Aliens and the Women Who Love Them
If there’s one thing the alien film does well, it’s the introduction of an outsider to provide an inside glimpse at the human condition. What often gets knocked off the wayside is a myriad of underlying issues, including the continued questionable portrayal of women and, more broadly, their social status and treatment.
Along with humanity’s battle against extermination, Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Prometheus (2012) supplies a healthy dose of intergalactic misogyny. One need only cite the scene where lead character Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) attempts to cut an alien fetus out of her uterus via machine-operated hysterectomy. She’s quite out of luck when the robodoctor matter-of-factly informs her: “This machine is calibrated for male patients only.” No lady-related operations on the menu, sorry.
If there’s one thing the alien film does well, it’s the introduction of an outsider to provide an inside glimpse at the human condition. In this way, all manner of humancentric topics are explored: the necessity of coming together to defeat our common problems (forget nation-sized conflicts when there’s universe-sized conflicts about); our never-ending quest for knowledge, whether a wise pursuit or not (from lightspeed travel to genetically engineering human-alien hybrids); humankind’s lack of empathy (subjecting aliens to all kinds of medical testing without wondering how they feel about it); and, above all, our discomfort with and fear of those who are not like us (alien films, full stop).
However, what often gets knocked off the wayside in favour of the exploration of these more overt themes is a myriad of underlying issues, including the continued questionable portrayal of women and, more broadly, their social status and treatment. One of the most obvious examples of this is District 9: while providing complicated lessons about the horrors of apartheid and our tragic way of ignoring brotherhood across species (or, more to the point, race), the 2009 film managed to forget that not only do multiple races exist, so do multiple genders. Finding a female human that appears in the film for more than 15 minutes is hard enough, let alone a female alien. This appears not to be an intentional plot schematic, but a genuine oversight.
And therein lies the reasoning for dusting off the feminist lens and giving a smattering of alien films from the past few decades, along with their female characters, a turn under the glass. Narrowing it down even further to women and their interactions with the titular aliens of the films to which they belong, what comes into focus is the continued employment of reductive stereotypes for female leads, women who -- as both wanton mistress and nurturing mother -- are inevitably there to provide to the alien Others some form of love and affection (albeit often of a strange and perverted kind -- these are alien films, after all).
The Damsel in Distress
One of the most enduring characterizations of women is the Damsel in Distress. Not only found in Disney movies, the Damsel in Distress pops up just as regularly in alien films, although in more dissonant -- and therefore more masked and more alarming -- ways. I’m going to cheat right off the bat and look at an alien woman who is loved by a human man: the character Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) from Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997).
Literally billed as the “Perfect Being” (yet another female stereotype, also typified by similar humanoid alien Ella Swenson [Olivia Wilde] in Cowboys & Aliens ), Leeloo is predictably beautiful and, predictably, immediately sexualized by the audience of men who watch her come to life. This is to be forgiven though, as she makes her first onscreen appearance naked, then to be only semi-clothed in bondage-like “thermal bandages”. Despite that she's the perfect being (and the Fifth Element: saviour of all that is good in the world, namely love), she is savage- and feral-like, and within seconds violently attacks a man with her bare hands. She is, we immediately learn, incredibly strong and wily.
However, as the blue-hued Diva Plavalaguna later uses her dying breath to tell ex-army-man/current-frustrated-taxi-driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis): “She’s more fragile than she seems. She needs your help. And your love.” Here then, is a portrayal of Leeloo more concerning than her unsurprising sexualization: girl is going to save the world -- literally created to do so -- but she needs some loving first. With that, the active agent Leeloo should be is turned into nothing more than another Element, another thing, for Korben to set upon a stone pedestal (correction: hold in place with his lips) in order to save the Earth from impending doom.
Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) from Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997).
The Vessel of Evil
Another of the classic trope for women is, of course, the Vessel of Evil. You’d have thought we would’ve gotten the point by now thanks to the millennia-old story of Eve and how she, y’know, unleashed evil into the world -- not to mention that even older myth of Pandora and how she managed the same -- but apparently not.
In many alien films the Vessel of Evil is, unsurprisingly, directly related to the vessel of life women lay claim to: the uterus. Psychoanalytic theories about men’s jealousy over not being able to bring life into the world, as well as the fear of castration that the female genitals arouse, are as familiar as the story of the Fall. However, there’s also that lingering suspicion directed at the uterus by certain expecting fathers: “Who (or what) exactly do you have in there?” While the fear of someone else’s genes duplicating themselves via your woman’s womb explains much of the reasoning behind the historic valorization of women’s chasteness, as far as alien films go, this translates to women’s reproductive capabilities making possible insidious methods of alien genetic infiltration -- which, assuredly, leads to humankind’s destruction.
Taking on this role of Vessel of Evil we have the aforementioned Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien: Resurrection (1997), and Jillian Armacost (Charlize Theron) in The Astronaut’s Wife (1999). Both Shaw and Ripley are so lucky as to be used as incubators for alien fetuses, Shaw with the first draft of what (we assume) will eventually become the aliens faced in the Alien series, and Ripley with a Queen that a greedy corporation is intent on bringing back to Earth for capitalistic purposes (read: accidentally loosing on the planet, destroying mankind). Ripley’s role as Vessel of Evil is particularly complicated by this last Alien film, with Ripley herself (not just her gamete) becoming part of what she’s incubating via some dubious genetic experiments, eventually mothering a gross, peach-coloured, human-alien hybrid.
