Aliens is a bold new version of the myth of Demeter and Persephone.

Bishop (Lance Henriksen), cut in half: the queer male's troubles have only just begun.

Woman and female child, images of the human child.

Ash represents the horror of male sexuality, charged with Englishness and queerness.

A postmodern damsel in distress in this neo-Gothic.

The Alienís attack on Lambert is filmed as a rape sceneÖ

… but the same is true of the Alien’s attack on Parker. Male-male rape, intersecting with issues of race, deepen the queer themes of Alien.

Parkerís open, bloodied mouth is juxtaposed againstÖ

... the Alienís glittering, machine-tooled, salivating mouth, the entire scene representative of the horror of fellatio/oral sexuality as well as sodomy.

The Alienís phallic embrace.

Ships, like planets, are an endless series of wombs.

Danger comes primarily from the cold, computer Mother.

The ship is figured as the phallic mother of Freudian myth.

Ripley remains Persephone, caught between two impossible worlds.

Ripley is the phallic warrior, who will decapitate Medusa.

Sigourney Weaverís performance as Ripley is remarkable for its phallic toughness, but more remarkable for its portrait of the varieties of feminine styles.

Conduits of shame.

Ripley in the infamous undressing scene at the climax of Alien.

The Alien seems more invested in his masturbatory self-pleasure here than in Ripley.

The Alien films teem with genderbending figures.

Ripley is forever reborn.

 The Medusan Monster Mother: the Alien Queen.


Aliens: reimaging Demeter

Commonly, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel to the original Alien film has been read as a reactionary retooling of the Ripley character that transforms her renegade femininity into the decidedly less radical one of the Reagan-era supermom, associating her as well with U.S. military power and attendant hostility to foreign threat. While these readings are certainly plausible, they don’t encompass all of the gendered themes of the Cameron’s film. Within this conservative epic lie the strands of another, more pronouncedly feminist narrative: a reimagining of the Demeter-Persephone myth, one as challenging as the militaristic and gender-normative aspects of the film are troubling. The first film cast Ripley in the role of Persephone, at war with mothers and masculinity. This new film refashions her as Demeter, but also refashions the Demeter of the classical myth as a woman warrior who actively invades Hell to rescue her abducted daughter. These themes deeply inform Cameron’s 2009 global 3-D sensation Avatar as well (which reunites Cameron and Sigourney Weaver) but are much more richly developed in the 1986 film.

In the myth, Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter, which she transmutes into a nuclear-winter rage, leads her to wander the Earth mournfully and angrily. It also leads her, in the Ovidian version, to consult her fellow gods, who cajole her into accepting Hades’ abduction and rape of her daughter. Hades, the god of hell, is Persephone’s uncle. In Ovid's version, her father, Zeus, king of the gods and Demeter’s brother, remains unmoved in the face of Demeter’s accusatory request to him that he intervene and force Hades to return Persephone to her. Finally, a bargain is struck: Persephone will spend six months on Earth with her mother, the other as Hades’ bride and the Queen of Hell.[24][open endnotes in new window]

The film initially presents Ripley asleep and adrift, along with the cat Jonesy, in her shuttle, as a kind of Persephone: the daughter caught between worlds, floating throughout space for over fifty years by the time that the Company discovers the drifting craft. Wiping off the glittering frost that has accumulated on the hypersleep pod, one of the salvage team workers reveals the still pristine, slumbering bodies of woman and feline, glimmering in the dark. In an extraordinary effect that textualizes the mythic underpinnings of the film, Ripley transforms from Sleeping Beauty to the figure of the Great Mother. The close-up of Ripley’s sleeping face dissolves into a close-up of the Earth itself, to which she is returned. As her visage dissolves into the verdant face of the planet, Ripley transforms into Demeter, the goddess of the Earth. If Persephone in her guises as maiden and queen signify the duality of feminine subjectivity, the wandering of grieving Demeter connotes female loss and anger. Ripley transforms from the Persephone-like Sleeping Beauty into the wandering Demeter, adrift in space for decades, who now rejoins with the planetary form with which she identifies.

