Essay: Women in the Horror Film – Ripley, the Alien & the Monstrous Feminine

In this essay I take a critical look at the way femininity is portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien through its key protagonist and antagonist with reference to key feminist writers…

The following essay is an accompanying piece to the following Top 10 Films Lists that feature Ridley Scott’s Alien: Science-Fiction Horror, Scariest Movie Scenes, Gory Film scenes, and Films beginning with ‘A’. Please also read my review of the film HERE

A critical study closely examining Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) as a re-evaluation of feminist culture in cinema

alien film ridley scott feminism

Looking at feminist writer Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the classical Hollywood film it is interesting how Alien (Scott, 1979) defies her claims about scopophilia, in that the film both subverts her ideas about voyeuristic visual pleasure and narcissistic visual pleasure. (Mulvey, 1975/1989, pg. 353) Mulvey claims that scopophilia (the desire to see) is a fundamental drive according to Freud and that it is sexual in nature. Therefore film uses this in two ways – one is that of voyeurism, both of character, figure and situation, and the second is that of narcissism within the story and the image. She sees scopophilia as a structure that functions on an axis of activity and passivity and that this is gendered. From a voyeuristic point of view, her analysis of classical Hollywood film established ‘the male character as active and powerful: he is the agent around whom the dramatic action unfolds and the look gets organised. The female character is passive and powerless: she is the object of desire for the male character.’ (Mulvey, 1975/1989, pg. 353) This appears to be reversed in Alien as the active and powerful character who defeats the alien and outlives all, including the men, is female. Furthermore, the dramatic action unfolds around her, and the male characters are presented as weak – Captain Dallas makes mistakes, he breaks quarantine laws and cannot protect his team, eventually dying; and robot Ash, whose look and appearance is that of a man, malfunctions and fails his duties. From a narcissistic point of view, Mulvey argues that the audience is forced to see the male character as the powerful, idealised one over the female because she cites Lacan’s concepts of ego formation as the driving force. Lacan claimed that a child derives pleasure from a perfect mirror image of itself and forms its ‘ego’ based on that idealised image. Mulvey therefore says, the ‘representation of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego of the male hero stands in stark opposition to the distorted image of the passive and powerless female character.’ (Mulvey, 1975/1989, pg. 354)

In Alien the roles are clearly reversed, as Ripley is the strong female character who makes active judgements and survives what is trying to kill her. The male character’s activity is largely passive – most die quickly, others wait for her command. It is Ripley who makes the plan to defeat the alien which works, while the ‘powerless’ male Captain makes bad judgements as his unsure plan fails and he is killed. So the idealised image, based on Lacan’s theory, is with the female and not the male. This therefore suggests that contrary to classical Hollywood cinema (Mulvey’s main focus was pre-1960), modern horror films, such as Alien, offer both visual and narcissistic pleasure based primarily on the female character rather than the male character.

Mulvey also argues that in Classical Hollywood narrative the concept of the ‘woman’ is an idea which is fundamentally ambiguous in that ‘it combines attraction and seduction with the evocation of castration anxiety’. (Mulvey, 1975/1989, pg 354) This idea, based firmly in Freudian theory, sees the female character being a source of much deeper fears for the male due to her appearance reminding him of the lack of a penis, hence castration anxiety. She argues that this is solved both in the narrative and in what she terms ‘fetishism’. In the narrative Mulvey cites Hitchcock’s films as prime examples, notably Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) and Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) where the woman is punished for creating the fear of castration for the male, and her guilt is either sealed through that punishment or there occurs a salvation. Two typical endings would include death (punishment) or marriage to the main male protagonist (salvation). Alien defies this as the woman is not punished or saved, as she saves herself without male assistance. Her salvation is brought about by her own doing, and it could be argued that both elements of the film that could have brought her death are asexual, or as Barbara Creed would claim, they are the ‘monstrous feminine’. The alien is unspecific in gender by appearance, and Ripley must fight a computer going by the name of ‘mother’, that suggests she is actually battling another female. Mulvey goes onto argue that through ‘fetishism’ the woman deflects attention away from castration anxiety by changing ‘from a dangerous figure into a reassuring object of flawless beauty.’ (Mulvey, 9175/1989, pg 354)

