Yonic (vaginal) imagery abounds in the Alien films.
“Mother” as the face of technology.
In Alien, the family melodrama is reborn.
John Hurt as Kane, soon to give birth to monster: a crisis in masculinity.
Tom Skerritt as Dallas: the male lead with no sexual interest in the heroine.
Between women: Sigourney Weaver as Ripley maintains a tense relationship with Lambert (Veronica Cartwright).
The sinister cyborg Ash (Ian Holm) assimilated into the male homosocial.
Abstract genital: the Alien films’ designs merge phallic and yonic imagery.
Arriving in the underworld: Alien reimagines the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
A desire to return to the womb is just as important in Alien as fear of this return.
Hades in space: hell is the kingdom of a new dark lord.
A world in which sexual difference no longer seems to matter: mixed gender crews abound.
The “Space Jockey’s” vast ship.
Alien ensures the survival of its fittest, the resourceful, singular woman.
Kane explores a maternal underworld.
The interior of the Alien egg-sack: the wonder and horror of birth.
Woman is homosocialized (notice who has the biggest gun).
The Christian Crusades in a fallen world.
The Alien-Hades effortlessly negotiates the maternal underworld.
Misogynistic paranoia: males will now have to take on the birth-burden.
In Alien, every event is a paranoid response to Ripley's new version of femininity.
The Feminine vs. the Queer: patriarchal hegemony pits women and gays against each other.
By David Greven
Directed by Ridley Scott, the first Alien film (1979) is not about the heroine’s transformation, but rather her revelation. We discover that she is the most resourceful or at the very least the luckiest member of the motley outer space mining crew who will all be decimated by the titular monster, save for her. The endless transformation of the heroine, Lt. Ellen Ripley (indelibly played by Sigourney Weaver) is the signal concern of the series, a feat that takes place over the course of the four films in which she appears: the first, Alien; Aliens (1986, directed by James Cameron); Alien 3 (1992, directed by David Fincher); and the fourth, Alien Resurrection (1997, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
This quartet of films presents, with acute responsiveness to the concerns of the period from which each film emerges, the ongoing transformation of the heroine who unites them all. She moves from a loyal, tough-minded officer who goes by the book but then makes up her own ingenious rules (Alien) to a Reaganite hardbody (Aliens) to a shaven-headed allegorical AIDS-warrior (Alien 3) to a posthuman fusion of woman and the very creature she has battled against for two decades of Hollywood filmmaking and illimitable diegetic centuries (Alien Resurrection).
Despite its sci-fi/horror trappings, the Alien films are a postmodern collage of the melodramatic themes of the classic Hollywood woman’s film, the genre in a denatured, reimagined, and, to evoke Robert B. Ray’s theory of the western, concealed form. As Robert Lang summarizes in his study American Film Melodrama,
Certainly, the Alien films concern themselves with an ever-evolving feminine subjectivity. Moreover, they are concerned with femininity’s uncomfortable place within patriarchy. But the villain in the films is not always clearly an outgrowth of patriarchy; rather, the very nature of villainy of the films is part of the complex questions they raise about identity and desire.
Return to melodrama
As a heroine, Ripley liminally recalls the heroines of classical Hollywood melodrama as she anticipates a new form of cinematic womanhood. One way of understanding the Alien films is to interpret them as “concealed” versions of the woman’s film melodrama. The Alien films fuse melodrama with other genres, the thriller and the horror film. Beneath their grisly generic surfaces, the Alien films are classical Hollywood woman’s films—like Alice Adams (1935), Now, Voyager (1942), The Heiress (1949)—whose heroine is an independent, idiosyncratic, isolate woman who struggles with questions of desire and the normative trajectory of gendered identity.
Like the respective heroines of these films, Alice Adams, Charlotte Vale, and Catherine Sloper, Ripley must struggle with her destiny: will she lose her idiosyncratic agency to what Carolyn Heilbrun has called the “romance plot”—marriage and family—or will she retain it, at the cost of a socially unacceptable isolate existence? For Heilbrun, men’s and women’s fictions can be distinguished by the “quest” narrative that drives the former and the “romance plot” that drives the latter. By the end of the series, Ripley’s intransigent refusal of the marriage plot has taken her so far outside its confines that she is no longer even human.
