The Warrior Queen and the Sexual Carnivore

The Treatment of Gender Ambiguity in Alien (1979)

The cat growls fearfully, hiding as he catches a glimpse of a long, coiled tail and a jagged mouth dripping saliva. Its victim turns and finds himself face to face with his predator; a biomechanical eyeless creature, slavering through its razor sharp metallic teeth. In a sharp piston-like action, the Alien’s phallic tongue pierces his skull and drags him aloft while the cat watches on, wide eyed, in silence.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

Alien‘s release in 1979 caused an uproar from the public due to its sexual and controversial subject matter, to the point where images from the film were banned and some theatres began offering special treatment for what they called ‘Alien Shock’ 1Harry, Deborah.  Stein, Chris.  Strange Encounters of the Swiss Kind. . In Hollywood at that time, controversial subject matters were becoming more common, as filmmakers attempted to push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in cinema; however, Alien affected people more than expected, perhaps partly due to the fact that the public was accustomed to one particular style of alien design in popular culture, such as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. When hearing screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s description of the film in the documentary, Alien Evolution, which exclaims that “this is a movie about alien interspecies rape”, it is certainly easy to understand why audiences had such a strong reaction. Many critics believe that the contribution of artist H.R. Giger’s work, mainly unknown outside of Europe up to that point, is paramount to the success of the film. At the time of Alien’s release, the world had never seen anything like Giger’s biomechanical artwork or been faced with this kind of terrifying creature in cinema. However, what truly was it about Alien which caused it to be so controversial? While it is easy to answer this with statements about the horrific nature of the film, perhaps we can dive deeper. Perhaps it is not only the horror but also the film’s treatment of gender roles and sexuality that caused such controversy. 

Visually, Alien was a turning point in the way the public viewed the future as it was one of the first films to show a dirty, futuristic vision. This was a raw, grittier view of the future, featuring a spaceship that was seemingly falling apart. with dripping water and dark, shadowy corners. Up until this point, the future presented in cinema was white and sterile, with smooth surfaces and bright lights. It did not occur to people at that time that the future did not necessarily have to be clean and sterile, but that it could be an identical, more technically advanced world. Alien suggested a new vision of the future, a vision which was developed further in director Ridley Scott’s next film, Blade Runner. Scott called Alien a Gothic novel and was very specific in his selection of the artists who would work on the film. The Nostromo and the spacesuits worn by the crew were designed by Rob Cobb and Jean Giraud from the European magazine Heavy Metal, a science fiction and fantasy magazine known for its erotic content. The use of these comic book artists brings the film closer to that of a graphic novel. Perhaps more integral to the overall design of the film however is the Alien creature in all its life stages, and also the alien planet, all designed by H.R. Giger. Trained as an architect, Giger’s art explores the similarities between the structure of the human body and that of technological equipment, usually featuring biomechanical contraptions; a fusion of the organic and mechanic. A clear example of his style can be seen in a scene in Alien itself.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

The crew land and find a cockpit, inside of which are the fossilized remains of an alien life form conceived as one of Giger’s biomechanoids, attached to the chair as a single unit. These biomechanoids show that there are no dividing lines between man, monster and machine, which is also seen clearly in the design of the Alien itself. Giger’s artwork is also heavily sexual, often depicting creatures who are part human, part monster and part machine, engaging in acts of sexual activity or violations. Also of importance is the way in which Giger blends sexuality with images of violence and death. Skulls and bones morph into sexual organs or parts of machines in such a way that the resulting images portray sexual rapture, violence, agony, and death2Grof, Stanislaw.  H. R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century.  2005. Thus, in choosing Giger and the Heavy Metal artists as the art directors for the film, it is instantly clear the visual intentions Ridley Scott had when designing Alien. In fact, during filming, he often referred to Giger’s Necronomicon, the book which contains the paintings the Alien was inspired by, as a reference to how the film should look and function 3Levy, Frederic Albert.  H.R. Giger – Alien Design.  Cinefantastique 1979, Vol 9 No.1

H.R. Giger (1979) Giger’s Alien

Alien represents not only a debate about the stereotypical gender roles and the power struggle between men and women but also presents a hero and a villain who are both wholly ambiguous in nature. Ambiguity is a concept not often touched upon too often in the discussion of cinema, perhaps because an ambiguous character is neither one side nor the other. They are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, male nor female, dark nor light. They can simultaneously be both nothing, and everything. Thus, the concept of gender ambiguity and the roles they play in mainstream cinema often pushes these ambiguous characters into the roles of villains. They are strongly considered to be the “bad guys” and are as such punished for their way of living because they do not fit into either of the two boxes that society has created for them. Through a discussion of Alien‘s treatment of gender and sexuality, this essay will strive to prove that ambiguous characters in cinema are often pushed into villainous roles, and punished for their extreme lifestyles and discuss how Alien deals with this issue.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

