copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Demeter and Persephone in space:
transformation, femininity, and myth in the Alien films
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,
“The melodrama is…first a drama of identity. A woman (or a woman’s point of view) dominates the narrative of the family melodrama because individual identity within the patriarchal context—always defined by a masculine standard—is problematic for women. The dominant ideology asserts that, whether or not a woman is at the center of narrative, what is at stake in the melodrama will be a question of identity—of a failure to be masculine, or of a failure to accept the repressive, subjectivity-denying strictures of patriarchal femininity. Patriarchy, it should be reiterated, understands femininity as a failure to be masculine. Feminine subjectivity is an impossibility according to the logic of patriarchy, which defines it, with an inevitably negative connotation, as ‘not-male.’ We might think of ‘true’ feminine subjectivity—on its own terms, not defined negatively—as being a possibility that is still evolving. …. The family melodrama is a genre that addresses this problem. In the family melodrama the villain changes over time, but in one way or another the villain is some aspect of the patriarchy.”[open endnotes in new window]
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.”)
Alien’s radical contribution to these established woman’s film patterns is its suggestion that the woman’s intransigent refusal of the marriage plot not only does have an impact on but also has profound consequences for the social order, which cannot function without her acquiescence to it. Ripley’s general lack of interest in heterosexual romance, despite some vague suggestions here and there; the ways she eschews conventional femininity—refusing to allow the grievously injured Kane onboard; her lack of connection to the only other female crew member, Lambert, who physically and verbally rails against her for decision not to admit Kane—all these take an obvious toll on this shipboard world, an extension of the patriarchal-world order of the sinister corporation Weyland-Yutani, often referred to as the Company. The entire film then functions as a metaphor for her lack of conventional womanly virtues and her indifference to the marriage plot. To be sure, it would appear that the tremendous, decades-spanning appeal the heroine has had must to some degree lie in these deviations from conventional femininity on the part of the epic’s heroine. Yet Alien is a vast contraption for the exposure of the disastrous effects of lawless, unlicensed femininity. Everything in the film metaphorically relates to gender-renegade Ripley’s problematic femininity, albeit in an ironic, parodistic relation. And in this regard, not only the heroine’s uneasy relationship to heterosexuality but also and perhaps most importantly to the maternal are crucial.
If considered as an allegory of the singular woman and her threat, the film offers a dazzling array of symbols, themes, characters, and obsessions that deepen its allegorical work. The birth imagery and the yonic symbols put into play obvious associations of femininity with the maternal and with passive or in this case ominous (potentially engulfing and/or devouring) vaginal sexuality. The eggs in particular—both in their limitless number and in the diminutive yet deadly phallic threat they contain‚—connote female sexuality and life-giving power as disturbing and menacing, synonymous with violation and death. The eggs, independent of the female body and autonomous, abstract the idea of female reproductivity, serving as an allegory for the uniquely female ability to bear children that stands in sharp contrast to the heroine’s decidedly non-maternal stance for much of the film. (It is only later that she is more typically typed as maternal in her worried search for and tender embraces of Jonesy.) Kane’s monstrous birthing of the Alien is the screen’s most emphatic, violent parody of female birth. To lift from Virginia Woolf,
“it [is] birth the wrong way round—a monstrous inversion.”
The implication—again, a parodistic one—is that with women refusing to bear children, men must now take up this burden, against their will and with horrific results, spawning murderous monsters.
