The Darning Needle, being my first work to feature a female protagonist, has got me thinking recently about gender equality within films. Searching for a focus for this topic, a presentation I held, analysing Aliens (dir. Cameron, 1986) using the theoretical framework of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, led me to examine the entire Alien franchise, considering notions of gender equality. Note that I will be analysing the extended cuts of all the films.
The Alien franchise is renowned for its portrayal of gender equality due to its central female protagonist, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Ripley is as intelligent and physically capable as your standard male action hero; an anomaly in a genre littered with women who are nothing more than childlike, screaming incompetents. Although this characterisation has undoubtedly been positive, proving action heroines can give as good as their male counterparts, analysing the films further shows that they are far from entirely positive portraits of gender equality.
The original film, Alien (dir. Scott, 1979), although it depicts a society in which there is no longer a divide between gender roles, it is strewn with male anxiety over the possibility of this future. At the start of the film, the crew of the Nostromo emerge into a technological world in which it is suggested the traditional mother role has been abandoned. They are figuratively born into the world, blinkingly emerging half-naked from their cryogenic chambers; an unnatural birth rather than one born of innate sexual interaction. They are cared for by the ship’s computer, titled Mother (Helen Horton), suggesting technology has now superseded female ownership of this role. The crew consists of both men and women working side by side as equals, and the extended duration of their mission suggests the role of housewife and mother has long been forgotten.
At first, it seems there are no problems with this sexless society, but when the crew enter the world of the Alien, the film’s fears of what the natural progression of such a society may result in are revealed. The Alien is discovered on a ship that like the crew’s own sees the technological superseding the biological, but to such a great extent that they have merged. The ship’s only inhabitant, besides the Alien, referred to by the film’s crew as the Jockey, is found dead, seemingly growing out of the ship, fully merged with the technology. Its chest has burst open from the inside, a result of the Alien’s aberrant birth. This suggests that the Alien monstrosity was born of a society devoid of gender division, in which technology has replaced the need for heterosexual sex. This assumption is confirmed in the film’s prequel, Prometheus (dir. Scott, 2012), in which the Jockey is revealed to be part of a society consisting entirely of males, that genetically engineered the Alien species, only for it to turn against them. In this horrific world, where there is no divide between sexes, the Alien and its habitat, visualised as a perverse mesh of male and female genitalia, are the embodiment of this horror.
Prime examples of male anxiety over a genderless society are the Alien’s rape and impregnation of Kane (John Hurt) and its offspring’s resultant birth. These instances present male fear of loss of sexual dominance; the fear of becoming vulnerable and/or victims if they become woman’s equal. Another of the film’s much-praised scenes is Ash’s (Ian Holm) attempt to kill/symbolically rape Ripley. He attempts this by suffocating her with a rolled-up pornographic magazine, acting as a phallic symbol. The use of the magazine is significant as it suggests disapproval of women being seen as purely sexual objects. This scene has been used to support claims of the film’s feminist outlook, but these theories are easily dismissed. At the start of the scene, it is revealed Ash is not a man but an android. He represents a proto-Alien; a perverse blend of the biological and the technological, also inclined to unnatural and violent sexual attacks. He is another step on the ladder in the transition from a safe male-dominated world to the horror of the genderless Alien nightmare. Furthermore, for all this scene’s supposed criticism of females being seen as purely sexual objects, at the film’s climax, we see Ripley, for no logical reason, strip down to her skimpy underwear as she strolls around the escape ship: the camera lingering on her buttocks. Here we see Ripley reduced to the role of sex object, which evidence suggests, the film’s makers, consciously or subconsciously, believe is her rightful place.
Applying Vogler’s theory to Aliens provides further evidence that the franchise’s creators are determined to keep females in their traditional roles. At the start of the film, Ripley is awoken from her cryogenic chamber, fifty-seven years after the events of Alien. We discover, although it is not alluded to in Alien in any way, that she was, in fact, mother to a young daughter; who has long since passed away. Vogler describes this loss as ‘the hero’s lack’.
CHRISTOPHER VOGLER: “They are lacking something, or something is taken away from them. Often they have just lost a family member.”
