Reading the Female Body in ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’
Against a black backdrop, wind howls. Leaves rustle. Twigs rattle and snap. Welcome to André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe. A vacuous suck on the background score drains the film’s title card, giving way to a blurred shot which itself needs to be rotated right side up for the image to come into focus. A tree. A house. A couple brutally murdered and an unidentified woman’s body found buried in the basement. A female officer reads the scene: no signs of a break in. She hesitates—something is amiss. Warily, she offers that someone might have been trying to break out.
The film’s void-like introduction, where ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are muddled and confused, serves to establish Jane Doe as a film about corpses. Bodies that are absent of life. Bodies that, in Freudian terms, lack. The only other kind of body that could parallel the corpse in its uncanny, disturbing absence is perhaps that of a woman. Gender theorist Lucy Irigaray suggests that the term ‘woman’ on its own signifies nothing but the deficiency of man; woman means un-man, anti-man, or non-man. Irigaray terms this patriarchal phenomenon as “woman as absence.” Women are like gaping wounds, their obscurity both curious and frightening, like a scab that might heal if only you could stop picking at it.
But Jane Doe does not obscure gender so much as it genders obscurity. Men alone are the rational, scientific readers of bodies. Women are bodies to be read. Jane Doe initially creates a hierarchy of gender relations based on the characters’ respective inexplicability. It then reverses this order to show the consequences of a patriarchal society that creates the very woman it claims to abhor. What happens, the film asks, when men are not defining or regulating this gendered absence but instead are helpless against it? What if absence was not a wound, but a strength?
Jane Doe’s setting, the Tilden family morgue, is an all-male space. Its female cofounder is deceased. Even the pussy (cat) is named Stanley. As a homosocial site of exclusively male bonding, the morgue is naturally set to be passed down from father, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), to son, Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch). In the morgue, Tommy and Austin are centered yet closed, their own bodies both dominating and protected from the autopsy process by medical gowns, glasses, masks, and gloves. The corpses they pry apart like book pages, by contrast, are perversely exposed. It is clear who “wears the pants” in this space.
The introduction of a ”Jane Doe” (Olwen Catherine Kelly) into the Tilden morgue stymies the father-and-son duo. Her name, or lack thereof, foreshadows her gendered absence. She has no outward signs of injury, not even a broken nail. She has no identifiable fingerprint. Her lungs are blackened as if her skin were covered in third degree burns. Her organs have been stabbed but she bears no flesh wounds nor scars. Her body defies all male discourses of science, medicine, and rationality. She is virtually unreadable.
The more Tommy and Austin dig into Jane Doe’s body, the more inscrutable she becomes. As they probe deeper and deeper from orifice to organ, unexplainable phenomena begin happening around their morgue. The radio turns to static. Light bulbs flicker and burst. The electrical generator breaks. With every slice into Jane Doe, Tommy and Austin are both literally and metaphorically “losing power” to their space. And in the darkness that progressively envelops them, the men can no longer count on their eyes.
Jane Doe’s trauma, like all women’s, is invisible to the naked eye. “Imagine all this internal trauma was reflected externally…What would she look like?” Tommy asks. Imagine if the outward signs of being a woman—shaved skin, thin features, a good figure, fashion-conscientiousness—were clearly and truthfully reflected. What would women actually look like? Our feet would be bruised, blistered, and swollen from high heels. We would be emaciated by dieting. Our ribs would be squashed like an accordion from waist-trainers. Our shaved and waxed skin would crack and peel. We would be, as Austin replies to his father, “disfigured beyond recognition.” The corpse is merely an exaggerated version of an already ideal womanhood.
Like Jane Doe’s injuries, the real trauma of womanhood is buried. “You can’t kill someone this way without leaving a trace on the outside!” Austin remarks. How does the world brutalise women like this without leaving a mark? As Tommy and Austin continue their search for Jane Doe’s cause of death, their radio keeps mysteriously playing a children’s song that serves as the film’s answer to my question:
So let the sun shine in
Face it with a grin
Smilers never lose
And frowners never win
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in.
The painful pursuit of a woman’s body is done always with a smile. If you aren’t smiling, you will be told to. To complain about or challenge this system in any way is to risk being read as a bitch. It is a wound that is only absent because it is concealed. It does and does not exist.
Aptly then, the film’s twist is that Jane Doe is a witch. Afraid of her power, Tommy and Austin set Jane Doe on fire, reenacting the violence of the Salem witch trials. But Jane Doe does not burn. “There’s some…energy. Call it what you want, something is keeping her going,” Tommy says. That something is nothing. The patriarchal society that put Jane Doe to death only “created the very thing they were trying to destroy.” She becomes a fiction created by the society that claims to be frightened of her. The witch is afforded a greater power with an even wider reach in death—the greatest absence of all. Magical womanhood is lack incarnate.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a warning against the patriarchal ritual of men reading women’s bodies. Released in 2016, Jane Doe preempts the #MeToo movement and its focus on believing women’s own shared experiences rather than men who abuse their power and speak for them. As the witch is a female monster who became a symbol of reclaiming female power (signs at #MeToo-inspired women’s marches often read “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn”), Jane Doe asserts that narratives can be changed. When Jane Doe psychically transfers her internal trauma to Tommy, killing him, absence becomes her weapon rather than her wound. The Tilden morgue, a microcosm of patriarchal America, becomes a crime scene. Death comes for men who tell women’s stories. Jane Doe’s cause of death was her womanliness. But her womanliness is the rebirth of our cause.