Alien tells the story of the crew of the USCSS Nostromo, a commercial towing vehicle. While returning from a deep space mission, the crew are awakened by an SOS call from a nearby planet. Answering the distress signal, they descend to the planet’s surface where they discover a strange derelict spaceship which seems to be the source of the transmission. One of the male crew members descends into a pit, where he finds an egg chamber filled with thousands of eggs. While examining one of the eggs, it hatches and the being inside attacks him, attaching itself to his face. The crew return to the Nostromo in a panic, but soon after the alien parasite dies, and everything seems well again. What the crew do not realize is that a seed has been planted and a new alien is growing inside its host. This alien will be born, and one woman will be left to battle for her survival against the sexual carnivore; the Alien.

In an analysis of Alien, first one must take a look at the way in which the film treats the stereotypical gender roles of men and women and how this plays out throughout the film. In particular, the portrayal of women in the film has sparked much academic debate. Alien manages to show a great deal about the place of women in society and their power struggle with men throughout the course of the film. It does this through its presentation of women, their treatment by other male crew mates and, of course, the Alien itself. The male characters in Alien play a very culturally stereotypical male role. They are rough and tough and attempt to take control from the opening of the film, showing zero respect for women, especially not women in higher-ranking positions. As an example, during one of the earlier scenes in the film, Ripley goes to examine the source of some engineering problems the ship is having, to which Parker, one of the male crew members exclaims, ‘What the fuck is she coming down here for? She’d better stay the fuck out of my way.’  However, no matter how these male characters behave, their commanding officer is still a woman, and thus essentially, they are not in control. They are not filling their expected masculine role and, as such, are all punished with death. On the other side of the discussion, women in Alien are presented on equal footing with men, almost to the point of androgyny. There is a cultural stereotype that the female gender role should be weaker, gentler, wear skirts, wear make-up or have their hair done. They are supposed to like pink and be submissive to men. The female crew members in Alien do not do any of these things. They wear no make-up and wear the same uniform as their male crew mates. There is also an apparent lack of sexual tension between the male and female crew members, nor are the women presented in a sexual or exploitative light. This is incidentally something which would have been expected in science fiction films up to the release of Alien. Thus, these female crew members are almost playing a male gender role from the perspective of society, while at the same time never fully being men. They are ambiguous and are punished for this behaviour, with all but one facing death at some point in the film. The only female to survive is the hero, Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

While nowadays a powerful female lead or at least a side character is more common in action films, traditionally film has presented women in a different light.  Since A Trip to the Moon in 1902, science fiction films have depicted the human male as the hero of their narratives. Females, on the other hand, were in secondary roles who complimented the males as love interests, nurses or other similar roles such as low-ranking officers.  Even when women were portrayed in different roles, they were still presented as exploitation, providing the film’s sex appeal4Ximena, Gallardo C.  C, Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt.Ellen Ripley.  2004 . Thus, Alien was groundbreaking at the time of its release in its choice of a female lead. It was an early example of mainstream film presenting audiences with a female hero who was strong, powerful, and saved the day, leaving the male characters to suffer pain and death. Of course, there were many powerful female characters in B movies, such as those by Russ Meyer, but these characters were still the villains of the film. The role of Ripley combines slasher horror with science fiction; a sci-fi slasher hybrid5Clover, Carol J.  Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.  1993. She is both the surviving female in a slasher horror and the science fiction hero all wrapped up in one. In this way, more important than a discussion of the overall treatment of women in the film is a discussion of Ripley and the complexities of her gender role. Ripley spends the majority of the film playing an ambiguous gender role by metaphorically changing gender throughout the film. At first, the audience sees her as the patriarchal vision of a woman, wearing overalls like the rest of the crew which forces them all into a position of androgyny, but also having long, thick hair which allows her to retain aspects of her femininity. Then, when she realizes she is alone on the ship and must defeat the Alien, she ties her hair back and takes a more stereotypically masculine role. She runs around the ship swearing and cursing, showing herself to be both powerful and logical and the only one able to defeat the monster.

