How I learned to stop worrying and love Ripley: A feminist nerd finally watches Alien

Main cast of Alien in costume in front of a white background

Ripley’s got a gun (so does Dallas, but who cares!)

At age 30, I’m a pop-culture-nerd feminist who just saw Alien for the first time, and I was shocked at how much I loved it. In fact, I think every Gen-Y lady should see this film – and not just because Prometheus is coming out tomorrow.

Full disclosure: I’m not one to watch horror films by choice. Slasher gore, creepy children, spit and goo don’t sit well with me. These aren’t deep thoughts about gratuitous violence but, honestly, fear. I was so freaked out by Michael Jackson’s yellow contacts at the end of “Thriller” that I didn’t watch the entire video until age 16. In college after coming home from seeing the U.S. version of The Ring, I covered my desktop monitor with a blanket so a wet, haunted girl couldn’t slither out.

I don’t mean to say that horror doesn’t warrant deep thoughts. Since the genre thrives on the scare, and our society is full of fear induced by bigotry and –isms, horror plots and characters can be problematic, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the scare can subvert viewers’ expectations and put sexism, classism and racism in stark relief. It’s a subtle set of details that can change a shallow, violent story into a radical reflection of a generation afraid of moving forward.

Such is the way with 1979’s Alien, which – thanks to today’s “post-racial,” “post-feminist,” post-Wall-Street-bailout atmosphere – feels chillingly contemporary. The opening credits of Alien and its first scenes gliding around the silent ship surprised me enough to say, “This is some Stanley Kubrick shit.” I’m no film critic or even amateur buff, but this reminded me more of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining than a monster or action movie.* Its devastatingly ugly-beautiful design, stripped-down realism and slow pace make you realize from five minutes in that this world is not as it seems.

Headshot of H.R. Giger, a white man with white hair

H. R. Giger is an evil-eyed penis artist

There are many easy targets for intersectional feminist analysis: a ship ship’s computer named Mother, an alien race with phalluses and vulvas all over themselves, simmering class issues, sexualized violence including a bloody birth, and most infamously a heroine who’s equal parts sharp-witted and vulnerable. [Ed: Thanks to reader Scott for noting the Mother flub.] The plot is simple enough, and even most of my eureka moments are cliché on their own – but heck if it isn’t weird to realize that the first people to die are the white men, for example.

What I really noticed were the accidental markers that actors and writers include that reflect sexism, racism and classism – the kind of signs I’m used to seeing in contemporary entertainment. I get the feeling that, like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, I was supposed to find the crew color-blind and the women liberated. I think the classism was intentional, at least in part (e.g. when low-ranked engineers Parker and Brett demand full shares and hazard pay, the WASP-y higher-ups roll their eyes at this brazen talk about dirty money), but it still manifested in subtle ways.

Ripley, like the rest of the crew, isn’t a fully fleshed-out character. We take what we can from snippets, such as her willingness to challenge authority when she knows she’s in the right. She refuses Dallas’s order to let alien-infested Kane back on the ship because of quarantine rules, as we all remember as the movie’s “Don’t go in THAT door!” moment, but what really set off my feminist alarm bells was Dallas’s mansplaining later on. Ripley asks him why Ash should be able to keep the horrible facehugger for SCIENCE!, to which Dallas responds by calling her “my dear” and saying, “Standard procedure is to do what the hell they tell you to do.” Dallas tried to flex his sexist muscles because he sees his veneer of power and authority growing thinner by the moment – the “they” in charge isn’t him, it’s the corporation.

This was a big a-ha moment: Both Dallas and Ripley were sticking to their guns – Ripley toeing the line to keep the crew safe, Dallas refusing to second-guess his decision to save Kane – but what we see is that the system is stacked against both of them. Masculine power is a double-edged sword, not so much controlled by men or “patriarchy” but by wealth and corporate boards. Neither men nor women are safe when every employee is a pawn or, worse yet, a piece of bait for an alien that could be the key to developing galaxy-dominating weaponry. In an earlier classism-come-alive moment, we saw Dallas commandeer Brett’s pen to poke the melted metal…and then inexplicably return the goopy pen. To maintain his position, Dallas steps on his crew just as the corporation steps all over him.

After the fully-grown alien kills Brett, Ripley is the first one to offer to chase after it with a blowtorch, until Dallas overrides her. You get the feeling he wants to play hero to make up for his mistakes, while Ripley just doesn’t trust the others to get it done right. And whoops she was right.

It’s important to mention that Parker, played by Yaphet Kotto to “bring diversity” to the otherwise white cast, is a voice of reason akin to Ripley. Both of them point out the obvious flaws in others’ plans, but both are easily dismissed via white male privilege. When Parker asks why Ash doesn’t freeze Kane and the facehugger until they can get back to Earth, no one answers him. Although Parker is the one who alludes to cunnilingus at the crew’s doomed final spaghetti dinner (aiming his eyebrow-wiggle at Lambert, who’s an admittedly easy target for teasing of any sort), he’s also the one who beheads Ash when the android tries to stuff a porn magazine down Ripley’s throat.

