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Dr. Louis N. Sandowsky



Philosophy, Fantasy and Film





The Other Alien – Gender at the Movies



Alien – VCV 1993 (Dir. Ridley Scott)



1.       The Phallocentric Look


We have already attended to the notion of "The Look" or "The Gaze," which has its theoretical roots in existentialist writing. Jean Paul Sartre explored this theme in great detail in Being and Nothingness. This is a work of phenomenological ontology and it analyzes the different ‘modes’ in which consciousness engages with that which is other than itself, i.e., the world and Others. Sartre’s discourse focuses, in particular, on the ways in which The Look objectifies the Other – and how one’s own self relation is modified through this form of encounter when one is on the receiving end of it. This is the moment in which one is actually brought into a new and intimate association with oneself through the Other. Sartre’s story of the keyhole and the Peeping Tom demonstrates that even our most intimate self-relations are mediated through the Other. In this instance – the moment at which a person looking through a keyhole discovers that he is the object of another’s gaze – The Look inaugurates a feeling of shame. This undermines the aspect of Cartesian dualism that reduces one’s self-relation to that of solipsism. The existence of the Other is already presupposed by the myriad forms that make up the matrix of one’s own self relation. In the most primary ontological sense, our existence is defined by seeing and seeing-oneself-being-seen.


What is important here, from a phenomenological point of view, is that the constitution of the meaningful contours of ‘what’ is seen through The Look has to do with the ways in which we see, rather than what is there in itself. What is seen is the product of the ‘way’ in which it is encountered. Ambiguous figures like the dual image of a ‘vase / two faces’ illustrate this point exactly. What appears is determined by what one has a tendency to look for. How one looks is, in turn, informed by the social, aesthetic, ideological, and political conventions that have been introjected throughout one’s daily life, e.g., through the media, by one’s peers and one's parents, etc.


The specific forms of givenness of alterity are both conditioning and conditioned and they trace out the signature of a ‘shared’ history – a ‘communality of differences’ – that is always already in play as the fundamental horizon of both the intra-subjective and inter-subjective spheres of experience. I shall turn to one particular trace of this history – that which announces sexual difference.


It has been argued that gender orientation is purely a product of the values imposed by society and that it is far from being natural in an ‘essential’ sense. Twenty years of gay and feminist politics have, as Suzanne Moore argues, "advocated the idea that sexuality is socially constructed rather than God-given and immutable. Hence, femininity and masculinity are processes in a state of constant negotiation, not static categories from which there is no escape" ("Here’s looking at you kid." p. 45).


Phallocentrism is the name that is given to the patriarchal language through which sexuality is defined (phallus centered). Psychoanalysis provides certain tools with which to deconstruct it, but it is questionable as to whether it would ever be possible to step outside phallocentric language itself. Within this language, woman is defined according to the Freudian concept of lack. While man is caught up in the clutches of the Oedipus Complex, woman is trapped by the Electra Complex – which is defined by ‘lack.’ From the masculine point of view, she represents a bleeding wound and the threat of castration. Woman is the object of a Look that is built upon a kind of panic about possible loss. Principally, her presence represents a certain lack of presence. Ultimately, she is caught up in a nexus of representation, whose logic is defined by male anxiety. She is never wholly present for herself, but only ‘appears’ as the representation of a lack. However, the integrity and the fullness of presence of masculinity is, in turn, dependent upon this impoverishment of the meaning of woman.


As Mulvey writes,


The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. The idea of woman stands as linchpin to the system; it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence; it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies (Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, p. 14).


Mulvey’s article maintains that cinema determines the formal aesthetical function of woman. In other words, cinematic narrative form determines the ‘way’ in which we perceive women. The article attempts to analyze the beauty and pleasure given through the lenspiece of cinema to the point of destruction "…in order to conceive a new language of desire" (Ibid. p. 16). It is argued, with respect to the phallocentric hierarchy, that woman is traditionally placed in a mere supportive role to the male protagonist. Her lack emphasizes his stature and heroism. The question is whether this point of view actually has any currency today. There is a short reference to the fact that there "…are films with a woman as main protagonist of course" (Ibid. p.20). However, this comment is placed within parentheses, which only serves to diminish the point. The writer quickly sweeps this aside by saying, "To analyze this phenomenon seriously here would take me too far afield." The justification for this dismissal is that "the strength of this female protagonist is more apparent than real" (Ibid. p. 21).


I, on the other hand, would like to take a step further afield and give an example of how this state of affairs has undergone a radical change within the last twenty years. To this end, I wish to return to the issue of scopophilia, by showing the shift from the form in which the Other is purely objectified, which has been correlated with the kind of Look to which woman is traditionally subjected, in order to highlight an important turn that is allowing the presentation of women in the cinema to extend into a more empathic dimension. In the case of the objectifying perspective of phallocentric narrative form – men do the looking and women merely appear. However, we must remember that there are at least two different orientations implied in the expression scopophilia.



Scopophilia: pleasure in looking:


The Other seen as object (active): pleasure in objectifying the other – voyeurism, fetishism.


The Other seen as subject (passive): developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego. It comes from identification with the image that is seen – empathy.



Ironically, it is the image of man, over the last twenty years, that has undergone a shift from presentation in the second form of identificatory narrative to the first form: the Look that objectifies. In these days of affected political correctness, where the exploitation of the female form is becoming increasingly problematic, exotic images of the male body are becoming more common in the media. However, it can be argued that it is the gay movement, rather than feminism, which has been the driving force behind the proliferation of this exposure of the ‘new man.’ Although men are now cast in roles that were traditionally assigned to women (cosmetics advertising, images of caring men with children, etc., which are primarily aimed at female consumers), they are usually presented in an objectified form. Typically, these images are very glamorous (see Mulvey and Moore). Perhaps we might refer to this phenomenon as the Nick Kamen syndrome. Moore claims "…that the codification of men via male gay discourse enables a female erotic gaze" ("Here’s looking at you kid," p. 53).


On the other hand, the image of woman has also undergone a revolution in the form of its presentation by the media. I shall analyze one particular example of this transformation within the notoriously phallocentric realm of Hollywood, which has served to nudge the perception of woman as object into the subject-sphere of identification.




2.       The Humanization of the Feminine: transcending objectification to subject of empathy


Just over twenty years ago (1979), Sigourney Weaver made her first appearance in her role as Ripley in the Alien series of films, which revolutionized the perception of the heroine in Hollywood cinema. The part was originally written for a man. However, the director, Ridley Scott (who later went on to make Thelma and Louise – a kind of feminist road-movie), decided to place a woman in the role at the last moment without making any significant changes to the script. In this respect, there is an androgynous aspect to the character of Ripley. This heroine does not fall into the object-oriented class of scopophilia. The audience is invited to empathize with her – to live the movie’s drama through her eyes. Furthermore, Ripley does not play a merely supportive role to a principal male character in such a way as to emphasize any form of phallocentric view of heroism. She personifies a feminine integrity that is not simply in the service of a phallocentric ideal of woman.


The only real phallic power symbol is that of the alien itself. In its first stage, it attaches itself to a potential host and forces a proboscis down the throat of the victim (the violence of penetration). The first victim is a man (a pilot named Kane, played by John Hurt). Here, the male audience has the opportunity to identify with the victim of a symbolic rape. There is not the usual distance of the male gaze upon this act, which usually divorces it from an empathic connection to penetrative violence. Men are forced to identify with the victim. With the introjection of the extra-terrestrial penis, the seed literally develops into a creature in the form of a phallus and eventually explodes through the chest of the host, killing him (much of the shock expressed by the actors at this point in the film is actually authentic, since they were not told exactly what was going to happen in this scene). Henceforth, the alien is referred to as "Kane’s child." The Freudian references exist in abundance. It is interesting to note that even some of the incidental music was taken from John Huston’s film about Freud’s life, The Secret Passion (the scores for both films were written by Jerry Goldsmith).


The image of the alien was designed by the Swiss artist, H.R. Giger. What is instantly noticeable about this creature (in its adult form) is that the head is literally shapped like a penis. In its behaviour, the creature is the pure manifestation of unconscious, naked aggression. Its primary motivation is to plunge its extending jaws into its victims, feed, and reproduce itself. Here, we have a powerful symbolic incarnation of masculine malevolence – raw, naked ‘male’ power. The introduction of a female combatant into the scenario serves to disrupt the balance of what would otherwise be an unconscious phallocentric dimension of powerplay. The only other female on board the space tug Nostromo is Lambert, whose stereotypical female timidity and tendency to nag acts as a counterpoint to Ripley’s incarnation of woman. Actually, much of Ripley’s strength lies in her resolute compassion (at one point, she even puts herself at risk to save the ship’s cat). She is also determined to destroy the monster, even at the expense of her own life. This is in diametrical opposition to the directive laid down by the company that employs her, which wants to keep the alien alive, not for humane reasons, but for profit (as an acquisition for its bio-weapons division). Gender perception is confused on a number of different levels. One of the most significant moments of shock in the film is when Ripley discovers that the crew of the Nostromo have been betrayed by the ship’s computer, which is called “Mother!”


At the point of the final showdown, we find Ripley in a state of extreme vulnerability after she has removed her overalls in what she thought to be the safety of the escape shuttle. The removal of her clothes is an intimate reminder of her femininity. However, this is not a scene that has been designed simply for the male voyeur. It transcends gender differences by placing the audience, regardless of gender, into the classic scenario in which nakedness is the ‘universal’ symbol of defenselessness. Everyone identifies with her predicament, as she suddenly becomes aware that she is, once again, at the focus of the predatorial gaze of the creature. Its Look is nothing other than that of aggression and indifference to her fear – a Look of pure objectification in which she appears as nothing more than its prey.


Ripley utilizes the ready-to-hand hostility of the natural environment to protect herself – a kind of passive violence. She saves herself by opening the airlock, which causes the creature to be blown out into the vacuum of space.


In the second installment of the Alien series: Aliens (1986), Ripley’s character is explored even further, leaving any last hint of androgyny behind. James Cameron wrote the screenplay and directed the film (he has distinguished himself among other male directors by presenting 'strong' female leads in a number of his films, including the Terminator series and The Abyss). Cameron was concerned to bring out the kind of violence that is potentially open to the female as mother and protector.


The sequel also explores the social order of the alien itself – which is primarily insect-like. The hierarchical system is matriarchical, where the males, like worker bees are expendable. The real power lies with the queen. This creature is larger and more powerful than its male workers. This demonstrates a more biologistic approach to gender difference that goes beyond the sexual politics constructed according to an anthropomorphic phallocentric order. The final showdown in this film is between Ripley, who has become a surrogate mother to an orphaned child, and the queen alien who seeks to protect her eggs – the clash of the titan mothers.


The third and fourth films in the series (Alien 3 [1992] and Alien: Resurrection [1997]) continue to explore different dimensions of woman beyond the limitations of phallocentrism. In the third movie (which is, actually, a very disappointing film), Ripley discovers that she has been impregnated (which occurred while she was in a state of hibernation) and eventually destroys herself and her ‘child.’ She takes responsibility for the grotesque abomination of the foetus that she carries inside her. Ripley takes her own life in the final sequence of the film by plunging into a vat of molten lead at the precise moment that the alien is bursting out of her body, thus ending the line of alien succession. Curiously, there is a hint of compassion for the beast as they plunge to their death, while she seems to cradle it in the bloody hole that remains of her chest.


In the fourth film, Alien: Resurrection, Ripley is brought back to life through a process of cloning. However, it is not strictly Ripley who is resurrected. This time (approximately two hundred years after she died), the character is a genetic combination of her former self and the alien child that she carried inside her body. This allows an exploration of the issue of alterity beyond sexual difference and, at the same time, it presents a rather tongue in cheek approach to the character, since this incarnation of Ripley is stronger than the burliest male in the film (whose behavior exemplifies the epitome of male chauvinistic aggression). On the one hand, one might say that this transformation represents a return to the androgynous form of the character in the first film. On the other hand, it might be said that Ripley’s increased strength actually represents an inversion – an over-masculinisation of the character (already hinted at in the third movie, when she appears with a shaved head). This allows some fun in that Ripley’s increased strength means payback time – where certain testosterone-saturated males are given a taste of their own machismo (another humorous inversion has to do with the computer-system – former matriarchal nemesis of the ‘expendable’ crew of the first film – which has now become “Father!”).


Of course, sheer strength need not necessarily be associated with the phallocentric order. It is really a question of ‘how’ Ripley uses it – and of her particular motivation. Once again, it is in the service of compassion and surrogate motherhood. In this installment, the child is represented by an android, played by Winona Ryder. In a sense, the fourth film takes a hard look at the whole question of social categorization, well beyond the limits of gender difference. It asks whether the clone of Ripley, or more correctly, the cloned fusion of Ripley and the alien child is actually human at all. The blurring of the boundary between human and non-human is further complicated by the question of the form of being of Winona Ryder’s android role.


In sum, even the violence in these films, as engaged in by the heroine (which sometimes makes the traditional gung-ho antics of the macho phallus-toting hero pale by comparison) is firmly situated in the realm of woman. It does not represent a masculinisation of the female dimension. This violence is in the service of the female as protector – as mother. Contrary to the usual take: It is not simply to make the chief protagonist look good, in line with the over-familiar phallocentric tradition (whose kingdom is none other than Hollywood itself). In this respect, it would appear that the meaning of woman is presented more as a product of biology. It is a naturalization of the feminine, in contrast to a mere social construct of male anxiety according to the limits of the phallocentric Look. This is not to say that biology is the principal thesis or criterion for discourse on womanhood, because biology itself is also riddled with cultural propaganda. However, it is a reasonable starting point in the continuing analysis of what woman is in contrast to the endless hyperbole about what she is not.




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Berger, John.  Ways of Seeing. British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books 1972.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. 1978. Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New york. Originally published in French in 1976.

Madness and Civilization. A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. Routledge. London: Tavistock, 1967, 1965. (Reprinted 1991).

Gamman, Lorraine and Margeret Marchment. The Female Gaze. Women’s Press Ltd. 1988.

Mitchell, Juliet and Rose, Jacqueline. Feminine Sexuality: Jaques Lacan and the Ecole Freudiene London. Macmillan 1982.

Moore, Suzanne. "Here’s Looking at You Kid."

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."

Myers, Kathy. "Towards a Feminist Erotica."

Pultz, John. Photography and The Body. The Orion Publishing Group. 1995.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Methuen. 1958. [Original French text 1943].