Screen Studies - Introduction
Alien Woman
Alien Woman

Ximena C. Gallardo

C. Jason Smith is Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and C. Jason Smith

A native of Chile, Ximena Gallardo-C. graduated with a Ph.D. in English from Louisiana State University. She lives in New York. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2004


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Science Fiction

Related Content


Can’t Live with Them, Can’t Kill Them

DOI: 10.5040/9781501340598.0006
Page Range: 1–12


One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.

—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Since Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), the science-fiction film has depicted the human male as the hero of its narratives. Whether a heroic astronaut or a cool scientist (and sometimes both), it is Man who embodies the superior rationalhumanistic qualities of the species as he boldly travels the deep, dark, limitless depths of space. Human females in these narratives mostly complement the males in distinctively secondary roles as love interests, nurses, counselors, and low-ranking officers. Even the few extraordinary women who manage to rise above the glass ceiling are inevitably undermined by various devices in plot, characterization, and cinematography during the course of a standard science-fiction film. In Them! (1954), for example, the audience’s first view of the smart and gutsy Dr. Patricia “Pat” Medford (Joan Wheldon) comes in the form of her well-turned legs sexily descending from an airplane; in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), the scientist Dr. Mary Royce (Ann Doran) cheerily cleans up the dinner table and serves coffee to the male astronauts. This trend, unfortunately, continues into our more “enlightened” times. The formidable Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, who in the show has whole episodes devoted to her and who regularly uses her authority as a medical doctor to order even the captain about, has been almost completely written out of the Next Generation films.[1] The beefed up Sara Connor (Linda Hamilton) of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), though more prepared to fight the machines from the future than in the first film, has become a whacked-out bad mother who pales in comparison to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s android in both killing and parenting skills. Even in Contact (1997), the motivation of the protagonist, Dr. Eleanor Ann “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster), centers on a father fixation. When Dr. Arroway finally does get to go into the alien machine after her male boss is killed (it seems Tom Skerritt is always in the way of some woman) and travels the cosmos at faster than the speed of light to meet the aliens, the alien she encounters takes the guise of her father, and, of course, no one believes her story. Such is the usual lot of women in the science-fiction film.

Science fiction also offers a variety of nonhuman females. Exotic and seductive, the weird and wonderful fem-alien comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Sexy and dangerous, she is Phena from constellation Hydra (Star Pilot, 1965), Ursa from Krypton (Superman, 1978), V’ger as Lieutenant Ilia (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979), the treacherous and scantily clad Aura (Flash Gordon, 1980), the xenomorph Sil (Species, 1992), and the Borg Queen (Star Trek: First Contact, 1996). Sometimes good, more often evil, the female alien always heralds danger. Her exotic Otherness—whether it be her gigantic size, green skin, violet eyes, or three breasts—marks her as the true test of the male astronaut and, ultimately, humanity. If he can survive her (after a romantic interlude perhaps), he can survive anything.

And then there is Ripley. Born of the long and uncomfortable association between science fiction and horror, Ripley combines the survivor of slasher with the heroic astronaut of science fiction. Her confrontation with the monstrous creature includes the requisite running and sweating, but she substitutes the shrieking of her predecessors for some understandable swearing, and, in the end, she vanquishes her foe on her own.

Though Ripley was, as many critics have pointed out, a product of masculine discourse, in the sense that the role was originally written by males for a male actor and Alien (1979) was directed and produced by males, the character Ripley as she appeared on the screen is, nonetheless, the product of 1960s and ’70s Second Wave feminism. Ripley may not be “feminist” per se: she does not, for example, actively fight for women’s equality, and none of her arguments with the men draw attention to their misogyny, even though she is clearly the object of gender bias. However, one cannot easily dismiss the fact that her presence on the ship and the rank she holds (and eventually wields) is surely “forward looking” for the time and genre. Neither Ripley nor Alien’s other female crew member, Lambert, are secretaries in space: they do not serve coffee, they do not receive special treatment or deference as “girls,” and they do not pander to the egos of the men; and, as we shall see, if Lambert betrays a tendency toward hysteria, so does her macho captain, Dallas. In essence, feminism created the context in which a female could be considered not only for the post of commanding officer (a concept that Gene Rodenberry had tried to sell a decade earlier in the pilot episode of Star Trek [1965], only to be told nobody would believe a woman could command a starship), but also as the lead in a science-fiction film. Without feminism, there would be no Ripley.