The strange effect of this transformation as it is engineered, however, is to suggest, with great brevity that her flesh necrotizes in the process, becoming old and haggard and finally skeletal, before it merges with green continental expanses and swirling blue seas. The sudden suggestions of advanced age startlingly echo of the portions of the Demeter-Persephone myth in which grieving, wandering Demeter dons the guise of an old woman and takes momentary shelter in this form with a human family, whose son she cares for (and attempts to turn into a god before his mother accidentally interrupts the process). Ripley as Earth-mother is both life-giving matrix and global force of decay and death.

Interestingly, Ripley never actually makes it back to Earth soil in this or any of the four films; here, she is on an adjacent Earth space station. In a striking scene on the space station that was cut from the theatrical release, much to Sigourney Weaver’s chagrin (the actor claimed that she had based her entire performance on it), but restored to the director-approved Special Edition DVD, Ripley discovers the fate of her daughter, who has already died at the age of 66. As Burke (Paul Reiser), the initially sympathetic but ultimately duplicitous and murderous Company man who brings Ripley back to the Alien home world, hands her a photo of her daughter, Ripley looks at a photo of a woman verging on old age, much older than herself, but also smiling, peaceful, happy. “Amy,” Ripley says, with sad amazement. The daughter and the mother have switched temporal places: the aged daughter looks back at the young mother, in a dazzlingly eerie moment. (The woman in the photograph is Weaver’s own mother, deepening the resonances of the scene.) This theme of women looking at each other across a divide will saturate the film, an exchange of looks that will be used to negotiate a wide range of responses and tensions. The chief work of the film will be to restore a daughter to Ripley, in the person of Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who is the only survivor of the mining colony besieged and colonized by the Aliens. The tense, chaotic action of this ur-action film narrows into a battle between Ripley and the looming, seething, monstrous Alien Queen over this child.

The militaristic aspect of the film comes in the form of the Colonial Marines with whom Ripley and Burke, as well as the droid Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a new “synthetic,” travel to LV426, the alien planet from the first film on which the Company has now established a terra-forming community of workers and their families. The gender-norming of the Alien story emerges from the emphasis on family in the film, with Ripley, the 70s career woman who eschews romance and family, now installed as family’s arch-protector. Critics have been frustrated especially by these aspects of the film. Constance Penley, articulating general views, writes:

“Ripley is, again, the bravest and smartest member of the team. But this time there is a difference, one that is both improbable and symptomatic. Ripley ‘develops’ a maternal instinct… Ripley is thus marked by a difference that is automatically taken to be a sign of femininity."

(We do not see Hicks, for example—played by Michael Biehn, who was Kyle Reese in The Terminator—acting irrationally in order to rescue a child who is probably already dead.) Aliens reintroduces the issue of sexual difference,” Penley argues, to offer a “conservative lesson about maternity”: “mothers will be mothers, and they will always be women.”[25]

While its ideologically adamant maneuvers seem to cast the film in the mode of the reactionary revenge-flick/imperialist war fantasy (Cameron did after all write the script for the second Rambo film, from 1985), one that upholds Reagan-era family values with regressive returns to a domestic model of femininity, there is another way in which the film transcends all of these associations in its development of a counter-narrative with both feminist and queer resonances. This counter-narrative stems not only from a reimagining of the Demeter-Persephone myth but from the ways in which the myth is redeployed to emphasize ties that are non-biological. The little girl Newt is someone else’s daughter; Ripley is someone else’s mother. The bond they form is an emotional solidarity developed out of mutual respect as well as situational demands. Their bond is also an ironic joke, one played on the military force so brazenly, foolishly confident at the start of the film: if women and children are normally to be saved first, in this film it is the woman and child who do the saving.

The non-biological nature of the mother-daughter bond here lends itself to queer interpretations of the film. While the later films have more commonly been read in queer terms, Aliens has no less suggestive queer resonances.[26] In addition to the non-biological mother-daughter bond, the retooled android of the film, Bishop, sweet of soul where Ash was sinister, importantly adds to the creation of a non-normative family structure. Characters such as the tough female soldier Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and the surprisingly gentle Hicks also disrupt gender-normative typing.

As Catherine Constable argues, the

“presentation of Ripley and Newt as an image of generational continuity enables the pair to function as a trope for the entire human species.”[27]

In this essay, Constable makes different uses of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, offering points of disagreement with Barbara Creed’s influential Kristevan reading of the film.

