“A Body’s a Body”: Shifting Masculinities and White Male Victimization in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

The #MeToo movement is said to have begun in October 2017, if you count its beginning as the intersection of the hashtag trending on social media with the first several accusations of sexual abuse against producer Harvey Weinstein. The release of The Autopsy of Jane Doe in December 2016, then, precedes the popularly recognized start date of the #MeToo movement by many months. This means the film is an outlier from the myriad film and TV projects that now seek to reflect, promote, or simply capitalize on socio-political momentum. Rather, the production of Autopsy took place in an ostensibly simpler time, film-wise: a time when such a film was under a little less pressure to scrutinize the influence of the patriarchy and avoid sympathetic portrayals of toxic masculinity (and other buzzwords we will eventually become numb to).

A quick search for reviews of and think pieces on The Autopsy of Jane Doe reveals that a number of horror fans read the movie as a feminist text. Or, if not feminist exactly, then at least a progressive exploration of feminist-adjacent themes. (Some that interested me in particular include Crucchiola, 2017 in Vulture for New York Magazine, Beddows, 2018 for Salem Horror Fest, and Subissati, 2018 for horror journalists Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West’s The Faculty of Horror podcast.) While director André Øvredal (Trollhunter 2010) admits he didn’t intend to create a feminist film, he has embraced these readings (Film at Lincoln Center, 2017). And why not? To spoil (if oversimplify) the movie up front, Autopsy is about a witch, and today’s trends are such that witch is practically synonymous with feminist. Throughout history, people have been persecuted and executed as witches for exhibiting behavior that contradicts the patriarchal system that seeks to control them. In broad strokes, a witch is a person, typically a woman, who refuses to adhere to the rules of the patriarchy. And while this was once grounds for hanging, burning, or drowning, it is now perhaps more acceptable than ever to embrace this attitude. (For more on the Witch as feminist icon, see VanArendonk, 2017).

In this context and with the perspective of hindsight, The Autopsy of Jane Doe carries the weight of the inevitable. The simmering of the #MeToo movement had already begun while the film was in production. Granted, the gestation of the movement is an indistinct period of time; sources credit activist Tarana Burke with the 2006 use of the phrase “Me too” that would eventually evolve into the present movement (Me Too, 2018). But from any perspective, Autopsy results from a context that reflects unrest on the verge of boiling over, with the freedom to portray it honestly. It lacks the self-consciousness in current media that seeks to come down decisively on the right side of history. It’s no wonder the film is popularly read as feminist in a climate frenzied for empowered marginalized people, especially victims of abuse, but our collective desperation for these stories can result in an overeagerness to rush textual interpretations that lack sufficient examination.

On the surface, the movie is a straightforward and eerily accurate prediction of the socio-political realities to come. A body identified only as “Jane Doe” (Olwen Catherine Kelly) is found half-buried at a crime scene wherein a couple have been killed trying to escape their home for reasons that, for the time, are a mystery. In other words, a hetero couple are killed attempting to escape their domestic reality, symbolic of the institutional division along the patriarchy-approved gender binary. The corpse is a young woman who is a literal buried secret, beautiful and sexualized by an exposed breast: a representation of the secrets harbored by powerful men all over the world, only months from excavation by the #MeToo movement.

For the better part of the 86-minute film, a man guides his adult son through the process of physically interrogating a woman’s corpse via autopsy. At first glance, the horror here is the prolonged scrutiny and violation (albeit incidental) of a woman’s body at the hands of two desensitized white cis-hetero men. You can only watch the carving up of Jane Doe’s body for so long before it begins to feel like another onscreen assault. If Tommy and Austin, father and son respectively, represent men operating under the current patriarchal structure, then Jane Doe is a stand-in for womankind, or femininity: a silent corpse. Jane Doe is marked with a “Y,” standard procedure for an autopsy but perhaps also symbolic of the male Y-chromosome as the men literally mark their territory. The autopsy determines that Jane Doe was an innocent woman executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, and it is soon discovered she has been on a supernatural quest for revenge ever since. If revenge were the point of this narrative, it may have ended with the infliction of Jane Doe’s ritual killing on Austin and Tommy, and perhaps then she could rest in peace. But there is no end to Jane Doe’s wrath because simple revenge was never the point.

