Alien and Gender Roles

(Marie Lambert)–I’ve found that watching movies for class is always a wonderful experience: first, because it only takes as long as the film itself lasts, and second, because I sincerely enjoy reading the products of popular culture for hidden insights. Particularly if I’ve seen the film before, it’s fascinating to watch it again in an academic context and observe how my perceptions of the action change based on what we are discussing in class.

Most recently, I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting the Alien films for one particular class. And while I’m no longer quite so terrified of the titular creatures, I am amazed at the amount of analysis and interpretation the films invite.

Alien and particularly Aliens (I haven’t made it to the less acclaimed 3rd and 4th films yet) seem very interested in the meaning and subversion of gender roles. Although today’s movie audiences are probably familiar with the sci-fi/action genre’s trope of the kickass female main character (i.e. Trinity from The Matrix, Sarah Connor from Terminator 2), this may have seemed fairly novel and revolutionary in 1979 when Alien was made.

It’s interesting to note how Ripley is portrayed in the film: calculating, clear-headed, unemotional. We the audience refers to her by the androgynous title “Ripley,” and her obviously feminine first name—Ellen—is rarely mentioned. Although the other female character in the film, Lambert (a funny coincidence, but I promise no relation), also only goes by her last name, she and Ripley differ strongly in personality. Where Ripley follows reason and procedure—not wanting to allow the contaminated Kane onto the ship, directing the survivors until they are slowly picked off by the Alien—Lambert is emotional and irrational, panicking, crying, and desperate to flee in an escape pod.

However, a caring, nurturing side of Ripley is also emphasized throughout the films. Jones the cat is the main example of this in the first movie, but in Aliens, Ripley finds and forms a bond with Newt, a little girl who is the only survivor of a human colony overrun with Aliens. Earlier in the movie (spoiler alert), we learn that Ripley has been drifting through space in cryogenic sleep for 57 years, and her once-young daughter has recently passed away.

The abrupt loss of her daughter obviously has a huge effect on Ripley’s character and factors heavily into the importance of the developing relationship between her and Newt, who she promises to save. At the end of the film, this relationship culminates when Newt calls Ripley “mommy.” More so than Alien, Aliens, seems especially interested in the idea of motherhood. While Ripley is revealed to be a mother, we also learn that she is essentially battling another mother—that of the Alien eggs on the planet LV-426.

What are these films trying to say about gender and power? Does the Alien series liberate or compartmentalize Ripley’s femininity by portraying her as a fierce “mother lion” figure? Or does over-analysis just ruin great movies?

Discussion of possible interpretations of the films continues elsewhere on the Internet.