Saturday, April 25, 2009

Unheard Screams (Alien)

The 1979 film Alien is a classic science-fiction horror story about a doomed spaceship whose crew is stalked by an alien creature foolishly let onboard. It formed the basis for several sequels and spin-offs featuring the terrifying creature and variants of it. The original film combined elements from many previous films, but it had its own unique characteristics of sexual imagery largely inspired by creature designer H. R. Giger. Much of the film’s content, including the creature most notably, exists as a metaphor for rape.

The first glimpse we get of the creature is when character Kane examines a leathery egg and unwittingly brings it out of its stasis. The egg opens up and the creature in its “facehugger” stage springs out, latching onto Kane’s face. Later in the Nostromo’s medical facility we see the creature’s full creepy form, resembling a pair of human hands clutching Kane’s head, a tail wrapped tightly around his neck. Further examination shows that the creature is extending a tube down his throat with which it feeds him oxygen (among other uses).

The facehugger alien creates a metaphorical representation of a masculine aggressor sexually assaulting its victim orally. The tube stuck down Kane’s throat is very clear in its phallic imagery. That the alien assaults a man rather than a woman, the usual target of rape, plays on the male audience’s insecurities to heighten its horror effect. The edginess of the depiction may be fueled by the homophobia likely to have been pervasive among the male viewers.

A big part of homophobia involves sexism and fear of males approaching a feminine status, which is perceived as a weaker state. Male-against-male rape for purposes of domination to establish hierarchy is common among primates, and humans are no exception. While ‘homophobia’ often refers to hatred or discrimination against homosexual individuals, I believe that for many men there is a real fear of homosexuals because of the existence of male rape. There is fear of other men who are sexually attracted to masculinity, because these people are afraid of being raped.

Our culture is very patriarchal. Although we have improved greatly over the last few decades, there is still widespread sexism and Alien was made for a culture thirty years in the past. Generally speaking, males are seen as superior to females. Even when argument is made for gender equality, it is more culturally acceptable for a female to do things labeled as male than it is for a male to do things labeled as female. Masculinity is associated with strength, while femininity is associated with weakness.

Rape is typically an act of violence carried out by males against females, with other combinations only in the minority. Because of this, the concept of a male being raped carries with it cultural connotations of the male being reduced to the weaker female state. Male social interaction often involves mockery of males perceived as effeminate. What is already a hurtful crime is made worse through social stigma.

Alien’s metaphorical rapist facehugger creature draws its power to affect the audience from preexisting social phenomena. The film is already filled with various depictions of sexual organs both male and female, and the allusion to rape in the facehugger’s assault falls in line with the film’s theme of mixing femininity and masculinity. In the depiction of rape, the male victim Kane is transformed to a feminine state of weakness.

The facehugger soon dies and everyone assumes the danger is over. They are prepared to go back into cryo for the journey home, but decide to have one last meal before then. Everything seems fine… and then Kane starts choking and hemorrhaging. Everyone tries to help as he flails around, and they hold him down against the table while he jerks violently. In a bloody spurt, another form of the creature (the “chestburster”) smashes its way out of his chest and then scampers off into the ship.

This event was caused by the facehugger using the tube it had stuck down Kane’s throat to implant a parasitic embryo in his chest. The phallic implications are driven home in that the tube was responsible for essentially impregnating him, much as a penis would impregnate a female. The rapist metaphor of the facehugger is continued, as is victim Kane’s metaphorical femininity. The attack is shown to be brutal, and it is fitting that he then dies in the childbirth that results from the rape.

What he gives birth to is not a human baby, however, but a creature as horrific as the initial attacker. Eel-like and possessing rudimentary characteristics of the adult head, the chestburster is very phallic-shaped in terms of its whole body. To be so masculine in its very shape, the creature embodies the aggression of rape.

When the creature matures, this aspect is not lost despite its newly humanoid form. The alien is based on one of H. R. Giger’s original surrealist artworks, Necronomicon IV, which combined a human figure with several explicitly phallic shapes. While the creature design was toned down and honed to be plausible, much of the psychosexual aesthetics remain. The creature’s head is notably phallic, as is its second mouth, which extends from within its first mouth. Both mouths constantly exude large quantities of watery saliva that gives the extendable mouth a moistened organic appearance.

The creature and its destructive capabilities are heavily admired by character Ash. “I admire its purity,” he says of it. “A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Though he takes the form of a man, Ash is secretly a robot sent by the ship’s employers, Weyland-Yutani, to ensure their plot to secure an alien for study is achieved.

When Ripley learns Weyland-Yutani betrayed them, Ash attacks her to prevent her from disrupting his mission. Instead of simply killing her, he traps her by closing the doors and then knocks her to the ground. He stares at her for a long time before dragging her to a crewman’s quarters. He takes a magazine, rolls it up, and appears to diegetically shove it in her mouth (non-diegetically the actor seems to just press it to her lips). She frantically struggles against him for a few tense moments, but soon Parker comes to her rescue and beats Ash with a fire extinguisher until he is rendered unable to fight.