While there are many different thematic levels for interpretive engagement with the android/cyborg figure—here called a robot—the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), his robot identity unbeknownst to the crew for most of the film, provides another and the most perverse allegorical parody of motherhood and of Ripley’s non-mother role. In one scene, Parker (the great Yaphet Kotto) and Lambert come to Ripley’s aid as Ash, exposed as a traitor to the crew (a typical movie role, usually played by a foreigner, here by a British actor, Ian Holm), wildly attacks Ripley. Parker ends up clobbering Ash in the head, which flies off, revealing his robot identity. As jets of viscous white fluid shoot out of his orifice-neck, drenching the other crew members, and his body twitches and flails uncontrollably, his spasmodic bodily movements exactly double Kane’s in death, as if Ash himself were delivering another Alien offspring. The robot at once mimes the mother in childbirth and the lactating, nursing mother. In another of the film’s characteristic collapses of gendered referents, the streaming milky fluid suggests both milk and semen, mother and masculinity, in a grotesquely denatured manner that sends up both identity categories. Decapitated, Ash now stands in for the woman’s subject position in culture as Hélène Cixous formulated it, symbolically decapitated, denied mind and voice. Prostrate, his innards being manipulated so that he can be reactivated (“Maybe he knows how to kill it,” Ripley instructs), Ash is the corpse-as-mother’s-body, in a way that corresponds to the Kristevan theory of abjection so critically redeployed in Barbara Creed’s work. In the form of Ash, the materiality of the mother’s body, rendered starkly visible through hideous dismemberment, provides a sharp contrast to the physical integrity of the human beings who gape at it. Ash’s revealed organs most closely resemble ovaries, calling up the “science of woman” of Victorian gynecology and collapsing the sinister foreign male, the cyborg-Other’s, and the woman’s/mother’s bodies, again in a parodistic manner.
Ash is a type of the “effete Englishman” in U.S. culture. The satirical regard for the figure, generally an implicit one in popular culture, has been increasingly visible in the past two decades, Witness, for example, the backlash against Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard as a tea-drinking effete who doesn’t go on away missions as opposed to the apparently more masculine Trek Captain, William Shatner’s James T. Kirk; the aged English queens played by Brit-stalwarts such as Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters, 1998) and Nigel Hawthorne (The Object of My Affections, 1991); or Giles and especially Wesley of Buffy fame. Ripley’s increasingly heated opposition to and increasingly violent conflict with the English Ash has suggestive implications not only for this film but for the others that follow. In the United States, English and European masculinities have historically been associated with European “decadence,” artificiality, and effeminacy in contrast to the sturdy, manly “authenticity” of U.S. manhood. Though only intelligible within an U.S. context, the construction of English/European manhood as both effeminate and artificial finds a significant embodiment in Ash. Associated with the technology of the ship and revealed as an android, Ash is an artificial being, not “authentic.” Though what has called “effeminophobia” cannot be equated, exactly, with homophobia, the opprobrium incurred by those who falter in their performance of gender identity is certainly linked to homophobia. In homophobic terms, of course, Ash’s secretiveness and spying also suggest a sinister queerness with closeted, clandestine behaviors. Moreover, his close relationship to Mother, the onboard computer, connects him with cinematic images, like those in classical psychoanalysis, of the homosexual male who is too closely linked to his mother, Psycho’s Norman Bates being an obvious example.
Readings of the cyborg as a metaphor for queer sexuality deepen as they intersect with queer-British-male typing. Ripley’s confrontation with Ash—a non-normative male figure whose queer sexuality is overdetermined by his associations with Englishness, foreignness, blended genital markers, and his cyborg identity—prefigures her climactic confrontation with the genderbending figure of the Newborn in the final Ripley film, Alien Resurrection. The Newborn looks like a hybrid human-alien monster typed as male yet who has breasts and other physical indicators of the feminine gender. Indeed, in all of these regards, Ash doubles Kane and vice versa, reinforcing the complex threats emanating from and directed at each character.
Kane is no less a problematic figure than Ash in the suggestive queer resonances of his characterization. As Robin Wood, who viewed Alien as one of the chief examples of a slew of reactionary horror films of its era, wrote:
“The sexuality so rigorously repressed in the film returns … in its monster …. At first associated with femaleness (it begins as an egg in a vast womb), it attaches itself to the most “feminine” of the crew’s males (John Hurt, most famous for his portrayal of Quentin Crisp) and enters him through the mouth as a preliminary to being “born” out of his stomach. …. As a composite image of archetypal sexual dreads it could scarcely be bettered: the monstrous phallus combined with the vagina dentata.”
