Patricia Di Risio, University of Melbourne |
The character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the way she develops across the four films that form the Alien series demonstrate how her evolution as a post-human character becomes decidedly queer. Each Alien film has a different director and, as the franchise progresses, Weaver takes on increasingly influential roles; first commanding attention as a popular actress and later as a producer on the last two films in the installments. I will argue that the relationship between Ripley and Annalene Call (Winona Ryder), the android with whom she pairs to rescue Earth and humanity, yet again, operates on the lesbian continuum (Adrienne Rich 1980) and allows the series to culminate in an overt crossover with aspects of New Queer Cinema (Ruby B Rich 2013) in the characterisation of the female protagonists. I will provide evidence not only of an erotic attraction but also of the powerful bond that unites them; their shared desire to protect and rescue humanity. I will compare Ripley and Call to the other human characters to demonstrate that human beings are portrayed as largely devoid of the humane qualities that both Ripley and Call fight so desperately to preserve. In this film the post-human characterisation of Ripley and Call and their post-human relationship is positioned on a higher moral plane, despite testing the limits of the boundaries between human and non-human. As a couple they represent the greatest hope for the survival of humanity and humane principles. Thus, in this brand of dystopian science fiction, humanity will be rescued via a deletion of, and deviation from, the human. This is a paradoxical perversion of science fiction which has so often had survival and the preservation of human beings as a fundamental part of the narrative structure, and where technological advancement is often cast as the enemy or the major threat to the survival of human kind. (Broderick 1993, 362)
In Alien (Scott 1979) Sigourney Weaver was a relatively unknown actress who took on a part which was originally written as a male character. Scott completely undermined the genre, and all the usual gender expectations, by making Ripley a woman. Not only does she survive all her fellow crew members, but she single handedly vanquishes the alien beast that terrorised the ship which she eventually commands. Described as the ‘final girl’ (Clover 1987) of space Ripley’s unexpected resilience and sheer strategic intelligence contributed to making the film one of the major blockbusters in late twentieth century New Hollywood. As a woman she provided a model of femininity which was extremely unconventional and anti-essentialist in its feminist vein; she frequently makes decisions that go against patriarchal authority, she proves to be both physically and emotionally strong and powerful, and she is not afraid to make tough decisions while also being fiercely protective of her home planet, Earth. Ripley is never merely driven by her own personal survival and is well aware of the danger that the alien monster represents to human kind. In Alien (Scott 1979) she refuses to allow Kane (John Hurt) aboard the ship because of the unusual creature attached to his face. She questions the authority of the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm) – who turns out to be an android at the service of self-interested humans – and she takes control of the ship while the remainder of crew is frequently crippled by fear and hysteria. Ellen Ripley is configured as an action heroine with both brains and brawn where the former is given priority.
