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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nuke this post from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

I have the bad habit of occasionally picking fights on the Internet. This is usually only occurs when I'm already in a bad mood, and instead of chillaxing with some tea and Regina Spektor, I seek out arguments about the new Red Robin outfit or why Doctor/Rose is better than Doctor/Amy and urge my blood pressure to even unhealthier heights.

The last time this happened, the discussion was about the Alien films and whether or not the second film sold out Ripley's character to the mores of white patriarchal America. For my money it did, but I think how you view Aliens depends on how you view Alien. Now there are dozens of ways to watch these movies; it's an astoundingly great franchise in that way (and yes, I will defend Alien3 to the death. Alien: Resurrection, well, you're on your own). Most interpretations are not going to be "wrong" but I've rarely found two people who agreed about how the films, especially the first and second, should be read. A popular view of Alien is that Ripley ends the film in relative safety, but in retreat--she successfully hides from the Alien and retreats to the womb-like safety of hypersleep and waits for the Company to rescue her. It naturally follows that Aliens is the story of Ripley coming into her own, facing her fears, and defeating the monster for real.

This is not my view. My view of Ripley in the entirety of Alien is as a triumphant virgin--virgin in both the sense of an unmarried woman and the sense of a person who belongs only to themselves. Ripley is the quintessential maiden huntress: she is completely unsexed to the modern eye, her companion is an animal, and she carries out her work-a-day and survivalist hunting duties efficiently and competently. She takes control of the ship's functions and her own survival when the male members of the crew fail. Even the penultimate climactic scene, where she is shown in her underwear, is notably free of male gaze-type filming. The viewer is not intended to find the scene sexy; we are voyeurs not in the sense of gaining titillation from viewing this woman, but only in that we are seeing her go about her business as though no one else is around. Up until the end, when she ejects the Alien into the vacuum of space, she controls, manages, and directs her fear, saves herself (and Jones! It's all about Jones, really), and finally takes her much-deserved rest.

My objection to Ripley's portrayal in Aliens is not "they made her into a mommy." It is pretty fantastic to see this woman kicking Alien ass while protecting her makeshift family, and of course the line "GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU BITCH" is one of the best ever spoken on film. However, in the case of Aliens it's impossible to separate Ripley's plotline from those of the people around her. There are four female figures in the film: Ripley, Vasquez, Newt, and the Alien Queen. Of these four, two survive: Ripley and Newt. Vasquez, a "butch" Latina Marine, is killed, and of course the Alien Queen is destroyed along with her young. The message to my eyes is that the nice white lady and the little white girl and their new husband/daddy figure (Hicks) survive as a lovely nuclear family, while the lone-wolf woman of color who's too masculine--possibly lesbian--and the monstrous Other Mother (forgive me, Neil) don't make it. Aliens is an 80s film, steeped in Other-fear; the solo Alien Queen and her numerous young code as the caricature of the welfare queen, Reagan's much-loathed imaginary foe, while Vasquez's flaws remain only too obvious--she's of color, she's in the military doing "man's work" with a ginormous phallic substitute, and she is neither properly subservient nor sufficiently feminine. Ripley, too, does "man's work," but it's a softer version, tempered by her need to save Newt and her budding relationship with Hicks. Again, the problem is not with Ripley but with how her portrayal works in conjunction--or against--the other modes of femaleness in the movie. Though I appreciate the character as a mother-figure and the message that mothering is badass and mothers are full people, capable of doing multiple things at once, holding a job and caring for families, the way in which the film goes about this message grates on me. If you've seen the uncut version of Aliens, you know that a portion of backstory not in the theatre release is that Ripley had a biological daughter who died while she was in hypersleep returning to Earth. If this had made it into the theatre release, I think the film's development of Ripley's character might have felt more organic. As is, the theatrical release takes Ripley from the calm-and-competent survivor of Alien to a woman whose motivation is children, without giving any apparent impetus for this shift. Further, Aliens presents only one acceptable image of femininity and what is still supposed to be the essential female act: motherhood.

Another aspect to be considered is what the overall themes of the two films are. Alien is a pure 70s body-horror film--the fear of the parasite, of the body being overtaken and out of one's control, and the fear of rape. The alien threat has phallic signifiers and the mode of its hunting is masculine (rape) enacted on men; the result of its attack is a feminine process (birth). This is a majorly unsettling villain even today, as it forces male viewers to confront what are supposed to be female fears and experiences. As Dan O'Bannon said, the Alien and the film itself were supposed to make male viewers cross their legs. Ripley, as the major female character, would naturally be the prey in any typical horror film, but Alien turns the woman-attacked-in-sexual-ways trope around. Conversely, Aliens is a pure 80s action-horror film--the Alien now threatens humans, specifically Western colonizers/imperialists, on a larger scale. The up-close-and-personal, bodily-autonomy threat of the Alien in the first film is translated to a threat to humanity in the second (with humanity of course being the Company, the nuclear family, and Western imperial ventures). The Queen and her young threaten to overrun the colonizers; they are an indigenous population which must be stamped out; they have no male leader.

All things considered, which is the more powerful theme? Which is more compelling? Which is more analytic and thought-provoking? Which is done better? Which challenges some of our assumptions about life and society, instead of stroking and reassuring them? I enjoy Aliens quite a bit. It's a fantastic action film, it's fun, it's scary, it has enduringly quotable lines. But it falls short of its predecessor, despite being in many ways a worthy sequel. Its surface feminism--a badass mom getting shit done (and believe me, I would LOVE for someone to make a Sarah Connor/Ripley team-up film, or at least a comic)--belies its problematic depths.

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