Numerous points are worth mentioning here. At this stage in an iconic film’s history, re-released theatrically in 2003 in a new Director’s Cut, the subsequent roles the actors play add to and deepen connections current audiences make between the actors and what their screen presence signifies. Hurt’s performances as gay men beyond the 1975 Quentin Crisp-The Naked Civil Servant television film (to say nothing of his sexually and morally depraved Caligula in the 1976 miniseries I, Claudius) in such films as Partners (1982) and Love and Death on Long Island (1997) enhance his profile as a queer screen presence, in both phobic and progressive ways. Both Kane and Ash reinforce and double the threatening queer presence of the Alien, while also, especially in Kane’s case but also in the sinister yet also physically mutilated Ash’s, suggesting a somatic and emotional vulnerability unusual for U.S. cinematic males generally.
The film's endless doubling and refraction extends to each of the characters, all of whom embody or give vent to some gathering, indefinable, yet palpable frustration with Ripley’s enigmatic sexuality. Ripley herself, as Sigourney Weaver so tautly and thoughtfully plays her in the most sustained female performance in film, blends the masculine and the feminine, especially here where she is as mannish in manner as she is at key points conventionally feminine. Dallas, while in the traditional leading man role, is pointedly indifferent to her sexual charms. Kane and Ash are too preoccupied with their discrete fixations on the Alien to pay her much mind. Evoking the famous Fiedlerian view of a mythic male bonding that allows males to escape “the gentle tyranny of home and woman,” Parker and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), in their jokey bonding and cheerfully derisive manner towards Ripley, together embody the homosocial of U.S. culture with male bonds that eschew women. (Parker does get in a wry joke about cunnilingus at the dinner table scene right before Kane gives birth to the Alien, but pointedly it is Lambert who gets the joke, registering simultaneous offense and amusement at it.)
Lambert is Ripley’s double through negation. Whereas Ripley, for the most part, maintains a cool lock-down on her emotions (though one increasingly thawed by the ever-more heated course of events), Lambert, in Veronica Cartwright’s extraordinarily vivid performance, emotes prodigiously, pouring out torrents of tears, finally moaning with an infant piteousness. She ironizes Ripley’s stalwart toughness through these spectacular emotional pyrotechnics, challenging and undermining Ripley’s resolve. Moreover, as noted, Lambert directly retaliates against Ripley in a scene restored to the film in the Director’s Cut, in which she yells at and strikes Ripley for having refused to let the away team back into the ship once Kane has been incapacitated by the parasite. Still, it is the male characters, not Lambert, who cause Ripley to lose her cool. After Dallas has been killed and Ripley and Lambert, Parker, and Ash have a tense powwow to determine their next course of action, Ripley, now in command, is noticeably contained and rationalistic as she refutes Lambert’s hysterical and angry pleas to blow up the ship (which Ripley will eventually do). It is when Parker appears to be defying her orders that she blows her stack, and it is when Ash exasperatingly announces that he is still “collating” a response to the Alien threat that she appears to be momentarily at an appalled loss for words. But she quickly regains her composure, telling Ash, “Just keep doing what you have been doing—nothing.” With all of these characters holding Ripley in counterbalance, each suggests some kind of tension in her psyche or some aspect of her presence that provokes the film's own anxieties, responses transmuted into disturbing cinematic stylistics.
This film’s complex engagements with anxieties over gendered, sexual, and racial identity would appear to be synthesized within the controlling metaphor of the Alien. Throughout the years the Alien has been interpreted in numerous ways as the central metaphorical monster of the films. But I would argue that the Alien is the showier, more-attention-getting of two monsters diegetically present in Alien, the other being “Mother,” the onboard ship computer. While Mother-issues are symbolically conveyed by its elaborate aesthetic design, the film also makes Mother into an onscreen presence, albeit in an abstracted form. In her confrontation with Mother, one that parallels that with the Alien, Ripley emerges as the ambivalent daughter whose love-hate ambivalence deepens into pure, unadulterated hate. In this regard, she is a hostile Persephone to a chilly Demeter who maintains an attitude of clinical indifference to her daughter’s plight.
