are haunted by what happened, we know they are being blackmailed, and we know that at least one person was killed and, it’s heavily implied, eaten by their teammates. Beyond that, the details are murky: the first season’s finale opens up more questions than it answers, and those we do get are far from clear. Cannibalism almost doesn’t make sense as an explanation: in the circumstances these characters found themselves in, would it even be that big a deal, ethically? Wouldn’t you rather admit to something that most people would understand as an act of necessity rather than allowing yourself to be blackmailed by a mysterious stranger?
There is the hint that something occult or supernatural may have been going on, which chimes with anthropological understandings of how cannibalism has operated throughout human history: it has often been driven by both famine and religious or mystical rituals, and sometimes a mixture of the two, with the spiritual aspect being used to justify brute necessity. Some historians, such as William Arens, have argued that cannibalism has never existed beyond isolated incidents of famine and other extreme circumstances.
But whatever its prevalence, there has always been a deep cultural taboo against it, something which has long been used as a way of racist othering. When Colombus arrived in America, for example, he falsely smeared the indigenous populations as cannibals — this was a handy way of dehumanising them and justifying their subsequent enslavement and displacement. For colonialists in the West, cannibalism was a rationale for dominating other people in order to save them from themselves, all the while profiting from their resources.
In a sense, this modern spate of film and TV about humans eating one another is nothing new. Every decade in the last fifty years has produced a few significant films which draw from cannibalism as a theme, so it has never entirely gone out of fashion. Every generation finds cannibalism afresh: it’s always functioned as a symbol, but what exactly it symbolises changes with the times. Today, it’s frequently filtered through themes of female empowerment and exploitation, but always with the lingering fear that, regardless of the popular slogan, really it’s the rich who are eating us.