If the conventional marriage plot of the woman’s film pitted the singular heroine against the nearly inescapable threats of compulsory heterosexuality and institutionalized marriage, the Alien films devise a shifting, ornate plot of their own that finds ever more baroque ways to bar its heroine from entrance into the marriage plot: Ripley is far too busy battling Aliens to sustain a relationship that would lead to marriage. While she certainly does seem to flirt with desire in the films, even having sex with a man as scarred by the past as she in Alien 3, her chief, all-consuming erotic and intellectual aim is vanquishing the inexhaustible Alien menace. The Alien, then, emerges as a parody of the woman’s film suitor, particularly in his foreign cast, of endless courtship and the threat of marriage. Forever hoping to woo its intransigent quarry, the Alien wants nothing more than to possess Ripley and force her to bear its young. The Alien, to be sure, does not discriminate on the basis of sex or age or species when it comes to procreation, unhesitatingly availing itself of male, female, child, and non-human host bodies. Nevertheless, the films focus on the Alien’s rapacious fixation on Ripley as well as on the heroine’s initially aggrieved and ultimately deeply cathected fixation on them.
One of the defining features of the woman’s film is the theme of transformation, which happens on both a physical and emotional level. Female transformation functions, in part, as a strategy for the avoidance of male domination and marriage, even as it solicits both. (For example, once made over, Charlotte Vale finds potential romance but ultimately rejects it. And Catherine Sloper transforms into a statelier, more confident version of herself, which leads her to reject her duplicitous former suitor Morris Townsend when he makes an ill-advised return.) Transformation in the Alien films serves both this purpose and a different one altogether. Ripley’s transformations can be read as attempts to outmatch the Aliens in ingenuity, and ultimately to co-opt their powers as her own, all in an effort to defeat them, however mournfully this defeat comes to be rendered.
But ultimately Ripley’s transformations are their own end. Following Raymond Bellour, Slavoj Zizek has argued that removing the titular avian menace from Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963) reveals the true themes (an oedipal drama) at work in the film. Similarly, removing the Alien from the Alien films reveals the true drama, the endless permeability and transformability of the heroine. Seen in this light, the Aliens themselves serve, in their own endless abilities to transform, as a dark, lurid, terrifying allegory of the heroine’s own endless metamorphoses. They represent the terror and fascination of female transformation. The heroine, in sustaining audience fascination for over three decades, represents the ongoing cultural fascination with Woman’s distinctive ability to transform. The four films constitute an extraordinarily rich narrative of femininity—indeed, together they are a female epic in which the heroine comes to know her own capacities, decides to take action in the face of enemy threat, armors herself, faces the enemy, dies to save humanity, and merges with the Alien. This female epic cross-fertilizes the key motifs of classical literature with the Christian Crusades but, as the merging of enemy species and gendered identities suggests, spawns a mythology altogether its own.
As Barbara Creed has argued, drawing on Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection as an experience related to the disavowal of the maternal body, the Alien films exemplify the cinematic fear of the archaic mother, the terror of an engulfing return to origins. While I believe that Creed persuasively illuminates many aspects of these films, I want to reconsider the question of the terrifying archaic mother by emphasizing the role of the daughter in the series, which in turn allows us to reconsider the symbolic maternal presence in them. The myth of Demeter and Persephone illuminates these films, allowing us to consider that what they foreground is the daughter’s simultaneous flight from and desire to return to the mother. It is precisely the heroine’s desire to return to the Mother—rather than her fear that she inevitably will in a process that will consume her—that Creed overlooks, focusing instead on the ways in which this theme stems from and embodies misogynistic male fears. Further, if we consider the Alien films as a postmodern version of the classic Hollywood woman film, and therefore a kind of collage of their themes, the films come to seem like an almost parodistic elaboration of the fears that animate the woman’s film as well as a cathartic attempt to work through them.
My focus in this essay will be on the first two films, which is not to suggest that they are more important than the latter two, but that between them they offer a particularly instructive example of the shifting complexities of the cinematic uses of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. With great relevance for the theme of female transformation, it provides a vital structure for understanding intergenerational bonds between women and the cultural uses made of these bonds. In addition, the myth in its cinematic form illuminates issues about gender and representation generally and queer male sexuality as well.
