Ursula Le Guin once famously wrote that sci-fi isn’t prescriptive, it’s descriptive. By that she meant that when a work of sci-fi presents, say, travel faster than the speed of light or an alternative biology, these futuristic tropes become vehicles for exploring subjects closer to home from a novel perspective that disrupts tired ways of thinking about them. In so doing, Le Guin claims, sci-fi can “say in words what cannot be said in words”.
Surprising many, Steven Spielberg’s film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (hereafter E.T.), which premiered in June 1982, was the top grossing film that year in the US. Billed as the story of “a troubled child [who] summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his home-world”. E.T. captured the public imagination like no other film of the early ’80s. At their request, Spielberg even held a private screening of the film for Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House. Michael Jackson went out of his way to purchase one of the puppets used in the making of the film. Neil Diamond wrote a hit song, “Heartlight”, inspired by one of the film’s central tropes. The film is also famous for introducing Reese’s Pieces to the consuming public, the most prominent early instance of the power of the product placement. E.T. has gone on to achieve the status of a classic, making just about every “best of” list of sci-fi movies.
Wildly popular and critically acclaimed, E.T. also drew the attention of scholars who sought to understand its appeal. In an essay for the journal Science Fiction Studies, Andrew Gordon writes that “the characters… in E. T. are complete human beings — with the alien creature, oddly, the most human of them all.” He suggests that the extra-terrestrial could represent various archetypes: the “updated version [of the] enchanted creatures who populate folklore and fairy tales”, for example, an enchanted frog, an eternal child such as Peter Pan, or a child god.
For Gordon, the subtext that these archetypes bear is that of “a boy’s psychological maturation”, that one may even read E.T. the alien character as “Elliott’s alter-ego, a magical double who completes him” or “a symbol of phallic power”. The letters “e” and “t”, after all, are prominent in both names. In the edited collection A Necessary Fantasy?, Douglas Brode compares E.T. to Joseph Conrad’s secret-sharers and likens “him” to a “Christ figure… the perfect father”.
These readings hint at the powerful allusiveness at play in E.T., but they feel underdeveloped. If we accept Le Guin’s contention — that sci-fi is always about difficult-to-articulate concerns very much close to home — it’s easier to also accept Gordon and Brode’s assumption that, speaking generally, the alien, that bread-and-butter of sci-fi, is a modern variation on a much older trope, the monster.
The late, great French philosopher of biology, Georges Canguilhem, believed that the condition of being a monster, or monstrosity, represents the “the accidental and conditional threat of incompleteness or distortion in the formation of the form”. He saw monsters as “the negation of the living by the nonviable”. At the dawn of the Age of Reason, the new men of science made every effort to rationalize monstrosity, to categorize and, therefore, naturalize it. Canguilhem writes that back “in the age of fables, monstrosity exposed the monstrous power of the imagination”. But “in the age of experiments, the monster is taken to be a symptom of puerility or mental malady; it indicates debility or a breakdown of reason”.
Canguilhem is concerned here with biology as a scientific discipline and its domestication of monsters — creatures real or imagined that had heretofore eluded categorization. But as Le Guin would surely stress, sci-fi, more often than not, nestles into the fuzzy boundaries between the dominant natural and social orders. Representations of the monstrous have as much to do with resistant social categories as they do biological ones.
An Enlightened Age such as ours, one that abhors the irrational, seeks to drive monsters, whether biological or social, to the margins of public discourse. Yet within the private life of the imagination, monsters morph, multiply, and thrive. Among other roles, they serve as vehicles for encounters with things in our lives that defy knee-jerk rationalization.
Such was the case with the surprising resonance of E.T. in 1982. Not only is E.T., as a character, Elliott’s alter-ego, it embodies the emergence of Elliott’s sexual identity in an era when more and more Americans were forcing the issue of gay rights into the public conversation. As the movie begins, it’s immediately clear that Elliott belongs to a new social and economic order, one in which individuals, reacting to the rigidly defined gender roles of preceding generations, began to insist more emphatically on their right to define their own identities, sexual or otherwise.