Yet both female characters in Alien are presented as dishevelled and tired throughout. Their astronaut’s uniforms don’t display their female figure, and their lack of make-up positions them further from what Mulvey says is ‘flawless beauty’. Therefore Alien acts almost as a pro-feminist film because it defies many of the very characteristics that Mulvey claims make classic Hollywood cinema anti-‘woman’. Yet, even more so, because castration anxiety is not lost in the film, and as Barbara Creed investigates, it is a major part of the film’s underlying context. Ripley survives and defeats the alien therefore ‘woman’ is not punished or saved, and the ‘fear’ of castration is still apparent and never solved. If this Freudian theory of male fear is not solved, then the film takes on an appearance of empowering females within the context of the film, as the female is left with all the power and the dramatic action is entirely centred on her. Barbara Creed supports this in that she discusses how Ripley undresses at the end of the film. ‘Ripley’s body is pleasurable and reassuring to look at. She signifies the ‘acceptable’ form and shape of woman.’ (Creed, 1993, pg. 23) This appears to reaffirm her sexuality but instead of being detrimental to her character’s gender, it would appear, based on the relevance of narcissistic visual pleasure, that this is actually a celebration of the strong female role, and an underlying of that fact.

Counter-argument against Mulvey’s thesis may ultimately come about because she doesn’t account for the female ‘gaze’ and only relates to the male ‘gaze’. Yet her argument against critics that made this point about her makes for an interesting interpretation of why Ripley’s role, served usually by male actors, is pleasurable to the female viewer, and perhaps an answer why the strong female character must take on a level of masculinity to express her power. Returning to Freud, Mulvey says that according to the pre-oedipal and phallic fantasy stage of development which affects boys and girls in the same way, and is essentially masculine, means women must shed this active part of masculinity within themselves to achieve ‘proper’ femininity. Ripley’s show of male-like dominance, power and masculinity is pleasurable for women because ‘female spectators negotiate the masculinisation of the spectatorial position in Hollywood cinema, because it signifies for them a pleasurable rediscovery of a lost aspect of their sexual identity.’ (Mulvey, 1975/1989, pg. 355) Therefore from Mulvey’s analysis we can argue that Ripley can indeed take on a level of masculinity while simply celebrating her own femininity – a ‘lost aspect of [her own] sexual identity’, and not a woman who is ‘restless in her transvestite clothes’ (Mulvey, 1975/1989, pg 355), because Ripley reaffirms her own sexuality when she removes her clothes at the end of the film.

Carol Clover in her work analysing ‘slasher’ films and her theories of the ‘Final girl’ can explain this masculinisation of the female lead character. She claims that male and female spectators identify bisexually and she separates out the differences between appearance (sex) and behaviour (gender). Examining narrative she states that the ‘Final Girl: the one girl in the film who fights, resists and survives the killer-monster, [is the one who] acquires the gaze, and dominates the action, and is thus masculinised.’ (Clover, 1992, pg. 357) In Alien, Ripley acquires the gaze by being the only one left alive, and dominates the action by defeating the alien. Clover argues that by openly playing on the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, that the ‘theatricalisation of gender’ feminises the audience because the woman is her own saviour making her the hero, at which point the male viewer gives up the last pretence of male identification. (Clover, 1992) Like the ‘slasher’ film, Alien’s Ripley displays many of the narrative characteristics which Clover discusses, and Clover is adamant the modern horror film ‘adjusts gender representations and identifications’ (Clover, 1992. pg 378), something Hollywood wasn’t doing pre-1960 according to Mulvey. What Clover appears to be arguing is that through the ‘Final Girl’ modern horror cinema is largely a feminist movement because ‘the male gives up the last pretence of male identification’. Whilst gender roles can differ, the masculinisation of a character such as Ripley, only serves as a celebration of feminism, and instead of, as Mulvey claimed, women being ‘passive and powerless’, they are now being empowered at the expense of men.