However, there are still moments when Ripley is forced back into her female role as if to remind the audience that she has not completely transgressed into the masculine gender role. In the scene where it is revealed that male crew member Ash is actually a synthetic sleeper agent, he tries to suffocate Ripley with a rolled-up Playboy magazine. The audience is presented with an image of oral rape, of a male raping a female. Using a playboy magazine to carry out this act is also quite symbolic as if Ash is trying to force Ripley back into the exploitative female role that the male world expects of her. She is being forced back into the submissive female role, existing solely to serve men and, in fact, it is a male crew member who has to save her. Ripley, of course, returns to the powerful masculine role soon after, supposedly defeating the Alien, blowing up the Nostromo and escaping, but this is not the end of the film. Before the film’s conclusion, Ripley undresses down to her underwear, revealing her obvious femininity and once again restoring her female gender role. At this point, the film really does seem to be strongly telling the audience that Ripley is still a woman, no matter how masculine she has behaved throughout the course of the film. Still though, in order to defeat the Alien once and for all, she must wear her male gender role once again by putting on a spacesuit and removing her femininity. In the finale though she returns to womanhood as a sort of Sleeping Beauty figure, quintessentially female. Thus, even though she spends much of the film with an ambiguous gender role, she is the only one left standing at the end, and the last image the audience sees of her being female returns her to the confined box society has created for her. She is therefore allowed to survive the film’s conclusion. This leads to the question, why must Ripley always return to outwardly appearing male in order to become powerful and defeat the villain?  Could it be that the concept of a woman who looks completely female on the outside but plays a male gender role is too much for the audience to handle? Even in today’s mainstream cinema, a powerful female lead is often accompanied by masculine behaviour patterns. One argument is that Ripley is presented as being of ‘stereotypically lesbian construction, with her short hair, lack of make-up and habit of wearing masculine clothing6Blackmore, Tim.  Is this Going to be Another Bug-Hunt?”: S-F Tradition Versus Biology-as-destiny in James Cameron’s Aliens.  1996 . This finds a way to rationalize her overall ambiguity, as making her into a stereotypical lesbian makes it acceptable by society’s standards for her to have masculine tendencies.

Also important in a discussion of the treatment of gender roles and sexuality in Alien is the second main character; the Alien itself in all its life stages. The Alien was designed by artist H.R. Giger, and his work is integral to the overall design of the film and its impact. As such, a discussion of the choice of Giger as the main artist and the impact his work had on the film’s sexual tone is important in a discussion of the controversial nature of the film’s treatment of gender roles. The Alien is, essentially, completely ambiguous as the creature’s biological sex as well as its gender role are completely unclear. There are various debates on whether or not the being is male, female, both, or even neither. There are three stages to the Alien life cycle and an understanding of each of these provides further insight into the ambiguity of the creature. The Alien begins or ends, as eggs, which are discovered by the crew members on the alien planet.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

The eggs represent the beginning and end of the Alien life cycle. As such, their image was chosen for the film’s promotional material, although new designs were created rather than using Giger’s original designs due to the risk of controversy. Scott had requested that the opening of the egg resembles female genitalia, so Giger’s early designs were complete with an inner and outer vulva, but the producers complained that Catholic countries might ban the film and so Giger altered the design so that the opening was split into four. In this way, in Giger’s own words, the vaginal opening “form[s] the cross that people in Catholic countries are so fond of looking at”. However, the intention behind the design is undeniable, as the vaginal egg blossoms open like a flower to hatch the next stage of the Alien’s life cycle; Alien I, the “face hugger”.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

This parasitic Facehugger carries the Alien seed, which is spread by forcing a phallic object into its victim’s mouth, its “hands” around the male victim’s head, forcing the appendage further into his body. This action “effectively erase(s) the basic sexual distinction between men and women” by forcing the male body into the site of rape and birth. Co-writer Dan O’Bannon called this “homosexual oral rape” and was created with the intention of making the men of the audience cross their legs, suggestive of them protecting their genitalia7Ximena, Gallardo C.  C, Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt.Ellen Ripley.  2004. The Alien assault is thus a form of castration and is essentially stealing away what supposedly makes a man a man. This in itself though brings up an interesting debate point. If the act of castration makes the men no longer men, this basically suggests that a person cannot be male without male genitalia.  It illustrates that on the whole, society would feel like their gender had been stolen from them if their genitalia had been removed, when really what they are thinking about is their biological sex, and not their gender. With gender, a person can be male or female without the socially expected biological sex, and even if a man were to lose his penis, does that necessarily have to mean that he would lose his male gender identity? Another important area of interest is that in this state where the male victim has the Facehugger around his face, he is being completely kept alive by the Alien. The Facehugger breathes for him, feeds him and keeps him alive. It is as if the victim has returned to his “mother’s” womb. Again, the stress is placed on men losing what they believe makes them men; their genitalia. The seed which the Facehugger plants in its victims transform to the next stage of the life cycle, Alien II; the Chest Burster. 

