About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"In Space, No One Can Hear You Meow" - Gender in Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979)

     A domesticated cat becomes a source of terror as it shakes inside a locker, the same cat that would eventually lead a character to his own demise at the hands of something fiercely masculine.  Perhaps the cat is not just a feline critter on board the Nostromo mining vessel, but is in fact a symbol for something greater – something intrinsically human.  In Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction horror film Alien, the crew of a ship traveling through space to return to Earth is plagued by a visitor from parts unknown.  At the heart of the film is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who seemingly has to rise above the dominance of the predominantly male crew to simply become the protagonist of the film.  Her own ability to stand her ground against the machismo presences on board the Nostromo is one of the key elements of her survival by the conclusion of the film.  Alien is much more than just a genre picture as it's a film about the plight of women, a film that presents men as monstrous, and a film that adheres to specific horror conventions in just the right way while rejecting others.
     Throughout Alien, the presence of women feels to be rejected in every way.  Starting from the very first shot of the film, the curvature of the planet that the opening credits are shown over evokes the curvature associated with that of the human female form.  Dissolving from the shot of the planet (which has a very warm and inviting color palette), the space shuttle known as the Nostromo is revealed in a dark and aesthetically cold shot that contrasts with the warmth of the previous shot.  The Nostromo is not a very hospitable environment, as it feels more like a submarine than it does a luxury mode of transportation compared to the sleek spaceships found in other science fiction films.  Unlike those other films, the Nostromo in Alien feels like a piece of machinery floating in space – strictly a piece of function over aesthetic beauty, which makes it a masculine presence with its lack of stylistic or in-vogue embellishments.  Contrasting that masculine presence is the name of the onboard computer system, MOTHER.  The presence of this motherly figure (as the computer should be interpreted as such because of of its namesake) will eventually grow to become a more conventional trope of the horror genre as the film progresses, but upon entry into the film, MOTHER has the answers to all of the crew's questions and concerns.
     When the film begins, a distinct protagonist does not arise at the foreground until after the first act.  That protagonist is Ripley.  Up until that point, the crew of the Nostromo was comprised of five men and two women who were all subtextually competing for the lead role.  In Ripley's possession is a domesticated cat, and much like the protagonist of Alien, Jones (the cat) does what he needs to do to survive.  Though the cat is a boy, in which by being a feline, he is automatically thought of in effeminate terms which makes him a prime metaphor for Ripley.  Ripley is in a position of authority on board the Nostromo (second in command), and even beyond that she is one of the primary enforcers of rules and policies – which does not make her an atypical woman, it just makes her atypical in the confines of a film.  She has a job to do, and she does it well.  Her own role of authority, her lack of makeup, and even her uniform paints her as a woman that is empowered and responsible.  Connecting the symbol of the cat to Ripley as a character, Jones represents her femininity.  Once the alien has boarded the vehicle, the cat is instantly threatened by the alien's overtly male presence that embodies many of the interpersonal problems between crew members on the Nostromo.  With the alien on the loose, the cat runs away seeking shelter.  Ripley's insistent concern for the cat and his wellbeing is that it is a metaphor for Ripley's own gender and sexuality.  As a pussy cat, Jones is representative of Ripley's vagina, and as the film progresses, she'll eventually have to save the cat from being violated by the alien.  In which by doing so, Ripley is saving her own pussy.