Barbara Creed closely analysed Alien using Freud as a basis, and using one of her arguments regarding what she teems the ‘archaic mother’, it is possible to examine Alien’s femininity from a totally different approach to that of Laura Mulvey and Carol Clover. Using Freud’s notes on the ‘primal fantasies’, and his ideas that children either view their parents having sex or have fantasies about seeing them have sex, a child may perceive ‘whether in reality or fantasy, the primal scene as a monstrous act it may fantasise animals or mythical creatures taking part.’ (Creed, 1993. pg. 18) She uses this idea of ‘sex’ and the ‘monstrous’ and relates it to the film Alien. Instead of seeing female characters from their role within the narrative, or their appearance, Creed suggests that the very ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ within the film is feminine in nature, and this therefore totally disparages Mulvey’s claims of the ‘passive’ female, because the film’s very active ‘power’ comes from that which is rooted in femininity. She does this by investigating the ‘archaic mother’ – that which is ‘the point of origin and of end’, that which represents life and death. This ‘mother’ is inherently female. Creed calls the alien a ‘parthenogenetic mother, the mother of primordial abyss’ which relates to the fact of sexual reproduction without the need for fertilisation, and therefore without a male. In Freud’s theory this would be a ‘fear’ for the male, and Creed argues that this therefore empowers femininity as it suggests the female is that which creates life and takes life away, without the necessity of the male. She cites several areas where Alien suggests this. In the opening sequence the camera travels through the long corridors of the ship which Creed relates to the inner workings of the female body, before settling on a chamber where the seven astronauts are awoken. Creed discusses this room as ‘womb-like’, and as the astronauts awake and come out of the sleeping pods, she relates this to giving birth and the computer, called ‘mother’ in the film, which brings them to ‘life’ represents that ‘the father is completely absent, here the mother is sole parent and sole-life support.’ (Creed, 1992. pg. 18) Another moment when the ‘archaic mother’ is represented is when the three astronauts investigate the alien spaceship. Here, Creed discusses the idea that they go through a door in the ship shaped like a ‘vagina’ and walk through a passage that could again represent the inner body of a woman. They then enter a large room full of eggs, which represents the womb. This underlying notion of the female body and reproductive organs continually signifies the ‘archaic mother’ and life and death. When Kane is ‘raped’ by the alien ‘the primeval mother does not need the male as ‘father’, only as a host body, and the alien creature murderously gnaws its way through Kane’s body’ killing him. (Creed, 1992. pg.28) This is a representation of the ‘parthenogenetic mother’, the one that does not need the male or father. Creed’s analysis empowers femininity by drawing on the ideas that modern horror films require an underlying context that belittles masculinity and male existence, and suggests that female representations seen by Mulvey were patriarchal defence mechanisms. ‘The concept of the parthenogenetic, archaic mother adds another dimension to the maternal figure and presents us with a new way of understanding how patriarchal ideology works to deny the difference of ‘woman’ in her cinematic representation.’ (Creed, 192. pg 20)

Bibliography

Bordwell, D (1985) Narration In The Fiction Film London: Routledge

Clover, C (1992) The Cinema Book – Second Edition (Classical Film Narrative). London: BFI

Creed, B (1993) The Montrous Feminine – Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge

Freud, S ( – ) ‘Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy’ – The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud London: Hogarth

Freud, S ( – ) ‘Female Sexuality’ – The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud London: Hogarth

Freud, S ( – ) ‘Fetishism’ – The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud London: Hogarth

Freud, S ( – ) ‘Totem and taboo’ – The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud London: Hogarth

Freud, S ( – ) ‘The infantile genital organisation’ – The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud London: Hogarth

Freud, S ( – ) Three essays on the theory of sexuality’ – The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud London: Hogarth

Mulvey, L (1975/1989) The Cinema Book – Second Edition (Classical Film Narrative). London: BFI

Whitehead, M (2003) Slasher Movies New York: Trafalgar

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Heather Reply

    Great, great, great article. Where I always found success in the character of Ripley was what a lot of the points here have been made………she did basically just switch roles with the male lead. She wasn’t sexed up, she didn’t have super powers, she was just a character taking the initiative. In a way it wasn’t about her being a female, it was about her being a human. There wasn’t a clear definition of her sex. If never mentioned in a book or script, the reader would have never known if Ripley was a woman or a man. One of cinema’s greatest character’s of all time. I love that you posted this.

    • Dan Reply

      Thanks Heather…such kind comments are really appreciated. Alien is one of those great films that goes beyond the horror film stereotype – it begs to be studied and viewed in the same way as any great work of cinema. It is a fabulous film in many ways, the fact it was so ahead of its time in terms of its female lead character is sometimes overlooked.

  2. Fernando Reply

    Excellent analysis. I love this type of philosophical approach to cinema. It makes you think and see the movie in terms you would never have suspected before.
    And Alien, being a landmark film in so many aspects, clearly deserves this kind of treatment

    • Dan Reply

      Thanks Fernando. This took a bit of time to put together but it was well worth it. Analysing a favourite film is always a joy.