The Ripley of Alien, though not necessarily a feminist icon, filled a need among women for a strong female protagonist, and her debut made an understandable impression on many female viewers. Winona Ryder, Sigourney Weaver’s costar in Alien Resurrection, recalls how exciting it was to see Ripley triumph over the Alien in 1979:

I was about eight. But I remember the impact it had on me. I had never seen a female character like that. It was the first female action hero that I had and that any of us had. It was a huge impact. ... I mean, she was the survivor. ... I can’t think of a movie before where it was a woman. . . . That whole last sequence where she is trying to blow up the ship and make it to the other ship, she goes back for the cat, she’s running with the cat, and then she thinks she’s safe and then she realizes the alien’s on board ... If you talk to anybody of my generation, they can recount that scene frame by frame, because it’s such a classic scene. And of course we’ve seen guys do that a lot. Guys surviving, being the hero. Girls really just being mostly the victim. And this time it was great to see a woman really, you know, kick ass for the first time.[2]

Alien was not the last time Ripley dominated the screen. Left to grapple with a strong female protagonist, subsequent writers and directors in the 1980s and 1990s reenvisioned Lieutenant Ripley to fit differing social, political, and cultural imperatives for women, but they never diminished her heroic role. Again and again, Ripley proved to be smarter, stronger, more courageous, and humane than the Colonial Marines in Aliens, the double-Y chromosome convicts of Alien3, and the scientists, army men, and pirates of Alien Resurrection. As such, she continues to speak to female viewers of science fiction, whose only other options still range between identifying with Claire Danes as the love interest Kate Brewster or Kristanna Loken as the vain femme fatale Terminatrix (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines [2003]).

Ripley was, and continues to be, something new. A bastard child of science fiction and horror, she is also the proto-slayer: long before Buffy, there was Ripley. But she is much more: a woman who thwarts the destructive patriarchal desire, faces her shadow self again and again, embraces it, and ultimately incorporates the monstrous feminine into her very being. A creation of men, Ripley nonetheless rattles her chains loudly, filling the void of silence imposed on women by male narratives. She may not get entirely free, but she is seen, she is heard, and she is remembered.

A New Breed

I expect Woman will be the last thing civilized by Man.

—George Meredith

Because the exploration of space is pitted as a sexual enterprise (Man defining himself against the mysterious Feminine), it is not unusual for science-fiction films to depict close encounters of any kind in sexual terms. The canonical 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for example, uses blatant reproductive metaphors to illustrate the evolution of humanity (represented by male scientists and astronauts) as it goes into the womb of space. Early on in 2001, the viewer witnesses an extended docking sequence between a tiny phallic space shuttle and a gigantic, wheel-shaped space station: the entire sequence is staged as a cosmic dance to the tune of a waltz. This scene prefigures 2001’s climax, in which the pod that contains astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) flies into a psychedelic, vaginal space vortex that transports him to a stark white chamber, where he dies and is reborn as a new organism, the Star Child.

Figure 1.1. Death ovum meets space sperm: the sexploration of space.

Lest we think Stanley Kubrick’s film an isolated case, a decade later the space opera Star Wars (1977) staged the Rebel attack on the Empire’s Death Star as so many sperm assaulting an egg. In this case, the feminine form is depicted as lethal, for the Death Star, a spherical, dark gray battle station the size of a small moon, is capable of destroying entire planets with one fatal blow of its main laser. Flying a sleek X-wing starfighter, the Rebel hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) must hit a small port on the Death Star’s surface with his proton torpedoes to begin a chain reaction in the station’s central reactor—a fatal implantation that does not fertilize, but rather destroys the monstrous space egg.

Little wonder, then, that the image of the egg represents the extraterrestrial menace in Alien’s poster and trailers. Such a common image would seem silly if not for the fear of monstrous birth it evokes: the shell of the egg is cracked in a grotesque parody of the vaginal cleft or a cruel acidic grin. The Alien egg advertises, first and foremost, the evil ur-womb: it gives birth, and men die.

The creature that will spring from this egg is a nightmare vision of sex and death. It subdues and opens the male body to make it pregnant, then explodes it in birth. In its adult form, the Alien strikes its victims with a rigid, phallic tongue that breaks through skin and bone. More than a phallus, however, its retractable tongue has its own set of snapping, metallic teeth that connects it to the castrating vagina dentata. The vagina dentata, a symbolic expression of the male fear that a woman’s genitals may eat or castrate her partner during intercourse, is tied to the image of the phallic woman (i.e., a woman with a knife) and the monstrous generative mother, whose vagina threatens to devour and reincorporate her offspring.

Unlike most nightmarish creatures, then, the Alien is not only a killing machine but also a relentless reproductive machine, seeking hosts to bring forth more of its species. It is the Alien reproductive drive and its consequences that both the characters in the series and the audience fear most—the impending moment when the dark creature will emerge from within. Inevitably, then, an Alien narrative engages a wide range of female body narratives such as rape, pregnancy, birth, and mothering, bringing the Otherness of the otherwise repressed and denied female body to the fore. That in the Alien series many of these traditionally female narratives can be acted out on the male body broadens the discursive space to address issues of sex, gender, and the body. As males are penetrated, impregnated, and give birth, the distinction between the male body and the female body, upon which our entire culture is based, begins to blur. This is the site of the Alien horror: faced with the Alien, we are all feminized.

