Ellen Ripley was a man. No, not throughout the Alien series (though David Fincher and James Cameron tried to make her one) but in the original script of the film, then titled Star Beast. In the original script, the character that would later become one of the most enduring icons of female empowerment was gendered male, only to be changed later.
Beginning with a simple act of gender swapping, director Ridley Scott and his team converted a formulaic story of Space Age horror into a rich condemnation of preexisting gender politics, marking it as one of the most politically progressive films ever made. In the process, the film blazed trails for female protagonists to lay claim to the male-centered cinema that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures, including the most entrenched forms, the action genres.
Yet, despite the enduring impact that Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) rise to prominence on the starship Nostromo continues to have on the landscape of popular culture, many feminist critics have denounced the film for formally and narratively reinforcing stereotypical depictions of femaleness rather than disavowing them, thereby making Alien akin to an ideological wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, a more detailed analysis proves that Ridley Scott was not only keenly aware of the ways his film depicted womanhood in its various forms but did so with the intent purpose of championing the progressive portrayals while disavowing the conservative ones through specific creative choices. Dealing with the subject in a series of complex ways, Scott developed the story of Ripley in order to alter, contest, and ultimately deconstruct filmic conventions that maintained the strict division of power between the sexes.
The Classical Hollywood mode of filmmaking that Alien was rebelling against was the most conventional form of cinema prior to the 1970s. It had come under attack from filmmakers, largely due to its overtly conservative political orientation. In its distribution of power, it reinforced preexisting hierarchies that promoted males as the dominant sex and relegated females to subservience. Films under this mode maintained an exclusively male protagonist base, with females serving marginalized roles meant to support masculine preponderance (characterized by weakness, erotic availability, or dangerousness). Prior to the 1970s, most women didn’t have subjectivity in film (even in the rare pictures that would have a female star). Most films would speak about women but never to them.
Classical cinema’s conservative political thrust lay not simply in the disproportionate agency given to genders but also in the formalistic manner, which aligned the viewer with an exclusively male subjectivity. In the positioning of the film camera, viewers were given the privilege of seeing from the perspective of heroes like John Wayne, leading to an assumption of the protagonist as their filmic surrogate. In so doing, everything associated with maleness was equated with mastery and authority. These films would reinforce a preexisting hierarchy of gender power through a symbolic order whereby males were the only sex worthy of leading a narrative.
Alien marked one of the first American films to legitimize and broaden the female’s role in cinema by heralding an autonomous female character within the framework of the Hollywood system of representation, thereby deconstructing the Classical Hollywood mode. Casual viewers indulging in sci-fi/horror may have missed the fact that issues of gender permeate every facet of Alien (and not simply the plight of Ripley). Imagery of wombs and genitalia became central to the theme of Ripley’s odyssey through a nightmarish male-driven universe, which was adopted and developed further in the following three films in the franchise (the evolution of which will be discussed in tomorrow’s follow-up article).
Director Ridley Scott, who along with Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, has become notorious for advancing women’s roles in cinema (Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane), established his film as a progressive, feminist text in three primary ways, which will be investigated further: 1.) By developing a strong, competent and unsexualized (except for the self-conscious ending) female icon as its protagonist, a very rare commodity in Hollywood at that time; 2.) By giving her agency to prevail over a series of antagonists that symbolize conservative conceptions of gender (both male and female); 3.) By implementing a gradual shift of identification to her that simultaneously championed a new female subjectivity while perverting the formerly dominant male, sexual gaze.
1.) The Depiction of Ripley
Despite developing into a cinematic icon of female empowerment, Ellen Ripley doesn’t even begin Alien as the protagonist but only claims the position halfway through the film. Even for 1979, female protagonists were considered provocative in the Hollywood landscape, especially in the heavily male-occupied genre of sci-fi. Instead of overtly disrupting the conventional order of Hollywood by maintaining Ripley as the hero throughout (which could have been easily dismissed), Scott decided to subtly pepper in insinuations of Ripley’s mastery over the narrative after establishing a “dummy” protagonist (equivalent to a cinematic bait-and-switch).
From the beginning of the film, Alien maintains a unique reluctance to anoint its protagonist because it initially eschews an imbedded perspective on any one individual in favor of an emphasis on the group dynamic of the spaceship Nostromo’s crew. The editing evenly maintains the attention on each character’s respective responsibilities. By being so nebulous, the film confounds its viewers by withholding a fact that has become central to spectatorship: who’s the hero? Who is the one individual we should be aligning with as our surrogate ideal selves?
