“What We Do Defines Us”: ScarJo as War Machine

William Brown, David H. Fleming

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    Scarlett Johansson embodies Siegfried Kracauer’s understanding of stars as casting a ‘spell’ over audiences—as made clear by her performances as characters who themselves spellbind those who see her, including Kaa in the recent live-action remake of The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, UK/USA, 2016) and the unnamed alien in Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK/USA/Switzerland/Poland, 2013). Scarlett Johansson is perhaps the desirable female film star of our moment, then, casting millions of people under a hypnotic, glamorous spell—‘taming’ even the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in various Avengers films, while being the object of desire in numerous others.1 For Kracauer, such a ‘spell’ can ‘only’ be explained ‘by the assumption that physical appearance satisfies the momentary but widespread desires of millions of people’ (Kracauer 2012: 203; italics in original). While Johansson’s physical appearance, which imposes itself upon each role that she creates, is indeed important, we disagree with Kracauer when he suggests that it ‘satisfies’ such ‘widespread desires,’ since this would suggest that these desires exist a priori to the viewer’s engagement with the film. To suggest that one can desire what one has not yet seen is no doubt evidence of the influence on Kracauer of psychoanalysis, which sees desire as based upon lack as it comes from the unconscious (since it is unconscious, we by definition lack conscious knowledge of what we desire). However, in this essay we shall adopt a more radical picture of desire (and desiring), suggesting that it operates through widespread (or a spread-wide assemblage of) ‘external’ bodies and pre-personal forces—and that Johansson’s film roles consciously reflect this, especially through their links with technology. That is, our desires are not ‘satisfied’ by movies and movie stars, but movies and movie stars help to fashion our desires, functioning with audiences as what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might term ‘desiring-machines,’ which set themselves up as conduits and channels for the flows and circulation of capital in the modern world. In other words, desire does not originate from within, but through contact with ideological-affective machines like cinema and capitalism more generally. In this essay, we shall argue that the films of Scarlett Johansson regularly stage this process, her star image thus helping us to understand how what we are made to desire (including movies and movie stars themselves) is not always in our own self-interest, be that as individuals, as a species or as a planet—even if we might stubbornly fight for these desires as if they were not only our own, but also our salvation (see Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 31).
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationScreening Scarlett Johansson
    Subtitle of host publicationGender, Genre and Celebrity
    EditorsJanice Loreck, Whitney Monaghan, Kirsten Stevens
    Place of PublicationBasingstoke
    PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
    Number of pages202
    ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-33196-2
    ISBN (Print)978-3-030-33195-5
    Publication statusPublished - 2019

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