Alien Woman explores how the conflict between the female protagonist and the monstrous feminine set up in the first film operates throughout the Alien series. With a female protagonist in the role of the traditional male lead, we are able to see more clearly how the same gender codes operate differently for the protagonist and the antagonist. Although the series explores the similarities between Alien and Woman starting with Alien, director James Cameron made the parallelism literal by creating a female Alien as the embodiment and originator of the entire species. Ripley’s mirroring of her dark Other becomes more complex in Alien3 because she is herself first identified as the monstrous feminine by the men of the narrative even before she learns she has been infected with an Alien Queen. By Alien Resurrection, however, the female protagonist has integrated the monstrous feminine into her very DNA, emphasizing the interchangeability of Alien and Woman.

Thus, the title of this introduction, “Can’t Live with Them, Can’t Kill Them” (taken from a misogynistic joke about women), not only refers to the relationship Man has to Woman and Human has to Alien, but also signals Ripley’s conundrum, for the monstrous feminine has given her new life, and so destroying the Alien completely would be destroying herself.

Acts of Theory

This book is not an application of theory. Beyond our admitted interest in the formation of sex and gender, we do not bring any particular theorist or set of theories to bear on these films as an exemplum of a predetermined thesis. Rather, Alien Woman is an act of theory where we, the authors, actively engage in a dialogue with the texts of the films, the historical contexts of their making, and one another. Readers who would like to learn more about the theoretical background that informs this text will find ample material in the notes and bibliography.

A Note on VHS, DVD, and Cinematic Releases

As we discuss the films as not only a text but a historical process, we occasionally make forays into materials not included in the films as originally shown, such as outtakes and scripts, but we take great pains to make it clear that these materials are not part of the text of the film per se.

In the case of Aliens, however, several scenes excised from the original theatrical release to shorten the run time were later included in Aliens: Special Edition at director James Cameron’s request. This widely available version of Aliens (also marketed as the Director’s Cut [1991]) is the only one included in the box set The Alien Legacy: 20th Anniversary Edition (1999); both versions are featured in the 9-disc Alien Quadrilogy (2003).[3] The difference between these two versions of Aliens is important: in Aliens: Special Edition, Ripley had a daughter, Amy, while in the cinematic release, no mention is made of a daughter. To help the reader understand the difference between both versions, we have included a comparative plot summary of the films in chapter 2.

Aliens is thus unique to the series in that the reintegrated scenes present a more firmly grounded vision of the motherhood/maternity theme that drives the film. As a biological mother herself who lost a daughter, for example, alternate explanations arise for Ripley’s quick attachment to the girl-child Newt. She acts maternally because she is suffering the loss of her own daughter and not simply because she is a woman. Our reading of Aliens thus engages in a bit of double vision: we read the film as originally released with the added scenes as overlay. It is our contention that although Cameron did cut the scenes, the maternal theme remained in the text of the film, as evidenced by the numerous reviews and articles written after the cinematic release of Aliens that focus on Ripley and the Alien Queen as mothers.

Chapter Outline

Chapter 1, “Men, Women, and an Alien Baby,” examines the resolute yet feminine protagonist of Alien and the cultural context of her creation. Originally written for an all-male cast, the script for Alien (1979; Dir. Ridley Scott) changed dramatically when the then president of 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., asked if the protagonist, Ripley, could be played by a woman. By conflating the typical male hero of science fiction with the female survivor of slasher films, Alien became the first science-fiction film in which a female (rather than a male) represented humanity, effectively destabilizing gender difference. Ripley is third officer of the spaceship Nostromo, whose crew is awakened from its cryo-sleep to answer a distress call from an unexplored planet. After discovering a derelict spaceship, a crew member is attacked by an alien life form, whose parasitic progeny later bursts through his chest. With this scene, Alien effectively erased the basic sexual distinction between men and women, and invoked cultural anxieties about the subversion of male power by visually representing the male body as a site of rape and birth.

Freed from the human body, the Alien escapes, and, one by one, kills the crew. Ripley discovers that the very company that hired them has determined to bring back the Alien for its “weapons division.” She, then, must fight the Alien and a calculating patriarchal system (represented by the Company’s robot, Ash, who tries to dispose of Ripley in a telling mock-rape scene). Ripley’s confrontation with, and final destruction of, the Alien becomes the major theme of the film (and the series), and thereby gives voice to the contemporary feminist goal of saving humanity from the destructive impulses of patriarchy.

