If you were to run a search for films with a strong female lead, likely you’ll find Ridley Scott’s Alien to star at the top of most everyone’s list. Alien was first released in 1979 and directed by Ridley Scott. It was the first of a series that was unique for its time for comprehensively dealing with gender and sexual politics in a direct manner through its subject matter, something that still remains rare in present day film making.
The main character of the films, Ellen Ripley, as performed by Sigourney Weaver, stands out as being a well-developed female action hero who avoids the clichéd portrayal of women in horror films as mere passive, secondary characters. Even from her first appearance she is in command and a force to be reckoned with, and to this day she is still seen as the ideal to be lived up to by many writers and directors. Scott manages to successfully subvert the classic horror and sci-fi tropes to create a story that explores the place of women in these genres and challenges the roles they normally play. This is essentially done through structuring a horror film to play upon the male fears of feminisation and sexual assault as core themes in the film so as to unnerve its predominantly masculine audience.
The most well-known imagery of this nature is the use of the ‘face-hugger’ aliens as the first horror element in the original Alien film. The violence committed by them is unmistakably sexual in nature and Scott himself has reflected that he used such a plot device to target male audiences and shake their mistaken belief that such assaults only happen to women. This is in sharp contrast to the careless, repetitive and lazy portrayals of sexualised violence against women that are common in the sci-fi and horror genres. Following on from this, the famous ‘chestburster’ scene, where the alien literally explodes out of the chest of John Hurt after gestation, forces male audiences to reconsider their underestimation of the effects of rape, impregnation and birth on female victims.
It is important to note that earlier renditions of the Alien screenplay have Ripley and the entire human cast as a “gender neutral” characters who are consistently referred to as “he” and “him”. Since another sci-fi block buster was planned for release around the same time, Scott was pressured to have a female lead in order to be make Alien stand out and to be competitive as the concept of the Female Hero were becoming popular in the late 70’s. This does give the impression that the only reason Ripley is a fully developed character is because the core concept of her as person was developed before her sex was overlaid on it. So even if the films are not intentionally seeped in gender politics, the imagery used in them generally manages to take issues of sexualised violence and deals with them surprisingly well.
The follow up film Aliens, released in 1986 and directed by James Cameron, was based on an earlier script Cameron had written but had never finished called Mother. By the time of Aliens, Ripley’s sex was very much fixed as that of female and so allowed the film to focus on a more female orientated theme: motherhood. Ripley of course is the Good Mother, protective and eventually loving towards Newt, a child she found hiding after a massacre in a scene oozing birth imagery.
Inversely, the Alien Queen, introducing in this film as the root cause of the alien scourge, is the Bad Mother. She is a manifestation of the Monstrous Feminine myth, the patriarchal fear of castration and male feminisation. She encapsulates all that society fears of the female body, birth and untamed female sexuality. For example, the Alien Queen doesn’t require a male for fertilization. Everything associated with the Queen is very sexual and organic–her lair is a womb-like structure, steamy, moist, mysterious and deadly. It’s filled with the decaying remains of her victims, a period allegory.
In the film’s climactic scenes, Ripley must destroy the Queen to protect Newt and by extension all of humanity; we witness the destruction of the lair and hand-to-hand combat between Ripley and the Queen. Aliens is often viewed in both a feminist and paradoxically an anti-feminist light for the same reasons: Ripley is pushed into the role of motherhood, and has to confront her own biology and nature when taking on the Queen. Many favour the feminist slant as it allows for the acknowledgement of Ripley as a relatable woman and frames the final fight as that of a woman who will not be controlled by a patriarchal society’s fear and disgust of her body and the “dangers” they perceive in it.
Patriarchy in this case is represented by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who is the one that has birthed this Monstrous Feminine. This corporation deliberately set up the planet as bait for the Alien Queen and with full knowledge sent a team down to “investigate” the situation, all with the intent to subdue the Queen and the Feminine that she represents as a weapon of war. The patriarchal company here is the true “bad guy” and bears responsibility for all the death and destruction that is being placed at the Queens feet. This warping of the feminine by Weyland-Yutani has its basis in the first film when they act as a shadowy figure whose orders are relayed through the ship’s computer, not so subtly named Mother.
In the third instalment of the trilogy, Alien 3, the overarching narrative is one of female subjugation. Ripley arrives on a prison planet where her very presence as a woman is seen as a temptation to the male inmates. She tries to make herself over, to erase any evidence of her sex and bows their rules, shaving her head and dressing to belong. But its never enough, Ripley is still ushered from place to place with a male escort to “protect her” since she is simply not trusted alone. With strong religious imagery and misogynistic prison dialogue you would be hard pushed not to see a continuing critique of the treatment and distrust of women in patriarchal institutions, previously represented by Weyland-Yutani.
In this film Ripley is totally alone, Alien‘s original crew of the Nostramus is long dead, as are Newt and the few surviving marines from her last encounter with the alien threat. She has no one to protect or to fight for but herself, so Ripley must battle uphill against her de-facto allies in the inmates before ever taking the aliens on. The parallels with Joan of Arc reach their zenith when Ripley throws herself in to a vat of boiling metal to kill the Antichrist-like new Alien Queen she has been impregnated with. This final act is not only to preserve her sense of self but to spite Weyland-Yutani the Queen they so greatly desire. The film is such a garbled mess at times its hard to really know what more director David Fincher was going for.
Sadly, the latest edition of the Alien films eschews many of the promising features of the earlier films. The unfortunate prequel; Prometheus, fails to retain the gender politics of the Alien films. While issues such as motherhood, impregnation, birth and abortion are given cursory references, they are immediately dismissed or portrayed so poorly that it almost brings the motives of the earlier films into doubt.
For instance, the main female character, Elizabeth Shaw, is the polar opposite of Ripley, seemingly incapable of handling any crisis situation and repetitively shown to have hysteric reactions rather than taking control like her predecessor would have done. In other scenes, she is presented as a mere torture object and this falls into the tired clichés of women as helpless victims common to films of this genre.
It is hard to tell if this decline in political content between films represents the waning skills of a once talented director in Ridley Scott or the influences of studio funding which demanded less ‘controversial’ themes, but it is clear that Prometheus marks a significant deterioration in the portrayal of female characters from earlier Alien films. Perhaps when it comes down to it, the sexual politics of the original trilogy merely represented a clever gimmick by the directors rather than an example of progressive character writing for female roles.
Yet regardless of this, the original Alien films are still noteworthy for raising gender issues and challenging male audiences in a way that has rarely been seen elsewhere in sci-fi or horror films. Sadly, as regards Prometheus, it achieves little more than to serve as a black hole on the past successes of an interesting film franchise.
Note: Screenwriter Joss Whedon’s Alien Resurrection has been intentionally ignored.