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Friday, June 15, 2012

Whose body? (Prometheus spoilers)

YES IT'S STILL GOING I CAN'T HELP MYSELF. This is what happens when Ridley Scott makes Alien movies. Anyway, you know I had to talk more in-depth about the Big Damn C-Section.

So! The Big Damn C-Section! Apparently people are really squicked by this? Someone I follow on Tumblr mentioned vaguely that a scene had caused a fellow viewer with her to nearly pass out--after I saw Prometheus, I tried to decide which scene that was, since most of the Alien-typical scenes didn't strike me as that bad, comparatively. My manfriend pointed out that it was likely most viewers had a serious problem with the alien C-section bit, and I guess that's what my Tumblr friend was referring to. Incidentally this scene was also what tipped Prometheus into an R rating. Because giant tentacle monsters and oral rape are waaaay more family friendly than C-sections with abortion undertones! Please feel free to imagine how boring a PG-13 Alien film would be.

Obviously, it didn't bother me that much. Here's why: I hate the trope of monstrous pregnancy. I think it's totally overused and played out. However, in Prometheus I thought it was wielded to good effect, for the sheer reason that most people who are afflicted by monstrous pregnancy (both in the Alienverse and in other sci-fi and horror media) are forced to carry "to term" or to "give birth" in deadly fashion. But this isn't the case for Shaw; she finds out she's knocked up and takes immediate, efficient action to get the damn parasite out of her. She gets herself into a med-pod despite the objections of David, keys it to perform a C-section, and then gases the shit out of the Alien fetus. It doesn't kill the thing, but it allows her to get out of there and down to other business.

Needless to say, I found the scene satisfying. It's rare to see abortions mentioned, let alone performed, in major films and television shows, and even rarer to see the victim of a monstrous pregnancy deal with it in a way that allows him/her to come out on top. Notably Shaw refers to her operation as a Caesarean, not an abortion, and since the fetus isn't actually killed I suppose it doesn't count as an abortion, but the intent is to remove and destroy, Shaw's bodily autonomy has been taken from her, and it isn't for lack of trying on her part that the Alien manages to live. I suppose my enjoyment of this whole shebang kind of ties into my other apparently-unpopular feelings about this movie, besides actually liking it in general: I felt that the tentacle Alien near the film's end--the larger version of what was growing inside Shaw--was somewhat of a let-down. Or, if not exactly a letdown, a monster which took more time to absorb, as it were, than other Aliens. Again my manfriend didn't quite see what I was seeing--he found it quite scary enough and thought that the choice of tentacles was tapping into a universal fear of such. Me, I guess I've been on the Internet for too long, but tentacles remind me immediately of certain segments of Japanese animated porn, and so I sort of associate them with a specific portion of a specific culture (is tentacle rape a universal human fear?). However, there's also a possible call-back to Lovecraft and Cthulhu, which I appreciate. I certainly don't mind the idea of the Elder Gods being intertwined in the Alien mythos; that is effectively terrifying. But compared to the various Aliens of Alien, the tentacle Alien in Prometheus didn't quite measure up for visceral impact, for me at least. Dan O'Bannon, co-writer of Alien, noted that the monsters of the film were designed to make men cross their legs, and the overt gendering of their threats and these implications are some of the things I admire and enjoy about Alien. The tentacle alien has a bit of that, what with its penetrating, phallic tentacles and vaginal multiple mouths, but the mode of its attack  (absorption) is generalized rather than specific. Another factor might be that we only see it really attack an Engineer, rather than a human.

Yes, yes, I enjoy seeing men squirm, look at me and my man-hating. But come on--the majority of horror films employ threats that are specifically gendered masculine in order to be threatening to women. That was part of what made Alien so disturbing and so subversive. It forced men to consider what it would be like to exist in a feminine body. Prometheus is more concerned with broader themes of what it means to create and destroy life, how life is transmitted and evolves, and the compulsions to give, take away, or hoard. There is certainly a whole thing present in which images of destructive creation repeat themselves, from the mysterious opening sequence to Shaw's alien C-section to the dichotomy of David's decapitated-yet-still-speaking head. Ritual sacrifice, the killing of the king so that life continues to flourish, is an age-old tale found in legions of civilizations. So too is the warning story of sorcerers and greedy men who refuse to give up their power (what of the king stag when the young stag is grown?).

Something I found notable is that Shaw is a very clear stand-in for Mary. Established as barren, she gives birth to an extraordinary "child" between Christmas and New Year's, and that "child" ends up being a "salvation" as she uses it to attack the Engineer who is trying to attack her. It is somewhat problematic that Shaw wants desperately to rid herself of the thing inside her, yet doesn't quite manage to do so, ends up beholden to it in a way, and also beholden to the guy who slipped her boyfriend an Alien roofie, ultimately teaming up with David to carry the quest forward. It seems that bodily autonomy will never, not even in the distant future of spaceflight and aliens, be a thing which the marginalized fully possess. Too, the Christian bent of "2000 years ago, something on Earth happened to piss the Engineers off" (especially given LOST's ultimate answer and Ridley Scott affirming that yes, Space Jockey Jesus is a thing), David washing Weyland's feet and delivering the news of an impossible child to Shaw, and three men sacrificing themselves to save others is a bit much for agnostics or non-Christians to enjoy with reflection, but from the standpoint of someone who likes world mythology, there are a lot of stories across cultures which feature pale otherworldly figures. Furthermore, the idea of Space Jockey Jesus is most likely one of those things which, had it been stated baldly (or "answered"), would have enraged those viewers who are currently enraged that no answers are given. It's an answer that people don't want to hear. The eternal hubris of humanity is the belief that we are ready to meet our makers.

And honestly, all told, the various threads Prometheus weaves together display a tapestry of extreme hubris--specifically white, male hubris. The only Engineers we see are ostensibly male; all of them are very white. The med-pod Shaw uses is only calibrated for men, apparently (she has to spell out for it that she needs invasive abdominal surgery), and it is most likely that the pod is specifically for Weyland. The implicit or explicit presence of Space Jockey Jesus. The opening sequence of a male Engineer's body being the literal cradle of life. Weyland being a character so arrogant that he thinks that not only can he live forever, he should. The various white male scientists are without exception of the superiority-complexes-breed-death variety. I'm not willing to cut Scott and co. the slack of assuming they're just another crew of dudes who think the universe revolves around their penises. At the end of the film, the only characters left to carry on the search for knowledge are Shaw and David, a woman and a robot. Both are white--the two characters of color having sacrificed themselves aboard the ship--but neither is male. There is a whole 'nother conversation to be had about David's "masculinity," whether he codes as gay, whether he has functioning male genitalia, why he is invulnerable to Alien infestation/what would happen if he was infested, whether he was always acting on Weyland's commands, why the Engineer reacted so badly to him, and whether or not he classes as posthuman/superhuman or robot-approaching-human. For my part, the moral of the movie might be the never-ending journey toward knowledge, but the underlying emphasis is that the way we've been going about it for millennia--since before humans existed, if the Engineers are anything to go by--isn't working and needs to end.

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