The Unraveling of Conventional Womanhood in Aliens and Alien 3
In the Alien films, protagonist Ellen Ripley faces two major antagonists: the aliens who seek to consume and reproduce, and the Company that seeks to possess them--no matter the collateral damage or cost of human life. Although these two entities are intimidating forces all on their own, they can also be interpreted as representatives for greater systems of oppression. On one hand, the aliens in the films represent gender norms, specifically those imposed onto women. On the other hand, the Company is representative of the cisgender, white hetero-patriarchy that is thoroughly ingrained in modern society, if not synonymous with it. Throughout the Alien films, Ellen Ripley fights to destroy the aliens and resist the Company’s control. Ultimately, her struggle is to deconstruct gender norms and revolt against the patriarchy. However, she also faces the difficulty of asserting her identity as an individual separate from the patriarchy’s all-encompassing influence. There is comfort in conformity, but Ripley must learn to live without it. Ripley’s transition away from conventional womanhood is most evident in the films Aliens and Alien 3.
In a deleted scene from Aliens, Ripley learns that her only child, a daughter, died during her fifty-seven year stasis. Ripley’s lack of inquiry regarding any other loved ones implies that she raised her daughter alone. When Ripley ventures to the planet where her crew first encountered the alien, she leaves behind the cat onto whom she had imposed her motherly nature in the first film, Alien. The combined loss of Ripley’s daughter and the cat is an attack on her position as a maternal figure in the films. Towards the beginning of Aliens, Ripley is twice stripped--of the animal and of the person responsible for emphasizing her nurturing side, her daughter. Shortly after arriving on the planet LV-426, Ripley becomes the surrogate mother to Newt, a little girl and the last remaining member of a colony established on the planet. The bond between Ripley and Newt grows so substantially that at the film’s end, Newt calls Ripley “mommy.”
In “The ‘Alien’ Trilogy: From Feminism to Aids,” Amy Taubin writes, “New Age assault rifles and grenade launchers are fetishized, as is the nuclear family: ‘Families,' breathes Ripley in horror when she learns the identity of the victims” (94). Shortly after discovering the news of her own daughter’s passing, Ripley learns of the families living on the planet where her crew first encountered the alien. In one of Aliens’ early scenes, the viewer is able to glimpse the colony prior to its decimation by the alien. Newt’s family--a mother, a father, and an older brother--discover the dormant ship from Alien. In the destruction of the families living in the planet’s colony, it makes sense that the first victim is Newt’s father. His violation and death by the alien symbolizes the destruction of a conventional familial structure, the nuclear family, of which the father--frequently viewed as the breadwinner--is often the head.
Throughout the film, a connection is apparent between Ripley and Corporal Dwayne Hicks, although their surroundings and circumstances do little to facilitate any possibilities for romance. Hicks--tall, white, muscular--exudes conventional attractiveness and masculinity. Ultimately, the combination of Hicks’ appearance with his levelheaded, well-spoken personality and approachable demeanor render him more caricature than character. Hicks is the quintessential good guy--reliable, physically fit, and capable of witty banter. He represents society’s ideal of a perfect husband and father. Similarly, Newt represents the ideal daughter--conventionally pretty, blonde, and blue-eyed.
The three human survivors at the end of Aliens--Ripley, Hicks, and Newt--represent the traditional nuclear family. The characters successfully depart from the colony on planet LV-426; however, any hope for Ripley to fulfill the nuclear family ideal through Hicks and Newt is immediately dashed at the beginning of Alien 3. Shortly after awakening from hypersleep, Ripley is informed that Hicks and Newt both perished in their pod’s crash-landing. Later on, Ripley witnesses the cremation of Hicks and Newt’s bodies. The decision to incinerate their bodies, obliterating them completely, can be interpreted as a final destruction of Ripley’s ability to obtain fulfillment through the nuclear family ideal.
At the beginning of Alien 3, Ripley loses both the two characters that served as her stand-in nuclear family, and the traditional femininity of her hair. Also, Ripley engages in a romantic and sexual relationship with Jonathon Clemens, a former inmate at the prison and its current doctor. Clemens lacks Hicks’ bravado, but offers Ripley emotional vulnerability through the revelation of his unfortunate backstory. However, the relationship ends abruptly when the alien that has invaded the colony kills Clemens. He is a relatively early kill in the successive deaths of Alien 3′s final act. Clemens’ death eliminates Ripley’s only suitor on the colony, thus eradicating the possibility for a traditional relationship between two white, heterosexual partners.