In the Greek myth, vernal Earth goddess Demeter casts the world into a wintry despair that symbolizes her grief over the abduction of her daughter; in Alien, the mother is always already stone-cold and detached from her daughter’s fate. Recalling that Freud theorized, in his 1931 essay “Female Sexuality,” that a woman’s relationship to her husband will reawaken her pre-oedipal relationship to her mother—that indeed, it is only a reflection of that far more profoundly significant relation—the Alien and the death-battle Ripley wages against it themselves come to seem offshoots of the greater and even deadlier conflict between mother and daughter.
Access to Mother, the onboard ship-computer, is initially the privilege of only Dallas and of science officer Ash. After Dallas dies, Ripley announces to Ash, “I have access to Mother now.” This access, however, leads only to grim knowledge, as Ripley learns of the Company’s special directive that the Nostromo make the capture of Alien specimen—to be used for their bio-weapons-program—their top priority, and that the “crew is expendable.” Learning this leads Ripley to weep for the first time and then to lash out angrily at Ash. This pattern corresponds to the one Freud laid out. Behind the husband-figure (Dallas) lies the Mother and the conflict and loss inherent in the mother-daughter bond. This pattern only intensifies as Ripley, to destroy the Alien, programs the ship to self-destruct. Mother not only fails to assist Ripley in destroying the Alien, whom she cannot elude, but she also fails to protect her daughter. Desperately fleeing from the Alien’s clutches, Ripley runs back to Mother, trying to circumvent the self-destruct sequence. She fails to stop it within only a second or two. “Mother,” Ripley pleads, “I stopped the self-destruct sequence!” Mother’s response is stonily indifferent: she announces that the self-destruction of the ship will occur in five minutes. “Mother!” Ripley cries, in an Achilles-like fury. “You bitch!” At this, she rails her gun upon a computer console—Mother’s extruded cyber-flesh—smashing it to smithereens. Who is Ripley’s greater foe—the Alien or the unyielding, pitiless Mother?
Adding to the typing of Ripley as daughter is the scene in which she hears, from a remote distance on an intercom, the cries of suffering from Parker and Lambert as they are annihilated by the Alien. These cries, particularly Lambert’s, are weirdly erotic in tone, sounding just as much like sexual intercourse as murder. (In Lambert’s case, they also sound like infant cries.) Ripley’s detached but fixated aural position to these cries places her, from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory, in the position of the child who witnesses, in this case through sound rather than sight, the primal scene and it attendant terrors. We see, in a series of extraordinary shots, the Alien killing first Parker, then Lambert. When Lambert is killed (second), we see the Alien’s long, dark, phallic tail insinuatingly reaching between Lambert’s legs, a clear rape metaphor.
If anything, the killing of Parker is even more disorientingly eroticized. As the large, physically strong, courageous Parker is held against his will by the looming, infinitely stronger, implacable Alien, he resembles a child himself in an adult’s grasp, the infant about to be fed, albeit an infant desperately resisting a feeding that makes the infant the meal. As the Alien hypnotically opens its jaws, transparent fluid streams from its metallic, murderous mouth in another horrifying parody of both the nursing mother and the slavering sexually ravenous male. When the Alien’s phallic, protuberant inner jaw shoots out into Parker’s flesh, a specific echo of Kane’s violation, the image reinforces the film’s unusually obsessed interest in the violation of males,and also, more distantly, its evocation of another key Melvillean theme, male susceptibility to shipboard rape. Few films have more vividly thematized and visually allegorized male-male sexual penetration and the varieties of male-male rape. The Alien’s penetration of Parker fuses oral sex-as-rape with anal rape, fellatio and sodomy, both figured as violent violations of one male by another, as well as the vagina dentata, phobic symbol of woman’s sexuality as monstrously phallic. It is a welter of provocative images that will be reworked, in his intertextual manner, by James Cameron in his sequel to Scott’s film.