Alien: the endless primal scene
Yonic symbols—symbols of female sexuality—are so rife in the first film in the series as to take on an obsessive character:
Birth imagery saturates the film:
Jonesy, the cat, is another kind of parody of the infant, scampering about, looked for like a lost child, held in a crib-cage. And the fully grown Alien itself—however “abstract genital” it is, most clearly typed as a male monster—is a kind of male mother, taking its victims back to its lair to feed and foster its young. The victims are also like the Alien’s children, perversely coddled, wrapped into an obscene embrace. Indeed, in the scene in which Dallas (Tom Skerritt) first attempts to corner and then to escape the Alien in the air shafts, his confrontation with the killer is a kind of grotesque “Welcome Home, Son,” scene, in which the Alien greets its prodigal son with murderously open arms, as it shrieks out in incomprehensible but palpably eager surprise.
Though Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is initially presented as only one member of the ensemble-cast crew and not the one in charge—she is second in command to Dallas—it is gradually revealed that she is the heroine of the film because of her ability to survive as much as her tough-minded, resilient intelligence. Many critics have remarked on this film’s version of Ripley as the unmarried 70s career woman.
What I suggest about the film is that in every way, through every symbolic and literal means, it is a kind of paranoid allegory of the problems posed by the unmarried career woman both to herself and to culture. That it is so brilliantly made and complexly meaningful only adds to the power of this allegory and the force of its implications. Alien emerged at the end of the 1970s, when feminism’s first wave had already firmly established itself, made a profound impact on the gendered public sphere, and provoked a concomitant backlash. Unlike what I term the tragic feminism propounded in other films as diverse as Love Story (1970) and The Enforcer (1976) in which unusual, strong-minded women met their untimely deaths, Alien ensures the survival of its fittest, the resourceful, singular woman who makes up her own rules and, most significantly, avoids the trappings of heterosexual romance by seeming indifferent to them.
Or, in this case, by being met with indifference—if there is a vague suggestion of Ripley’s desire for taciturn Dallas, though only a vague one, Dallas’ own indifference to her is clearly expressed. In one scene, protesting his orders to allow the Face-Huggered Kane onboard the ship, Ripley corners Dallas in a corridor, sealing the door to bar his exit. At that point, we expect to see some sort of suggestion of romance or even of a prior romance that has now cooled off, and its uncomfortable intersection with company rules and job performance. But no such suggestion is made, except for the subtly pleading look in otherwise officious Ripley’s eyes. Dallas, exasperated and impatient, explains that he wants nothing other than to get off the troublesome planet. The way Ridley Scott shoots the scene, the two are never in the same shot. They never engage in the kind of tortured romantic intimacy that might be expected as characters, played by the most attractive stars and likeliest ones to form an onscreen couple, either work out their differences or establish that these differences will impede their romantic progress. Ripley is alone, with her sense of order, her desire to be heard by Dallas, her confusion, and so is he. Throughout the film, Scott emphasizes a profound sense of disconnection with
Even more freighted than its engagement with 1970s feminism is the movie’s agon, or conflict, with the classical Hollywood woman’s film, the template for this film’s retooled narrative of a woman’s development, cross-fertilized with the horror and sci-fi genres. In the woman’s film, the heroine’s isolation is juxtaposed against the busy network of those who conform to the social order, who either attempt to banish the heroine from their ranks or to integrate her into them.
In Alice Adams the posh members of the upper-class social world into which Katharine Hepburn’s idiosyncratic titular heroine is barred entrance quite merrily go about their elitist business despite her attempts to join them. There is no sense that, in her singular display of eccentric selfhood, she has made any kind of impact on them, only on the sympathetic suitor (Fred MacMurray) who is, despite some lapses, ultimately won over by her, in a studio-imposed, achingly false, ostensibly happy ending. In Now, Voyager, various family members either shame Bette Davis’s lonely spinster Charlotte Vale into social submission or attempt to effect her rescue, as is also the case with the victimized, “unmarriageable” Catherine Sloper in The Heiress.
In Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), the central drama is the kleptomaniac heroine’s intransigent refusal of the social order—embodied chiefly by compulsory heterosexuality and marriage in the form of Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland, an elite armchair psychologist/zoologist of the criminal female. It is an order that always already awaits and is in no way ruptured or stalled by Marnie’s rejection of its strictures, strictures that she seems on her way to adopting herself by the end. (The film makes the cost of all of this piercingly clear, however. When Marnie acquiesces, finally, it is in exhausted defeat: “I don't want to go to prison, Mark—I’d rather stay with you.”