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Mar 12, 2013

The Complicated and Evolving Gender Politics of Alien

by Alisa Allkins

Can we all agree that the Alien franchise is nothing short of genius? I can't say that I felt that way out of the gate, although the Prometheus promo trailers gave me some tinglies in certain unmentionable places (come on, it's Michael Fassbender, people. Even my husband has a crush on him). After seeing these short videos and getting drunk from space love via Battlestar Galactica, I figured I'd give the Alien films a shot. Not only are they a wonderful body of horror films, but I am blown away by the rich conversations about gender and reproduction that are started by each film in the franchise.

My claims for a feminist reading of the Alien films will likely be passé for those who are familiar with the movies. I mean, the main character is a lady, duh. Male characters give birth to aliens from their chests. Interesting, but discussion over! Except it's not. Each Alien film, in one way or another, becomes an intricate discussion of feminism, reproduction and patriarchal power structures.

In the first Alien film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is a lower-level officer on a rig which is diverted from its path to Earth by a message from "The Company," also known by nerds as Weyland-Yutani. It comes to light that the real mission of the rig is to bring an alien from a mysterious space ship on an unknown planet back to Earth so the company can ostensibly use this life form as a biological weapon. Good plan, guys. (It's not.)

So let's get down to it. In one corner we've got Ripley, who is not only a female officer, but she's a pretty smart one. When one of the male members of the crew (played by John Hurt) is injured and has what fans call a "facehugger" alien attached to his, well, face, she insists on keeping him out of the ship, afraid that the alien may bring a contaminate onboard. "Quiet, silly lady!" the male officers might as well say. "Everything's gonna be okay!" Spoiler: they all die.

Ripley tells the men what to do and then does it herself.

Later, when Ripley is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on by hacking the ship's computer (named Mother), an android agent of The Company named Ash attempts to silence her by face-raping Ripley with what appears to be a pornographic magazine, photos of naked women cudgeling her into submission. Despite this advanced editorial weaponry, she gets the best of him eventually (read: android decapitation).

In the end, Ripley single-handedly defeats the Xenomorph alien while lithely strutting her sexy stuff in a white wife beater and teeny tiny cotton undies. No bras need apply.

Sexy and smart?

So that's Ripley. In the other corner, we've got the alien (the so-called Xenomorph). A terrifying asexual creature that changes from facehugger to chestburster to huge, acid-blooded terror monster. It attaches itself to an unwilling host (rape, anyone?), kills the host when it comes forcefully and painfully out of the chest (oh, the miracle of childbirth), and proceeds to destroy everything in its path. What a little whipper-snapper.

This little guy gets up to all sorts of mischief.

But what does it all mean? Is Ripley just a female man, or a feminist icon? Are children really as bad as poisonous aliens? (Be honest.) I'm not sure I have answers to these questions. What I am saying, though, is that the Alien films, beginning with the first one and continuing with Prometheus and beyond, work as scary and fascinating gender commentaries. Maybe birth isn't beautiful, but terrifying. Maybe a woman can be both clever and overtly sexual. Maybe horror movies can be smart and scary. The world is a crazy place!

These themes become even more complicated as the story continues through the various sequels. In Aliens, Ripley evolves into a mother-figure for Newt, a young girl found on the original planet, which has become a human colony and alien breeding ground. Although Ripley is dismissed by Weyland-Utani as a crazy lady (because bitches be trippin' - amirite?) she manages yet again to defeat all the aliens while military men and women drop around her like the hollow husks of face huggers. Ripley even engages in robo-battle with the queen alien, saving Newt and her flirty soldier man with the help of the android named Bishop. Again, Ripley has the strength and intelligence to protect her life while retaining her femininity, with the added dimension of her motherly instincts, which serve to strengthen rather than weaken her character.

Facehuggers: not as cuddly as the name suggests.

Things take a turn for the patriarchal in Alien 3. In the worst installment ever, Ripley narrowly escapes becoming a rape victim at the hands of male prisoners (but eventually gets her rocks off with some tender love-making, so...point Ripley), ultimately becomes impregnated with a chestburster, and ends up sacrificing herself in order to hopefully destroy the aliens forever. How did this happen to Ripley? She has gone from an empowered yet ultimately feminine woman to a sacrificial victim. To add salt to the wound, the new monster gestates within a cow (boring as HELL, guys) and looks like computer generated crap. I'm disappointed, David Fincher. Shame on you.

The series is awkwardly concluded with a fourth film, Alien: Resurrection. But wait, you say. Ripley's dead, and I don't want to watch Alien without Ripley. Well neither do I, but that's what the "resurrection" is all about. The Company brings Ripley back from the dead as an alien/Ripley hybrid. She's fast, she's strong, she's friggin' Sigourney Weaver. Still hot, still tough, still emotionally conflicted. She's joined by a female android/ pseudo-Ripley doppelganger named Call, whom Ripley supports and ultimately mentors. The sexiness factor skyrockets. *Insert action/horror here.*

Hostile or romantic? Do we have to choose?

While Resurrection isn't brilliant, it shifts the name of the reproductive game. Yeah, so we had chestbursters and facehuggers and painful births, oh my. But with Resurrection the conversation changes somewhat, and what we're talking about now is synthetic reproduction. Interesting existential questions (can we call Call human? Can we call Ripley human?) arise, and provide a direct continuity to the questions of Prometheus in a way that is strangely compelling. The series isn't just about aliens anymore, but about femininity and autonomy and "human" means. Reproduction extends beyond the alien life cycle and we start to think about origins: origins of robots, origins of our individual lives (as clones or as humans), and the origins of humanity itself. And suddenly, the Alien franchise isn't just about scary aliens anymore.

Although at this point I have to ask myself: was it ever?

Alisa Allkins graduated from Oakland University with a degree in English. She is currently a graduate teaching assistant at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

CommentsCategories Analysis Blog Film History Humor Research Revienylis Thesis Tags Alien Aliens Ridley Scott David Fincher James Cameron Alien 3 Alien Resurrection Prometheus sci-fi horror movies film cinema analysis blog opinion humor facehugger Xenomorph Sigourney Weaver Ripley Battlestar Galactica H.R. Geiger