Taubin describes the “alliance between Ripley and Dillon (the ‘feminist’ and the ‘homosexual’)” as “moving” (99). In Alien 3, Dillon, a black man, is the second-to-last person to die, sacrificing himself to trap the alien and ensure its destruction. Ripley perishes shortly afterwards, falling backwards into a fiery furnace to prevent the Company from obtaining the infant alien within her. The only survivor of the colony is Morse, a white man. Morse’s survival may be interpreted as an implication that, despite the sacrifices of Ripley and Dillon, which aimed at rejecting the white hetero-patriarchy, the dominance of the hetero-white male prevails. In addition, it may appear that only through death can the “feminist” and the “homosexual” escape the clutches of the Company that seeks to enslave and use them.
In her essay “’You’ve Been in My Life So Long I Can’t Remember Anything Else’: Into the Labyrinth with Ripley and the Alien," Pamela Church Gibson describes the metaphorical nature of the alien. She states that the alien is “tied to the structure of power--the monstrous Other not just of the rapacious ‘Company’ whose covert activities bring it within the ‘human’ sphere of activity, but arguably of patriarchal capitalism itself” (37). The society responsible for the patriarchal capitalism that seeks to exploit the alien, despite the loss of human life, is the same society that exerts patriarchal control over women. Ripley’s words to the alien in Aliens, “You’ve been in my life so long I can’t remember anything else,” can be directed at the expectations imposed on women in modern society. The existence of the aliens--and, by extension, the necessity of their extinction--has become Ripley’s primary purpose in life. Since the first film, Ripley is consistently at war with the rabid aliens and the scheming Company. Evidently, the aliens are as difficult to kill as systems of oppression are difficult to deconstruct.
Alien 3 ends with Ripley’s death. Rather than appease the Company, she self-immolates by leaping into a literal pit of fire. As she descends through the air, the infant alien bursts from her chest. Even in the final moments before her death, Ripley cannot escape the alien--it pursues and violates her until the very end. In the same way, the conventions expected of women--namely, traditional femininity, marriage, and childbirth--are virtually inescapable in modern society. Breaking the mold of conventional womanhood brings into question an individual’s identity, as well as the forces that influence and shape their choices. If a woman chooses to have a child, is she endorsing the systems of oppression that assume childbirth to be one of her primary functions? In a system that relentlessly scrutinizes and criticizes women, is it possible to make choices that are not political? These are questions women are forced to consider and revisit without end. Under society’s regulatory gaze, women are compelled to reflect on whether their decisions are ever truly their own.
In “Monstrous Mothers: Medusa, Grendel, and Now Alien," Lynda K. Bultzen calls Aliens “a profoundly disturbing allegory about contemporary feminism”, and writes that “it is far from resolving the issues it explores about women’s nature vs. her culture-making aspirations” (11). Bultzen states that, “Ripley chooses to mother; she is not programmed as female by nature to nurture others” (16). Bultzen asserts that Ripley’s nurturing actions are autonomous decisions rather than an inclination cultivated by society’s patriarchal norms. Although the expression of Ripley’s motherly nature conforms to traditional notions of womanhood, she is capable of choosing to act in such a way without endorsing society’s expectations. Ripley’s choice of action is an expression of her autonomy, independent of outside influence. Ripley’s decision, then, to sacrifice herself in order to escape the company, is also an expression of her own autonomy.
The Alien films can certainly be viewed as a struggle involving a revolutionary human protagonist, Ellen Ripley, the instinct-driven aliens, and the looming, authoritarian threat of the Company. However, Ripley’s path throughout the films can also be perceived as an individual’s journey to discovering and shaping her identity outside the boundaries of societal norms. In Aliens and Alien 3, Ripley suffers losses symbolic of conventional womanhood’s essential tenets--femininity, heterosexual romance, and motherhood. The loss of these ostensibly fundamental aspects of womanhood begets grief for Ripley; after all, they are norms central to society which neatly demarcate the boundaries outlining a womanhood that is supposedly fulfilling. Released from such conventions, Ripley does not flounder. Instead, she grieves the loss of her past self, and then reaches a state of greater autonomy. Ripley’s decision to swan dive into the fiery pit at the end of Alien 3 is not an act of surrender. Rather, it is the ultimate act of self-assertion, through which Ripley finally obtains a final and lasting freedom.
Bundtzen, Linda K. “Monstrous Mothers: Medusa, Grendel, and Now Alien.” Film Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 3, 1987, pp. 11-17.
Gibson, Pamela Church. “’You’ve Been in My Life So Long I Can’t Remember Anything Else’: Into the Labyrinth with Ripley and the Alien.” Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, edited by Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2001, pp. 35-51.
Taubin, Amy. "The ‘Alien’ Trilogy: From Feminism to Aids." Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, edited by Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, Temple University Press, 1997, pp. 93-100.
Iris Dumaual responded to the assignment to compare two of the four Alien films in my Spring 2017 “Gender, Race, and Science Fiction,” by writing a stunning paper which worked through the relationship between corporate hetero-patriarchy, conventional womanhood, and protagonist Ellen Ripley’s transition from convention to subversion in the films Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992).