Not just storehouses for alien babies, Shaw, Ripley, and Armacost all contribute their genes to the mix, as well. Though ultimately repulsed by their offspring, all three of these women are forced to battle with whether or not to destroy the thing (i.e., child) that grows or grew inside them. All ultimately decide to do so despite the physical harm involved not only for the fetuses, but for themselves. This attempt to halt alien life, however, never really works (I’m sure Ripley’s creepy babies are somewhere out there, waiting for a sequel). Armacost, for her part, fails miserably in her last-minute decision to abort the alien life she carries, ushering in the takeover of Earth by alienkind in the form of static-speaking twins.
In fact, out of all of these female leads, Jillian Armacost deserves the prize for her standout role as a passive, indecisive, inept woman -- the perfect Vessel of Evil. It is quite literally by virtue of being a healthy female that Armacost assures her alien-possessed husband, Spencer (Johnny Depp), that she is a suitable repository for his alien seed. He very creepily takes her pulse (vitals: good) moments before the scene cuts to him very forcefully having sex with her, impregnating her in a date rape–like scene.
Full of very dubious allusions to the fertility of women as undesirable and dangerous, no single element in The Astronaut’s Wife is more treacherous in that respect than the character Shelley McLaren (Blair Brown). Though a fairly minor character, it is from her -- ostensibly Armacost’s friend and mother-like confidante -- that we get lines like: “A total lack of body fat has made her [some random socialite] less than human. I don’t think she’s had her period in three years -- which I guess is a blessing for the gene pool, wouldn’t you say?” The message is clear: if only Armacost had gone on a crash diet, rendering herself infertile and unusable to the alien dressed up as her husband, humankind wouldn’t have ever been plunged into peril. The gene pool would have been safe.
The Invisible Woman
Then there is the more or less deletion of women characters altogether. More than just forgetting to put a strong female character (or two, even!) in the script, District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp appears to have done his best to erase the notion of women/females as beings of some importance, with autonomy and agency -- and even existence. Unlike the previously discussed films, there’s no lead female character to dissect in District 9, so I’ll look more generally at the women the aliens in the film do, and do not, love.
As previously mentioned, District 9 centres around the segregation and mistreatment of alien refugees (whom the locals derogatorily refer to as “prawns”) that crash land in Johannesburg. The social troubles created by the alien encampment -- both within and outside its walls -- and the antagonism between the humans and prawns take main character Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) on a journey from bigot to sort-of alien liberator. However, amongst important issues of racism, humankind’s lust for weapons and war, and the valuation of money over life, the existence and role of women garners no consideration.
Fact: all of the aliens in District 9 are represented as male. Arising from this simple truth is a major gender/sex issue -- that of reproduction. While sexual reproduction is heavily featured in many alien films (that is, the Vessel of Evil trope), it’s completely sidestepped in District 9. But certainly some people out there -- biology majors, perhaps -- had to be wondering from where the prawn eggs spring. To find the answer to this question, one has to turn to the special features menu of the DVD and to the deleted scene entitled “Alien Reproductive System”. Turns out the aliens of District 9 are actually not all males, but rather they’re asexual/hermaphroditic beings. That is, they possess both male and female genitals, but they only impregnate themselves, not one another.
This raises all sorts of questions, such as how there’s any genetic diversity among the aliens at all. Of course, there’s also the questions “Why are all the aliens, bearers of two sets of genitalia, automatically given a masculine pronoun?” and “Why is one of the earthly vices of asexual prawns the employment of human women prostitutes?” I can invent all sort of convoluted plot points as to why this is, but, let’s be honest, the real reason is probably because no one -- not Blomkamp or his co-writer/wife Terri Tatchell -- considered the discord created by leaving females and the feminine out of it.
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Despite the opportunity alien films consistently provide for humans to come together and forget their petty skirmishes in lieu of recognizing the worth and importance of all of our different ways -- differences and ways worth saving from extinction -- women, like the aliens in these films, continue to be treated as Other.
Though one of the most kickass female characters of all time, even Ripley doesn’t escape hackneyed female stereotyping. Not only does she spend a good amount of time in her underwear throughout the Alien Quadrilogy, but despite consistently saving humankind from death-by-alien-bursting-through-chest, she is also the culprit behind its continued threat -- a legacy apparently passed down to her via Prometheus’s Elizabeth Shaw. Unfortunately, it's a legacy the women of cinema haven’t yet escaped.
The reductive female stereotypes portrayed in cinema have been hashed over ever since feminists began to explore the topic in art and writing in the '70s. Photographer Cindy Sherman, for example, famously deals with these stereotypes in her Untitled Film Stills series (1977–80); Laura Mulvey published her hugely influential essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema”, on the topic of the cinematic male gaze and onscreen women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” in 1975; and The Monstrous Feminine, Barbara Creed’s examination of women in horror films, appeared in 1993. However, despite women and film being an old subject, a closer look at the women of Fifth Element, Alien: Resurrection, The Astronaut’s Wife, District 9, and Prometheus -- all alien films from 1997 or later -- demonstrates that it’s a discussion that's far from over.