“Creed borrows from Kristeva in arguing that the threat posed by the horror film is that of the dissolution of the subject. The representation of the figure of the mother is the return of that which has to be rejected and suppressed in order for the subject to exist at all.”

As Constable continues,

“Creed’s account of the abjection of the maternal figure is problematic, however, in that she fails to trace it back to the child’s development and therefore to comment on the mother’s relation to matter. …. Kristeva’s account of the processes of abjection links the maternal body to physical matter in two ways. First, the child establishes a bodily contour through acts of expulsion, which form that which is to be considered ‘outside’ the boundary, typically the mother’s body and dead matter. Second, the bodily division between inside and outside sets up the skin as a container which holds in the palpable stuff of physicality like muscles and blood. …. For Kristeva, the reemergence of the maternal ‘inside’ is horrific rather than uncanny because the processes of abjection involve expulsion and ultimately suppression.”[28]

Where Constable disagrees with Creed is in her lack of attention to the issue of matter and the materiality of the body in Kristeva. My disagreement with Creed’s theory of the monstrous-feminine in film is that she views the cinematic figure of the archaic mother as unremittingly negative and phobic, as forever the devouring, voracious maw of misogynistic womb-dread. The archaic mother is not only present in the figure of the terrible, endlessly menacing Alien Queen. The archaic mother is also there in the symbolic presence of Demeter, present here in the reimagined figure of Ripley, just as it will be in the vast, looming, overarching, shimmering, golden-green mother-tree-goddess of Avatar, an astonishingly softheaded film in which the most resonant aspect is its ardent depiction of a fervent desire to return to the mother. Indeed, Avatar's view of patriarchy, figured in infernal war machines, homicidal honchos, and military might, is so garishly negative as to be a desire for the eradication of masculinity altogether (which may account for the amazingly desexualized, androgynous depiction of blue-giant Avatar males).

Creed leaves Demeter out of her study, focusing instead on the archaic mother

“present in all horror films as the blackness of extinction—death.”[29]

But the cinematic representation of the archaic mother, as the example of Ripley as Demeter demonstrates, can have other properties as well. As a symbol of the human species and intergenerational continuity, the image of Ripley and Newt is constantly reformulated throughout the film:

  • Ripley and Newt looking out into the uncertain darkness after the shuttle that will rescue them crashes, their growing bond their only certainty;
  • Ripley carrying Newt to her bed, sitting on the bed as Newt lies down;
  • Ripley carrying Newt as she rescues her from the adhesive prison of her cocooning, the Face-Hugger parasite, and the lair of the Queen;
  • Ripley holding Newt on the shuttle after they’ve escaped, looking at the girl as Newt says “I knew you’d come,” and kissing her;
  • Ripley putting Newt to bed, telling her that now they can both dream.

Such acts stand in not just for mothers and daughters but for all human beings. Given that the image of humankind that hegemonic culture puts forth is either that of the heterosexual couple, the eternal Adam and Eve, or the Michelangelo image of a muscular yet languorously, softly sensual Adam reaching his hand out to the white-haired patriarchal God who also reaches out to him, this image of woman and girl as index of humanity is a radical one, especially in the frequent image of Ripley holding Newt. The implications of this image are rich and central to the claims of this essay.

The image of woman holding child evokes the Madonna and Christ-Child as well the Pietà, Michelangelo's 1499 sculpture that depicts the Virgin Mother holding her dead son, the crucified Jesus. It evokes birth and death, nurture and obliquity, love and loss. Aliens deploys the Christian-mythic qualities of the mother-son image in generalized ways that exceed its historical and cultural precedents. It cross-fertilizes the Christian precedents with Greek myth, which is to say it reminds us of the ways in which the Christian image is saturated with Greek myth. It takes these interfused traditions to a new cinematic mythmaking level that secularizes, universalizes, but also denatures the mother-child relationship. For Ripley is not just saving the daughter but also the son, not shown but suggested through the associations called up by the mother-child image. Moreover, Ripley is not just saving the daughter but also herself. To do all of this, she must confront a monster who is a distorted, fun-house mirror version of herself, through the device of an imperiled child. In other words, the rescue of the child is the means whereby Ripley enacts a confrontation with an opponent who contains knowledge of and who synthesizes disturbances within her own psychic life.

