Ripley/Scott: Gender in ‘Prometheus’ and the ‘Alien’ Movies

There have been few film franchises with a greater gap between their initial and latest offerings than the 33 years that passed between Alien and Prometheus—and no other franchises with a significant gap have had the same director at the helm for both movies (though I am open to being proven wrong about this film factoid). Upon Prometheus‘s announcement, fans of Alien and other Ridley Scott-helmed films immediately began prognosticating up a storm of possibilities for the new film in addition to voicing concern that it could not possibly live up to their very high expectations. Yet Scott is the type of director who, because he has directed films revered by critics, scholars, and the public, cannot be discounted. This was particularly true when he announced that not only would he be directing a new picture but that it would take place within the same movie “universe” as one of his former films, and would be in 3-D. As a rather casual Scott fan, I can pick out a handful of his films that I genuinely enjoy and can watch repeatedly (Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise). Then there are others that I can really only take on as an exercise in cringing and camp bravado—which can still be enjoyable (G.I. Jane, Legend, and Gladiator). A great deal of my personal Scott film preferences and viewing habits, however, have to do with the representations of gender in his films, which are often very complex and infuriating in the ways that they simultaneously break away from “traditional” or classic female representational tropes and yet still conform to them.

I was rather shocked by my main takeaways from Prometheus. The first was: Is the actor playing Halloway the same (second) guy who played Trey Atwood on The O.C.? Answer: Yes, it is. The second was the mechanized alien abortion/extraction procedure carried out and experienced by Noomi Rapace’s character, Dr. Shaw. This was the most extreme (but not the only) sequence that had me thinking about the ways in which female characters are represented in Prometheus. A great deal of scholarship has dealt with the male birth metaphor (chest-burster aliens as murderous, parasitic fetuses), issues of motherhood and fertility, as well as with the ways in which the Alien films represent gender and sexuality. Of particular significance are Lynda Bundtzen’s article “Monstrous Mothers: Medusa, Grendel, and now Alien,” published in Film Quarterly in 1987, and Stephen Scobie’s “What’s the Story, Mother?: The Mourning of the Alien,” published in Science Fiction Studies in 1993. These articles, among others, place much emphasis on the character of Ripley—and rightly so, as she is one of the first female action/sci-fi heroines. While many of the Alien films’ explorations of femininity, masculinity, and fertility make steps to expose and complicate typical representations and fixed notions, they also in many ways present vague or uncommitted answers to important problems. As the franchise progresses, Ripley is simultaneously androgenous/feminine, infertile/mothering, and human/alien.

Prometheus is, to me, very much in line with Alien (and G.I. Jane) in the ways in which it at once seems to put forth a more complex vision of female physical power than is typically at work in Hollywood cinema, yet also sticks to many representational tropes that undermine it. Take, for example, the sequence in which Charlize Theron’s character, Meredith Vickers, is introduced. The moment she exits her hibernation pod she does rather half-hearted push-ups in her skimpy space bandeau. While the other characters vomit or wrap themselves in blankets, she finds it necessary to do strength training in her skimpy outfit (which has no revealing male equivalent, if I recall correctly). This sequence felt so painfully unnecessary, trite, and obvious that I audibly sighed during the screening. Then, much later, to watch Shaw perform feats of extreme physical power with fresh staples over her abdomen seems to take Scott’s particular brand of gorgeous-androgynous-female-kicking-ass-while-nearly-nude action to a level beyond believability. This is a very specific and troublesome contradiction: on the one hand, women performing feats of strength is shockingly rare in mainstream cinema, while on the other, only showing certain types of female bodies performing these feats in illogically sparse clothing is undeniably objectifying.

Prometheus is a film that refuses to answer all of the big questions it poses: Why do humans search for their origins? What is the role of private industry in great endeavors that affect all of humanity? In some cases it seems as if even the questions themselves are unclear: Does it matter that we do not know exactly what the “black goo” does? Who created the engineers, and does that matter? Making this all the more difficult are the numerous odd choices made by characters, including when Vickers runs in a straight line to avoid a falling ship and when the squeamish biologist reaches out to the frightening creatures he finds. This mix of what seem to be intentional vaguaries (the goo) and illogical anachronisms (Vickers’s inability to avoid the spaceship) makes for a complex viewing experience and has led to numerous online exchanges over possible explanations.

This is not to say that great films should pose clear, answerable questions or should attempt to provide answers to those questions. Yet I find that the gender representations in Prometheus pose this complex contradiction in an unsatisfying and regressive manner. Yes, it is significant that Prometheus has two strong and capable women, who are also visibly muscular, at the heart of its narrative. It could be argued that, far from fetishizing or objectifying Shaw or Vickers, the film instead treats them like any of the other crew aboard the ship. If that were the case, why aren’t there scenes in which the male crew members run throughout the ship in only their skivvies? More than 30 years after Ripley ran around a spaceship in her underwear, we see almost the same image in yet another Scott sci-fi/action film. With Scott’s recent announcement that there will not only be sequels to Prometheus but that a sequel to Blade Runner is also in the pipeline, I can only hope that he can move beyond what seems to be his niche in female sci-fi/action characterizations.

Author Bio:

Linda Juhasz-Wood is a second-year MA student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. Her research interests include feminist film theory, postcolonial theory, and Hindi-language cinema.

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