The evolution of politics in the original Alien trilogy[Content warning: rape, misogyny, homophobia]ALIEN: A FEMINIST TALE
The central figure of the movie is the heroine, Ripley. Even if she ended up sexualized by the director in the final scene, and also in a heterosexual relationship with Dallas in removed material, Ripley was originally designed as agender – the character could be played by a man or a woman. And it shows in the story’s structure, her actions and fundamental personality are not gendered. There is no particular vulnerability in this woman, there is no exaggerate display of empathy, or “girlish” passions, or anything else stereotypically feminine. Ellen Ripley is a complete and focused character
, often taking strong and autonomous initiatives, such as obstructing the exploration team from coming back to the ship, getting more data on Ash, or reactivating the murderous android to get even more data. Good information and firm decisions are the sinews of war, and nothing will stop her from obtaining the former and reaching the latter. In the fight for survival, Ripley may be the most proactive member of the crew – and that’s why she’s the one making it. And who is her better ally in the ship? Neither her male coworkers, who constantly talk down to her and dispute her positions, or her quickly collapsing female coworker… but rather the feminine-coded computer appropriately named Mother, whose cryosleep and interface rooms are the only places on the ship with clean light and warm colors. Despite her limitations, this maternal figure is a powerful protector.
What threat is Ripley facing? The threat of rape. For the first movie is about rape. Not merely in the action – the invasive xenomorph reproduction cycle is based on the nonconsensual penetration and insemination of other species –, Alien was written from the start with rape in mind.
“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.”
The extraterrestrial being is not phallic by mere chance; it is an incarnation of masculine violence.
The audiences and critics back then understood pretty well Alien is a feminist movie. Also largely realized today is the anti-corporate message – as a faceless presence as the unamed Weyland-Yutani –which, like the rape and heroine features, goes way further than Parker’s line about the “damn company”. For Alien is a slow movie, often displaying laborious situations and actions. It takes the Nostromo crew thirty minutes to reach the subject matter, and this time is not spent in character development or precise worldbuilding, but rather in processes: go out of hypersleep, wake up, talk about the primes, consult with Mother, prepare the landing, etc. Most of these details are generally left to elliptical narration, but in Alien, they are the star, they are crucial. Everything is slow, heavy, this world is a gigantic, sultry machine whose Nostromo is a mere reflection. This is the face of capitalism, a system bound to trap, enslave, use and discard humans. And yet these humans only talk about money, about orders, about regulations, and the first thing they think about when they have the opportunity to answer a distress signal (even more important, a non-human distress signal) is “What about the money?”. Capitalism destroys social link, empathy, curiosity and leaves only in place the function, the action to work to earn money, money becoming the only measure of value, pleasure, survival and freedom. In this system, people are worth nothing if they do not work to obtain money; they do not get the various pleasures of life if they do not have money; they do not survive if they do not have money; they do not have choices if they do not have money. So it is work, work, work, for money, money, money, and thus the worker becomes a cog in the machine, they are deshumanized and reduced to their function, and trapped in a factory-prison. Even in space, the ultimate place of freedom and infinite possibilities, they are surrounded by a gigantic machine, the mirror image of the custodial system.
The extraterrestrial being is not biomechanical by mere chance; it is an incarnation of industrial violence.
And, just like the creature mixes phallic and mechanical imagery, the feminist and anticapitalist thematics should not be considered as contradictory, or even simply coexisting: they are two faces of the same coin. They complete each other. For in true kyriarchic fashion, patriarchy completes capitalism. Heterocentrism is a facet of production (to produce workers through reproduction) and women are the lowest proletariat (the proletariat of the proletariat, supporting the male workers with their free domestic and emotional labour).
Additionally, in true patriarchal imagery, the Man is a strong, powerful figure, who does not need to feel or to express his emotions. He is neither a listener or a “whiner”, he’s a warrior, he’s a worker. The Man is a cold statue going through life with ever-repeted motions, the face of a purposeful, productive society, and he will produce goods, services and other Men to keep the machine moving.
To put it shortly: the patriarchal Man is a robot
. Therefore, as a traitor, a protector to the creature, an agent of the faceless company, and the wannabe murderer of Ripley comes as no surprise: he is the synthesis of ALL of the movie’s thematics. He is the Man, the Robot and the Corporate Machine altogether. He is the epitome of deshumanization, the Man without humanity, feeling or even flesh. And despite his robotic nature, he’s biomechanical, as if he was a brother to the creature, Alien and android linked as twin incarnations of the same ills. Furthermore, Ash is sexualized through both his seminal blood and his agression: he tries to kill Ripley her by choking her with a rolled-up newspaper, another oral rape echoing the parasite’s action. Ash has no feelings, only a function
, the function to work/kill/rape.