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

The Chest burster looks decisively phallic as it bursts out of a male crew member’s chest, resembling a phallus with teeth which penetrates through the host’s chest.  It is suggestively sexual as if the man’s chest has become a woman’s vagina, and the Chest Burster is a male sexual organ. Once again, the Alien is seen coming into being through an act of rape. Interestingly, Giger’s original designs, which resembled a plucked chicken, were not used in the film with the producers opting for the phallic shape seen in the film instead, which suggests that the producers wanted the audience to clearly associate this creature with male genitalia. One must then question why it was perfectly acceptable for the “chest burster” to closely resemble a penis but an egg with an outer and inner vulva would be too controversial. The Chest Burster then develops into Alien III, the final form of the Alien’s life cycle.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

Alien III is the Alien in its adult form. On the surface, the Alien can be seen as a distinctly masculine creature, complete with an “obscenely phallic thrusting “member” that runs in and out of its slavering mouth in an unmistakably copulatory and invariably fatal piston-like action” and a long scaly tail, which is seen killing the female member of the crew in a rape-like action8 Cobbs, John L.  Alien as an abortion parable.  1990. However, there seems to be a constant debate on the gender of the Alien; whether it is male, female, or even both. Giger’s artwork is well known for being a depiction of the violation of women; women, or parts of them, are seen locked into machinery with tubes and wires and are often pinned into vulnerable positions with their legs or arms spread apart. They are also often drawn being penetrated in the groin or mouth or expelling fetal or phallic forms. Thus, the choice of Giger in particular as the designer of the Alien would suggest that Scott was looking to create a masculine beast designed to rape his victims to death. This would then suggest that Alien‘s meaning is the violation of the primarily male crew as if they were weak women by a fearful masculine presence, forced to go through the pains of childbirth. Also important is the fact that the Alien is eventually defeated by a powerful woman, not a man. Feminists usually follow this point of view, seeing the film as a tale of a strong female warrior who defeats the masculine beast. “Only a warrior queen can face down the monstrous-feminine” 9Giger, H.R.  HR Giger’s Film Design.  1996.

However, one can also look at the Alien design and Giger’s artwork on the whole from a different viewpoint. The women in his works, supposedly being violated and raped by complex machinery, rarely show any signs of being unhappy with the situations they have been drawn in. Works such as Walpurgis, an LP cover for the band Shiver, depict women, with tentacled sacks resembling a man’s testicles attached to their heads, willfully opening their mouths to ingest small goggle-wearing creatures; presumably fetuses.

H.R. Giger (1969) Walpurgis

The importance here is that the women are presented doing this act of their own free will, and the female in the foreground licks her lips erotically as if to tell the viewer that she sexually enjoys what she is doing. Another work, Stillbirth Machine, which is often interpreted as “a grisly vision of a naked woman inextricably bound to a massive, intricate instrument which apparently extracts from her groin a dead, fetal thing” in fact depicts a woman who seems quite content with her situation10Cobbs, John L.  Alien as an abortion parable.  1990. She smiles as if sexually aroused by the skeletal being who holds her, or simply as if she is happy to be giving birth. The importance of the art lies in the trauma inflicted on humans through childbirth, the result of the artist’s own birth trauma nightmares, and the threat that all babies carry as the “beginning of all evil” rather than the violation of the women the works seemingly depicts11Grof, Stanislaw.  H. R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century.  2005.

H.R. Giger (1976) Stillbirth Machine

Thus, after analyzing Giger’s work, one gains an understanding of the artists’ idolatry of women. It is his deep love of the female form that drives him to draw women tied up to various mechanical contraptions as a way to keep them locked in his world. Thus, Ridley Scott’s decision to bring in Giger as one of the art designers for Alien not only shows his strong desire for the movie to be rooted in sexuality but perhaps also his desire to create a film filled with female idolatry and empowerment.  Another element which suggests the female or hermaphrodite nature of the Alien is a scene which was cut from the original version but added back into the film in the Director’s Cut release, which explained the Alien’s complete life cycle. The still-living bodies of the victims killed by the Alien would be turned into a cocoon and then converted into the eggs from which the “face hugger” grows. This explains that a male Alien is not needed to impregnate a female or fertilize the eggs, as they are created from the Alien’s own victims. What the viewer could be seeing in Alien, therefore, is a distinctly female being terrorizing the ship and forcing the pains of childbirth onto men rather than women. In fact, the phallic tongue with which the Alien kills its victims has also been described as the vagina dentata, a sexual urban legend told to warn against the dangers of having sex with strange women, rather than a phallus12Ximena, Gallardo C.  C, Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt.Ellen Ripley.  2004. In later Alien films, the Alien has been made into a female being, though this does not necessarily mean this was the original intention in the first film. Giger himself says that the creature is neither, claiming that it was never supposed to be male or female. 

