Reassessing Alien: Sexuality and the Anxieties of Men
By Jason Haggstrom, June 8, 2012
In the thirty years since its release, Alien has become a film of hot debate amongst film theorists. Academic analyses of the film draw attention to many differing themes that lead to feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and other readings. But these theories exist in a vacuum of their own space, playing to each author’s pet theories rather than looking to analyze the film from the screen and then out. 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 during the era of second-wave feminism in which the film was produced.
Alien opens with a birth sequence. It begins with darkness. Then, a series of lights illuminate to reveal the camera’s position in a hallway on the spaceship Nostromo. As the camera floats forward through the hall, a door opens. The crew is revealed as slumbering, nearly naked bodies in the round, comforting, white womb of a room. Men and women lay side by side, born in a micro-society that is ignorant to the inhibitions associated with sexual difference. As the first member of the crew, Kane, rises from hypersleep, he is born into a series of dissolves that conveys the disorientation of birth into the brilliant light of the world at the same time that it provides a careful study of Kane’s body as though he were a newborn being studied by its mother. Barbara Creed observes that this birth is a "well controlled, clean, painless affair," and speculates that it "could be interpreted as a primal phantasy in which the human subject is born fully developed—even copulation is redundant."1 This idea of a sterile birth (both in terms of cleanliness and the inability to procreate) is of great significance in the film as it removes the burden of pregnancy and birth from the female, creating the potential for male impregnation.
The crew of the Nostromo enjoy a meal together, sitting around a table as if they were a nuclear family; all children of "Mother," the Nostromo itself. The only audible conversation centers on issues of class as the ship’s two mechanics complain that, "Everybody else gets more [money] than us." That includes the ship’s two women, Ripley and Lambert. At the time of the film’s release in 1979, women were earning annual wages that amounted to just sixty percent of the earnings of their male counterparts2. The equalizing of women’s pay is just one of the ways that Alien concerns itself with sexual equality. Men and women work together in similar roles in an equal distribution of labor. The film’s characters have been stripped of their first names to further remove any sense of gender. We may be able to recognize that Ripley is female and Dallas is male, but the film does not. But what begins as sexual equality quickly becomes sexual confusion.
Sexual imagery abounds throughout Alien, transferred from the asexual, de-gendered crew to other aspects of the diegesis. When the crew goes out in search of the beacon they find a ship that is constructed to resemble the lower half of a body, it’s "legs" angled up towards the heavens. Ash speaks for the entire crew when he declares, "I’ve never seen anything like it," a statement that speaks volumes about this society’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the human body and of reproduction in general. The crew gains entrance to the ship through a vagina-like opening at the center-point between its metallic legs. Once inside, they find themselves surrounded by walls that resemble bones and other organic material furthering the sense that they are exploring the inside of a body. But the female genitalia are not alone as objects of fascination in Alien. Within the body of the ship, the crew discovers a giant, dead creature that is attached to the ship as though it had grown out of the floor. Extending from its midsection is what can only be described as a giant, erect penis (so giant, in fact, that it doesn’t even fit in the shot). Its stiff, lifeless body is a warning to the explorers, but one that they are quick to ignore.
Kane eagerly explores a cavern—a stand-in for the female’s reproductive system—as though he and the crew were sperm racing towards one of the thousands of eggs inside. When Kane makes contact with the egg a pregnancy occurs, just not in the way we are accustomed to. It is Kane who is impregnated by a scorpion-like monster that attaches itself to his face, raping him orally in an act of sexual domination. As Rebecca Bell-Metereau describes, "This scene couldn’t be a more direct symbolic pictoralization of Freud’s textbook phobia: the vagina with teeth clutches and eats alive the intrusive phallus, rendering it impotent, castrated."3 The implied phallic lack of the male crew of the Nostromo is made explicit by Kane’s rape—his symbolic castration. This unlikely impregnation of Kane and the eventual birth of the Alien monster are the film’s most explicit examples of sexual confusion. The Alien is child to Kane—a child birthed of man. It is this male perspective of powerlessness, a situation created by his assumption of the maternal role—the body that is penetrated rather than penetrating—that introduces the theme of male’s anxiety in the face of feminism.
In this sexually confused society where the penis is no longer the object of male power, the male’s ultimate, unconscious fear of feminism is revealed: that sexual difference will be eliminated along with gender, leading to the equal distribution of reproductive duties, regardless of sex. Men will have to share the burden of pregnancy and birth. This anxiety in regards to feminism is founded on the notion that with the abolition of gender roles and the division of labor, the role of mother will become diminished unless it can be shared equally amongst both sexes. This concept, and the anxiety it creates, is on full display in Alien. In psychoanalytic terms, the idea of "lack" comes from the female’s lack of a penis. However, in Alien, where sexuality is hopelessly confused, it can be said that the women also lack a vagina, necessitating the transfer of motherhood onto other objects, namely Kane and the film’s multiple spaceships. A similar transfer of sexuality is encapsulated by the many ways in which the film presents the male’s lack of a phallus.
