The return of Alien, Ellen Ripley, and the role of the phallic woman in the 21st century

Alien

Early this year Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9, shared some unofficial Alien 5 concept art on Instagram. Come March and there’s some exciting news; Fox have given Blomkamp the green light, Sigourney Weaver is set to return as Ripley, and fans are speculating like mad as to what the new installment will bring. Since its release in 1979, Alien has become an extremely important, if complex, canonical film in feminist film theory. If you invest even a minimal amount of trust in the extortionate amount of scholarship on the subject, Alien becomes inextricable from the world of gender, sex and sexuality. Hence, if we consider the changed nature of the feminist discourse and gender studies in today’s world, the rebooting of the franchise must raise questions beyond the typical “It’s back” flurry of excitement amongst die-hard science fiction fans.

Science fiction’s ability to undermine “traditional boundaries between states of normality and abnormality, masculine and feminine, truth and fiction” (Barbara Creed) has always been fascinating for feminists. Alien was born during the psychoanalytic boom of 1970s and 1980s film theory, which built on Freud’s notions of castration anxiety, scopophilia, penis envy and the Oedipus complex—all, its fair to say, pretty discomforting ideas. A psychoanalytic feminist reading seeks to address the “gendered process of spectatorial desire and identification” and offers an analysis of the distribution of sexual power, between the normally active, desiring, voyeuristic male and the passive, desired, ‘to-be-looked-at’ female; for Freud, the female is nonetheless threatening to the male, as she represents the lack of a penis, and threatens castration.

Its not too hard to find the sexual imagery in Alien; whether it’s the derelict spaceship looking like a pair of outstretched legs, the crew entering it through a vaginal like opening, or the alien which orally rapes people with a phallic protrusion. It’s all about as subtle as a brick in the face. But most critical attention has focused on the design of the alien itself—both phallic in the tubular, stomach-rupturing form of its ‘birth’, and vaginal in its double lipped, dribbling mouth. In Freudian psychoanalysis the ‘phallic woman’ refers to a woman who is endowed with the phallus, or otherwise has phallic attributes, a fantasy most commonly associated with the maternal figure or body—in Alien, it is a fusion between the Alien and the ship, aptly named ‘Mother’. Maternal infanticide is often considered the most heinous, unnatural crime imaginable, and it’s this fear of the murderous mother that Alien can be shown to exploit. After giving birth to the crew within her sterile womb, the Mothership’s computer brings about the death of all but one. The alien, then, represents the mothers’ phallus, in the perfect embodiment of Barbara Creed’s ‘monstrous feminine’, a form of the phallic woman.

Ripley, in all her gun-toting, androgynous-looking glory, is associated with the phallus herself to a degree, as are many action heroines. According to Mulvey, our desire to ‘look’ in the cinema is stimulated not only by voyeurism, but by narcissistic visual pleasure—the ability to identify with the figure being looked at. Ripley’s androgyny in Alien allows for both male and female viewers to identify with her character; she is still a suitable object of desire in Mulvey’s hetero-normative equation, but has been adjusted for female empowerment, too. It would too easy, however, to see Ripley simply as a positive female figure and leave it there. The time in which feminist film scholars were satisfied simply with these ‘positive’ figures is long gone, and with the emergence of the new cinematic woman in the 80s, the need to “understand the all-pervasive power of patriarchal imagery” (Smelik) remained key.

The problem with psychoanalytic readings—and perhaps the reason for their post 80s decline—is the culture of misogynistic thought they have inherited. Luce Iragaray has shown how canonical thinkers, such as Freud and Lacan, undertake a systematic favouring of male subjectivity at the expense of the female. The Freudian notion of the phallus/man as positive or essential, and vagina/woman as negation or inessential is far too embedded in the thinking of a psychoanalytic reading of Alien; this reading has not just been concerned with analysing and exposing phallocentrism, but surely has itself participated in, propagated and upheld it.

Does Alien’s phallocentrism amount to sexism, though? Given the fluidity now involved in our understanding of gender and sexuality, would Alien, which preys on latent fears of sexual perversion, have been received in quite the same way today? Whilst we still enjoy a femme fatale or two—modern examples include Marion Cotillard in Inception, or Rosario Dawson in Sin City —and look no further than Shutter Island’s Michelle Williams for the ‘monstrous feminine’ in the modern era, are we really still comfortable with typological approaches to female characters? Do we, for instance, still accept female figures that serve as one-dimensional plot-drivers—the vamp, for instance, or the sex kitten? Writer David McIntee believes Alien appeals to women because they “love not being cast as the helpless victim”. This may be true, but what about women, or mothers, being cast as monstrous, murderous and profane in their occupation of both the female and male position? Is this something we are still okay with, in a largely post-psychoanalytic school of thought, in which gender is understood as performative, acquired and un-fixed? Probably not. Perhaps, after all, Alien is best left in the past.

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