Reassessing Alien: Sexuality and the Anxieties of Men

By Jason Haggstrom, June 8, 2012

Alien posterIn 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.

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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.


  1. Creed, Barbara. "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection." The Dread of Difference
  2. "The Gender Wage Gap: 2008." Institute For Women's Policy Research
  3. Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. "Woman: The Other Alien in Alien." Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy
  4. Kavanagh, James K. "Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien." Alien Zone
  5. Taubin, Amy. "The 'Alien' Trilogy: From Feminism to AIDS." Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader
  6. Newton, Judith. "Feminism and Anxiety in Alien." Alien Zone
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By David Mayne on January 16, 2013 at 3:10 AM

Very interesting and I suspect that due to Ripley's central role as a character it is little wonder that she has become a feminist icon. However, I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that this a mis-reading of her - and the film in general. We can look for subtext and find what we arguably want to find but lets not forget that Alien is a film conceived as a compromise between 'art' and finance (as are most films) and became a success due to its box office takings, and as you point out, spawned a range of sequels and other stuff. But a huge amount of it is guess work and ask yourself this - could Alien work with a male in Ripley's role? I think so.......when Dallas dies she replaces him in the narrative, allowing for continuation of the central heroic figure. But hey, thats just my opinion......

By Jason Haggstrom on January 16, 2013 at 9:33 AM

Thanks, David. I absolutely agree that seeing the film as feminist is, at worst, a mis-reading. At best, a purely feminist reading requires tuning out a lot of evidence in the film that reveals apprehension in having a woman in such a position. But for me, that conflict between the feminist and patriarchal aspects of the film is what makes it so rewarding after all these years and so many viewings. Also, you might find it interesting to learn that the final re-write of the script didn't actually specify that Ripley should be a woman. That decision was made during casting. Ripley could very well have been a man, but I can't help but think we wouldn't still be talking about the movie today if s/he were!

By jc on February 16, 2014 at 5:29 PM

Hey, it's just a sci fi movie and that is all that it is and all that it was intended to be. Anybody can take any film and make it mean their own crazy thing. I could say that Batman is symbolic of a drunken hippopotamus eating a bagel....Or Gone With The Wind is symbolic of ice cream cones sprouting wings. That's how ridiculous this whole thing is. They are just movies and the only objective of this movie was to scare the hell out of movie goers. That's all.

By Jason Haggstrom on February 16, 2014 at 10:31 PM

It very well could be that the filmmakers that created Alien didn't intend that the film convey anything other than fear, but that hardly means that there's nothing else to be found in the movie that was produced. If there's one film that is screaming to be interpreted as something more than just an exercise in genre, it's Alien.

By S.C on April 6, 2014 at 12:10 PM

Excellent article on one of my favourite films.

By David Simmons on October 6, 2014 at 3:51 PM

Greetings, Jason!

An in-depth and excellent analysis! Part of the reason that "Alien" will always echo through my consciousness is due to many of the conflicts you discussed. Overall, I regard "Alien" as being strongly feminist, and a terrifying examination of the trauma and fear of rape, regardless of the gender of either attacker or victim. The contrast of Ripley's physical feminity against the pychological steel she presents as the threat increases is remarkable and admirable. She is more than a strong woman, she is a strong person, and worthy of respect regardless of her gender.

However, Ripley's strip tease, thong-like panties and luridly slow and voyeuristic ensconcement in the space suit at the end of the film strikes the only sour note for me after all these decades. It's as if the filmmakers suddenly decided that a little hormonal teenage T&A was needed after the dark, mature horror. I disagree. While the young Sigourney Weaver is a stunning female to behold, I was turned on by her mind. To have her body paraded at the end diminishes and taints that feeling. It has always bothered me.

By Jason Haggstrom on October 6, 2014 at 7:48 PM

Thanks, David. I agree completely about Ripley's striptease at the end. It seems forced, and it's completely out of place.

By Winston on August 6, 2015 at 6:47 AM

Great read! Informative and well supported.

Just wondering though, how is she dead at the end? Sequels totally aside, I don't see any evidence that she's anything but in a deep cryo-sleep at the end. I know that originally Scott intended to kill her off, but I do think see anything to suggest she is dead as the movie stands now.

