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Cultural Context Analysis of “Alien”

Updated on February 3, 2020

Beth Violette

Alien Cultural Context


The revolutionary motion picture Alien by Ridley Scott serves as a criticism of the dominant paradigm of the patriarchy at the time, 1979, and is reflective of feminist views. The movie can be analyzed as a replication of the patriarchy in modern western culture. Its storyline, characterization, and metaphors allow Ridley to create a digestible model of the complex hierarchies within society. His feminist message is subtle and enhanced by a compelling Sifi, horror storyline which enables an engaging exposure of the slow-burning fire of inequality.

Ridley’s feminist messages are a reflection of the Second Wave of Feminism which swept through the United States during the making of the film and its release in 1979. The movement strived to expose society as male-centered and led and deconstruct the consequential male-created definition of womanhood -- the idea that they existed to simply please the dominant male ideals. The movement sharply interrupted institutions of historically normalized, unspoken oppression towards women. Women rejected their prescribed roles in droves, inspiring mass support and advances in legislation. Feminists worked to illuminate the unspoken belittlement of women by abandoning the nuclear family structure. Instead of prioritizing building a family, women were empowered to invest their efforts into excelling in their careers. The working woman was a direct opposition to the criterion of femininity and asserted equal capability to male counterparts. Empowerment illuminated once disregarded acts of oppression particularly domestic abuse, assumptions of inability or inferiority at the workplace, and unjust sterilization of women of color. The national conversation soon saturated the media. By the 1970s, motion pictures commonly undertook issues of the feminist movement, including Alien.

Ridley Scott addressed the movement by famously creating one of the first heroines in major motion pictures. Through casting female protagonist, Ridley flipped gender roles bringing an autonomous female perspective: an unconventional vehicle he used to demonstrate the impacts of normalized sexism and affirm the competence of women. The film takes place far from the society it replicated in space and shows the audience the power dynamics within a team of American astronauts who encounter an unearthly creature: the Alien. The Alien torments the crew, and the film documents their efforts to escape its wrath. The hero Ellen Ripley defies horror movie norms. Her character is void traditional tropes of a damsel in distress or stupidity. Instead, Ellen is characterized as unwaveringly focused, ruthless, and logical. She adopts these conventionally male traits naturally which aids in the dismantling of the restraints on femininity. In contrast, her male counterparts are rash and disrespectful, disregarding her opinion as insignificant in spit of her high ranking. Ripley anticipates the insidiousness of the Alien when her male counterparts return with an injured colleague attacked by the creature. Her unwillingness is in distinct contradiction to stereotypes of a heightened emotional response in women. Instead, it is her male colleagues whose judgment is clouded. Ellen's stance on safety is blatantly ignored by lower-ranking, male members of the team. The men's lack of recognition of her precautions results in their imminent death. Their deaths are shocking and violent and serve as a foreboding message to the patriarchy.

Furthermore, the importance of the inclusion of Ripley's perspective is cemented by an emotional connection. The viewer is forced to witness the repeated disrespect of Ellen, and the audience's frustration inevitably grows in tandem. Ellen is a glimpse of safety in an overwhelming sea of delusion, and her silencing becomes delusional. Although the sexism she experiences is apparent, the audience is not explicitly told to find fault in it. This strategy allows the film to escape the polarization that accompanies an obvious assertion of a political perspective. Instead, the viewer can feel as though they are independently deciding to side with Ellen because she is correct about the threat of the alien. This creates a personal, emotional connection to the wrongness of silencing women in the workplace. Additionally, the normalized sexism is accurately reflective of the undertones of oppression within the workplace which lacks shock but remains successful in making Ellen inferior. This is the type of discrimination attacked by the Second Wave of Feminism. Ellen is shown to be a high ranking member of the crew, and there is feigned acceptance of and respect towards her from the male characters. The film is void of hate speech and shocking silencing. Instead, over time the sexism is mildly palatable, but it is clear that these small acts effectively silence Ellen. The cause of the horror aspect of the film is the close-mindedness of the crew. They could be saved but they reject sense simply because it comes from a marginalized source. On a larger scale, the male crew represents the enclosed mindset of the patriarchy. The ignorance paired with unearned confidence from the men in the movie is an attempt to display how, specifically male, privilege distorts reality.

Ultimately, Ellen Ripley is the only character to survive the torment of the Alien. Her winning this harrowing battle that her male counterparts failed to overcome is a definite assertion of her capability. Her competence is representative of the ability of women.

The feminist messages in the film do not end with the powerful protagonist. The alien strikingly resembles a grotesque replication of the female anatomy. This can be seen as a statement on the complete rejection of the divine feminine and reproductive and maternal instincts in the Second Wave of Feminism. Work and career were seen as the priority as women were trying to prove their worth in the workplace. The Second Wave of Feminism worked to break the mold for women used to oppress them throughout history which spawned an extremely negative view towards the traditional role of women. It is logical that as the power of men was rejected adhering to stereotypical female behavior translated as submission to the patriarchy. Women could not work and be change makers if they were busy having children. It was asserted that women could never find happiness within the constant degradation of the nuclear family. Therefore, inherent aspects of womanhood became hated and feared. Fertility and childbearing became a threat, a horror. In this mode of thought, the alien serves as a representation of the male-centered stereotypes of women. The alien is found by men and brought to the ship, the society, by men. However, it existed before the men, meaning men did not consciously create a male serving role for women but it was an unnatural, evil creation that infected men. The alien is brought to the ship because it has infected a man. It was not the man’s independent idea. The alien is an exaggerated, twisted version of the stereotypical male serving image of a woman: it constantly reproduces and infects the men with eggs and is reminiscent of the female anatomy. This can be interpreted either as a manifestation of the hatred of traditionally feminine attributes by women which has translated into such deep self-hatred that what was once human becomes alien or simply the stereotypes of men and the oppression of women throughout history. The killing of the men could be inferred to show the consequences of a patriarchal society on men: it destroys their humanity and also limits them to strict criteria of masculinity. Ellen’s final defeat of the monster is symbolic of her triumph over the male serving female expectations and consequential silencing.

In conclusion, Alien beautifully exemplifies the feminist goal of the total departure from a male-dominated culture. It aids in dismantling the patriarchy by palatably exposing the unjust oppression towards women. The film asserts that the abandonment of male-centered society is good, but leaves the audience to question whether it is beneficial to vilify family-oriented aspects of womanhood. The Second Wave of Feminism preached that women could never be happy suffering the entrapment of a nuclear family but despite prevailing over female stereotypes Ellen is not happy and her fate is left questionable. She is left defenseless, shot into space, and the audience has no way of knowing whether she gets back to Earth. These faults in what should be a happy ending of equality leave the audience questioning if the Second Wave of Feminism resulted in equality or merely a new form of constraint towards women.


Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. “FEMINISM TAKES ANEW TURN.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 1979, www.nytimes.com/1979/11/18/archives/feminism-takes-a-new-turn-feminism.html.

Ohio Humanities. “OH Blog and News.” Ohio Humanities, www.ohiohumanities.org/betty-friedan-the-three-waves-of-feminism/.

“Second-Wave Feminism.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/1960s-america/a/second-wave-feminism.

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