Alien: the history of xenosex

Ahead of the new Alien Vs Predator movie, author Ximena Gallardo C. examines Lt. Ripley's transfiguration from scream-queen to feminist icon.

Ripley, the New Woman of the 1970s: half empowered female astronaut, half babe in space.

Ximena Gallardo C. co-wrote Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley, a popular academic treatise upon the evolution, image and influence on culture of the heroine of the first four Alien movies, together with C. Jason Smith. Here she examines the bizarre sexual landscape of the Alien series, and suggests that even the AVP films are not lacking in new subtexts…

By conflating the typical male hero of science fiction with the female survivor of the emerging slasher films such as Halloween (1978), Alien (1979) became the first science fiction film with a female protagonist who defends, and represents, all of humanity.

Ripley is Third Officer of the space towing ship Nostromo, whose crew is awakened from cryo-sleep to answer a distress call from an unexplored planet. After discovering an alien derelict spaceship, a male crewmember, First Officer Kane, is attacked by an alien life form whose parasitic progeny later erupts from his chest during a spaghetti-based “last supper” before the crew returns to cryo-sleep. This scene erased the basic sexual distinction between men and women, and blatantly invoked anxieties about the subversion of male power by representing the male body as a site of rape and birth.

The Alien escapes, and, one by one, it violently captures and kills the crew of the Nostromo. Ripley ultimately discovers that the ‘Company’ the crew works for is determined to bring back the Alien for its “weapons division.” She must fight the Alien and the system represented by the ship’s computer, MU/TH/UR 6000, and also the Company’s robot, Ash, who tries to dispose of Ripley in a mock-rape scene. Ripley’s confrontation with, and final destruction of, the Alien as the Company’s object of desire becomes the major theme of the series, and thereby gives voice to the feminist goal of saving humanity from the destructive impulses of patriarchy.

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Make no mistake, however: Alien was never intended to be primarily a feminist movie nor even a movie for women. Rather, as the illustrating photo reveals, Ripley fully embodied the type of male fantasies about strong women that inform most science fiction films from The Terminator to The Matrix trilogy and beyond.

Blame the 1970’s sexual revolution “empowered woman in tiny panties” ending of Alien on the contradicting roles women were trying to juggle in the 1970s (and still are today); and yet somewhere in the confusion between assertive independent working girl, sex object, and saviour of the world, Ripley became something more than a quaint footnote in film history.

Subsequent writers and directors of Alien films in the 1980s and 1990s, left to grapple with a strong female protagonist, re-envisioned Ripley to express and promote changing ideas of woman’s place in the late 20th century. James Cameron rewrote Ripley as a Reaganite action hero supermom in Aliens (1986). In Alien 3 (1992), David Fincher represented Ripley as a paradox: she is the virgin/whore, “the intolerable”/object of desire, the saviour/destroyer, the hyper-female/macho bitch, and the reproductive/self-destructive body whose sacrifice propels her figure into legend. Brought back to life via cloning in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997), Ripley is no longer human, but she is still female: a complex post-human female of choice and action who has integrated the monster into her very DNA, a factor that blatantly exposes the interchangeability of Alien and Woman present in the subtext of all Alien films.

Then the narratives of Alien and Predator came together in Alien vs. Predator (2004), and each franchise brought with it its own vision of Otherness: from Alien came the fusion of alien and woman, from Predator came the figure of the alien as a raced “Other” (just in case we did not read the Predator’s head ornamentation as dreadlocks in Predator, Predator 2 poses the Predator against the dreadlock images of Jamaican gang members).

Alien vs. Predator’s implicit premise, that the Predator species is the extraterrestrial origin for our pyramids and that humans had worshipped the Predators as gods, turns the concept of “human civilisation” — and of colonisation — on its head. They are the conquerors and we are their children.

Add to this narrative a black female protagonist, the accomplished mountaineer Alexa Woods. Her transformation from a sophisticated cautious woman to a wild-haired powerful fighter whose cheek, in the end, carries the mark of a Predator warrior clearly belies her move from purely human to similitude with the alien. To reward her victory and her assistance in the fight against the Alien species, and to signal her new identity, the Predators give her the retractable spear from one of their fallen comrades. She, the first ever black female protagonist of a science-fiction film, has become like the gods.For more on the female heroes of science fiction, check Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley (Continuum, 2004), and Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Encyclopedia (forthcoming from Greenwood Press).

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