Soon after, though, the audience ostensibly receives its answer as the ship’s male captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), is introduced. Dissolving the collective perspective, Dallas’ entry marks the first time that a character is personalized independently from group functions because he is initially seen in the communication pod receiving orders from “the Company,” the financiers of Nostromo’s mission into space, a privileged position reserved for him alone. In addition, being the highest ranking officer, Dallas’ personality cues maintain his position as the primary authority of the narrative. Rugged, stoic, attractive, and respected by his subordinates, Dallas meets every criterion of the conventional, legitimate hero that restores order to the narrative, thereby affirming patriarchal supremacy.
Having deceived the viewer by playing on their expectations, Scott gradually begins to erode this idealized depiction of Dallas during the crew’s first moment of crisis, after officer Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by the alien facehugger. Commanding that the doors be opened to receive his contaminated comrade, Dallas faces contention from Warrant Officer Ripley. Following protocol, Ripley denounces the admittance of a foreign entity as a threat to the crew’s safety, a logical stance immediately overruled by the frenzied Captain. Becoming the lone voice of reason, Ripley in this scene begins to absorb much of the agency from Dallas because she is increasingly framed in the foreground of her shots, an indicator of significance previously bestowed on the Captain alone.
The rise of Ripley is strategically validated by the incremental enfeeblement of Dallas, tarnishing his stance as the ideal leader. Deferring on all matters scientific (an alarming signal in a genre like sci-fi), Dallas’ leadership breaks down once his is proven to be incompetent and unequipped to handle the alien crisis caused by his obstinate disregard of Ripley’s logical warnings.
Reasserting his male dominance, Dallas heroically searches for the alien in the air duct system of the Nostromo, but petrified by fear and unable to operate a heat sensor machine, proceeds directly towards the monster and, in a truly shocking turn of events, is unceremoniously devoured.
Thus, the film gradually revises the definition of Dallas from a strong, legitimate male agent to a fearful and incompetent victim. His fallibility makes him unworthy of being a protagonist, which is a position he ultimately relinquishes through his death.
In this way, the demise of Dallas proves to be a definitive point at which the film departs from conventional filmic and narrative standards because it marks a violent disruption to the normative order of Classical Hollywood by leaving no male subject for the viewer to identify with. Seizing her opportunity, Ripley occupies the vacant role of protagonist, a position she proves well-equipped to manage. Combining the assertiveness of her predecessor with her own ingenuity, Ripley begins to organize her team into an efficient unit, taking an active position towards “blasting the fucker into space” instead of waiting passively like Dallas.
As is the convention of horror films, Ripley’s crew is gradually devoured until only she is left as the lone survivor of a ship littered with individuals too stupid or inept to defend themselves. Ripley prevails because she exhibits ideal human characteristics that are contrasted to her crewmates. As Cynthia Freeland has aptly noted, “[Ripley] is brave, but cautious (Dallas), smart but has conscience (Ash), determined to fight, but keeps her head (Parker).” In addition, Ripley is championed in the way she utilizes elements of traditional maleness (decisiveness and bravery) and traditional femaleness (altruism and compassion toward the crew and the helpless cat, Jones), while eliminating their defects (unthinking machismo and frailty). Her femaleness is contrasted to the feminine Lambert, who becomes paralyzed by fear and hysterical in crisis. In such a way, Ripley prevails by avoiding the fatal flaws of her contemporaries, marking her as the only character worthy of survival.
2. The Monsters
Clearly not satisfied with having their female protagonist simply succeed where others failed, the filmmakers of Alien put equal effort into depicting that which she prevails over (the antagonists) as monstrous forms of patriarchal stand-ins. The first, most obvious example is the iconic alien creature, which in its appearance connotes destructive male power exerted through violent sexuality. Equipped with a toothed phallic appendage protruding from its mouth, long spiked tail, and blatantly penile head, the design of the monster screams out exaggerated masculine hostility, a subject that appears widely in the work of Swiss artist and concept designer H. R. Giger.
More refined in demeanor but no less destructive, the chief villainous entity, which is depicted largely in its absence, is “the Company.” The grand patriarch of the narrative, the Company deploys their unwitting crew to a hazardous destination, with the sole intention of retrieving an alien to convert it into a weapon. Callously disinterested in the welfare of its “children,” the symbolic father proves to be the overarching evil in its favoring of profits over lives.
