Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Are strong women allowed to wear panties? Alien (1979)





Alien is a classic. It is claustrophobic and excruciatingly well paced. This is a movie that has stood the test of time. And in some ways it is a very feminist movie. It has a strong and imperfect hero in Ellen Ripley. Even better - she's not defined by motherhood or a romantic relationship. But she's also significantly de-feminized. She's just one of the guys. 

Ellen Ripley is strong and competent. She acts to improve her own chances of survival while many of the supporting characters simply react. But to play a normally male role, it seems like Ripley has to be less of a woman. No makeup. No hint of a woman's body underneath that jumpsuit. 

And on one level, I appreciate this blending of gender roles. I am drawn to her as a character because of this appealing mix of androgyny and competence. But I worry that the intention behind these characteristics might not be in line with why I like them. Do the creators think she has to be masculine in order to be competent? Is this the only way the movie-going public will believe a woman can kick an alien's ass? But then again, women like this really exist. Masculine women and feminine men from all along the spectrum are very real, and often underrepresented in film. 



And then, to make the question even more confusing, they put Ripley in the skimpiest panties I've ever seen for the climactic showdown. It strikes me every time as an insane and jarring choice that seems to be a calculated attempt to up the sex appeal of a movie that didn't want or need it. A woman in panties is certainly not uncommon in the horror genre. But then again, maybe it also feminizes her. Very suddenly and VERY clearly we can see that she is a woman. And, in this new form, she carries on being strong and decisive. 

So is this a scene put in to add sex appeal, or does it more fully flesh out a strong female character to allow us to see that femininity need not be distinct from strength? Or is it both? Maybe I am being weirdly prudish by dismissing calculated sex appeal as un-feminist. 


15 comments:

  1. It's worth noting that in the original script, the the character was male (although there were notes in the script that any of the characters could be played by either gender) and not much was changed after casting Weaver.

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  2. the times I saw the movie I assumed it served as a blatant visual reminder that Ripley is a woman and also that it does not chance her role one bit.

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  3. I've always felt like it was to show her vulnerability (and imagined safety) at that moment, rather than a cheap play for sex appeal. I feel like it's the equivalent of washing yourself clean after a stressful or harrowing experience; it would've been just as effective with a man in the role as a woman, and sets up the viewer's calm expressly to shatter it in the moments to come.

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  4. While there are lots of movies rife with the male gaze (The Jason Reboot sticks in my mind; after tallying all the kills in the Jason films, the reboot's sexism is striking), that shot of Ripley never seemed that sexual to me. I mean, she is scantily clad, which is alluring, and I do think it serves to remind the audience she is all female. Her underwear aren't much skimpier than the kind I wear every day, but it's hard to separate her naked flesh from sex appeal. Women's bodies are more sexualized, and even if the intent isn't to give the presumably straight male audience eye-candy, a shot of a lady's ass in tight underwear is always going to seem sexual.

    As a feminist, I think strong women can wear whatever they want and still be strong women. However much or little a woman covers is up to her, whether she's kicking ass in hijab or taking names in bikini. But in movies, I think what matters is how natural, how comfortable, how whole women are in their clothes. Why are they wearing their outfits? I think of the Kate Beaton Style Strong Female Characters in six inch combat stilettos; impractical, offensive, fetishy clothes. Women dressed to appeal solely to the male gaze, like beautiful dolls.

    In this scene, (I haven't seen Alien in a few years), Ripley isn't getting her clothes ripped just-so to reveal the curve of her breast, or wearing impractical corsetrry to restrict her breathing and shrink her waist in combat. She's dressed in a natural way for the scene, undressing to show she's feeling less vulnerable, less need to cover up. I think you're right, it IS calculated to make her more feminine, to make her seem more vulnerable. To show she IS a woman and IS kicking ass. But sexualized? I don't know. I always struggle with the inherent objectification and sexualization of women's bodies that I process internally with what I find in film. I always ask myself, does the camera pan slowly over her body to reveal the shape, as one might look over someone they find attractive? Does the camera close-up in on her body, showing only stomach or thigh while removing her face? Do shots linger on her body while she doesn't talk or move, just pose for the camera? Is her skin wet or oiled looking in an unnatural way, lit to highlight the flat or curves that Hollywood women 'should' have?