Today, Alien can appear as toothless feminism. Amongst other thinkers, the queer afrofeminist writer Caroline Colvin asked the question “Is Alien still a feminist film?”, a pertinent interrogation, opening a highroad to more in-depth analysis. But for now, we can notice it is not this toothless: it is a very consistent piece, a specific attack on patriarchy and capitalism. It is a radical feminist/anticapitalist movie.ALIEN$: ANTITHESIS
The first movie was self-sufficient, and the sequel a capitalist action by itself: in this society of business and rentability, a successful movie needed an episode 2. This initial decision came to condition the entire development of the work; unlike Alien, the singular product of the reunion of various creative minds (most of them originally assembled for Jodorowsky’s stillbirth project Dune), Alien 2 was going to be a company product. Most of the artists behind Alien being discarded or simply not interessed in producing a sequel, the project quickly became James Cameron’s baby. Cameron took the final decisions regarding the film: it was gonna be bigger, louder, with a lot of Aliens and a super-Alien, a Queen. The creature had always displayed insect-like features, so why not bring the logic to its end and make it a space ant?
So what is there to say about AlienS? Not much, really. It is a good movie, a very good movie even, an extremely efficient, clean, sharp blockbuster. And… it is extremely devoid of deeper meaning, mostly being about the survival of two species, through the fight of two enemy mothers.
To be fair, the story does interrogate toxic masculinity. After Alien’s often arrogant masculine crewmembers come stereotypical “alpha” males. The Space Marines want to be manly; from their first appearance and initial bravado, they exude a desperate need of strength and recognition. Even the two female Marines are tomboy who gladly participate in the virile arms race. Take this early dialogue for instance:
Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No, have you?
Pushing further the idea of absurd masculine assurance, Cameron only builds up these caricatures in order to set them for the fall. He wants to break these ridiculous superhuman figures, he wants these hercules to fail, to collapse and disappear in this sci-fi version of the Vietnam war. Quickly, facing a stealthy and foreign enemy, the Marines are brought to their knees.
But this time, things are not so streamlined as they are in Alien. For the toxic masculinity’s failure is only superficial, and other character betray underlying problems.
For example, neither Bishop or Burke manages to convey anything meaningful about gender or corporate thematics; they appear as toned-down narrative sons of Ash, the android and the traitor now separate. Bishop is even repurposed in Cameron’s big project for the cast, the construction of a family, part of an even bigger project: the repurposing of Ripley
Rather than an individual struggling to survive, the director turns Ellen Ripley into a champion of her species – therefore she must incarnate her species/society’s values.
This time, she is not valued through her qualities of determination and search of information, but through her sheer bravery, physical courage, and her ability to work various weapons and vehicles, and even the Power Loader, a large humanoid machine. This time, the machine is not a vast and dirty trap as the Nostromo was, but a clean, friendly tool. The power structures of society, its workings and Ripley’s very work are not oppressive anymore; they are means to an end, they are a friendly thing she can use and leave as she sees fits. Furthermore, the tall, heavy, square Power Loader is visually a masculine-looking machine, as if Ripley was putting on a costume of masculinity. The tools (spaceship, dropship, armored car, tracking watch, weapons, Power Loaders) may be a little masculine, and lent by society, the army and the men around Ripley, but in the end, their only important feature is their usefulness. Their purpose. Their function
And what is the main function of a woman in patriarchy? To give birth.
So Ripley is reinvented as a mother, first in the past (we learn the existence of Amanda Ripley, her late child), then in the present with the symbolical daughter Newt, and finally in the future with the budding romance between her and Hicks. Facing the threat of a mother of another species, she’s brought back to her real purpose in Cameron’s eyes. Big Jim is unable to imagine a strong woman without making her a mother, and basically turns Ripley into Sarah Connor. And like Sarah Connor in the soon-to-come Terminator 2, Ripley is given an entire family: a husband, a daughter, and even a paternal uncle, Bishop, who will be able to save Newt during the final fight.