     On the other end of the gender spectrum is the masculinity exhibited by the crew members (both anatomically and interpersonally) and the alien that literally embodies all of their attitudes and physicality.  "I'd rather be eating something else, but right now I'm sticking to food," suggestively remarks Parker (Yaphet Kotto) to Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – the other female crew member – while they eat their dinner.  In that scene, the alien presents itself only moments later when it bursts out of Kane's (John Hurt) chest like a cesarian-section birth gone wrong.  "All monsters are expressions or symbols of some kind of birth process, however distorted or bizarre," states David J. Skal in his book The Monster Show (Skal 287).  In a film as aware of gender roles as Alien is, this anatomically wild "birth" is horrific and almost blasphemous to the idea of women giving birth to children in general.  Upon bursting through Kane's chest and effectively killing him, the alien rises out of his body, shaped like a phallus and shrieks before zipping off out of sight.  As the creature begins to rapidly grow, other parts of its body become increasingly more phallic in both shape and function.  As an adult alien, the shape of its head is like a rod, and when it opens its mouth, another mouth that is erect in form projects outward.  This second mouth is covered in a sticky substance that resembles male ejaculate.  Even the alien's tail is used as a penetrative device as it is insinuated that it is used to rape Lambert as the stiff tail snakes up her inner-thigh.  Though the alien easily personifies much of the misplaced machismo exhibited on the Nostromo, it is the secretly-robot crew member Ash who best captures the human equivalent of the sexual violence the alien thematically represents.  When Ripley discovers that acquiring the alien and bringing it back to Earth is part of the plan, Ash stops her and tries to kill her.  Using a rolled up pornographic magazine (a phallic object in itself), he tries to force it into Ripley's mouth to stop this empowered woman with something that is often a symbol for repressing women.  Either way, both Ash and the alien are killed off.  As Carol J. Clover remarks in "Her Body, Himself: Gender In The Slasher Film", "the killer is himself eventually killed or otherwise evacuated from the narrative. No male character of any stature lives to tell the tale" (Clover 236).  Clover's remarks are particularly true in regard to Alien, as no human male does live to the end of the film, but at least Ripley has Jones.
     Elevating the horror genre thematically, Alien still manages to function as a frightening film as a result of of particular tropes and conventions that it adheres to.  The opening of the film establishes the world and the characters so that we care about them when everything goes downhill.  When the alien becomes a presence in the film, we do not see it often.  As in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) or Spielberg's Jaws (1975), the alien is not seen by the audience often or in its entirety to increase suspense and tension.  Elaborating on the role of gender in the film, the movie vilifies men and makes them truly monstrous.  When Ash rejects Ripley's order to not allow Kane into the ship until he is quarantined and cleared for entry, he is enacting his own privilege as a male to do as he pleases.  That particular incident is the first sign of this "monstrous masculine", and the film becomes filled with it by the end.  This directly opposes the idea of the "monstrous feminine", which is prominent in many horror films, but the presence of MOTHER on the Nostromo conforms to it.  When it is revealed that MOTHER and Ash had conspired to protect the alien, the MOTHER computer system is then viewed as abject by Ripley.  In one of the final sequences, Ripley is trying to prevent a self-destruct, but MOTHER will not listen.  "...All individuals experience abjection at the time of their earliest attempts to break away from the mother," writes Barbara Creed.  "She sees the mother–child relation as one marked by conflict: the child struggles to break free but the mother is reluctant to release it" (Creed 72).  Ripley has to escape, and when she does, MOTHER and the Nostromo are left for dead as the nuclear reactor on the ship explodes.
     Though Alien is a film reliant upon genre, it uses the genres of science fiction and horror as a platform for its portrayal of strong women and evil masculine figures.  With Jones, the cat, serving as a symbol of a boy with female characteristics, the cat is a metaphor for Ripley in her own situation as a woman in a man's world.  Further, the cat becomes a symbol of her own womanhood as she must save her vagina and other orifices from being assaulted by the monstrous males in the film.  Whether it's the repressive masculinity of Ash, or the obscenely phallic alien itself, Ripley is threatened by the dominant life forces in the universe, and much of that is delivered on screen using the conventions of the genre that is being rebuilt in Alien.

Works Cited
Clover, Carol J. "Her Body, Himself: Gender In The Slasher Film." The Film Studies Reader.
     London: Arnold, 2000. 234-36. Print.
Creed, Barbara. "Horror and The Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection."
Skal, David J. "Chapter 10: It's Alive, I'm Afraid." The Monster Show. N.p.: n.p., 1993. 287-89.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, and John Hurt. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

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