Abortion and AIDS in Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992)
Sexuality is not a simple topic to discuss. It exists as a fundamental part of our humanity, yet we have not been able to fully understand it for many centuries. From that lack of understanding came the oppression of anyone who felt differently than those inside the norm. Until recently, areas of study, such as gender studies and sexuality, were not thought of to be real fields of academia. The beginning of change began around the 1960’s with the Civil Rights Movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King defended the humanity of African Americans in a nation that would rather have turned a blind eye to injustice rather than make change. In the 1970’s came the Vietnam War, and with it the rise of hippie culture and the realization that anyone could protest, not just African Americans. These years were the epitome of social change in America, and this was reflected in the art that was created during that time. The Alien franchise plays with the social problems by representing AIDS, sexuality, and abortion in the adventures of Ellen Ripley.
The first film, Alien (1979) revolves around Ripley’s first encounter with Xenomorphs in her commercial ship, the Nostromo. At first glance, the movie appears to be a sci-fi horror movie with Ripley as the damsel who must survive total annihilation. Taking into account the context of the era when this movie was made, however, we find that the themes dip into deeper socio-political issues. Birth is the primary leitmotif, with imagery of reproduction apparent throughout the film. Even the iconic poster for Alien showcases an alien-looking cracked egg, instilling a terrifying notion that some dangerous being is going to come out of it. Ripley bears witness to the death of her crewmate Kane once he is found with a mysterious, crab-like creature attached to his face. When Kane recovers and dies to another creature bursting through his chest, the crew realizes that the creature was growing inside of him.
This scene defines the film as not only a film about birth, but a film about abortion. In the time between Kane first arriving on the ship with a facehugger attached to him, to the newborn Xenomorph bursting out of him, Ripley debates with the crew over the best way to treat Kane. The discussion over whether to remove the facehugger can be directly related to the discussion of whether to abort a fetus. Ripley plays the role of the pro-choice mother who wishes to “abort” the facehugger because they are not ready to study it. She debates with the ship’s scientist Ash, who advocates for its preservation due to its uniqueness. The consequence of Ash’s decision is not only his death, but the death of all the other crew mates (except Ripley). This could be a metaphor for the pressure a potential mother, represented by Ripley, may feel to keep her child, even though she may not be ready to bear the responsibility of having one. The result of this pressure is shown by the rampage of the Xenomorph, ending with the destruction of those around her and the eventual rejection of the child she never wanted.
John L. Cobbs of Salisbury University wrote a particularly interesting article in the university’s publication Literature/Film Quarterly in 1990 regarding the similarities between Alien and the issue of abortion. In his article “Alien as an Abortion Parable”, Cobbs lays out the subtext and symbolism of the film. He says: “A close look at Alien, however, reveals that not only is sexuality not occasionally intrusive in an otherwise pristine film, but the sexual symbolism and iconography of a singular kind are pervasive throughout the film and may actually be its leitmotif” (Cobbs 198). The evidence he uses to defend his argument comes from not only the actions of the crew, but also the structure of the movie set itself. From the crew’s actions, it is plainly apparent how the film could be construed as a commentary on abortion, with the arguing over how to deal with the facehugger and the infant Xenomorph bursting from Kane’s chest. Cobbs also points out that the design of both the Nostromo and the alien ship bring a sense of a familiar cramped space, and that “Only after we watch a while do we realize that the dominant motif of both these crafts is the interior of the human body” (Cobbs 199). This observation, combined with the sexual motifs of the movie, further suggest that Alien is just as much about abortion and the human body as it is about Ripley and the Alien.
Alien was not the only movie in the franchise to provide a social commentary hidden under a sci-fi/horror adventure. When Alien 3 was release in 1992, it also brought forward an important social issue regarding a disease that was spreading rapidly in the United States: AIDS. This film takes place after the events of Aliens, which ended with Ripley placing Newt, Hicks, Bishop, and herself in hypersleep after defeating yet another Xenomorph. However, they end up being ejected automatically to Fiorina “Fury” 161, home to a colony of all male, XYY-chromosome, life-sentenced prisoners. Little does Ripley know that a Xenomorph would find its way into the colony, killing anyone in its path. The relationship between the setting of the film and AIDS lies here. Around the release of Alien 3, homophobia was a predominant issue. AIDS was seen to be a disease caused and spread by the homosexual community. Although there was no real scientific evidence to prove this, much of America believed it. By having a mysterious, life-threatening organism attack an all-male community, Alien 3 seems to draw a parallel between the AIDS virus and the Xenomorph.
In her book Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, author Pam Cook dedicates a chapter to the Alien franchise, with a primary focus on Alien 3. She makes the astute comparison between “sci-fi creatures of the Cold War period who took possession of souls and minds” (Cook 98) and the Xenomorph. Rather than being a creature that attacks the mind, the Xenomorph invades the body. Penetration has always been a feature of the Alien films, but in Alien 3 Cook says the theme of body “becomes a landscape, obsessively probed” (Cook 98). It is probed in the way the Xenomorph interacts with the colonists. It is probed in the way Ripley discovers she is carrying an egg-laying queen embryo in her. It is probed when Ripley and Clemens establish a sexual relationship, bridging the gap between the problems of motherhood and feminism and the problems of the homosexual community. Cook makes all these observations.
As we take a deeper look into the Alien quadrology, more motifs begin to stand out, making the movies much more than they seem. Matthew Tinkom and Amy Villarejo focus on Ripley in their book Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies. An important part of both Alien and Alien 3 is how Ripley interacts with the creature. In the first film, she acts as the mother who wishes to abort her unwanted child. Over the course of two subsequent films, she then realizes that the Alien is a part of her, and even begins to have a sense of motherhood toward it. Tinkom and Villarejo say, “Reviewers and academicians alike are happy to give us psychoanalytic readings of the films. But they disregard, overlook, or perhaps fight shy of certain implication of Ripley’s repeated confrontations with this creature” (Tinkom, Villarejo 37). According to them, Alien 3 is the progression of Ripley’s acceptance of her relationship with the Xenomorph.
From the beginning of Alien, with the crew of the Nostromo participating in playful banter with each other, to the end of Alien 3, where Ripley swan dives into a furnace, ending both the life of herself and the Queen Alien, the movies never cease to create art that mimics life. I would argue that one of the franchise’s greatest strengths is its ability to create not only an immersive story, but an immersive world in which one can either visit merely for a good scare, or for some insight into the political issues of each movie’s era. The motif of sexuality is key to the story, regardless of if one views it that way or not. By understanding the way Alien represents issues such as abortion and AIDS, we can see effective or ineffective ways to approach them. That is not to say that Ridley Scott made a pro-choice abortion film, or that David Fincher wanted to make a movie about AIDS. These are simply the problems America faced at the time these movies were released. That is also what makes the alien franchise culturally relevant, and ultimately timeless.
Taubin, Amy. “The ‘Alien’ Trilogy: From Feminism to AIDS.” Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, edited by Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, Scarlet Press, London, 1997. Print. Feb 19.
Tinkom, Matthew, and Amy Villarejo. Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Culural Studies. N.p.: Routledge, 2001. Print. Feb 19.
Cobbs, John L. "Alien as an Abortion Parable." Literature/Film Quarterly 18.3 (1990): 198-201. Web. Feb 19.
Jovan Beattie used Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992) to track how the films thematized two contemporary social issues, AIDS and abortion, respectively. Jovan adroitly connected the films’ structure, characterizing, and primary leitmotif-- its images of monstrous, viral reproduction, and the ways that both abortion and AIDS have been rendered in US social and governmental policies. -- Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls