I'm previewing chapters from the book draft on women in film. Each selection will stay up for a couple of days, and I'm linking it to facebook so my friends can give feedback. There may be a bit ofr background reading missing, because I've left off the Preface and Introduction. The [EXT] brackets are typesetter formatting, indicating a block quote. Peace.
In 1979, the prolific director-producer Ridley Scott won the Saturn Award for best Director and best Science Fiction drama for his breakthrough movie Alien. Alien was not an homage piece like Star Wars, a PG version of outer space Samurai. Alien was an R-rated space movie that started out with the volume turned way down.
Most of us know the story itself: cargo space freighter diverts to planetoid to check out strange signal; a recon team checks out a strange structure; one member of the team is facially impregnated with an alien being which is brought on board to terrorize the crew; crew fights briefly and ineffectually against killer alien until one crew member—second mate Ellen Ripley becomes the last survivor; Ripley sets the main ship to nuclear self-destruct, boards the “life raft” shuttle; escapes; final plot twist, the alien has slipped on board the “life raft,” and Ripley finally—in a tense scene—has to kill it.
Like I said, the film starts out low key. There is a languid wake-up sequence, followed by a casual breakfast scene, and only then does the orchestra tune up the darkly foreshadowing, melodramatic background music. The landing encounters trouble, and the crew finds itself in a damaged craft on a howling, stormy, dark planet that looks for all the world like a Hieronymus Bosch night scene. Damage to the landing craft (the mother ship, called “Mother” when spoken to via voice-computer, but named Nostromo, after a dark Joseph Conrad novel, is still in orbit) is not catastrophic. They will be stuck on this inhospitable planet for seventeen hours to do repairs.
Meanwhile, let’s go check out this signal. It is not until executive Officer Kane, after the recon party enters the apparently crashed alien craft, has an exoskeletal scorpion-crab-like thing leap up and attach itself to his face, right through his space helmet, that the real action gets kicked up. Thirty-five minutes into the movie, which in movie time is like . . . thirteen years or so. As I said, Scott takes his time in the build-up. From there, of course, it quickly ascends to the violent climax, resolution, and dénouement.
In the film, Warrant Officer Ripley—at first a minor character—begins to emerge, first with a humorous remark to a colleague to “fuck off,” taking her out of Princess Leia territory posthaste, and establishing her as a “modern” (future) woman. The recon team returns with Captain Dallas, Navigator Lambert, and the injured Kane; and Ripley is the senior person on board, coming into her own now as a character by refusing entry to the angry Captain Dallas and Lambert(the film’s other woman character), who have hauled the unconscious and Thing-colonized Kane back to the shuttle. So, yeah, Ripley is capable of making the tough decisions under pressure. This is the point at which many viewers begin to see Ripley as a potential feminist icon.
Though she screams at least three times (I’d scream under the same circumstances, I suppose), she also demonstrates courage in the battle with the alien-monster, decisiveness in developing a tactic to get away (though it fails for all but her), and runs around steely-eyed and sweat-streaked with a flaming gun in her hand.
In the final confrontation, she again gets hold of something like a spear gun (what it is for on a space ship we can’t say), with which she dispatches the monster by (in her androgynous idiom) “blowing it to fuck out into space.” Stern, tough-talking, decisive, willing to kick ass, and carrying phallic weapons. Feminist, right?
Let’s begin with one key fact. Ridley Scott is not now and has never been feminist in any meaningful sense of the term, though he knows how to profitably ride cultural waves. He is a skilled filmmaker, who knows how to build dramatic tension; and in this film, he also knows how to run a kind of psychoanalytic subtext that captures the audience’s sexual subconscious at the same time they are cognitively fixed on the mechanics of the plot. This film is positively brimming with post-Freudian, quasi-Lacanian sexual symbolism that speaks not to women’s emancipation, but to male disorientation in a high period of the feminist movement, with the trope of Monstrous Female alongside a heaping helping of manipulative, intentionally disorienting, sexual confusion.
[EXT]Most critiques, academic and otherwise, ultimately conclude that Alien is a feminist film because of its representation of the workplace as a home to equality and a place where traditional gender roles have been obliterated. But there’s something else lingering under the surface: fear. Not the fear of the devouring Alien, but a fear and anxiety of a future where the equalizing of the sexes might lead to the blending of sexual biology as well. What is ultimately revealed by Alien is the anxiety of men.[/EXT]
Even that single-word title, evocative of disorientation: Alien. Let’s go back and watch this movie now from the beginning.
Barbara Creed’s essay, “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,” begins with a little quote from the classic Hitchcock horror film Psycho: the revealed serial killer, Norman Bates, saying simply, “Mother’s not herself today.” In her book, entitled The Monstrous Feminine, she describes the ways in which men have historically projected their weirdest fears onto women, how this projected fear has been expressed in male myths, and how those male myths, as well as their assimilation by males in societies up to the present, have been reworked as psychoanalytic theory . . . which has also been assimilated and, as an effect of its assimilation, then become self-fulfilling. Man constructs psychoanalysis; (male) psychoanalysis constructs man (and woman).
In short, men have blamed women for everything wrong for quite some time, but this blame has been incorporated into our culturally-constructed symbolic grammar, so to speak, and thereby into our precognitive consciousness. Creed relates her analysis of a goodly number of horror films (Alien included in that genre) to the notion of abjection, developed by Julia Kristeva, a European feminist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher. Abjection, not to wear readers out with the deeper exploration of this subtle and slightly arcane idea, is anything that disturbs our symbolic boundaries, especially the boundaries between subject and object. In Freud and Lacan and other psychoanalysts, the person/patient is the subject and everything outside it, including people, are objects for one thing or another, especially for the satisfaction of often unrecognized desires. Abjection throws us off, disorients us. Poo-poo and corpses and blood and such have this effect.
Women and mothers are ripe for this, especially among squeamish men, because . . . well, (whispers) menstruation. And childbirth. And changing shitty diapers. And the conflicted feelings people all have about Mom, because in six thousand years of male dominated society, every relation to Mom between her and her kids is a set-up for psychological confusion. So we both love and blame Mom, and we have all these conflicted feelings . . . especially boys. Because as soon as possible, we push boys to reject anything girl, and to dis-identify with the one person upon whom we’ve depended in the very first and formative years of our lives. Alien pounced on this male insecurity like a cat on a cockroach.
Birth, as any of us know who have given it or been there while others do, might be surrounded with the shiny white aseptic walls and stainless steel of hospital chic, but the process itself is a wet, grunting, crying, sweaty, squirming, blood-watery mess. Miraculous and awe-inspiringly, breathtakingly humbling, in my view, but not tidy or linear. And yet Alien’s opening scene is a birth scene, an aseptic, bloodless, quiet birth scene. The space ship is named “Mother,” remember?
Seven nearly naked people, wearing only snowy-white diapers, lay in Snow White cells, arranged like flower petals, deep in the “womb” of the ship after we’ve been carried by the steady-cam down a long (fallopian?) tube. A flicker. The lights go on. Psshhhhhh, the glass covers on the cells rise, Kane is the first to awaken, slowly, blinking at the light, rising languidly, feeling his limbs. Mother brings the crew to life (birth!). It’s not just the boundary between male and female that will be abjected in this film. Again and again, it is the boundary between organic and technological.
Suddenly, we are all sitting around a communal breakfast table, in what was for the 1979 audience a company breakroom. People are eating, joking, smoking cigarettes. One of the mechanical crew is lobbying for more money when they deliver their payload of ore. Far enough into the imaginary technological future to fly island-sized crafts through space, but capitalism is still just fine. We even have a minor labor dispute, settled by quoting the contract. Four men, two women, somewhat gender-neutralized by everyone using last names. One of the mechanics tosses a sexual crack about what he “wants to eat” at one of the women, Lambert, who grins demurely, simultaneously embarrassed and amused; but men and women are working together, so there is some kind of equality . . . right?
Creed reminds us of our psychoanalysis. The female body, the mother’s body, is “both life and abyss.” “Mother” has rebirthed the crew, and now issued an order (to go into another abyss, which also turns out to be a giant womb). That’s why suspended animation was suspended eleven months from home. Go to this nearby small planet and check out an unknown signal. When they follow Mother’s order, the shuttle craft is released from the mother ship by an attachment called “the umbilicus.” No kidding. Separation.
When we first land, Ash the Science Officer reads out the atmosphere from his instruments. “Almost primordial,” he says. There is that word, now sent along through the audience’s pre-cognitive pathways, primordial. Mother. Umbilicus. Primordial. And so the members of the reconnaissance team—Captain Dallas, navigator Joan Lambert (who is emerging as having the personality of a cigarette-sucking, surly teen), and Executive Officer Kane—don their protective suits and venture out into a literal howling void. As they approach the source of the mysterious signal (mythical sirens?), we see what appears to be the canted tail of a crashed craft, raised and separated in against the night sky like two opened legs. Before you say I’m reading into it, wait. The recon team approaches, and where do they enter the craft? Precisely at the crotch, and through an opening that appears uncannily like a vaginal orifice. Primordial . . . cue the spooky music.