In Aliens (Cameron 1986) we have a very different Ellen Ripley. In this second instalment we see the franchise engaging with action and war genres to a much greater degree than the horror genre of the original film. As a result Ripley is cast as a far more conventional female. She develops a maternal bond with Newt (Carrie Henn), the young girl who is the sole survivor of the alien attack, and a heterosexual attraction with a soldier. Hicks (Michael Biehn), who is sent as part of the military team to try and destroy the alien, is also often positioned as a surrogate father figure to Newt. The relationship between these three characters supports and reinforces the heterosexual nuclear family structure. In fact, the film goes out of its way to dispel any association with Ripley and lesbian desire. This is achieved through the introduction of the character Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). Vasquez is presented as a butch lesbian, next to whom Ripley is termed as ‘Snow White”. While Ripley can be appreciated by a lesbian character, her heterosexuality is asserted and made explicit through the presence of this lesbian stereotype. However, Ripley the does continue to be portrayed in ways that challenge conventional notions of femininity. She is seen learning to handle heavy weaponry and large scale machinery, all of which she manages with skill and precision to eventually defeat the alien monster.  Alien 3 makes more radical changes to the character of Ripley and the queer aspects of her persona begin to be more fully fleshed out. This is expressed primarily through her extremely androgynous appearance; a shaved head which gives her a broader and heightened sexual appeal. (Graham 1994, 210) As the only woman in a male only prison, and impregnated with an alien queen, Ripley begins to represent a fearful blurring of boundaries between human and animal. This idea becomes so fearful and incomprehensible even for Ripley that she sacrifices herself in order to kill the monster. As Barbara Creed argues, this can serve to give a female warrior eternal mythical and iconic status:
The woman warrior who comes into conflict with the patriarchal order frequently (but not always) dies…However, death should not necessarily be seen as signifying failure – rather death in films represents a symbolic act that reinforces the extreme action needed to highlight the corruption at the heart of the symbolic order. Death ushers in rebirth.” (Creed 2007, 24)
This notion of rebirth is taken to an extreme and literal extent in the final fourth and final installment of the series, Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet 1997). Here Ripley is no longer herself. She is a cloned version of her former ‘impregnated’ self and exhibits qualities of both her human and alien persona. She is the product of scientific experimentation and is born of the same terrifying reproductive technology that is toyed with in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818). However this technology is seen to have advanced to even more frightening levels with specific reference to technologies such as cloning, in vitro fertilisation and surrogacy that have dominated scientific discoveries since the late 20th century. This is particularly evident in the scene which exhibits the various attempts at cloning Ripley; a literal hall or horror or grotesque failed versions of herself. This terrifying cloning process, which is designed to use Ripley as a surrogate for the alien queen, ends up rendering her part human, part alien. In addition, it gives her superhuman strength as well as animal instincts and intuition. Her blood is as acidic as the alien monster, and her instincts are heightened and so sensitive that she can detect the presence of the alien beings through her organic connection to them. Ripley becomes a disturbing mix of human, animal, alien and technology; a cyborg (Haraway 1991) whose mere existence simultaneously undermines and threatens the ontology of the human race. Her coupling with Call consolidates and further delineates her queer persona and also establishes a unique queer post-human relationship.
Call is the latest iteration of a series of androids that feature in the Alien series. A product of human ingenuity the androids have a somewhat chequered history. At times they are seen to be operating against human interests and at other times they are working alongside humans. The androids are portrayed as surreptitious; able to impersonate humans convincingly but with a ruthless ability to follow programmed orders that can work to the detriment of the human race. Call immediately arouses suspicion in Ripley who has experienced their betrayal of humanity first hand. Ripley frequently questions whether Call’s machinery is reliable and trustworthy while Call must continually prove her integrity. She is constructed from both machine and organic materials and fashioned to emulate a human being even more perfectly. Call evokes notions of the after-human and reflects a different dimension of the disturbing image of the cyborg. “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.”(Haraway 1991, 276). Haraway’s disturbing image of the cyborg is reflected in Ripley’s (fully human) scepticism towards the androids throughout the series. In Alien: Resurrection Ripley’s scepticism subsides and becomes short-lived given her own technological ontology but, at first, she is clearly wary of Call and suspicious of her potentially rebellious nature. For Haraway the cyborg is “…the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” (Haraway 1980, 277) However, Call contradicts this disturbing potential of the cyborg because although she is ‘unfaithful to her origins’, she actually turns against a patriarchal order rather than humanity. This allows her defiance to be read as both feminist and humanist. She has all the altruistic characteristics of a human being and houses many of the admirable aspects of human nature. Call is programmed to preserve and protect the human race at all costs. In fact, the flaw in the design of her android series is a tendency to defy human authority in order to carry out the missions for which they have been programmed. Thus, I argue, Call represents the collective conscience of humanity. Humans become both the victims she must protect and the perpetrator of crimes that she must vanquish. This gives her post-human ontology ‘humanity’ and makes her more humane than many humans in this narrative. Call is not unlike the original Ripley in the first film; an intelligent and extremely capable woman whose natural tendency is to defy authority (especially patriarchal authority) in the name of protecting her species. Call’s initial mission is to kill Ripley before she is able to give birth to the alien queen. When she realises it is too late she spares Ripley. She is both suspicious and in awe of Ripley often questioning Ripley’s loyalty to her human heritage and accusing her of acting in aid of her alien offspring. This reciprocal scepticism and mutual feelings of suspicion soon give way to a relationship of both comradeship and eroticism.