Chapter 2, “Ripley Gets Her Gun: Aliens and the Reagan Era Hero,” traces the revision of “Ripley” into “Ellen Ripley.” For this second installment, writer/director James Cameron rewrites Ripley as an action hero, as Aliens (1986) is a military expedition/combat film. At the same time, the political climate of the Reagan era informed the film’s conservative revision of Ripley into a socially authorized female role: the “mother” Ellen Ripley. Her nightmares of the Alien bursting through her chest not only allude to fears of giving birth to a monstrosity (and of dying in the process) but also serve as counterpoint to the loss of Ripley’s own natural daughter (a theme made clear in the director’s cut version of the film). Although Ripley returns to the alien planet (now named LV-426) to confront her fears, once there her strength and motivation come from her maternal instincts toward the orphaned child and surrogate daughter, Newt. The maternal theme is mirrored in grotesque form by the introduction of the Alien Queen as a monstrous mother who dominates the Alien drones and, by extension, the macho Marines who fight them. The theme of monstrous birth set up in the first film is reified in the second, and birth and rebirth become the central recurring themes of the series with the conflict between mothers at the core.

Like the hero of many ’80s action films who fights, at least in part, to get his wife, lover, or family back (i.e. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon), Ripley fights to recover her lost daughter, and, importantly, binds a male to her quest, creating an impromptu family. We get the sense that Ripley is, in Reagan era terms, “fulfilling her inner destiny” as the mother who destroys the Alien threat to her family. Furthermore, Ellen Ripley stands for the redeemed American who has returned to the hard-body politics of right and wrong, good and evil, us and them. She is in her place, a woman fighting women’s battles, not the patriarchy of the Company, as she did in Alien. She has a new daughter, a mate, and is heading home to good old Earth.

Chapter 3, “‘The Bitch Is Back’: The Iconoclastic Body in Alien3,” posits Alien3 (1992; dir. David Fincher) as a self-conscious response to the politics of Aliens. Where Aliens is exhilarating, Alien3 is introspective; whereas the former emphasizes individual action, the latter emphasizes collaboration and suffering; Aliens’ heroic Marines and womanly “mother” Ripley aided by a battery of high-tech weaponry are counteracted by Aliene3’s hysterical inmates and the androgynous “bitch” Ripley bereft of any weapons whatsoever. Ripley’s surrogate motherhood is replaced by a forced, biologically determined motherhood. Significantly, Ripley’s apotheosis in Alien3 erases the happy ending of Aliens, leaving us with the image of a radically different type of hero: the mother-protector is replaced with the motherdestroyer.

Using Christian iconography, Alien3 rewrites Ripley as the abject, a liminal woman who will ultimately reject the patriarchal imperatives she defends in Aliens. Ripley’s violent landing on the hellish prisonplanet Fury 161 casts her out from the Utopian promise of Aliens into a feminist hell, where she is surrounded by fundamentalist Christian misogynist hypermale convicts. There, Ripley is reconstructed as a paradox: she is the virgin/whore, “the intolerable”/object of desire, the savior/destroyer, the hyperfemale/macho bitch, and the selfdestructive/reproductive body. Most importantly, within her lurks an embryonic Alien Queen who could destroy humanity once and for all. In the end, she chooses to leap into the burning leadworks, taking her Alien “baby” with her. Her transformation from perennial victim of the Company and the Alien to eternal foe makes Ripley’s death a victory, and propels her figure into legend.

Chapter 4, “‘Who Are You?’: Alien Resurrection and the Posthuman Subject,” examines Ripley as the dark or monstrous posthuman superwoman. As we have seen, Ripley moves from an arguably genderless role (at least in its conception), through motherhood, to that of a defiant bitch. When she is brought back to life as a clone in Alien: Resurrection (1997; dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet), however, Ripley’s gender and sexuality explode to encompass the entire film. Neither horror nor action, this psychological thriller has gender as its focus and parody as its method. From her literal emergence out of the hole left by the demise of Captain Elgin, the conventional hero, to her destruction by fire of her other, cloned, “selves,” this Ripley represents a clear threat to patriarchal order. As always, the military-industrial complex prizes the Alien species over humanity, only this time Ripley is also alien: a human/Alien hybrid, a freak treated variously as a pet, a curiosity, or a threat. Gender is most highly interrogated by the birth of a new type of Alien, born not through a host, but from the cloned Alien Queen, which develops a humanlike womb. This new Alien, a product of mixed female (Alien Queen and Ripley) DNA, represents the greatest fear of the patriarchal power structure: a race produced solely of Woman. Although Ripley chooses to “abort” her Alien offspring, she still carries the potential it represented within her. She is no longer human, but she is still female: a complex posthuman female of choice and action. Moreover, she is a superhero in the grand tradition of mutation, and in the film’s open ending, she is about to finally come home.

[1] For a discussion of female roles and gender in Star Trek: The Next Generation, see Robin Roberts’ book Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

[2] Interview with Winona Ryder for the Alien Resurrection digizine,

[3] The nine-disc Alien Quadrilogy (2003) boxed set includes both versions.