Racing to aid her doomed colleagues, Ripley discovers their mangled, bloody bodies, hanging like meat in an abattoir. The strong suggestion is that sexual intercourse of any kind—given the sexualized imagery of both the murder of Parker and of Lambert—is pernicious and deadly. When on the shuttle, having abandoned ship with the only other survivor, Jonesy the cat, Ripley defiantly whispers, “I got you. You son of a bitch, I got you.” These lines are deeply telling. The Alien truly is son to the Mother whom Ripley has denounced as “Bitch.” In league with the Mother’s incalcitrant reign, the Alien is both the phallic son whose privileged gendered identity leads him towards social triumph in the master narrative of psychoanalysis and the inescapable suitor whose erotic machinations finally ensnare the woman despite her constant deferrals of his offers. Yet the film strikes out most decisively for an intransigent feminism in its depiction of the woman’s retaliation against this suitor, one the heroine finally does manage to elude. Though terrified, the vulnerably undressed Ripley slips into a spacesuit and spearguns the Alien out of the airlock.
Ripley’s dishabille in this climax has been highly controversial throughout the critical history of the film, the common reading being that the film misogynistically objectifies its daring heroine. While acknowledging that having the strong, pragmatic Ripley stripping down to a T-shirt and underwear has clear sexist overtones, in that her intelligence is compromised in her conversion into sexual display, I believe that this moment is also complexly affecting and resonant in ways that have rarely been acknowledged—which is to say, sexism may not be the only thing at work here. Shorn of her protective gear, Ripley physically assumes the symbolic role the film has placed her in, the child before bed, asking her Mother not to turn off the lights, i.e., blow up the ship. Beyond this, Ripley stands before us not just as erotic display but as corporeal, poignantly pliant human being, in stark contrast to the armored, phallic Alien whose acid bleed seethes and singes. In contrast to this beast of defensiveness, Ripley is like an Expressionist nude, vulnerable, human, defenseless.
In a stunning prefiguring of the onscreen transformations that will be so crucial to the later films, Ripley transforms in a flash into the tough female astronaut-cum-warrior when she discovers the Alien onboard the shuttle, crouching within the steel rods from which it is, in repose, indistinguishable. The Alien makes its presence known to Ripley by shooting out its arm at her, a gesture either absent or intentional. This is yet another metaphor of failed intimacy in the film, the failed embrace. Ripley slips into her spacesuit, plotting her strategy all the while, as the Alien, in flickering, strobe-lit, almost slow-motion footage, languorously, autoerotically flexes its limbs, slowing extending out its inner mouth, now covered with especially viscous white, semen/milk-like fluid, as it breathes heavily, yet another sexually suggestive effect. At this point, the Alien has come to signify solitary, masturbatory self-contentment, a scene of male sexual self-sufficiency and plenitude that mocks Ripley’s own putting her sexuality to sleep. Then again, this display also allows Ripley to access an unprecedented phallic power all of her own, as she successfully and literally smokes out the Alien and shoots him with her spear gun as he is sucked out into space. Access to phallic authority compensates for barred access to Mother. Having escaped the Mother who attempted not to engulf but destroy her—the ship self-destructs as Ripley detaches the shuttle from its “umbilicus” and races away to almost unreachable safe distance—Ripley now destroys the suitor who has extended Mother’s reign. The significance of Alien is its depiction of a Persephone at war with Demeter and the dark rapist/underworld King of Hell at once. This theme is a continuation of the central one of the classic Hollywood woman’s film, of the woman’s solitary independence as both pleasurable and a predicament with onerous consequences.
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.
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.”
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. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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:
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.  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.
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.
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. 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.
1. Robert Lang, American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989), 8. [return to text]
2. Robert Ray, in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, argues that several Hollywood films operate as “concealed Westerns” (70-89, especially). I would extend his theory to include the reappearance, in disguised, occluded, reupholstered, and otherwise transformed guises, of seemingly obsolete and discarded genres such as the woman’s film melodrama. The Alien films, among others, are all woman’s melodramas recombined with the forms of the suspense, horror, and sci-fi genres—genres with more commercial value and viability than the outmoded woman’s melodrama, which yet persists in transformed versions. See Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.