Ripley and Call share an emotional bond formed on their shared values: to protect and preserve, not so much humans as the principles of humanity. Call is determined to exterminate the alien monster and sides with Ripley once she understands that they have the same goals. Their bond is consolidated through this enterprise and builds on an erotic attraction that is implied more than once throughout the film. In the scene where Call tries to kill Ripley, the sequence involves a choreography of movement that resembles scenes of sexual bondage; Ripley appears as the dominatrix while Call is the positioned as the obedient servant. Later, when it is presumed that Ripley has been lost to the alien monster (or perhaps to have sided with it), she returns out of the blue from beneath a metal platform, Rambo style, making the quip to Call; “Was it everything you hoped for?” This erotic chemistry is further emphasised when Ripley discovers that Call is an android and must be penetrated with a cable connection in order to hack into the space station’s control system to aid their escape. The two women sit together and share a moment of tenderness and intimacy that will aid their rescue and, above all, help them to protect humanity from the modified alien monster and her ghoulish offspring. By the time they reach Earth they are framed as a couple looking down on the planet with maternal affection, now also sharing the experience of having joined forces to fight off the alien enemy, and surviving the alien attack. Their relationship is enunciated in the terms set out by Adrienne Rich:
As the term “lesbian” has been held to limiting, clinical associations in its patriarchal definition, female friendship and comradeship have been set apart front he erotic, thus limiting the erotic itself. But as we deepen and broaden the range of what we define as lesbian existence, as we delineate a lesbian continuum, we begin to discover the erotic in female terms: as that which is unconfined to any single part of the body or solely to the body itself, as an energy not only diffuse but, as Audre Lorde has described it, omnipresent in “the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic,” and in the sharing of work; as the empowering joy which “makes us less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair,-self-effacement, self-denial.” (Rich 1980, 650)
As individuals, and as a couple, Ripley and Call stand out as superior in morals, ethics and tactics when compared to all the human characters in the film. The crew of The Betty, an ‘unregistered commercial freighter’, is likened to a pirate ship and made up of a collection of social misfits whose marginalisation drives them to piracy and other unlawful money making schemes. The captain of the ship, Frank Elygn (Michael Wincott), is a mercenary who commands a motley crew: Vriess (Dominique Pinon) – a disabled character who uses his wheelchair as a personal arsenal for his high powered weaponary, Johner (Ron Perlman) – a highly strung and volatile mercenary, Christie (Gary Dourdan) – an African-American soldier and Sabra Hillard (Kim Flowers) – the captain’s co-pilot (whom he treats as his personal sex toy). Together the crew represents some of the most disenfranchised members of human society. All of them have little reason to care about the future of humanity. They are driven much more by a desire for personal gain than an interest in protecting the human race. They rely on the ingenuity of both Call and Ripley for their survival and are, therefore, forced to form an alliance with them, but they never fully trust them and often show disdain towards their non-human status. When Call returns from a death sequence (with a gesture that resembles Ripley’s own sacrificial end in Alien 3) Ripley is immediately suspicious of her ability to survive such a severe a gunshot. When she looks more closely at Call’s chest she finds a gaping wound with hanging wires and a white milky substance oozing out of it. Ripley outs her as a robot and immediately quips; “I should have known. No human being is that humane.” The other human characters immediately taunt and ridicule her calling her a “toaster oven”, “a second generation automaton – a robot designed by robots”. Call is humiliated by her exposure and the close-up of her face registers the embarrassment from the repulsion she elicits in the humans. The crew of The Betty, however, does not provide the worst example of the human race the film has to offer.
The ‘medical research vessel’, Auriga, is governed by General Martin Perez (Dan Hedaya) who is not impartial to bribery as witnessed with the arrival of The Betty. He is willing to compromise the security of the space station and allows the crew to stay in exchange for mountains of cash. Dr. Mason Wren (J.E. Freeman) is the mastermind of the project to clone Ripley, and the alien monster inside her, and treats them as mere specimens. Dr. Jonathan Gediman (Brad Dourif), one of the scientists in charge of the aliens is portrayed as a somewhat perverse character who is prone to both torturing and making erotic gestures towards the alien creatures. The scientific experiments on the research vessel are likely to lead to enormous wealth, status and recognition rather than benefitting human kind. In addition, the ruthlessness of these scientists involves sacrificing human beings to act as hosts in the reproduction process of the alien creatures (humans who are hijacked while in cryogenic sleep in space by The Betty and delivered to the space station). The core corruption of the benevolent aspects of humanity lies in the corporate mentality that the scientists, supported by the military, have adopted. In children’s literature and film this mentality is frequently represented as the enemy:
In combination with pervasive advertising, the corporatization of formerly non-corporate spheres, and an income gap that has been widening since 1967, this ‘sheer audacious scale’ of corporate crime has eroded public faith in large corporations and brought the increase of corporate power in the American landscape to a prominent place in media and public awareness. Films like WALL-E, high sales of books like Fast Food Nation and Is the American Dream Killing You?, and the spread of ‘simple living’ and ‘slow food’ movements all point to a growing desire in Americans to examine the shift in lifestyles and values that they have experienced as a result of marketing culture. (Guerra 2009, 278)
The overtones of this ‘corporate dystopia’ (Guerra 2009, 279) mentality governing the decision to resurrect and reproduce the alien monster are explicit. Compared to the purely human characters, Ripley and Call are the only ones who genuinely possess any sense of humane principles and show they are capable of defending them. All the human characters in this film are, to varying extents, driven primarily by selfishness and greed, qualities which the film suggests will lead to the demise of the human race. The post-human is, therefore, portrayed as more humane than human beings. Thus the characterisations in the film reiterate Ripley’s quip to Call that no human was capable of possessing such humanity.
Yampell argues that in Young Adult Science fiction the blurring of identity boundaries is a positive quality which enhances a character,” Through a subtle privileging of hybridity and the ensuing implication that ‘becoming animal’ may constitute an evolution rather than devolution, Peter Dickson’s Eva (1988) and Ann Halam’s Dr. Franklin’s Island (2002) reflect and subvert dominant anthropocentric ideologies, and rupture delineations that maintain the separation of human-animals from animals.” (Yampell 2008, 208) The becoming animal in Ripley’s case, and being a machine in Call’s case, represent this kind of positive evolution. Their hybridity may place them on lower social strata but enhances many of their physical and mental capacities and places them on a much higher plane in relation to their virtue. This further echoes what occurs in characterisations for Young Adult Science Fiction: “Dickinson and Halem use science’s actualization of the animal/human – animal hybrid to imbrue the animal with abilities and knowledge beyond and superior to that of the human-animal world alone.” (Yampell 2008, 211) This is clearly the case for Ripley whose physical abilities are particularly heightened but is also applicable to Call whose capabilities as a machine also make an important contribution to their escape. She returns from the dead and is able to interface with the controlling computer system ‘Father’ who represents the equivalent of ‘Hal’ in 2001 A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1969) and ‘Mother’ in Alien. She is able to override the computer which permits their spacecraft to leave the space outpost. The combined efforts of the post-human characters represents the resistance to the corrupt authority (paradoxically emanating from the same technology which is devised to enhance the controlling aspect of corporate power) and allows them to both escape and vanquish the alien monster.
The notion that it is impossible to predict the outcome of biotechnology and scientific experimentation because they are so susceptible to being hijacked and misused is made through the trajectory of the post-human characters. However, Alien: Resurrection also suggests that this technology can be used against these destructive forces; themes that have been more fully explored and elaborated in Young Adult Science Fiction. In this context post-humanism is frequently treated as an allegory for the painful and tormenting aspects of the experience of adolescence. “The message that these books give to their young readers is a reassuring one: human values and human nature will prevail no matter what changes the human body endures (Ostry 2004, 243) Ostry also argues that, ‘the future of science and the body’ is much less certain. Alien: Resurrection is far less dystopian in its outlook and makes the queer post-human persona, especially as a couple, even more reassuring. There are two other surviving members of the The Betty, Vriess and Johner, who pilot the ship back home to Earth, but the film focuses on and foregrounds Ripley and Call as the heroes of the day. The small variations in the use of medium shots continually frame them as a couple. Their stance and expressions are almost identical and underscore their comradeship; a relationship that has also been cast as undeniably erotic and empowered against patriarchal authority and structures. In one of the last shots they are seen looking down on the planet in awe of its beauty and the overall effect is to cast them as the responsible and hopeful custodians of the future of the planet and the human race. Moreover, Alien: Resurrection is subversive in its suggestion that genuine humanity is, in fact, more likely to be found in a future populated by post-human personas and relationships.
The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, Utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. (Haraway 1981, 276).
The ‘coalition-affinity’ that Haraway (1981, 283) uses as an alternative to ‘identity’ becomes embodied through the coupling of Ripley and Call and positively enunciates a socialist-feminist vision in Alien: Resurrection.
Broderick, Mick. Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster. Science Fiction Studies, 11/1/1993, Vol. 20, Issue 3, p. 362-382
Clover, Carol, 1987. Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film. The Cinefantastic and Varieties of Horror Representations 20 Fall, 187-228.
Creed, Barbara, 2007. The Neomyth in Film: The Woman Warrior from Joan of Arc to Ellen Ripley. In Women Willing to Fight ed. Silke Andris and Ursula Frederick,15-37. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Crew, Hilary, 2004. Not so Brave a World: The Representation of Human Cloning in Science Fiction for Young Adults. The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol 28, No. 2, 203-221
Graham, Paula, 1994. Looking Lesbian: amazons and aliens in science fiction cinema. In The Good, the Bad and the Gorgeous. Popular Culture’s Romance with Lesbianism, ed. Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge, 196-217. Pandora/Harper Collins London.
Guerra, Stephanie, 2009. Colonizing Bodies: Corporate Power and Biotechnology in Young Adult Science Fiction. Children’s Literature in Education 40: 275-295
Haraway, Donna, 2013 A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in Siminas, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Taylor and Francis, Hoboken., 273-328.
Ostry, Elaine, 2004. “Is He Still Human? Are You?”: Young Adult Science Fiction in the Posthuman Age. The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol 28, No. 2, 222-246
Rich, Adrienne, 1980. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Signs Vol 5 No. 4 Women: Sex and Sexuality, 631-660.
Yampell, Cat, 2008. When Science Blurs the Boundaries: The Commodification of the Animal in Young Adult Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, Issue 2, p. 207-222
Rich, Ruby B., 2013 New Queer Cinema
 In Aliens the monster has clearly been defined as the alien queen whose reproductive process is prolific and produces an army of ‘male’ foot soldiers, much like the structure of an ant colony. The foot soldiers are powerful beasts that frequently kill humans on contact. The face-huggers, on the other hand, kills human beings by impregnating them with the creature. They use the human as an incubator and kill them in the birthing process which sees them bursting through the human chest.
Patricia Di Risio is a PhD candidate in Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis has a particular focus on the representation of women in late twentieth century New Hollywood cinema and explores the interplay between gender and genre. Patricia has been a teacher in film and theatre studies at secondary and tertiary level in Australia, Italy and the UK and is currently a sessional teacher in Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne.
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