It’s tempting to leave it there, but this limited interpretation has more basis in convenience than textual evidence. Autopsy is not that simplistic. The audience is encouraged to empathize with and root for the male characters, and the villain to be vanquished and feared is the oppressed woman, which contradicts the superficial revenge reading. Underpinned by the story of Jane Doe’s discovery and the destruction she causes is an examination of shifting masculinity primarily illustrated by Tommy and Austin, and their shifting relationships. In short, an oversimplified feminist reading of Autopsy ignores the controversial yet valid subtext that women are not the only victims of the patriarchy.

To begin with, Tommy’s and Austin’s actions are representative of men of their respective generations as indoctrinated by a malignant patriarchy. Tommy (Brian Cox) is a loving if gruff father worthy of a 1960’s sitcom, and he expects Austin to follow in his footsteps by becoming a coroner. His emphasis on cause of death and dismissal of Austin’s persistent curiosity over the surrounding circumstances and motives reflects a traditional emphasis on the surface, the cosmetic, the only level of a woman worth examining. It’s only logical that Tommy is the one to open Jane Doe’s cadaver, marking her with the aforementioned “Y.”

Tommy is rounded out by his grief over his deceased wife, who succumbed to suicide some time before the film begins. Their marriage as described by Tommy suggests an old-fashioned, heteronormative romantic relationship. Tommy refers to his wife as “Ray, as in ray of sunshine,” and she is otherwise unnamed, indicating that her naming by her husband is all that matters. Tommy explains that his wife never seemed troubled and that he missed any warning signs of unhappiness, demonstrating that she successfully played the role of the pleasant housewife until her death, just as Tommy failed to concern himself with her emotional well-being so long as she played the part convincingly. Tommy represses his grief: “You put on this act for people,” Austin tells him, and this act is the facade of traditional masculinity. (It’s worth noting that the wife’s suicide is an implied act of witchcraft itself, insofar as witchcraft is an act of rebellion against the patriarchy. Tommy is grief-stricken if stoic when Stanley, his wife’s cat — a common “familiar” — has to be put out of his misery. The cat is all that was left of his wife, he says, and Stanley’s death seems to have made way for the powers of another witch to take hold.) In other words, the traditional manner of practicing masculinity as illustrated by Tommy is an acknowledged problem; space has been created for a new practice of masculinity.

Austin (Emile Hirsch), Tommy’s son, is part of this new practice of masculinity: tamed by his brash girlfriend, (almost) ready to cut his own path, and perhaps softened by his mother’s suicide. Even his flannel shirt and shaggy hair denote the beta male stereotype that dabbles in mustache artistry and makes craft beer a hobby, a far cry from his sweater-vested father. As Tommy focuses only on cause of death, Austin wants to look beyond Jane Doe’s surface, ostensibly indicating the younger generation’s progression past valuing women primarily for their looks and the older generation’s tendency to dehumanize them. Austin is less beholden to masculine pride, trying to persuade Tommy to quit work for the night when they hear a storm warning on the radio. (Tommy, of course, refuses.) In fact, Austin is the first to experience the strange occurrences in the mortuary and the first to suggest that they are Jane Doe’s doing, indicating a cautious willingness to “listen” to her.

The “progress” made by Austin’s generation is marginal in practice, however. One of Austin’s minor conflicts is his inability to tell Tommy he intends to move away with his girlfriend and discontinue his work with his father, meaning that Austin has permitted a woman to disrupt the patriarchal lineage represented by the family-owned mortuary. (Note that in a picture on the wall, a younger Austin, Tommy, and then-living mother stand in front of a sign reading Tilden Morgue & Crematorium est. 1919, the last year American patriarchal power remained uncomplicated by women’s suffrage.) The first jump-scare of the movie is at Austin’s expense, and is the appearance of girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), a character who further reflects troubled modern-day gender dynamics. It’s difficult to imagine a man such as Tommy succumbing to a jump-scare enacted by Emma, after all. Austin breaks a date with her, saying he “can’t ditch” his dad and placing his allegiance with the patriarchy. (“So you’re ditching me instead,” Emma says, not one to play along easily with patriarchal expectations, unlike Austin’s mother.) His attempt to express his regret to Emma is a jarring reminder that a less hard-nosed form of masculinity is still permeated by rape culture. In trying to persuade Emma to forgive him, Austin insists, “A smile means ‘yes,’ you know,” a horrifying assumption that’s being pushed back on harder than ever in discussions of consent. When Emma leaves, their date postponed, Austin calls after her in consolation, “You’re hot!” seeking to validate her by way of validating her appearance.

