“Last film I was able to see was ALIEN”: how does the original marker of the Bechdel test hold up 41 years later?
Alien (1979) is a particularly important film for this blog. As you can see from the comic below, it was the original marker which Alison Bechdel used as an example in her comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, in the episode which pioneered the Bechdel Test (for recap; Alien is therefore a film which includes more than one named female character, and these characters have a conversation together about something other than a man). For its time, the issues surrounding gender that were raised and debated in Alien were pretty forward-thinking and controversial. And, since it is totally up for debate whether the bar has been at all raised since then, I would argue that these issues are still completely relevant in 2020.
Written in its original draft as entirely gender-neutral, all the crew members of Alien were given androgynous names and the bare bones of their personalities were built as gender-blind. It’s an innovative way to make a film, but it is not only this which lends to the film’s excellent portrayal of what it can be like to be a woman growing up under the thumb of patriarchy. As a side note, what’s also worth noting is that it’s confirmed in ALIENS (sequel) that Lambert is in fact a trans woman, confirmed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when biographies of the deceased flash up on a screen. This is more used as an extra detail of backstory than a main aspect of the plot, but still, this may be the first appearance of a trans character in a major blockbuster. Gender is both at the forefront and at the core of this film, in its main themes and smallest details in equal measure.
Horror films are fascinating because we can learn so much from them about what a culture fears. From Alien, we can tell that the culture was afraid of… A lot. Technological advancements. The unknown. The idea that we may not be alone in the universe. And, overwhelmingly, birth and the loss of bodily autonomy. What happens when motherhood, something so revered and mystified even now (how many times have you heard the phrase “the miracle of life”?), is perverted and twisted to become something evil and wrong. Pregnancy is twisted into a form of body horror in Alien, something which not even the cis men of the film can escape.
Let’s talk about mothers. The two examples of actual mothers we see in this film are the spaceship Nostromo and its AI, actually called Mother, and the alien herself – a character design which actually smacks of some weird combination of both a penis and a walking, dripping vulva. These two characters are inextricably linked by appearance, with the alien hiding in amongst the ship’s crevices and walls at several points throughout the film. The alien is large and unknowable and unfixed; so is the ship (especially during the self destruct section, where nothing is where it should be or behaving in the right way). The alien is wet and slimy (yup, we’re going there), and so is the ship – and all the shafts where the alien lives and moves are profoundly yonic (bandname?).
The two are also linked in their shortcomings. Both examples of motherhood fall short in the expected role of a nurturing maternal figure. Instead we see the ruthless queen bee of an alien species determined to do whatever it takes to help her species survive, and the cold robotic voice of an AI under strict orders that its crew is expendable. The linking of these two characters culminates towards the end of the film where the alien lays its eggs in a room of the ship, and traps the near-death victims of the crew amongst its spawn. It’s a perversion of the children of the ship, in the crew, and the children of the alien, as the eggs laid inside them.
Fear of the unknown in Alien manifests as fear of impregnation and motherhood. Long has horror been an outlet for the maligned genders of society to explore their frustrations, fear and as a way to lend them strength. Motherhood is a subset of this. Motherhood is a subset of the ways in which horror movies provide an outlet for the maligned genders of the world. Women have been able to explore their frustrations, fear and strength in final girls, femme fatales and in this instance, fear of rape, forced impregnation or just fear of forced motherhood in general. Alien provides this outlet to perfection, illustrating the fear of rape and body invasion through its presentation of the invasive nature of the alien and the perversion of motherhood as a whole.
Next let’s discuss masculinity in Alien. Specifically let’s talk about Ash, a manufactured version of masculinity in the form of an undercover android, tasked with making sure the alien life form is brought back to Earth at any cost, including the lives of everyone on board. Ash is the true villain of the piece – more so than the Alien, whose objective is just the survival of her species. It’s interesting to note that this true villain is a manufactured version of masculinity, under the directions of a nameless and faceless corporation, The Company who prioritise scientific advancement over human life. This characterisation means that we have Ripley, a woman, fighting not only against losing control of her body and against being invaded/raped/impregnated by the alien, but also against masculinity itself (and also against corporations. Ridley Scott said down with capitalism) – and also against traditional gender roles and the expectations of motherhood.
So why is this 1979 film still so acclaimed, important and relevant today?
All in all, Alien encompasses many timeless themes. The issues of gender, fear of motherhood and rape are all too relevant now compared to then, and are explored and played out in perfect metaphor. The reproductive rights of people with wombs are still, somehow, under attack. It’s still “men” (or capitalistic robots, lol) widely in charge of these decisions. There’s a known rapist in the white house (at least, there is at time of writing…) Alien is something of a call for solidarity and strength for anyone who has ever felt like their body is not their own, who has ever had their autonomy or physical safety threatened. Oh, and yes, it passes the Bechdel test.
Thanks for reading!
xo, The Bechdel Bitch