Thus, the Alien is essentially like Ripley but more so, entirely ambiguous. A man who wears a dress but is not a homosexual and has no desire to be a woman does not fit into the boxes society has created for him. In the same way, the Alien, while being arguably either male or female and with a perhaps even sexual interest in procreating with both males and females does not fit into society’s minded boxes.  As such, the Alien is punished for its actions. Of course, one can argue that the Alien is the villain of the piece and as such in film logic should die, but then why would it be necessary to show the often ambiguous Ripley in such a feminine light at the end of the film? The audience is left with the message that Ripley, returned to her stereotyped female gender role, is allowed to survive the film, while the Alien, and in fact the rest of the crew die. The reasons for the Alien’s punishment are clear, but why are the crew punished? The female crew, like the Alien, are punished for being ambiguous and playing themselves in an almost male gender role.  Unlike Ripley, they do not show their female sides, and as such cannot survive the film. The male crew members are punished for allowing themselves to be under a female captain, as men are supposed to play strong and leading roles.  In fact, could it not be argued that the male crew members are being punished simply for the fact that Ripley is the hero of the film, not them?  Interestingly when the film was first released, many viewers assumed that Dallas would come and save Ripley in the end, as the scene which shows his death was cut out of the original film, but of course, he did not.  Ripley didn’t need the men to save her, and they are punished for that.

Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott

What Alien seems to be saying through its artwork and the design of its monster is that until now, men have ruled the world, often claimed by women to be the result of them having a phallus, but now the rules have changed. The Alien, whether a female or otherwise, can populate the species without the need for a male. They even have their own phallic devices, like their tongue and tail, which seems to be saying that they no longer need men or their reproductive organs. Moreover, both Ripley and the Alien are essentially ambiguous in their gender representation. However, the Alien remains ambiguous, and is such punished, while Ripley returns to her female state and is thus forgiven. The lasting importance of Alien, however, does not lie in whether or not the Alien is male or female, or whether the battle is against a masculine or female sexual carnivore and a warrior princess; the importance lies in the impact the film had, and continues to have to this day. An impact which we can argue is primarily due to the fear created by Giger’s Alien designs; designs which are still appropriated today. There are multiple layers of fear in the Alien design, which makes it so terrifying that it evokes fear in both men and women. Women can see the Alien as a masculine being out to rape them, or a female creature undoing the wrongs done to women by the male species; forcing them to be penetrated, raped and impregnated. Men can fear the depths of a woman’s sexuality which, like the alien, seem to spring from nowhere and threatens to smother them. In choosing H.R. Giger as the creator of the Alien, multiple levels of ambiguous sexual politics were added to the film, and an unforgettable monster was created. Alien is a visual milestone in Hollywood horror and science fiction and serves as a formal introduction of H.R. Giger’s work to the rest of the unsuspecting world. His artwork continues to change the realms of science fiction, horror, and art to this day.

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  • 1
    Harry, Deborah.  Stein, Chris.  Strange Encounters of the Swiss Kind.
  • 2
    Grof, Stanislaw.  H. R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century.  2005
  • 3
    Levy, Frederic Albert.  H.R. Giger – Alien Design.  Cinefantastique 1979, Vol 9 No.1
  • 4
    Ximena, Gallardo C.  C, Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt.Ellen Ripley.  2004
  • 5
    Clover, Carol J.  Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.  1993
  • 6
    Blackmore, Tim.  Is this Going to be Another Bug-Hunt?”: S-F Tradition Versus Biology-as-destiny in James Cameron’s Aliens.  1996
  • 7
    Ximena, Gallardo C.  C, Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt.Ellen Ripley.  2004
  • 8
    Cobbs, John L.  Alien as an abortion parable.  1990
  • 9
    Giger, H.R.  HR Giger’s Film Design.  1996
  • 10
    Cobbs, John L.  Alien as an abortion parable.  1990
  • 11
    Grof, Stanislaw.  H. R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century.  2005
  • 12
    Ximena, Gallardo C.  C, Jason Smith.  Alien Woman: The Making of Lt.Ellen Ripley.  2004