Finger-Lickin’ Good? The coding of queerness as cannibalism in “Bones and All” 


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi.

By Ty Gavin

In 1846, The Donner Party, pioneers from Illinois in search of homestead in California, resorted to cannibalism as a means of survival. Decades later, “Bones and All,” an internationally acclaimed Southern gothic film, depicts a romance between two cannibals on the outskirts of impoverished, rural America—in other words, Timothee Chalamet makes cannibalism sexy. “Bones and All” depicts queerness—the alienation that queer individuals experience—without reverting to heteronormative movie standards by not outright portraying the characters as gay, but instead as queer characters in a straight relationship. 

Cultural anthropologist, Shirley Lindenbaum, explains that “survival cannibalism”—a term first coined by colonial settlers—is “the consumption of others under conditions of starvation…in which persons normally averse to the idea are driven by the will to live.”

The Donner Party was an instance of “survival cannibalism”—so is Alfred Packer eating his fellow travelers in the Colorado mountains during a blizzard in 1883, along with  the rugby team that crash landed in the Andes in 1972.

Lindenbaum also highlights the second variety of cannibalism that is attributed to “psychopathology,” as opposed to a means of survival—i.e., being insane. Many modern cases also fit into this category, like the Russian couple that killed and ate more than twenty people

In the instance of “Bones and All,” fictional cannibalism is determined as a true and uncontrollable condition: a hunger that you are born with. This denies the psychopathological idea of cannibalism as their hunger is something they can’t change. Meaning, with the implication that not eating other people would result in their starvation, this innate quality is a means of survival, fitting into the archetype of “survival cannibalism.” Fictional cannibalism is intrinsic, as queerness is innate in reality. And the misconception that it isn’t, segregates them, as it segregates queer people in reality.

“Bones and All,” a 2022 film directed by Luca Guadagnino, follows Maren, played by Taylor Russel, a girl abandoned by her father after she eats her friend’s finger at a slumber party, and Lee, played by Timmothée Chalamet, a boy in perpetual absence from his family trying to maintain his relationships while also serving his peculiar hunger. This movie is categorized as romance and horror. As a horror movie, there’s little explanation needed; as a romance movie, there are some questionable elements that don’t quite fit the narrative. This is due to the queer-coding that skews the face-value meaning of the movie.

Since this fictional need for cannibalism is “survival” in nature, the possibility of it being an inherited trait is questioned. Maren’s mother, the person whom she is searching for for the majority of the movie, is shown as possessing these same cannibalistic tendencies as she is in a penitentiary, arms wrapped and tied behind her back after she ate her own hands from hunger. But then there’s Lee, whose parents are said to be normal, non-cannibals. There’s quite a bit of intersection depicted for the idea of cannibalism as an innate quality. With almost no malice assigned to the two main characters, the intention is sympathy instead of disgust, even as the cannibalistic scenes are horrifying. So, is this cannibalism inherited?

Looking at “Bones and All” as a queer story, the cannibalism isn’t inherited or psychopathological, but is merely symbolic of queerness and used to look at the villainization of queer individuals as cannibals are villainized.

As previously mentioned, the beginning of Maren’s story was initiated by a horrifying slumber party in which she eats her friend’s finger. Irreversible, her mistake leaves her abandoned by her father. Most can detect some sensuality, pre-finger-eating—I certainly did. Maren and her friend, Madeline, are lying under a coffee table, the rest of the girls are sitting on the couch, painting their nails. Earlier, the movie opens with a scene, personal and intimate, in which Madeline is sitting with Maren at a piano and Madeline convinces her to come to the sleepover in question. This is the beginning of a Sapphic plot.

Of course, if someone ate your finger, you wouldn’t think, “Oh my God, she has a lesbian crush on me!” But as a queer plot, a horrified response is indicative of the responses to something that is taboo in a heteronormative view.

As the relationship between the two girls is queer, the finger-eating scene makes the queerness of the characters all the more obvious: Maren holds Madeline’s hand, stroking it, staring at it like she is hungry—which of course she is but in an appetizing, literal convention, as opposed to a metaphorical convention. And the implication shows a clear understanding of where the movie is going, and more importantly, what it genuinely means.

For Lee, ostracized by his family, he has only his little sister who seems to be the only one that truly cares about him. Looking at this as a queer plot, there’s a lot of truly realistic dynamics; a little sister, unburdened by prejudice and almost blinded by older-brother authority and love, is a queer dynamic that doesn’t get represented often. She doesn’t have the world experience to understand Lee’s darker side—his “cannibal closet.”

With a perpetuated stereotype for queer people generalized as animalistic or pedophilic individuals, this movie acts as a double entendre by depicting a seemingly straight couple with cannibalistic attraction. There’s a point, in one of the most gruesome scenes of the movie, when Lee attracts a man in order to eat him. The two men are having sex in a cornfield when Lee slits the man’s throat and begins to eat him. This is a more explicitly queer scene that clarifies the duplicity of the euphemism of cannibalism as queerness, with the romantic relationship between Lee and Maren still intact thereafter.

Crippling in violence, the movie silences much of the conversation about what the story actually means. The romance in this movie is heterosexual, but the relationship depicted is not heteronormative, as both characters are queer and exist in a world that rejects their queerness. 

Both characters exhibit queer attraction, but as a work of “queer” art, does this movie fail as a result of a clearly straight canon? Imagining this story as a completely queer narrative, does the message change? 

Short answer: it is impossible to have a same-sex romance in a movie about how it is impossible to have a same-sex romance in society. 

If both characters were the same sex, the cannibalism would only impel the previously stated heteronormative narrative that generalizes gay individuals as oversexual and violent. If Maren and Lee were the same sex, the symbolism would only alienate the queer community further, regressing to the stereotype of queerness being animalistic and something that is psychologically adverse as opposed to intrinsically natural.

As a modernizing and transformative technique, making a straight couple innately hungry for human flesh points to queerness—the isolation it causes for queer people—without enforcing the outright canon that cannibalism is synonymous with queerness. If it were to be portrayed that way, the stereotype of queerness as savagery would be harmful to the very community it is striving to lend an ironic lens to. As a modern piece, the movie is able to achieve this narrative with an audience equipt to decode and a critic apt to generalize.

“Bones and All” depicts queerness through the lens of cannibalism as it’s framing, while also maintaining, a straight romance. It does this in order to negate the false narrative of queer love as wrong. The fictional cannibals aren’t wrong for being cannibals, queer individuals are not wrong for being queer. But because of the heteronormative narrative that is repeatedly enforced to this day, the idea of gay individuals as animalistic is something that can’t be overlooked, and therefore this movie can’t depict a gay couple as the main characters without imminent conflagration of the heteronormative narrative.