    This is incredibly common, especially in horror movies and movies where the lead is an ass kicky female. (And these hyper-sexualized views of women aren't exactly feminist...) I think the panties here were meant to be jarring; you're so used to her kicking ass, in a very masculine way, and all of a sudden BAM, yeah, that's a woman all right.. But you'd have to tell me if you think the male gaze was there in the shots, serving to institutionally objectify her on the film itself or not.

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  5. I wonder about this a lot, actually. It's exceeding rare to find feminine heroines that are also tough as nails. But of course, that then calls into question what really defines femininity. Ripley obviously leaned more towards the butch side (though nowhere near as much as Vasquez in Aliens), but would Uma Thurman's Bride, or Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow from Alias qualify? Or would we have to drift into satirical territory with Buffy?

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  6. I'm with the guy with desiccated veins.

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  7. Me too ramon. I think it makes the moment when the Alien tries to grab her much more effective.

    When I first saw it I thought the film was over at that point. They got me good because of way they did this scene.

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  8. I also agree with desiccated veins: I think having the final confrontation with her in her panties adds to her vulnerability. And what can be more scary than having to face the big bad monster in your underwear? How can you be made to feel more unprotected and exposed?

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  9. I went back and forth with this one over the years, and I have now to come down to the point of "she's about to get into the hibernation chamber - if it was more real she'd be naked" (a la Supernova). So to me, they went as far as they could in the realism & the vulnerability without turning the corner into exploitative.

    Additionally, in my mind the scene is still relatively androgynous - Sigourney Weaver is *not* a curvy person ;) It's kind of cool that she has a flat boyish butt!

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  10. This is late, but it's worth mentioning and I think you'd appreciate it. The underwear scene at the end ties up a lot of thematic stuff from earlier in the film (I don't know how neatly it does so, or if the resolution is a happy one, but regardless...).
    The higher-tech elements of the Nostromo are colored white in the film - there's the 'mother' computer, which seems benign but is actually carrying through the rapacious corporate agenda. Less benign and more rapacious is Ash, who bleeds white cummy fluid once Ripley kills him.
    The Alien, of course, is pitch black, as are the 'industrial' areas of the Nostromo.
    At the end, Ripley dresses all in white and expels the rape-menacing alien out of her womb and into black space. Something like that, anyways.
    All that is to say, I dunno exactly what's happening in that scene, but it's definitely not just cheesecake.

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  11. In interrogating these feminist issues, you have to be careful not to turn this "masculine/feminine" dichotomy into a quandry. We accept that she's strong, and we accept that she's largely treated as masculine... so then we have to ask "Is it fair for her to be strong and masculine? Or should she be strong and feminine?" That's a false dilemma... in an ideal feminist world, all women would be strong, and the strong woman is able to choose her unique mix of the masculine and the feminine. Neither is more "appropriate." I think the manufactured conflict between second-wave and third-wave feminism is what's made us feel like we have to struggle with this ultimately meaningless question.

    In this way, Alien is a truly, profoundly feminist picture, because it shows exactly what a feminist future would look like: males and females, both strong, both taking all possible roles, regardless of physical sex and gender identifiers. Ripley from Alien, Newt and Vasquez and Ferro from Aliens, Annalee from Alien: Resurrection... all females, all dealing with both masculine issues (manual labor, specialization, leadership) and feminine issues (motherhood, sexual objectification). It's a great series because it's a post-gender series all around.

    Terminator 1/2 and Metroid are similarly awesome in this regard.

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  12. I've been thinking about this movie recently, and especially about the idea that the alien represents the fear of rape. My idea of the fear of rape (though I don't know from experience) is that it is the fear of vulnerability. The alien attacks you in a way that makes you very vulnerable.

    Consider the facehugger stage: by the time the monster attaches itself to you, your fate is already sealed. You are forced to either incubate the young alien until it bursts out of your body, killing you, or kill yourself before it has a chance to. There's nothing you can do to stop it, no matter how badass you are.

    Add this to the design of the adult alien, and its behavior of moving about the ship through the air vents. No matter where you are, you aren't safe because the alien could get to you at any time.

    Anyway, what I was getting at is that the most important fear in this movie is the fear of your own helplessness. Nothing makes someone feel more helpless than being caught by the alien unawares, when you only had some skimpy underwear on.

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  13. When she was on Inside The Actor's Studio, Sigourney mention that she was originally supposed to be nude, but it wasn't filmed due to time constraints.

    The scene was supposed to involve the Alien being curious about her nude form.

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  14. Is this a good movie? do they still have this in Torrent sites?


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