I’m not one to search for phallic symbols in art, but with Alien you don’t have to look very hard to find them. Sexuality is woven into the design of virtually everything in the film, and not just for those critics who would unearth it in order to stroke their Grand Theory. Alien‘s most significant phallic imagery comes in the form of the monstrous Alien itself. Rebecca Bell-Metereau notes that, "the Alien reveals a frighteningly voracious sexuality, one that makes the crew members appear positively asexual by comparison."3 But critics can’t seem to decide whether the Alien represents the male or female. James H. Kavanagh likens the Alien to the phallus noting that, "Through grotesquely emphasized erectile images, the Alien insistently registers psychosexually as a threatening phallus."4 Amy Taubin sees the Alien as a mix of both sexes, describing its mouth as "hermaphroditic: while the double jaws represented the inner and outer labia of the vagina dentata, the projectile movement of the inner jaw was a phallic threat."5 While there is ample critical discussion about vaginal imagery in the Alien, the phallic teeth are what stand out most, not only because the likeness to the male member is more explicit than that of the "inner and outer labia of the vagina dentata," but because it is the Alien’s phallic teeth that kill. The Alien’s process for killing its prey is a horrific display of phallic power: a giant erection—complete with teeth and dripping with semen-like ooze—shoots out of the Alien’s mouth to penetrate the flesh and destroy the brains of its victims.
When the crew devises a plan to trap and kill the Alien in the ventilation shaft, it is clear that an individual must rise to the occasion. When Lambert asks, "Who gets to go into the vent," Ripley quickly replies, "I do," as if it were entirely ordinary in 1970s’ cinema for a woman to step into such a role. Instead, Dallas rejects Ripley’s eager attempt at being the hero, opting to go into the vents himself and assume his predestined role as hero of the film. When the Alien kills Dallas in the ventilation shaft, it serves as an usurping of the patriarchal traditions of the cinema; the masculine hero is expected to emerge victorious when confronting the monster. With both Dallas and Kane dead, Ripley—ever eager to give orders—becomes the new commander of the Nostromo and its crew.
With the assumption of Ripley—a woman—to the role of leader and eventual hero, it’s easy to see why so many critics have deemed Alien a feminist film. James H. Kavanagh notes the ease of the her transition to the hero role when he states,
the woman’s right to assume authority is not even an issue; authority and power are ceded to persons irrespective of sex, solely in regard to their position and function. The way the film takes for granted Ripley’s assumption of command, her right to order and even shove the men around, registers strongly as the absence of an unexpected problematic.4
Rebecca Bell-Metereau describes the drastic difference between Ripley and the cinema’s heroines prior to Alien when she writes,
Most science fiction and fantasy films depict woman as the helpmate to man, and she is more often than not a hindrance at the crucial moment when the protagonist is trying to escape from or defeat the villains and monsters… How many times have we seen the heroine trip and fall as the couple run from their pursuers, and how many times has the hero been forced to go back and help her to her feet to carry her quite literally from danger?3
But it’s Judith Newton who reaches past this initial feminist reading, discovering evidence for a reading that is in opposition to feminism.
Newton initially describes Alien as "a utopian fantasy of women’s liberation, a fantasy of economic and social equality, friendship, and collectivity between middle-class women and men."6 She elaborates on the qualities that make Ripley a good, feminist hero, stating that she "appropriates qualities traditionally identified with male, but not masculinist, heroes."6 But she follows up on these observations with the realization that there are "covert anxieties" which "must be seen as a response to feminism as a collective force, as a force disruptive of traditional gender roles and the sexual division of labour."6 But Newton stops short of declaring feminist anxiety as the dominant meaning of the film, concluding instead that the film is both "utopian, for it expresses… the fantasy that white, middle-class women, at their liberated best, can be harmoniously integrated into the late-capitalist world of work, a world they will symbolically humanize with residual sensitivity" even though this "attenuated fantasy evokes anxieties… about feminism as a collective and potentially radical force."6 But if there’s any doubt that the film is more concerned with male anxiety in the face of feminism than of feminism itself, one only needs to look to two sequences late in the film: Ripley’s confrontation with Ash, and her return to hypersleep at the film’s end.