3. Peter Brooks writes of melodrama:
“The desire to express all seems a fundamental characteristic of the melodramatic mode. Nothing is spared because nothing is left unsaid; the characters stand on stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings… They assume primary psychic roles, father, mother, child, and express basic psychic conditions.”
Classic melodrama, he writes, opens with presentation of virtue and innocence, introduces “menace or evil, which places virtue in a situation of extreme peril,” and moves to a third act that is a “panoply of violent action which offers a highly physical ‘acting out’ of virtue’s liberation from the oppressive efforts of evil.” Clarice easily represents melodramatic virtue. “Virtue,” Brooks writes, “is almost inevitably represented by a young heroine.” See Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, and the Mode of Excess, 1976; New Haven: Yale UP, 1995, 4, 28-36.
4. In her lucid and comprehensive study of The Silence of the Lambs, Yvonne Tasker writes of the film as that rarity, the female rites of passage film.
“It is also very much a woman’s picture, in both that genre’s gothic and contemporary manifestations. …. The women’s films of the 1940s were organized around a clash, and typically a choice, between the protagonist’s career, or perhaps her independence, and the possibilities of romance. …. The woman’s film…should not be simply mapped onto either melodrama or the domestic. Yet in almost all its versions, the woman’s picture involves romance, something that The Silence of the Lambs seems to deliberately lay to one side.”
The family themes of Silence make it an example of that category of the woman’s film the melodrama, in my view, but it is important to note the capaciousness of the category of the woman’s film genre, as critics like Tasker remind us to do. The Alien films, much like Silence, reanimate woman’s films themes by intermixing them with those of other genres. Tasker, The Silence of the Lambs, London: British Film Institute, 2002, 23-4.
5. The woman’s film that most dramatically foregrounds transformation is Bette Davis classic Now, Voyager. Irving Rapper’s 1942 film, in which a frumpy, insecure New England spinster, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), tyrannized by her cold, domineering mother, transforms, with the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), into a strong, independent, attractive woman, foregrounds many of the issues that will circulate, in a horror genre reformulation, in the Alien films.
6. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life, New York: Norton, 1988, 48.
7. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), in Feminist Literary Theory, ed. Mary Eagleton, New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987, 22-28
8. I refer to the European suitors of U.S. women in such films as Now, Voyager (1942) and Summertime (1955).
9. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 1991, 106. Zizek builds upon Raymond Bellour’s famous discussion of oedipal politics in Hitchcock. In his analysis of The Birds, Bellour focuses more specifically on the heterosexual couple’s formation, a construction that is for him the telos of the Hitchcock film generally; see Bellour, The Analysis of Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Zizek’s emphasis, though, is on the oedipal family, specifically on the “maternal superego” of Lydia Brenner, played by Jessica Tandy in the film and another in the long line of Hitchcock’s controlling, neurotic mother figures. Yet this film, perhaps the first in Hitchcock’s canon to do so, effects a kind of healing reconciliation between the mother and the symbolic daughter (Tippi Hedren’s initially vain and shallow, finally ennobled and shattered Melanie Daniels).
10. Creed, Barbara. 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.
11. Thomas Doherty describes the art direction in the Alien films, as “abstract genital,” simultaneously “penile and uterine,” in his essay “Genre, Gender, and the Aliens Trilogy,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, Austin: Texas University Press, 1996, 181-200, quotes from page 196.
12. I am quoting from the scene in Woolf’s novel Between the Acts in which Giles spots a snake trying to eat a frog:
“…couched in the grass, curled in an olive ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round—a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, he stamped on them…it was action. Action relieved him.”
See Woolf, Between the Acts, 1941; New York: HBJ, 1969, 99.
13. Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Scheifler, 1976; New York: Longman, 1989.
14. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press. 1982.
15. For a more expansive examination of American constructions of Europeans as decadent, see my book Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, particularly chapter two.