Running throughout the Alien films is what I have called the endless primal scene, complexly conveyed by signifiers of adult sexuality and a child’s horrified, fascinated experience of them. Certainly the various Medusan motifs of the titular monsters convey the sense of the horror of adult sexuality. Certainly the Alien Queen, with her grotesquely distended egg-laying sac and web of ensnaring, inescapable adhesive fluids, registers Freudian fears of the “terrifying genitals” of the Medusan mother. The extended, multi-pronged crest of her head suggests Medusa’s wildly extending snaky locks. [30] In the confrontation between Ripley and the Queen, Ripley is once again Persephone but this time confronting a terrible chthonic mother figure rather than the king of hell. At the same time, Ripley as Demeter confronts a gender-bent queen of hell. This dizzying collapse of mythic referents and gender signifiers all occurs within a scene of female-female struggle. (While male-typed Alien warrior-sentries do appear in the scene, their role is entirely secondary to it; like worker bees or ants, they exist only to protect the Queen.) The scene then, metonymic of the film as a whole, reimagines all human conflict—desire, nostalgia for origins, fear of the Other, war—within the figure of the feminine. The feminine becomes the organizing principle of human life, its logic, its character, its face. The markers of masculinity, huge phallic guns so huge they must be slung over the body, are decorative touches that adorn femininity, the female inverse of fillets, feminine laurel leaves that adorn the celebrated male athletes of the classical world.[31]

If the Alien Queen is the Bettelheim figure of the ugly, evil stepmother who embodies all of the negative qualities the child cannot acknowledge in his or her mother, or Jung’s Terrible Mother as opposed to Ripley’s Good Mother, she also represents, in more recent psychoanalytic terms, the mother of judgment, the mother who loathes, who shames the child by regarding it with contempt. The shaming mother’s eyes are conduits of shame, transferring this affect from mother to child. The seething Alien Queen regards Ripley and Newt with the most murderous contempt imaginable. Her heavy breathing and hissing convey a sense of indescribable hate at the very sight of this human pair. Fascinatingly, the Aliens appear to be eyeless; it’s never made clear how they see (they may “see” through smell). The eyeless Queen who regards Ripley and Newt with such seething contempt is a kind of mirror image of the shaming mother who sees nothing good in the child, whose eyes impart shame. Her eyelessness signifies not a lack of seeing but a seeing that is so total in its contempt and rage that it obliterates itself, just as the Queen threatens to obliterate what it sees before it.[32]

What gives this entire spectacle of shaming its radical charge is the queer typing of Ripley as mother. With her short hair and male garb, Ripley combines the masculine and the feminine. With her casual indifference to heterosexual sex, despite some no-sweat flirtation with Hicks, she suggests the possibility of different sexual needs. With her adoption of a child, she suggests the lesbian mother who thinks outside the normative procreational box. The Alien Queen’s vicious contempt conveys the charge of an old, customary inability to recognize the beauty and heroism in queer love of the kind Ripley and Newt embody. Read as a queer allegory, Ripley, Newt, the reintegrated android Bishop, and the wounded, vulnerable, and bed-ridden Hicks together constitute the new queer family; the Alien Queen, a repository of old modes of contempt and hate.

Along these lines, it is no accident at all that the Queen so decisively violates and attempts to destroy Bishop. The queer male cyborg figure is no less the target of the Queen’s annihilating campaign than queer woman and child. Milky android fluid bursts out of his mouth, gushing out in torrents, as the Alien Queen pierces his body in mid-torso with her long, immensely powerful phallic tail and rips him in two. Bishop, the cyborg retooled as queer suffering body, is an example of a resistant masculinity devoid of any obvious sexual desire. Such figures suggest queer sexuality in films and television series in that their refusal of the normative codes of masculinity suggests an alternative to them. As with Ash, but much more pitiably, the white blood that drenches Bishop suggests both mother’s milk and semen. But in a radical decontextualization, semen here, as it almost never does in film (and the substance would go on to make quite a visible mark on subsequent films ranging from The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, to There’s Something About Mary, to the numerous American Pie films and beyond), suggests the vulnerability of male bodies, their susceptibility to violation, rather than unseemly urges (Silence and serial killer Multiple Miggs, who vilely flings his ejaculate at the heroine) or comic, embarrassing waste (gross-out comedies).