Ripley’s confrontation with Ash is the film’s most immediate projection of the male’s anxiety towards a future of sexual equality. Within minutes of Ripley’s assumption of command, Ash confronts her in a scene that invokes an attempt at sexual domination by way of rape and murder. After beating Ripley nearly unconscious, Ash stuffs a rolled-up magazine into her mouth in a symbolic act of oral rape in an attempt to counteract the mixed-up sexuality that came with Kane’s impregnation, and to symbolically return Ripley to a pre-feminism gender role of sexual object (note the photographs of nude women that line the walls, a reminder of the sexual objectification of women that is so absent in this future society). Judith Newton notes that Ash had already scored "a series of hostile victories over Ripley in which white male viewers can vicariously participate."6 Even if we, as spectators, reject the identification with rapist-murderer Ash in this scene, the theme of male anxiety of a post-feminist future is still made clear by the mise-en-scène. Blood runs from Ripley’s nose before she has even been struck. In the reverse shot, we see Ash—a milky, semen-like substance running down his face. What plays out is a confrontation between feminism and the patriarchy with Ripley’s blood symbolizing the phallocentric desire to return her to "bearer of the bleeding wound"6—a menstruating child-bearer made symbolic by a link to castration. Such an act would restore Ripley’s physiologically dictated role of child-bearer, the socially constructed role of sexual object, and allow for the debasement of her role as leader and potential hero. But Ash ends up as Alien‘s most pertinent example of the powerlessness that comes with phallic lack when he is revealed to be an android, his rolled-up magazine epitomizing the lack of power derived from his literal lack of a human penis. When defeated by Parker, Ash spews semen-blood covering everything in the room giving physical evidence that the patriarchy won’t go down so easily.
Of course no assessment of Alien is complete without mention of Ripley’s unintentionally funny panties (like the Grinch’s heart, Ripley’s undies are two sizes too small) and what implications they have for the film’s feminist themes. The finale of Alien takes place in the tight quarters of the shuttle Narcissus where Ripley performs a strip tease of sorts for the audience, shedding the plain green jumpsuit that had masked her sexuality throughout the film. Her nipples stand erect under a tight-fitting white tank top, the last of three layers that had hidden her female shape. Her bottom half is bare and her panties are cut so low as to reveal the upper quarter of her backside. A strobe light effect pervades the mise-en-scène, titillating the audience as if Ripley were participating in a pornographic photo shoot. The alien’s arm pops out, catching the distracted audience off guard having been lulled into a voyeuristic gaze. She hides in a storage area and the objective camera fetishizes her body, looking her up and down from a low angle that emphasizes her naughty bits (meanwhile, that strobe light just keeps on strobing).
When Ash symbolically raped Ripley it was for the purpose of theme—the asexual Ash attempts to take control by becoming the man in a re-established patriarchy. But unlike that scene, Ripley’s sudden near-nudity has no purpose within the context of the film. It is for the audience alone, and is dictated by the filmmakers rather than anything in the story itself. Ripley’s near-nudity isn’t actually in the script. Scott chose to film the scene that way, or was likely forced to by the producer or the studio. It’s nothing more than a standard of the horror genre to place at least one female into a role of sexual object for the audience.
Most discussions of Alien come to the conclusion that the film ultimately celebrates feminism by not only showing the workplace as a place of sexual equality, but by how the story allows Ripley to become the woman-hero who can stand up to and defeat the murderous Alien. In the end, Ripley achieves victory against the monstrous Alien, but the victory—the film’s representation of a feminist victory—leaves her isolated in the depths of space. As the film comes to a close, Ripley is shown lying asleep in a shot that is an explicit reference to Disney’s Snow White. This association links Ripley directly to that film’s title character, a woman who is gendered for severe exploitation within the phallocentric order (she cooks, cleans, and takes care of seven men). Ripley’s fate then is to remain frozen in a state of eternal sleep, awaiting a kiss from the proverbial Prince Charming, the embodiment of phallocentrism and last chance for rescue. Ripley’s death comes as easy as her birth: the camera slowly zooms in on Ripley’s motionless face, finally dissolving into a shot of the blackness of deep space. Ripley dies alone, the final member of the crew of the Nostromo (before the success of the film led to the resurrection of Ripley for several sequels, of course). This sequence creates the film’s final statement on male anxiety in the face of feminism: that a feminist victory can only be achieved by the elimination of gender roles, a societal upheaval that will not only lead to the death of the nuclear family, but to the death of all humankind.
Critical analysis of Ridley Soctt’s Alien is as varied as it is prolific. The vast majority of assessments of the film deem it a feminist picture because of its representations of a gender-neutral society where a woman can rise to the role of leader and hero. The film is seen as a utopian fantasy where "white, middle-class women, at their liberated best, can be harmoniously integrated into the late-capitalist world of work, a world they will symbolically humanize with residual sensitivity."6 But further examination of Alien reveals it to be a complex vision of the male’s anxiety in the face of feminism. Alien is not only a phenomenal horror film, but a document of its time. It takes us back to the late 1970s—the pinnacle of the second-wave feminist movement—and illuminates the deep, repressed fears of that era’s men. In this regard, Alien is more interesting and more complex film than so many feminist readings have given it credit for.
- Creed, Barbara. "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection." The Dread of Difference
- "The Gender Wage Gap: 2008." Institute For Women’s Policy Research
- Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. "Woman: The Other Alien in Alien." Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Kavanagh, James K. "Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien." Alien Zone
- Taubin, Amy. "The ‘Alien’ Trilogy: From Feminism to AIDS." Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader
- Newton, Judith. "Feminism and Anxiety in Alien." Alien Zone