By Jason Haggstrom on August 6, 2015 at 4:10 PM

I read the ending as being Ripley's death mostly because of the shot that dissolves her sleeping face into the field of stars. In the shot, she literally fades away. To me, that clearly symbolizes death rather than any sort of in-between state, and I think it reads that way no matter how you interpret anything else about the film.

If one subscribes to my overall reading of the film, her death is a natural conclusion for other reasons as well. She's not just the last surviving member of the Nostromo, but a woman who has been completely re-gendered, and no longer fits the mold of potential mother. She's a stand-in for all women who choose to enter the workforce, become "like men," and stray away from the role of motherhood. Her death illustrates that without that role, the species will die. Through that reading, her death becomes the symbolic death of all humankind.

By Winston on August 6, 2015 at 7:54 PM

Hmm. I don't know. I still don't see it as a death of the character. I do see how it could be metaphorical, but I think what gets me is the open title sequence. It mirrors the movie, from known to unknown, and back out to the other side. If she dies at the end then it's simply an ending not a rebirth.

However, i do think her ridiculous undergarments are valid, specifically for your reasons. It's the last layer of distinct femininity that must be confronted and disposed of in order for her to make a complete transformation. In that same light, her character actually dying, to me, feels like a cop out. I want to see the transformation. We've been watching other characters do it in the movie, why shouldn't the strongest character have that same chance?

Again, thanks for a great read. I teach an intro level film criticism class for 11 grade high school kids and I'm always looking for greater insight into films. This article goes a long way to proving that there's more to watching a movie than just eating popcorn!

By Jason Haggstrom on August 6, 2015 at 9:40 PM

This is where my reading of the film diverges from most: I don't see the end as representing her rebirth, I see it as death. I see her emergence as the feminist hero as being ironic in that it signifies death for the human race. To me, her dying at the end is a very natural bookend to the beginning because I view that opening as a birth (or rebirth!) scene.

(This is where I should also note that my reading of Alien is based on what I believe the film is conveying, but is not a reflection of my own opinions on gender roles or feminism.)

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Winston!

By feminoska on September 8, 2015 at 1:34 AM

Hi Jason, I am an Italian feminist - and Alien fan, of course! - and I really appreciated your article (if you don't mind I'd love to translate it and publish it on my blog). The only part of it that left me dubious is your reading of the end of the film: I do not see it as death - of Ripley or the human race. From a narrative point of view it takes us back to the beginning, and it is also a beautiful open ending that leaves us asking ourselves "will she be safe now?". But apart from that, following your reading of the film and the Snow White similarities, is it possible that in this last closing scene Ripley is put once again in the stereotypical depiction of impotence and need of most of the female characters in stories of all time? From this point of view, it would also be possible to read the "strip scene" as the moment when Ripley, who all along the film played the badass hero, takes off her androginous clothes to reveal her true self, an apparently delicate woman that, ultimately, puts herself voluntarily to sleep, waiting for her "prince charming"? This is what I thought while reading your article, thank you so much for the amazing read!

By Jason Haggstrom on September 9, 2015 at 8:49 AM

Thanks for contributing to the discussion! You are welcome to translate and post this article (and thanks for asking first). I just ask that you cite me as the author and link back to the original.

I also see the ending as a reference back to the beginning, but for me the connection only adds to the evidence that the ending should be read as a death. I actually think that most people read it in the open-ended, "Will she be safe now?," way that you describe (I used to see it that way as well before my viewpoint of the film on the whole changed to the reading that is presented in this essay). If we see the wakening from cryo-sleep as a birth, it seems only natural to me to see the end as a death, especially when viewed in the context of the reading of the film that I've presented here.

I absolutely agree that the ending of the film puts Ripley into a position that reveals her impotence and need. I see it as a reflection of the filmmaker's mindset at the time, and their (probably subconscious) reaction to the changes that were happening in society from the feminist movement. Ripley saves herself, but she can't really save herself in the end without the help of the proverbial "Prince Charming." That said, I just can't ever bring myself to read the stripping scene as anything other than pure exploitation on the part of the filmmakers.

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