Ripley’s dreams are haunted by terrifying visions of the Alien. Vogler identifies this as a ‘tragic flaw’; a weakness the hero must overcome to gain their rewards. Upon discovering that contact has been lost with a colony that was built on the planet where the Alien was discovered, Ripley reluctantly joins a group of marines travelling to the planet to annihilate the Alien threat. Once there, she takes charge of the mission after its original leader proves incompetent, and again proves she’s as physically capable and resourceful as any man. She takes charge of an orphaned child, Newt (Carrie Henn), and forms a close bond with a handsome marine, Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). At the film’s climax, Newt is taken by the Aliens to the Alien Queen’s nest. Upon rescuing Newt and defeating the Alien Queen, Newt verbally acknowledges Ripley as her mother and Ripley’s relationship with Hicks moves on from mere friendship to romance. Furthermore, upon entering their cryogenic chambers to return home, Ripley informs Newt it is now safe for them both to dream. This shows that by overcoming the Aliens, she has overcome her ‘tragic flaw’ and received her reward of a surrogate family: fulfilling her ‘lack’. Vogler’s theory shows that the entire film is structured to return Ripley, a strong independent woman, to the traditional female role of loving wife and mother. A most anti-feminist message.
I have chosen not to give serious consideration to Alien Resurrection (dir. Jeunet, 1997), being as it features a female character who seems to exist solely to show off her bum while having a sexy massage. And Ripley, with the line, “who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?”, offers to whore herself out to anyone who can take her to safety. Therefore, I’m concluding my examination with Alien 3 (dir. Fincher, 1992). Although disowned by its director and the recipient of poor reviews from fans and critics, it presents a positive depiction of gender equality unlike anything else in the franchise.
Ripley’s ship crash lands on a prison planet, her surrogate family does not survive, and an Alien is set loose on the prison. The prison is inhabited by male convicts who have found religion, who are immediately hostile towards Ripley. Unwilling to accept a female into their society, they believe she should be locked up and segregated from the rest of the inhabitants. They consider her mere presence an incentive to rape (the definition of rape culture); firmly establishing their belief that women are inferiors, who can be nothing but victims of a male-dominated society.
Only upon the death of the society’s patriarch is Ripley accepted as an equal, which after the death and chaos of the first part of the film, results in productivity, as the inhabitants begin successfully working together to defeat the Alien menace. Upon capturing the Alien, there are extended shots of the convicts walking in slow motion under the sprinklers. In keeping with the film’s religious themes, this is symbolic of a rebirth for the convicts as they are cleansed of their past misogynistic sins. Here the film clearly approves the incorporation of women into society as equals. After the Alien’s initial capture, it is again set loose by Golic (Paul McGann). Golic did not participate in the democratic capture of the Alien as he was locked up after becoming fanatical after first encountering it. Earlier in the film, he gives this speech to Ripley:
GOLIC: “You married? You should get married, have kids. Pretty girl. I used to know lots of ’em back home. They used to like me. For a while. You’re gonna die too.”
This shows that Golic supports traditional gender-based roles for women. It also reveals that he sees women as objects, as it is implied that once girls resisted his sexual advances, he would murder them. Golic empathises with the Alien, both being sexual predators. He also worships it as a satanic figure that symbolises his wicked temptation, referring to it as “the beast” and “the dragon” (a title given to Satan in Revelation 12), claiming it “feeds on minds”, talks to him, and tells him what to do. Golic eventually succumbs to his temptation, releasing the sexually predatory Alien back into the newly formed egalitarian society.
During the course of the film, Ripley discovers she was impregnated by an Alien during her cryogenic stasis and decides to take her life rather than let the creature inside her live. Bishop II (Lance Henriksen) pleads with her, “You still can have a life. Children”, but in opposition to the message of Aliens, she rejects motherhood. Ripley sacrifices herself by throwing herself into the ironworks; her arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose. We have seen via its relationship with Golic that the Alien of Alien 3 is representative of male abuse and dominance of women. This is supported by the fact that the creature is born from an animal in this instalment; a merging of man and beast rather than man and woman. Ripley, therefore, dies for the sins of a male-dominated society, sacrificing herself rather than letting the Alien that embodies these sins live.