Inside, there are structures, fractal and strangely indeterminate. Are they machine-like or organic? The space is engulfingly enormous, the Great Consuming Womb, within which our little white-suited space people with large round heads look—from a distance—okay, a lot like spermatozoa. The audience is entranced by the strangeness of it, unaware of how the creators are tapping those little pre-cognitive, mytho-psychoanalytic tuning forks. Our team encounters a vertical surface, just over head high. The climb over, and there it is . . . what is that? Again, a strangely mechanical, strangely organic structure that they somehow determine immediately to be a dead life form. The camera pulls back. Up close, it looked a bit like skeletons copulating in heating ducts; but as we see the whole thing, it is a fifteen-foot phallus, ribbed, erect, and aiming thirty degrees above level. A penis inside a womb? Sexual confusion!
The artwork that inspired the set in Alien was adapted directly from that of H.R Giger, at Scott’s request. Giger specialized in sexually confusing artwork that was an intentional organic-mechanical blend. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon stated explicitly that Alien was designed to make men in the audience “cross their legs” with sexual insecurity, not in order to promote feminism but to heighten the horror-effect. And he and Scott agreed that Giger’s highly sexualized biomechanical style was perfect for bringing this to life on the big screen.
David Dietle, who researched the making of Alien, wrote, “None of the sexual imagery in is unintentional. For example, in the picture above the human crew members are ‘invading’ the alien ship, so in effect those are man sized sperm crawling through it. From here, John Hurt’s character, Kane, plumbs the depths of the ship’s ‘womb’ to find an endless landscape of eggs.” Yep. Feminist masterpiece. Sorry. The men who made it were trying to reflect male anxiety in the face of an increasingly influential feminist movement. Just two years later, when Scott released Blade Runner, his protagonist Rick, played by Harrison Ford, falls for a hyper-femme female cyborg, who he warms up for sex by slapping her around. And it really turns her on. This is Ridley Scott. And this is why we should not assume that women characters who fight and shoot in films are “feminist.”
Kane is taken back to the shuttle craft, and the egg he has fertilized as a sperm has now become a phallus rammed down his own throat (impregnating him, as it turns out). The shuttle craft returns to the orbiting Mother. The thing appears to die and fall off, but at breakfast again the recovering Kane, in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, gives birth. That is, a little monstrosity that looks like a penis with a fanged vagina at its tip, tears bloodily out of his abdomen, killing him.
During the hunt to kill the alien that has absconded to somewhere within the craft, the thing manages to grow to the size of well-fed polar bear, with a head that looks like a stainless steel inverted penis (pointing rearward) with a wetly dripping fanged vagina on the face, out of which can emerge another phallus with another fanged vagina, also dripping viscous fluids from the tip.
First, Captain Dallas goes looking, then disappears suddenly from their tracking device. Now Ripley is in charge. Now she can become really assertive, which she does. During the continuing search, mechanical engineer Brett goes searching for the ship’s mascot-cat named Jones, calling “Here, kitty kitty.” He is ambushed by the alien, and we get our first close look at that retractable dick with the biting labia on the tip. Holy castration complex, boys! “Alien reveals a frighteningly voracious sexuality,” writes Rebecca Bell-Metereau.
Later, Ripley will likewise be calling for Jones the cat, “Here, kitty kitty,” whereupon she will also be confronted by the monster. Lesson: don’t call cats when there is a monster nearby. They think they are named “kitty-kitty.”
Ripley confronts Ash, the Science Officer, after she tries to override the company command to bring the critter in for “their weapons program.” Ash attacks Ripley with super-human strength, and a suspiciously semen-like sweat begins to ooze from his pores with the effort, telling the audience that he is himself not human (he’s an android). He knocks Ripley out, then—in a weird and completely gratuitous way—instead of throttling her with his super-human strength, or just using any of the nearby blunt instruments to bludgeon her, he decides to kill her by rolling a wank-magazine into a surrogate phallus (in this scene, tellingly, there are nude pin-up girls plastered on the wall in the background) and cramming it down her throat in a kind of forced near-fatal fellatio. Ripley, the tough woman, we can be reminded now, is still a woman, still a sex object, still subject to sexual humiliation (or assassination).