Ripley is no longer a character, she’s an ideal, a worker/warrior/mother ideal. An ideal of function and usefulness. An essentialist, productivist figure
. For Cameron, women can be strong as long as they are workers, as long as they are mothers. They need the function, they are
the function. While not misogynistic or procapitalist per se, AlienS is definitely a centrist, conservative piece. ALIEN 3: SYNTHESIS
The next story immediately refuses and destroys whatever Cameron had built. In an iconoclast moves, Fincher kills off all of Ripley’s family, only leaving Bishop as a half-dead creature, a ghost coming back for beyond the grave with a message: the Alien is here, you’re f**ked.
You’re f**ked, it’s also what the superintendent tells Ripley. And indeed she is literally f**ked – this time, she’s the one getting raped by the hostile lifeform, at the very beginning of the movie. She’s impregnated. And she’s almost raped in a more conventional way by human beings later in the movie. This time, far from being an ideal, an almost legendary figure of power, function and motherness, Ripley is a victim and a survivor. She’s a broken cog in the machine, she will fight against the machine, and once again she’s all alone in an hostile setting.
Alien 3 mirrors Alien in more ways than one, and the spectacular return to the franchise’s roots is displayed through the environment: once again, vastness, dirtiness, heaviness, a nightmarish labyrinth of metal, the decor equivalent to the creature. As in the Nostromo, the entity does not need mucus secretions to blend in; it looks like the pipes, chains and wirings, and the pipes, chains and wirings look like it. This time, we are in a literal prison, the industrial society laying bare in all its ugliness; in this mechanical and destructive system, humans are unarmed, formatted, their skull shaved and their neck stamped with a barcode. More than ever, they are prisoners, workers and products. More than ever, they are also monsters, destroyed by society, dangers to each other. It makes sense that after criticizing the casual misogyny of the Nostromo crew, then the more aggressive toxic masculinity of the Space Marines, we end up with the most toxic and frontally male representants of masculin oppressions.
In some ways, Alien 3 is a feminist failure, for it put Ripley in the role of the victim and receiver of the rape, something the series had avoided until then, something weirdly prophesied by the female colon victim in AlienS’ chestburster scene. In another text, Monster pregnancy and misogyny: putting women back “where they belong”
, I talked about that, about the concerning fact that a series which was initially written about the masculine fear of rape came to mainly represent women
being attacked and used as incubators by the Aliens.
But thankfully, and in mirror fashion to the superficial fauxminism of AlienS hiding conservative values, Alien 3 goes way beyond the fact Ripley was inseminated. The offscreen rape is a mere starting point to her final thematic evolution.
Ellen Ripley gets closer to the creature by adopting an androgynous look, by bearing an Alien herself – her role becomes more ambiguous and yet clearer.
First, we get back to the seeker of truth of the first movie. Gone is the Ripley-worker, the Ripley-warrior, the Ripley-mother, or even the Ripley-wife: she mainly sleeps with Clemens in order to distract him, and answers “No” when he asks if she’s married. Once again our heroine is mainly looking for information. What happened to the EEV? Is Newt infected? What does the Company want? Each time, Ripley is rewarded with answers, and the final one will determine her final choice.
But what does Ripley want
Ripley is not fighting for herself, she’s fighting for the survival of her species. And this time, she has seen the truth of the world, she has seen the prison. She fully knows the prison, the Company, the machine of society does not care about anyone, and destroys everyone.
“What makes you think they're gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space? You really think they're going to let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we're crud, and they don't give a f**k about one friend of yours that's died. Not one.”
This time, the survival of the species doesn’t come from traditional, patriarchal, productive values; when Bishop II promises our heroine she can still have children, a family, the idea seems outright absurd. Ellen Ripley refuses her fonction.
Nuclear family, a traditional maternal role, productivity are not answers to the challenges of existence; rather, they are illusions and obstacles. For our heroine, the species, or the world, needs to be preserved in a much larger sense: the world and its well-being are absolute values
. In this way, her philosophical alignment runs parallel to the faith of Dillon’s cult, for Ripley believes in something higher than corporate power and traditional gender roles. She believes in life, in freedom, in survival, in agency and autonomy. She knows the Company does not care about any of that and will endanger and destroy all of those without hesitation.
Ripley’s final line is “You’re crazy” and in the end it is the only answer one can give to patriarchy, capitalism, and all kinds of systems of domination. They make no sense, they have no deeper purpose beyond short-term profit for the privileged and the reassurance of an apparently functional system. And these systems oppress, and these systems destroy. They are akin to the Alien’s face, to the secret behind the eyeless features of this dark phallic and biomechanical beast: beyond the dome, there’s no intelligence, there’s a human skull. Beyond the efficiency of domination, there’s only death.