Ash appears to echo the monster in its rape-like attack. As Ash is masculine (if not a man) and Ripley is a woman, there is a definite subtext of sexual assault. Ash admires the alien and emulates it. Ash is not really a man, though, and it is likely that he is physically unable to rape her as a human would with working sexual organs. He uses the substitute of the magazine to do the job. His assault, which began as simple obedience of Weyland-Yutani turns into his own selfish act of sexual violation to ensure his domination and it is ultimately responsible for his downfall. His remains are incinerated, the corrupt pseudo-human removed from the world.

The alien picks off the crew one by one until only Ripley and the cat are left. She sets the ship’s timer for self-destruction and then quickly escapes in a shuttle. With the destruction of the Nostromo, she finally relaxes. She prepares the cat for hypersleep and gets ready for her own long sleep. She strips down to her underclothing and goes to make some adjustments on the control panel, only to find that the creature has snuck onboard and is resting behind the controls.

At this point Ripley is in a sexually vulnerable state. She is nearly naked and has a lot of bare skin exposed, including notably her higher buttocks region – a body part generally considered an object of sexual attraction. She expresses femininity, generally associated with weakness, and is trapped in a shuttle with a lethal monster that is the embodiment of rape. It is a combination of elements that produces a terrifying situation.

On the verge of collapsing into panic, she manages to keep it together and form a plan of attack. She quietly puts on a spacesuit and engages electronics to shock the creature and bring it out into the open. She then opens the airlock to suck the creature out into the vacuum of space, shutting the door behind it. The alien maintains a connection with the ship, but she engages the engines to knock it free as she simultaneously propels the shuttle far away from this source of evil. It is fitting that Ripley, who as a woman would be considered an obvious victim, becomes able to defeat the masculine rapist monster. With this in mind it’s no wonder that Alien is often considered a feminist film, not just because Ripley is a female hero but because of the potential implications. Taking comfort in the knowledge that the alien has been defeated, Ripley prepares for her long hypersleep on the journey home.

“Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo, third officer reporting. The other members of the crew, Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas, are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”

In conclusion, Alien features many allusions to the subject of rape as well as general references to gender. References to these cultural taboos were employed as a means to create fear and discomfort, most prominently of the creature. In space no one can hear you scream, and the claustrophobic nature of the ship illustrates the panic any viewer would feel of being trapped in a confined space with a homicidal rapist… or two. While the creature is obviously evil from its mere appearance, Ash was ostensibly a good person until he revealed that he wasn’t. The implications of the alien have played down in the film’s sequels, but Alien remains a haunting story as deeply human as it is alien.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Doll's House - Analysis

(This is an essay I wrote for an English class last year. While I may have pushed the feminist angle a little strongly, the opinion was my own.)

The title of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House refers to the feelings of the protagonist, Nora Helmer, who, through the progression of the narrative, comes to believe that she has always been treated as a plaything by the men in her life, specifically her father and her husband Torvald. In addition to her feelings of subservience, the title refers to her purported obligation as a woman to maintain the household while her husband is working. In defiance of the oppressive time period in which the play was penned, it demonstrates a progressive message in which traditional gender roles are challenged, such as the husband being the one responsible for monetary gain, the woman the one responsible for keeping the house in order, and the overall sexist concept that women are innately unable to take care of themselves without the guardianship of men.

The subject of monetary gain is prominent throughout A Doll’s House, as is Nora’s desire to demonstrate an equal or superior capability to her husband. In an attempt to feel some sense of personal worth otherwise denied to her by her husband, she committed an act of forgery she believed would go unnoticed in order to pay for her husband’s medical expenses. While she relates the act to her friend Kristine, she specifically notes that were “Torvald, with all his masculine pride”, to know, he would feel humiliated, as well as expressing the fear that without his approval he would grow tired of her. As the story progresses, her sense of capability is severely threatened both by the man Krogstad considering revealing her crime to her husband’s place of employment and by her husband’s reaction to the news.

The idea that Nora, as the woman in the relationship, should be responsible for maintaining the household while her husband works is also prominent in the work, and is called into question. Although the Helmer family employs a maid and a nurse, it is Nora who is ultimately responsible for keeping the children well looked after and seems to play with them on a regular basis. The children’s relationship with their father appears minimal, a dynamic similar to Nora’s relationship with her own father, who appears to have been cold and distant. When Nora leaves her husband at the end of the play, one can imagine that the dynamic has changed radically enough to place him in a more active position in their children’s lives.

Throughout the play, the concept of men having superiority over women is repeatedly referenced by numerous characters. Torvald often refers to his wife as if she were an amusing pet or irresponsible child. Even Nora’s friend Kristine makes innocuous remarks that support this philosophy. However, after Torvald follows up his emotional outburst by going into extreme detail about how men adore women incapable of taking care of themselves and how it’s wonderful to hold them under a debt of forgiveness for their transgressions, Nora decides she has had enough and gets away.

In conclusion, the play A Doll’s House has a progressive, feminist theme despite being written in 1879. The title refers to Nora’s placement in the family dynamic in which she feels like a doll, a plaything both of her father and her husband, as well as her both keeping house and being kept within it. When she ultimately decides to leave Torvald, she rejects that designation and goes off to stand as her own person.