Elliott and his family live in a prosperous suburb in California, just south of San Francisco. The house is overflowing with consumer goods. His father has separated from Elliott’s mother Mary and “run off” to Mexico with another woman. Despite the marital discord, the family seems to have virtually unlimited purchasing power. Although not explicitly stated, Mary is profitably employed in a white-collar new economy job. Elliot is a “latch-key” kid. His mother calls him from work to coddle him when he feigns sickness. He resists her over-protectiveness.
In the opening sequence, Elliott’s older brother Mike is playing the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, that quintessential trainer in identity construction, with his buddies. The boys are shown to be post-pubescent. They’re beginning to express their sexual identities. One of them reaches aggressively for Mary’s ass.
Elliot wants to join the coterie. But he’s pre-pubescent, with a squeaky, overeager voice. The boys’ language is full of sexual innuendo. They call each other “douchebag” and “penis breath”. Later, one of them jokes that the visitor Elliott has encountered must be from “Uranus”. These quips all smack of the homoerotic.
When Elliott goes out to investigate a strange noise, he approaches the gardening shed. In American coming-of-age films, sheds often serve as bowers for adolescent sexual exploration. E.T. plays ball with him, which resonates with Elliott’s relationship to his father. When Elliott and his siblings speculate on the identity of the visitor, Elliot is protective. Mike thinks the creature might be a “pervert” or “deformed kid”. Elliot is worried that the authorities might “give it a lobotomy” or “do experiments on it”. He instinctively recognizes that those not readily categorized are subject to what is often a violating scrutiny.
When Elliott first encounters the alien in the forest, he retreats to the playground swing set, a symbol of childhood innocence. But Elliott feels compelled to explore the relationship. He lures E.T. into his closet of all places, with pieces of candy. We could read this interaction as the eerie inversion of a pedophile’s efforts to seduce a child. Or perhaps it’s a wry acknowledgment of the foundation of adult sexual relationships, hunger and gratification.
As the relationship, portrayed as an empathic symbiosis, between Elliott and E.T. grows, his siblings reprimand him: “you say ‘we’ all the time now”. Elliott assumes E.T. is male. When his younger sister Gertie questions him, Elliott asserts, “he’s a boy”.
Consider, though, the flip side of alter-ego: E.T. himself. Gordon reads his spherical spaceship as a maternal “womb”. But the spaceship is mechanical, not of the flesh. Let’s read the vessel, then, as a metonym for the city, an urban space meant to contrast the suburban pastoral of Elliott’s neighborhood.
In 1982, large cities were the only places where gays could assert their identities in community relatively sheltered from hostility and censure. E.T. is found venturing out from the protection of his ship to collect botanical samples. He is a gardener, a conventional gay stereotype. Headless authorities pursue him with their flashlights. The beams of light piercing the protective darkness of the bower serve as a metaphor for the analytical gaze.
As noted above, E.T. assumes the role of surrogate father, by playing ball with Elliott. Yet after Elliott has settled E.T. into his closet, Elliott fathers the alien, educating him in the ways of the world through Star Wars action figures. The world Elliott illustrates is violent, hierarchical. “Nobody eats the shark”, he tells E.T.
When Mary enters Elliott’s room and sees the mess he’s made, he replies “I was reorganizing.” Elliot has been busy assimilating the “alien” identity. When she scans the closet, Mary misrecognizes E.T. as a doll.
Elliott’s younger sister, Gertie, cross-dresses E. T. Uncannily, it’s only through the mediation of what is, in effect, a drag performance, that E.T. begins to speak. Elliott resists the drag identity. He admonishes Gertie, telling her to “give him his dignity”.
E.T. is an exemplar of the newly emerging social order. He represents the reconciliation of the analytical and the intuitive, talented with both the organic, as well as the technological. He improvises a hi-tech device from common household consumer goods in order to “phone home”. His preoccupation is with information-economy productivity — to create a new medium of communication.
