Battle of the Bitches: Gender and Duality in Ridley Scott’s Alien

Alien poster

VHS Revival explores the emergence of one of cinema’s most influential heroines.

Before Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley, mainstream heroines were a different breed entirely.

Sure, they were heroic in a more conventional way, but long before feminism became fashionable Ripley emerged from the shadow of her male (and robotic) counterparts by overcoming perhaps the fiercest creation in all of cinema. I’m talking, of course, about the Xenomorph, H.R. Giger’s monstrously phallic creation. This article’s title refers to Alien‘s marquee attraction as a Bitch, a name Ripley uses for the Xenomorph queen in James Cameron‘s high-octane sequel Aliens, a movie which played on the will of maternity, but the sex of the original Xenomorph is unclear, so for those of you with a proclivity for questioning the minor details, please allow me a moment to try to explain.

Technically, there are three types of xenomorph: the vaginal egg, the parasitic facehugger and the phallic beast referred to most commonly as the xenomorph or ‘drone’. Now, the alien books indicate that the drones are male, with the strongest fertilising the queen. If no queen is available they instead undergo a metamorphosis that results in a female form, making them quasi-androgynous. As for the movies, it is natural to assume that the queen is a female and the drones are males, but this is based on a reflection of humanity. In reality, when the queen reaches a certain age she produces eggs all by herself, which makes her a self-fertilising hermaphrodite, a fact that has been discussed by both director Ridley Scott and xenomorph creator, H.R. Giger. As for the Xenomorph drones, they can neither impregnate nor become impregnated, which fundamentally makes them genderless.

Xenomorph Ripley

It is perhaps fitting, then, that our heroine is kind of boyish, while also being distinctly feminine. She is attractive, but not in a conventional way. She is presented as more handsome than pretty, with an absence of nudity that belies the often salacious trends of the time. Yet Ripley has become a sexual icon amongst fans both male and female—not least for her exploits as a gay rights activist—and in a strange roundabout way she is almost the human equivalent of her alien nemesis. It is amazing that a series of movies can be discussed in terms that are almost academic, but that in itself is an indication of the impact that Ridley Scott’s space-bound horror has had on our culture at large. Beneath the visceral terror and psuedo-slasher formula it is a highly intelligent slice of filmmaking that would spawn a franchise that is still going strong today, leading to the kind of convoluted saga that only speaks to the creature’s capacity for depth and insight.

For fans of the franchise, many of those sequels and prequels have underwhelmed. The first of those, Aliens, is not one of them. In fact, for some it is one of the few sequels that is equal to or surpasses the original. That is a debate for another time, but each movie has its different strengths. For me, the first sequel’s only ‘weakness’ relates to the xenomorph itself. In Alien, the creature is presented as nigh-on indestructible, a fact that allows it the reputation of being one of the genre’s most fearsome creations. The second movie eschews this brand of visceral terror for balls-to-the-wall action, and a colony of easily bested xenomorphs serves to cheapen that reputation. Aliens is a wonderful movie in its own right and arguably the greatest sequel ever made. What it does instead is present us with a species which hunts in packs, that is willing to sacrifice itself for the greater good as it expands its collective knowledge of its prey. They are incredibly smart and ingenious in their approach. The horror may be diluted but in many ways the lore of the creature is strengthened.

Alien Ripley cat

Later instalments were received to varying degrees but they lacked the key element that made the original and its immediate successor so effective. The Alien concept is one that thrives on simplicity. Alien in particular achieved this by adding slasher elements to its brooding sci-fi mystery, presenting a tale in which the hunters inevitably become the hunted. When the crew of the Nostromo are alerted to a mysterious distress signal it is in their contract to go and investigate, a fact highlighted by studious science division representative Ash (Ian Holm), who seems almost compassionate when he overrules typical protocol to allow the contaminated Kane (John Hurt) back aboard the ship. Conversely, his most vocal detractor is Ripley, who is immediately attacked by the Nostromo’s only other female passenger, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and labelled a bitch for abandoning a fellow crew member. Lambert is the antithesis of Ripley: unrestrained and combative when defending the crew she is dependent upon but trembling and motionless when confronted by the movie’s colossal threat.

Ripley: Listen to me, if we break quarantine, we could all die.

Lambert: Look, could you open the god-damned hatch? We have to get him inside.

Ripley: No. I can’t do that and if you were in my position, you’d do the same.

Dallas: Ripley, this is an order. Open that hatch right now, do you hear me?

Ripley: Yes.

Dallas: Ripley. This is an order. Do you hear me?

Ripley: Yes. I read you. The answer is negative.

But like the xenomorph Ripley is merely exhibiting a survival instinct, one that is initially perceived as being just as ruthless. To begin with she is coldly pragmatic, compassionate enough to understand the disapproval of other crew members but cautious and inquisitive from thereon in. This is mostly influenced by her suspicions of quasi-humanitarian, Ash—still a human as far as the crew are aware, but someone who seems more concerned with preserving the parasitic entity that has smuggled itself aboard than he is maintaining the crew’s safety. Kane’s journey had led him through one of film’s most breathtaking and timeless set designs, one built very much in the guise of the Xenomorph. Even the darker realms of the Nostromo’s interior, those which seem detached from the almost celestial white of the film’s more tranquil moments, act as ideal camouflage for one of horror’s most effective hunters.