16. See, for example, Niall Richardson, “Effeminophobia, Misogyny and Queer Friendship: The Cultural Themes of Channel 4's Playing It Straight,” Sexualities, Vol. 12, No. 4, 525-544 (2009). For a superb study of the development of queer and homophobic associations with effeminacy, see Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Moment, New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
17. Many discussions of the cyborg as queer allegory have been conducted in the wake of Donna J. Haraway’s pioneering Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1990. See, for example, Dennis Carlson “Gay, Queer, and Cyborg: the Performance of Identity in a Transglobal Age,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1469-3739, Volume 22, Issue 3, 2001, pp. 297–309. I have recently explored this theme in greater depth in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek: Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films (McFarland, 2009).
18. Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, 1984; Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996, 164-200, quotes from page 199.
19. See Fiedler, Love and Death, 179-214. Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Reprint, New York: Dell, 1966.
20. Freud, Sigmund, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21, trans. James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis,1993, 230-1. (Orig. pub. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.)
21. Caleb Crain discusses the critique of shipboard sodomy in Melville’s White-Jacket. “The act of [same-sex] sodomy implied coercion and submission” in the nineteenth-century; “it was undemocratic.” What bothers Melville about shipboard life is that
“there is no redress for male rape. …. The victim of male rape is somehow disqualified as a citizen; he is not acceptable as a plaintiff, and therefore justice is impossible. …. Like female victims of rape, these plaintiffs are blamed for the crime.”
See Crain, “Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville's Novels,” American Literature, vol. 66, no. 1, “New Melville,” Mar., 1994, pp. 25-53, quote from page 16.
22. Vivian Sobchack’s reading of this scene as a misogynistic reduction of smart, capable Ripley to sex object is a representative one; see her essay “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film,” collected in Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Annette Kuhn, London: Verso, 1990.
23. I refer to the metaphorical import of Ripley having put Jonesy—her pussycat—in his hypersleep chamber before discovering the Alien on the shuttle.
24. Different versions of the myth split up Persephone’s times on Earth and in hell differently; in the Homeric version, Persephone spends two-thirds of the year with her mother, one third with Hades.
25. See Penley, “Time Travel, Primal Scene, Critical Dystopia,” in Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, eds. Penley et al, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota UP, 1991, pp 63-83, quote from page 73.
26. See, for example, Amy Taubin’s brilliant essay “The Alien Trilogy” for her reading of Alien 3 as a queer allegory. “The Alien Trilogy from Feminism to AIDS,” Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, Philadelphia, Pa: Temple UP, 1993. 93-100.
27. Constable, “Becoming the Monster’s Mother: Morphologies of Identity in the Alien Series,” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Annette Kuhn, New York: Verso, 1999, 173-202, quote from page 186.
28. Ibid, 180-81.
29. Creed, Monstrous-Feminine, 28.
30. Freud’s essay “Medusa’s Head” is collected in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff, 1922; New York: Macmillan, 1963, 212-13.
31. The backstory of laurel leaves is itself a narrative of female sexual ambivalence and also a classical rape scene, albeit a foiled one. As the nymph Daphne desperately eludes the charging advances of the god Apollo, his own desire enflamed by Cupid’s arrow, she calls upon her father for help. She is turned into the laurel tree; Apollo then uses the leaves of the tree as a personal symbol. Though there are many ways to read this myth, I would argue that Apollo continues to exploit Daphne in another form, even if he fails to conquer her sexually.
32. As Mary Ayers writes about the role mother-infant attachment plays in shame,
“When the maternal intrapsychic conflicts that influence the mother-infant relationship become impingements that in turn become a pattern, the details of the way in which the impingement is sensed by the infant are significant, as well as the infant’s reaction to them.”
The ways in which a child can respond to such emotional abandonment are myriad, and gender and culture will shape the response. See Ayers, Mother-Infant Attachment and Psychoanalysis: The Eyes of Shame, New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003, 76-77.
33. Jenkins, in an article written with Matthew Weise, discusses the ways in which the video game Aliens Versus Predator 2 faithfully adapts Aliens by allowing a player to be one of the Colonial Marines. The legacy of the film, then, dishearteningly centers on its militarism rather than on its mythic, feminine themes. Matthew Weise and Henry Jenkins, “Short Controlled Bursts: Affect and Aliens,” Cinema Journal vol. 48, no. 3, Spring 2009, 111-116.
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