Aliens and the Women Who Love Them

Jaclyn Arndt
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) struggles to remove an alien fetus in Ridley Scott's film Prometheus.

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.


Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce
Rated: R
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-08 (General release)
UK date: 2012-06-01 (General release)

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 [2011]), 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.

* * *

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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