Alien Lambert

Like Halloween‘s Michael Myers, the xenomorph is expertly elusive, almost omnipotent. It stalks its prey with a quiet pragmatism, utilising the kind of intelligence that contradicts its monstrous appearance. When the crew of the Nostromo separate after tracking the tiny xeno that bursts from Kane’s chest in one of film’s most frightening and unexpected revelations—a scene that even the cast were unaware of until Lambert’s distraught pallor was splattered with a wave of startling crimson—the crew are picked off one-by-one, stalked with an insatiable relish and ruthlessly vanquished in the blink of an eye.

Ash: I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.

Thanks to David Crowther’s flawless editing (Director’s Cut) and some incredible use of lighting to disguise the creature design’s more prosthetic features, this is a timeless pre-CGI creature, a drooling monstrosity with the kind of phallic weapon that would make most men grind their teeth with cringing displeasure. The xenomorph’s capacities as a near-perfect organism and indestructible killing machine, including its molecular-acid-for-blood defence mechanism, are feared by humanity and admired by the only other non-human member of the Nostromo crew, who sees the beast not as an abnormality of nature but as a pure entity, a survivor without conscience, remorse or delusions of morality, and the ultimate killing machine for those with misguided desires of utilising the beast as a military weapon.

Alien crew

The xenomorph plays on our most primal fears, the majority of them sexual in nature. If penetration is enough to rattle the cages of heterosexual men the world over, then pregnancy at the hands of a facehugger goes above and beyond. All of this weakens the heterosexual male’s resolve, and it is no coincidence that the ship’s ostensible alpha male, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), is one of the alien’s first victims. This in itself is enough to plunge the ship into jeopardy. His death establishes the xenomorph’s dominance after a breathtaking sequence in the ship’s ventilation shafts, after which things truly begin to fall apart.

During the crew’s darkest juncture it is a woman who proves the perfect foil for our phallic perversity, taking on what may be called the ‘man’s role’ by becoming strong and purposive. Sure, she exhibits features that are distinctly feminine from the perspective of classic mainstream Hollywood. There are moments of fear and uncertainty. She even sheds a tear upon discovering the surreptitious plans of the Weyland Corporation and their mechanical mouthpiece, who reaffirms that she and the rest of the ship’s human entourage are in fact expendable. But as a sheer force of nature she becomes resolute and determined, her intelligence and ingenuity allowing her to escape the urgent corridors of the Nostromo, where flashing lights and heart-stopping motion detectors send us hurtling through a celestial void of dramatic tension.

Alien Ripley

This leads to one of cinema’s most memorable false endings and the one-on-one battle our heroine initially seems to have evaded. When the stowaway xenomorph unfurls itself from the bowels of the Nostromo’s escape vessel the silence is deafening. In the end, only the vastness of space can rid Ripley of her indestructible scourge, but it is her ingenuity and acuteness of thought that sends it there, a will and determination rarely seen in the realms of femininity before Weaver’s most iconic character announced herself on the cinematic landscape. The Nostromo featured an abundance of likely hero’s: no-nonsense everyman Dallas, the fearlessly inquisitive Kane, the burly and courageous Parker (Yaphet Kotto), but Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay quietly crafted an unlikely conqueror of steely pragmatism and unyielding determination.

Of all the sequels and prequels there is one character other than the xenomorph who is synonymous with the series, and that is Ellen Ripley. She may have starred in less than half of Alien‘s cinematic universe but she is a staple ingredient who transcended the boundaries of female heroism in mainstream Hollywood cinema. In a sense, it took a woman’s perspective to shed the sexual connotations of H.R. Giger’s most fearsome creation, and in some ways the two characters are distinctly similar. They are both single-minded of purpose and resolute. They are both survivors of an environment that is shrouded in an inevitable sense of impending doom. In fact, the only thing truly separating them is a sense of morality, one that provides Ripley with the extra incentive to overcome a devastating entity who would likely end up in the hands of the Weyland Corporation, or even worse.

In space, nobody can hear you scream, but when Ripley’s back was truly against the wall she hardly made a peep. Of course, it is her legacy that echoes loudest. In the grand scheme of things hers was the kind of statement that has resonated throughout cinema and will long continue to do so.

Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.

AUTHOR BIO

Bio
 
Cedric Smarts
: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director

 
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
 
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut

 



VHS Revival is a non-profit venture. Any donation, no matter how small, will help towards the site’s running costs and ultimately enable us to grow. Thank you.

2 responses to “Battle of the Bitches: Gender and Duality in Ridley Scott’s Alien

  1. Ripley, without doubt one of the greatest Sci-Fi heroines of all time. The original Alien film is a classic fright fest, but it is Aliens that rounds off Ripley’s transformation into a super tough Alien killing machine when she takes on the Queen to save Newt. I don’t mind Alien 3 either, its a grim ending for Ripley’s story but I think its a shame how they took things with Alien Resurrection. I think its a shame we never got Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 movie, that would’ve been great. Sadly we got Ridley Scott’s dire prequel films instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It all got just a little convoluted, didn’t it.

    I think the first two thrived on simplicity. Too much backstory and lore kills the mystique. It’s the same with every franchise.

    In fact, I’ve just written an article on Halloween 2 and the futility of the sequel. Unless you’re James Cameron and freshen things up they will inevitably disappoint for reasons that are largely out of the director’s control. It’s the nature of the beast.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.