In some ways I like that the Black man and two white women become the street-smart final three. In other ways, it’s tragic – they have to withstand the most, and in the cases of Parker and Lambert, they are killed not by violent birth (Kane) or by necessity for reproduction (Brett and Dallas, as we see them cocooned in the director’s cut that predicates the sequel) but by sexual blood lust. Their murder scene is sexualized, with the alien tail wrapping up the back of Lambert’s leg, and it’s no coincidence that this happens to the man of color and the emotionally unstable woman. Their bodies are hanged – it’s not a stretch to say lynched – and set up to terrify Ripley.

And yet, which scene is the most discussed and debated, made into the litmus test of feminism? Yes, the underwear scene.

In 1992 feminist film critic Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws about horror films, specifically slashers. These stories frequently leave only one woman alive to vanquish the bad guy and/or tell the story, and the final girls are empowered by virtue of their sexual purity and willingness at the end to use a phallic weapon to defend themselves. Clover argues that this gender fluidity, both in the final girl and in the killer, is a result of feminism and is basically kind of cool, if cliché. Unlike slashers, Alien doesn’t develop characters’ personal lives enough to assign purity or promiscuity, but that goddamn underwear scene seems enough for some.

Let us pause and consider what quote-unquote mainstream film buffs think of feminist critiques of Alien. (Hint: They think of Sigourney Weaver in teeny panties.) An unfortunate web search led me to a four-dude panel on YouTube from 2006 called CineFiles. Three white guys and one Black guy (who says nary a thing until six minutes in) review the entire alien franchise and, amidst discussing fun facts like casting changes and whatnot, Mike Foltz says that “feminist critics came out of the woodwork” to fuss over the underwear. I really do feel like it sums up the way people feel about feminism: we are fun-killers who make a big deal out of nothing.

I’m not saying the scene is without meaning, but I’m more likely to see it as a moment of character-building, not feminism-killing. Showing flesh literally signifies her human vulnerability, plus I think it shows her overconfidence in thinking she has bested the physically and intellectually gifted alien and, hand in hand, the wily faceless corporation.** There’s the alien in the shuttle, also maxin’ relaxin’ all cool. This is the last time Ripley has to learn this lesson: just when you think you can let your guard down, you’re reminded that if you are attacked, it’ll be blamed on you (if it seems I am alluding to the legal system’s continued insistence on examining rape victims’ clothing, it’s because I am).

Is Ripley a “final girl”? She shoots the alien with a spear gun, so that’s phallic, and she is the lone survivor who must tell the tale (and helm three sequels), but I don’t know that I can answer this question. Not yet, anyway. I’ll just have to watch a few more times, heh.***

TL;DR: This film is worth a watch today, as a historical artifact as much as a useful mirror for today’s fucked-up culture. It’s both hide-under-your-seat scary and pause-and-rewind interesting. Plus, you can draw parallels with Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the sci-fi oeuvre, even if not-quite-exactly an Alien prequel.

* Thank goodness Aliens director James Cameron didn’t do Alien because he would’ve ruined the opening credits by saying the Nostromo’s “mineral ore” in tow was (deep sigh) unobtanium.

** No maternal mask of a ship named Mother can hide that from Ripley; she knows her mother’s generation was in many ways complicit with this crap. I’m fine with Ripley calling Mother a “bitch” because she’s a false ally. Any more about Mother and we’ll have to start another article.

*** This footnote goes out to Jones the cat, because I am a cat lady who takes no shortage of joy from seeing a cat in a movie (or anywhere) and bonds completely with Ripley for rescuing him. Any deeper meaning is lost in my googley-eyes over fuzzy kitteh face.

Comments

  1. This was interesting and I’d love to hear what you think about Aliens.

  2. No one knows says:

    And of course, this is the movie that the Bechdel test was coined after.

  3. I much preferred Aliens – better pace and much more exciting. And, of course, we have Weaver in the starring role. However, I have not watched it with a feminist lens – must do so.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Good read :) i do love Ripley! Aliens has to be my favourite film ever! She is a strong character but this reminds me of when a friend asked me who my favorite ‘action hero’ was. He said John Mclaine from Die Hard; i said ‘Ellen Ripley’ and he said ‘yeah shes good looking’ to which i protested that this wasnt the point! haha! im pretty sure Ripley could keep john mclaine in order any day ^_^

  5. Alessandra F. says:

    > made into the litmus test of feminism? Yes, the underwear scene.

    Typical, that’s feminism for you. They have a fantastic character at hand and they concentrate on the underwear in a scene where it is relevant that she is shown to feel safe, secure and mostly vulnerable.

    I’m also watching the films now and I didn’t expect them to be this good.

  6. Very insightful article about a film i’ve been fascinated with since seeing it’s original theatrical release in 1979. You do this good on this topic, I would love to hear your thoughts on “Mother” that you alluded might require another article. Really glad to see a “Gen-Y” lady, as you appeared to classify yourself, found the movie of interest.

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