Gordon writes that “the ads for the film emphasize the long, glowing finger reaching out like the hand of God… in Michelangelo’s famous painting”. E.T. embodies the new Information Age Renaissance Man — the artist, inventor, healer. It’s not a coincidence that this image of Elliott and E.T. touching fingers evokes that famous fresco of Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam. The economy of this allusion is wonderful. The touching fingers are phallic, yes, and made further queer by association with one of the great men of the Renaissance, now widely recognized as having been homosexual.
The one scene that supposedly demonstrates Elliott’s heterosexuality comes off as ambiguous. E.T. is getting drunk and watching a movie on television starring John Wayne, that mythic industrial-age icon of machismo. Meanwhile, Elliott is in biology class where the students must etherize and dissect frogs. The symbiosis between Elliott and E.T. reaches a fever pitch. Elliott grows as drunk as E.T., slumps in his desk, and belches when E.T. does. Channeling E.T.’s enlightened compassion, he tries to liberate the frogs.
In the chaos that follows, just as John Wayne pulls his love interest to him and kisses her, so too does Elliott with the class cutie, using a bully as a stool. But who is kissing whom? It’s unclear whether E.T. identifies with John Wayne or the girl whom Elliott embraces.
Yet, in spite of the blossoming union between E.T. and Elliott, E.T. misses his home, the far-off urban community.
In the summer of 1981, a mysterious new disease was killing gay men disproportionately in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The liberal press dubbed the disease the “gay cancer”. In our dissident reading of E.T., it’s not a stretch to suggest that E.T. has contracted AIDS. E.T. grows weak and then sick, finally collapsing by a riverbed near the forest. His body is emaciated, sallow, ashen. Mike fetches E.T. back to the house. Elliott declares to his mother, “I think we’re dying.” The nature of the disease, its destructiveness, are uncertain.
Of an older, less tolerant generation, Elliott’s mother separates them, rejects their symbiosis. Presumably by invitation, faceless astronauts invade the house and construct a hermetic bio-lab around the two of them. The menace of the unknown disease has bred media and medical hysteria.
Scholars have written extensively on the Christ allusions in the subsequent scenes of resurrection within the cryogenic crypt. But they overlook the pivotal moment when E.T. “releases” Elliott from the symbiotic bond. It’s only when the Major connects with Elliott that he can be free of his alter-ego. The Major has “been to the forest” and has “been wishing for this since he was a boy”. He says, “I’m glad he met you first.”
The Major represents the emotionally integrated adult male, able to both feel and analyze. He intercedes as yet another surrogate father for Elliott. E.T. is then able to resurrect by reconnecting with his community. With the use of his creative abilities and the assistance of Mike’s gang, E.T. returns to his ship.
In context of our queer reading, this last scene feels deeply ambivalent. By taking the absent father’s place beside Mary, the Major seems to be reintegrating Elliott back into “normal” society. E.T. invites Elliott to come along, but Elliott refuses. He is still a child, not ready to be independent, to move to the city to live a life as a fully self-actualized member of a new social order. As E.T. boards the spacecraft and turns to face his surrogate family, a steel grate rises to contain him. “I’ll be right here,” Elliott says to E.T., as the ship takes off.
In the twilight sky, as E.T.’s final message, the spaceship leaves a rainbow. This is, needless to say, a symbol of gay solidarity.
I don’t think that Spielberg, when drafting E.T., set out to subvert mainstream intolerance of gay culture. According to Imdb.com, Spielberg dictated the bulk of the story for E.T. to the screenwriter Melissa Mathison while on location shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. The working title for the film was “A Boy’s Life”. In an interview around the time of the premier, Spielberg said that he conceived of E.T. as a “plant-like creature” that was neither male nor female.
But as any first-year English major can tell you, the message, if we try to distill it down to one, of a work of fiction is rarely ever just what the author intends. As an artist, Spielberg began with an intuition about a story he wanted to tell and discovered its unfolding as he told it. He and his collaborators labored, to paraphrase Le Guin, to say in words (and images) what had yet to be said. In the summer of 1982, something definitely needed to be said.