If that’s not enough for us to figure it out, in a scene that is not even in the screenplay, Ripley, as lone survivor, taken off in the shuttle and destroyed Mother (follow that?). She then does a strip show for the boys in the audience, peeling off one after another layer until she is in a flimsy, nipple-accentuating tank top and bikini panties that have sagged enough to reveal the crack between her buttocks. Wait, we’re not done yet. She discovers the alien is on board, apparently sleeping on a shelf (penile-vaginal aliens get sleepy after they eat, too, it seems). The stripped down Ripley—no longer the tough leader, but a female body on display by Scott—backs into a closet with her space suit, and with the camera angled from below to aim directly at her crotch, we get the close-up of her mons, and she slowly raised and opens one leg to give the audience the full view. Ripley is captured in the male gaze. Scott makes sure of it.
Then she dresses in the suit, buckles in with that speargun phallus thing in hand, and when the monster comes, she opens the hatch, whereupon the monster is sucked out the door. Another film trope is the Not Dead Yet trope, when the villain or monster comes back one last time. The alien catches itself in the doorway, holding on with tremendous strength. Ripley has to do something phallic here or die. She aims the speargun at the monster and shoots it in the belly, knocking it out the door, tethered outside now where she can slam the door shut and roast the monster in rocket fuel.
Jones is a cat with every one of those nine lives. For some reason, Jones’s crate does not get sucked out into space, and when the again semi-nude Ripley gets ready for the trip home, the monster finally vanquished, Jones gets his own Snow White cell to be put into hypersleep for the long trip home.
Is Ripley a feminist icon, because she is kick ass? We’ve already seen how Ridley Scott locked onto her with the male gaze near the end. Is Ripley a woman emancipated or is she an Honorary Male/Hot Chick with a Gun?
Here is the surprise ending to this chapter. Ripley was originally written as a male. All Scott did was give the part to a female actor. “We really just had the secretary change ‘he’ to ‘she,’” said Producer David Giler. If this is feminism, if this is emancipation for women, then it simply means women becoming like men (who need not change at all). Honorary. Men.
 Haggstrom, “Reassessing Alien,” Reel3, June 8, 2012.
 Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,” Screen, January-February, 1986.
 Creed, The Monstrous Feminine, 2012.
 Mothers catch hell in these male-invented schemes.
 I hesitate to use the term subconscious, because it may be part of the problem.
 The poo-poo was in me, now it’s out of me . . . boundary issues. Blood? Inside-outside. Makes some folks faint. That corpse was alive, now the life passed out of it. Big, scary boundary issues.
 Scott would revisit these two themes, sexual confusion between male and female, and confusion (also sexualized) between organism and machine, in GI Jane and Blade Runner, respectively.
 Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, 60.
 Dietel, “Alien: a Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape,” Cracked, January 2, 2011.
 Men are often obsessed by the “special horror” of males being raped, ergo the plentitude of squirmingly uncomfortable prison-rape jokes.
 The Latin psychoanalytic term for the toothy vagina, a notion that also appears in various myths, is vagina dentata.
 Bell-Metereau, “Woman: The Other Alien in Alien.” Women Worldwalkers, ed. Weedman, 1985.
 Lueptow, “Is ‘Bitch’ an Example of Internalized Sexism?” Everyday Feminism, February 25, 2014. A quick word about a word: bitch. Ripley, in her frustration with Mother’s refusal to stop the activated auto-destruction sequence, screams at the ship, “You bitch!” This phatic expression is in Ripley’s mouth again more than once in the sequels—which were unplanned, but when Alien cashed out the way it did, Hollywood milked it. As Kelsey Lueptow notes, the very commonly and casually used word bitch, apart from an actual reference to a female canine, has “hibernating connotations that can perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.” Even when it’s a woman who uses it. A gendered term like bitch resonates with a whole cluster of patriarchal ideas about women-in-general. Some men casually refer to any and all women as bitches. And when used by women, it calls up that old social trope of women seeing the “other woman” as competition (for the approval, attention, or affection of men). The term used proudly by women as a kind of alternative identity? That’s emancipation? Because it means being mean (to others) and proud of it. Does this “identity” come at the expense, moreover, of other women, who are now scaled between sweet-girl and bitch. Bitch “plays up sexist stereotypes like menstrual maniacs, hyperemotional incompetence, and female cattiness incurred by cultural messages that bombard media representations of women.” Bitch is specifically used for women, which ought to be problematic enough, but when it is applied to men, it is an insult that is saying, “You are like a woman,” and that is a very bad thing, something to fight about. Again, woman (bitch) is offensive, altogether negative. Any way you look at it, bitch is a lose-lose situation for women, sexist to its very core. Portraying it as realistic speech in films is all fine and well. We portray sexists and women who are broken by internalized oppression in films; but when the strong hero woman uses it, the term is valorized in a special sense. We are taking this excursus on “bitch” because it will come up again in our other analyses.