  3. Heather Reply

    Oh I could spend all day talking Alien with you. It was such a diverse film too. It was horror, suspense, and science fiction. It was so new, and the trailer for it still gives me chills.

    No one can hear you scream in space.

    Ridley Scott is the man.

  4. Sofia Reply

    I have no idea how you managed to summarise that Creed text so well but it’s a lot of help right now since I’m writing my thesis on femininity in the Alien franchise 🙂 Actually you’re going to be in my bibliography so thanks a lot again!

    • Todd Cardin Reply

      I am a clinical social worker and researcher (and old enough to remember when this film came out). It is a remarkable work of humanistic fiction—a fact largely unobserved by the generations who have had the bigeebers frightened out of them by this film. I would love to read any part of your thesis, even if it’s just the bibliography. And in case you haven’t considered this perspective, the archaic “pathogenic mother” described above can be interpreted in a more androgynous way. Consider the cold, calculating machine that is Mother (the computer refusing to shut down the auto-destruct sequence of the ship), the machine (android) that is Ash (the masculine figure whose programming lacks awareness of or regard for the humanistic qualities of humans), and the “perfect killing machine” that is the alien itself. These elements play out in stark contrast to Ripley’s nurturing instincts which are expressed in rescuing the cat, her concerns for the crew’s safety when Dallas wants to lift off from the surface of the planetoid before all repairs are completed, and her willingness to place a higher value on the well-being of a few humans over the enormous capital value of the ship and its payload).

      While Ripley portrays an androgynous humanism by retaining her nurturing side as she is forced to access aggressive survival instincts, the elements conspiring against her seem to embody A-humanistic manifestations of propagation—rape, corporate greed, and the objectification and abandoning of the nurturing components of human nature (i.e. the sacred feminine). These conspiring elements—subparts of the “pathogenic mother”—are (like Ripley) both masculine and feminine in nature. Mother (the ship’s computer) mechanically sustains life, but fails to nurture or ultimately protect life in her vessel. Ash, the android who mechanically goes through the motions of appearing to attend to the crew’s medical needs for the first portion of the film sardonically smirks and says, “you have my sympathies,” after attempting to overpower and penetrate Ripley with a rolled up magazine when she learns of his true directive. The monster (both phallic and feminine in appearance) blatantly represents purely aggressive instincts to feed and propagate. Ripley and the rest of the crew are placed in the lethal path of this naked aggression by the Company (a faceless corporation looking to profit from the monster’s potential value as a military weapon).

      The most significant cultural value of this film may be its prophetic warning. We might want to be careful, for we may indeed reap what we sow. Rape the universe in mechanized ways, and she will surely propagate, but her offspring will be less human and more mechanized with each succession. Humanistic tendencies such as “sympathies” may become archaic dust eroded from the human experience. It should come as no surprise then when our children (our forced penetrations and blind ambitions) come back to rape us. It should come as no surprise when we are fed upon and ultimately destroyed by that which sprang from within. This entire treatise is brilliantly sublimated by the film’s haunting androgynous phallic image of the creature found perched behind its uplifted cannon, ribs bent outward, a gaping exit wound in the chest where naked aggression had gestated. Cock and womb are androgynously symbolized by an other-worldly creature whose mouth is contorted in a scream, which of course nobody can hear in space. What O’Bannon appears to confront us with in this image is a foreshadowing of the future we humans may be writing for ourselves if we don’t do a better job of incorporating the nurturing sacred feminine into our androgyny. We may, in fact, be the pathogenic mother of future generations.

  5. Amina Reply

    This is great! Im wondering tho… Whats the point with Lambert? How can you analyze that? I mean, Lamberts role. Since shes kinda the opposite of Ripley. Shes way to emotional and she cant stay professional in anything she does… What does the director try to tell us with her role?

  6. mark Reply

    Regardless of what any feminist might say, there are a few things to observe about Ripley:

    (1)Any male who saw the film will remember her in panties (oh baby)when she climbs into the space suit near the end of the first film;

    (2)She willingly kills her offspring in number four when she lets the creature get sucked out the window as the ship enters Earth’s atmosphere;

    (3) Again with number four, why is it that she, in an act of pure machismo, has to burn her clones to death with a flamethrower when she could have shot them in the head and saved them some agonising pain?

    Whichever way one looks at it, Ripley is a male construct.

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