As a humanoid surrogate for the Company, the science officer Ash (Ian Holm) provides a more overt representation of pent-up male aggression. Proving to be the most vehemently resentful of Ripley’s rise to power (he treats her efforts to equate herself with the higher-ranked male officers with blatant intolerance), Ash’s vitriol comes to its apex when he attacks her in the sleeping quarters. After abusing her, Ash rolls up a pornographic magazine and stuffs it down Ripley’s throat. This assault bears a dual offense to Ripley’s feminist thrust. Firstly, as an act of male dominance against an independent woman, Ash’s attack is akin to an oral sexual violation because he tries to oppress her by forcing her to swallow (or submit to) the images of female subservience. Secondly, the act silences Ripley, depriving her of the authority that she typically asserts through her voice. Ash makes such an aggressive and sexually-charged offense despite the fact that he isn’t biologically male but rather an asexual android, which illustrates how constructed the definitions of gender are.
The final antagonist is the life-support system of the Nostromo, aptly named Mother. Submitting to the orders of the patriarch, the Company, Mother refuses to assist her crew (early established as her symbolic newborn children). This has been a bone of contention with many feminist critics, most notably Barbara Creed, who insist that the figure of Mother is an example of the monstrous feminine, a primal depiction of femaleness based on distinctive reproductive capacities. Motherhood, then, by being equated with destruction and abjection, is proven to be a threat to the male-oriented power structure.
However, what Creed fails to note is the fact that Ripley, with the ideals of feminism she represents, vanquishes this conservative image of womanhood by destroying the Nostromo (and Mother with it). Proving the power her politically progressive stance maintains in the film, Ripley slays all patriarchal dragons in her path, from the monstrous father and mother, to the icons of sexual aggression. In this way, Ripley disavows any force that would oppress or demean women based on gender.
Often invisible to the casual viewer, identification refers to the way that a film aligns the spectator with a particular character through formal elements. Basically, how something is shown becomes as important as what is shown. Laura Mulvey, in her pivotal essay on the subject, posited that Classical Film, through the pairing of a male protagonist with a shot from approximately his perspective, established dominance to masculine viewing practices (buttressed by the visual pleasure taken in objectifying females).
Keenly aware of this, Scott confounded this male vision while converting it to a female subjectivity. This begins in the very beginning of the film, as the camera moves through the corridors of the Nostromo prior to the crew’s revival, without being embedded to a character. An identical shot is repeated later, after Dallas is installed as the presumed protagonist. The floating, disembodied camera crawls slowly towards Ash’s office, implying to the audience that it exists as an omniscient entity. As a surprise to both Ash and to the viewer, Ripley emerges from outside the camera’s view, indicating that she was visually motivating the camera movement throughout the sequence. This strategy is employed by the filmmakers in order to gradually realign the viewer’s identification from Dallas to Ripley because it subliminally suggests that the privileged perspective of the film will eventually belong to her alone.
While Ripley’s subjectivity is made dominant through moments like this, Scott also used two notable scenes to paint the Classical Hollywood sexual gaze as oppressive to females. The first occurs when Ash abuses Ripley. After Ash forces the porno magazine down her throat, we see his face in close-up as he begins to gyrate uncontrollably, as if reaching a sexual climax through Ripley’s degradation. In such a way, the film establishes that Ash’s gaze at Ripley is not only violent but sexual in nature, thereby making the male gaze horrific by association.
This scene, then, becomes a significant precursor to the last sequence of the film (and one of the most controversial in history). After presumably destroying the alien by blowing up the Nostromo from the safety of an escape pod, Ripley begins to decompress by stripping down to an erotic outfit consisting of a short white tee-shirt and exceptionally small underwear, which are filmed from a voyeuristic distance. Feminist critics in general have disavowed any progressive potential of Alien due to this scene, which they contend reasserts Ripley as a visually pleasing spectacle in order to return her back to a subservient, objectified role.
What is lost in this critique is the deliberateness of such a scene on the part of Scott. By inappropriately sexualizing Ripley for the first time, Scott wants the viewer to return to their standard sexual gaze in order to denounce it. As a surprise to the audience, the camera position of the objectified gaze is not detached but rests in the same position as the alien, who has secreted itself on board. By indulging in the objectification of Ripley, Scott aligns our viewing with that of the alien, which, in recalling Ash’s similar sexual gaze, shames us. Ripley, immediately after, puts on a bulky space-suit, the antithesis of an erotic costume, and finally launches the alien to its death. By doing so, the film not only advocates for Ripley’s subjectivity but makes monstrous and sexually oppressive the conventional male view.
Clearly, by looking at these points, the filmmakers of Alien were chiefly interested in building a film that championed women and disavowed the patriarchal system of Classical Hollywood representation. We begin to see that Ripley, and not the monster, is the titular alien, as she is depicted in her feminism as a foreign and threatening figure to male supremacy. This emphasis on gender and society extends into the other entries of the Alien franchise. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the evolution of gender in the last three films and see in what direction they lead their heroine (hint: it’s backwards).