Despite being a minor character, Emma also carries a heavy weight in the film: her relationship with Austin and interaction with Tommy is indicative of their respective masculinities’ interactions with a witchy (read: rebellious) woman. She insists on seeing firsthand what it is Austin and Tommy do in the mortuary despite Austin’s attempts to dissuade her. Tommy allows Emma to see a couple of bodies, but the dialogue is awkward and the scene uncomfortable. We’ve seen that Tommy is capable of warmth toward his son but none of this is extended to Emma; Tommy becomes a slightly antagonistic and even borderline-menacing presence representative of the more overtly uneasy gender dynamics of traditional masculinity. When Emma inquires about the bell tied to a cadaver’s toe, Tommy explains the old practice and even identifies himself as “a bit of a traditionalist” — an apt description.

If the setup of the story establishes Tommy, Austin, and even Emma as symbols of masculinity and femininity of their respective generations, then the major conflict of the story follows the consequences of a malignant patriarchy for each represented demographic, with a special focus on the “dominant” population: white cis-hetero men. The story demonstrates the inevitable shifting of masculinity and heteronormative expectations under a patriarchal rule that, paradoxically, is too rigid to stand but too antiquated to catch up to modern society.

At times we read tension between the two manifestations of masculinity. Early in the film, in closing for the night and before Jane Doe’s unexpected arrival, Austin is left to clean up an autopsy Tommy presumably began just as Austin’s generation is both initiated into the previous generation’s version of masculinity and simultaneously given the responsibility of “cleaning up” the messes left of their outdated practices and values. Austin seems to have little trouble attempting the transition from mentee to mentor as he comes of age: he butts into a conversation between his father and Officer Sheldon, who is dropping off Jane Doe, thereby usurping his father’s role in scolding Sheldon for not allowing them to see the crime scene before performing the autopsy.

The pivotal shift in Tommy and Austin’s relationship occurs after a series of inexplicable events: a freak storm blows out the electricity, Tommy is attacked by an unseen adversary, cadavers are reanimated, and Jane Doe’s corpse remains unscathed after being set on fire. Able neither to deny nor explain this situation, the men retreat to the elevator, aware of another reanimated cadaver’s reflection in a security mirror and the steady approach of the jingling bell tied to its toe. The elevator door does not close and, with the jingling bell just outside the elevator, Tommy strikes out with an axe. The body lying outside the door, however, is not a cadaver, but Emma.

Emma’s death is a turning point in the relationship between the two men, and it brings into focus the problematic upbringing of cis-hetero white men in the current socio-political climate. Standing in for traditional masculinity and its shepherding of the next generation into manhood, Tommy has murdered his son’s girlfriend, albeit unintentionally; this is significant in that not only has old-school masculinity in this case successfully eliminated a woman with her own agency, but he has also eliminated the aforementioned threat to his family’s patriarchal rule. Austin blames himself momentarily for telling Emma to return, but soon the blame settles on Tommy, who acknowledges his own culpability for the first time. In fact, it is in the spirit of acknowledging this culpability that Tommy reveals (to the audience) that his wife’s death was a suicide he feels he should have prevented.

In a slightly illogical leap, Tommy attempts to sacrifice himself to save Austin from Jane Doe, pleading with Jane Doe’s cadaver to take him and spare his son. At first it seems to work: Tommy takes on all of Jane Doe’s injuries as her body returns to “normal,” and Austin is forced to mercy-kill him, officially ending the reign of traditional masculinity and establishing Austin’s new, more “progressive” form of masculinity as patriarchal authority. But emerging, more progressive forms of masculinity continue to be problematic; after all, they are rooted in the traditional. So it should be no surprise that this does not appease Jane Doe after all, only quiets her momentarily. The storm passes and outside the mortuary’s front door Officer Sheldon assures Austin that he is working to remove the tree blocking the entrance. Sheldon’s reassurance, however, gives way to a song that has signaled imminent threat throughout the film. Austin turns to see his father’s corpse standing before him and, startled, falls over the railing behind him and plummets to his death. Jane Doe’s corpse is passed on to another district and, inside the transport vehicle, the story ends with the twitch of her toe and the tinkle of an invisible bell.