Bishop suggests an obscene parody of an infant being nursed, burping up and dribbling milk. More perversely still, his predicament suggests a blowjob gone disastrously awry, a poignant reinterpretation of Parker’s death by oral penetration in Alien. Bishop is thus linked to Ripley as a genderbending figure, marked with traditional signs of femininity (milk, the nurture of infants) just as she is marked by those of masculinity, never more dramatically than when she dons the obdurate metal flesh of the power-loader to defeat the Queen. Critics have traditionally read in derisive terms the family structure successfully created by the end of the film—Ripley mommy, Hicks daddy, Newt child, Bishop nanny. But from another perspective this is also a radical queer family, one that puts the normative father to bed, one with two queer parents, a feminized male and a woman who accesses female masculinity as well as feminine tenderness. The gentle military leader Hicks and the initially abrasive and ultimately courageous and heroic Latina-lesbian Vasquez also defy gendered and cultural expectations. Moreover, the horribly split-bodied Bishop nevertheless heroically saves Newt as well as himself when the air whooshing out through the ship’s opened doors during Ripley’s battle with the Queen threatens to carry all survivors out into space.

The physical and emotional transformations endemic to the genre of the woman’s film, in all of its genre permutations (melodrama, horror, science fiction, revenge flick, romantic comedy), make a particularly important contribution to the power of the Alien films generally, the second film specifically. Ripley’s transformations on a physical level signify those happening on an emotional one. When we first see her, her long hair suggests Sleeping Beauty, Snow White (which she is called, derisively, by Vasquez), and other fairy-tale heroines. Her textual transmogrification into the Earth goddess Demeter, through the dissolve of her face into the Earth, prepares us for her role as a mother, symbolic in the theatrical cut, literal in the full version of the film. She still has long hair during her meeting with the Company executives who accuse her of malfeasance in the blowing up of the Nostromo in the first film. Here, her long but unglamorously made-up hair as well as somewhat antiseptic, corporate, bland outfit, particularly as Ripley is shown standing juxtaposed against scrolling images of the other characters from the first Alien, with their period looks, suggests a continuation of seventies feminism, in that the naturally beautiful Ripley seems to eschew allegiance to traditional feminine beauty culture. (The tough, butch woman in a suit who grills Ripley at this tribunal reads, in phobic terms, as an ERA-activist 70s lesbian.) Yet her cutting of her hair in the next scene—not that we see her cutting it, only that it has been cut—is a different kind of gender statement. Her short hair masculinizes her, but it also, in the way that it’s styled, updates her, shows us that she is now a woman of contemporary time, not a relic of another era. Her masculinized hair announces that she is a woman ready for action, a female Achilles who initially balks at fighting but, once engaged in it, fights valiantly and violently.

Ripley’s transformations combine radicalism and reaction here. Obviously, the fetishization of militarism and gun culture in this film connote the latter, as does the mommification of the character. (It’s disheartening indeed to see that, even for prominent critics like Henry Jenkins, it is precisely this fetishized militarism that endures as the chief cultural investment of the film, with its afterlife in video games.[33] And despite the ardent maternalism and anti-masculinity of Avatar, it is also fully and dizzyingly a sustained fetishistic investment in this militarism: Dances with Flying Tanks.)

Yet, as we have seen, this latter quality is also subjected to numerous qualifications throughout the film, which leads to a disparate set of associations audience members can have to Ripley as mother. For perhaps the most radical dimension of the film is the ways in which it allows us to think of Ripley in her relation to Newt not as mother but simply as fellow human being, linked to another by affection, respect, and peril. The mother-child bond is a major cultural signifier that is imposed upon this pair of women warriors, by the film at times (“Mommy,” Newt says to victorious but spent Ripley after she has dispatched the Alien Queen) but also by the culture in which the film emerged. In other words, the mother-child bond is yet another normative narrative that female transformation resists even as it accommodates. The female relationships and female identities in this and the other films, undergoing constant resignifications, suggest transformational new meanings that exceed and continue to have a life beyond the textual and referential spaces of the films.

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