Between the rise in popularity of the Witch as feminist icon and our collective hunger for powerful representations of marginalized people, the desire to read The Autopsy of Jane Doe as a female-centered revenge film is natural, but it’s also a mistake. Austin’s attempts to understand this victim of the patriarchy and Tommy’s acknowledgement of his own participation in the system is too little, too late. Traditional masculinity as represented by Tommy is implicated in the inevitable destruction of new masculinity represented by Austin, and Jane Doe’s quest for vengeance continues indefinitely. Ultimately, minor progress has rectified nothing.

In “Why Patriarchy Is Not About Men,” Dr. Miki Kashtan (2017) provides one of the most useful evaluations I’ve encountered of the “P” word, and discusses its lack of a proper and universally-accepted definition. As part of her collected observations and defining characteristics of the term, she writes, “The underlying principle of patriarchy, as I understand it, is separation and control.” She later clarifies:

Why patriarchy and not some other word? Because, at least in the European historical lineage, which later affected many other cultures through colonial contact, the shift to separation and control coincided with making paternity central… What is important to note, though, is that once paternity becomes important, controlling women is inevitable, because only by controlling women can it be reliably known who the father is. There is an irreducible distance between the biological father and the offspring that can only be eliminated fully by imprisoning a woman and preventing any other man from having access to her.

Oppression of women, then, is a symptom of the patriarchy, but it’s not the whole story. The progression of events in The Autopsy of Jane Doe is in keeping with these ideas, which emphasize the patriarchy’s problematic nature and effect on all genders rather than its popularly simplistic definition: that women are oppressed at the hands of men. The true, insidious nature of the patriarchy represented in Autopsy has become lost in the scramble for #MeToo catharsis. The desire to read the film as a simple feminist revenge story ignores a significantly more powerful message: a toxic patriarchy victimizes everyone who participates in it. The victimization of some groups is certainly more apparent than that of others, but in the long run a toxic patriarchy harms even the cis-hetero white men who reap the immediate rewards.

Revenge stories are satisfying; revenge stories in which marginalized people finally get the upper hand are particularly satisfying (hence 2017’s Get Out). But the genius of Autopsy is that the story both investigates an intimate relationship between two white cis-hetero men existing within a toxic patriarchal system, and takes a theoretical step back to indict the system that ostensibly rewards them. Are white cis-hetero men blameless? Certainly not. But acknowledging that ultimately everyone suffers at the hands of a toxic patriarchy, albeit to vastly different extents, may be the first step toward unified progress in a world where the dominant interest in culpability serves only to fossilize division and reinforce conflict.

In depicting this, The Autopsy of Jane Doe does a great service to the feminist ideal of equality for all genders, despite its insistence that the audience empathize with two white cis-hetero men over an oppressed and victimized woman. It only reflects our tragic reality that these realizations arise over our dead bodies.

Beddows, A. (2018, August 29). Nevertheless, She Resisted: The Body as a Site of Resistance in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Retrieved from https://www.salemhorror.com/news/2018/8/29/nevertheless-she-resisted-the-body-as-a-site-of-resistance-in-the-autopsy-of-jane-doe

Crucchiola, J. (2017, January 05). The Autopsy of Jane Doe Is the Most Tasteful Movie Ever Made About Cutting Up a Woman’s Corpse. Retrieved from https://www.vulture.com/2016/12/autopsy-of-jane-doe-makes-body-horror-tasteful.html

Film at Lincoln Center (2017). ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ Q&A | André Øvredal, Brian Cox, & Emile Hirsch. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyxwvR0oa18

Kashtan, M. (2017, August 04). Why Patriarchy Is Not About Men. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/acquired-spontaneity/201708/why-patriarchy-is-not-about-men

Me Too. (2018). About. Retrieved from https://metoomvmt.org/about/#history

Subissati, A. (2018, March 25). EPISODE 60. SEASON OF THE WITCH: WITCHES IN FILM PART 3, THE WITCH (2015) AND THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016). Retrieved from http://www.facultyofhorror.com/2018/03/episode-60-season-of-the-witch-witches-in-film-part-3-the-witch-2015-and-the-autopsy-of-jane-doe-2016/

VanArendonk, K. (2017, October 25). Why the Witch Is the Pop-Culture Heroine We Need Right Now. Retrieved from https://www.vulture.com/2017/10/why-the-witch-is-the-pop-culture-heroine-we-need-right-now.html

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