How ‘Alien’ (1979) Queered the Binaries of Traditional Gender

I am the lone werewolf in my family in that I’m the only one with a love for horror, so I didn’t grow up able to summon a demonic filled VHS or DVD from my parents collection. Instead, I was tempted into the dark depths of terror by staying up after everyone else had retreated to bed, finally giving me free reign of the TV. We didn’t have the bounty of film channels that Sky TV subscribers boasted of but we did have the British old-reliable: Film4. A recurring late-night favourite on this channel was Alien. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) would have been one of the first “final girls” I came across growing up and I was instantly enamoured by them. They were strong-willed but not emotionless, practical, tactical, and of course had an affinity for cats. For characters available for women to play, Ripley was ahead of their time, never succumbing to the ditsy, screeching, clumsy model that haunted the screen for decades. Ripley stuck with me growing up, long enough that I attempted to honour the character by dressing as them last Halloween (despite my sad inability to achieve Weaver’s spectacular mane of curls). Through the years, my love for Alien has not faltered, though it has shifted; the way I read the story has transitioned along with my personal understanding in queering gender binaries to the point that, for me at least, I see this film as a horror about imposing gender binaries. Now of course, Alien was written and directed by cis men in 1979 so I know that on the surface, this theme is not intended. However, art is what the viewer beholds and if you’ve been following this column, you’ll know my queer subtext goggles are firmly glued on. So, please join me in stretching out because we’re about to attempt a very big reach.  

When writing these characters, Dan O’Bannon wanted to focus more on developing the Alien as a character and so when writing the crew, he left them more generic which included not specifying gender. A note on the script read: “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” From the conception of this story, there is a rejection of performative gender. From initial perceptions, all our characters are similarly gender neutral in that they all wear the same loose jumpsuits and are addressed by their surnames, removing the usual basis for gender. The gendered choice of actor for the roles were up for interpretation by the casting director, Mary Selway, and director, Ridley Scott. Once casted, actors had the freedom to play into whatever gender performance they desired but Weaver and Scott kept Ripley neutral.  

In most media of the time, a character played by a woman may slip into certain categories. In horror, a popular one is the damsel in distress. Ripley in particular is a big standout in horror as they refused to slip into gender-coded typical behaviours such as this. A female character acting like Ripley is obviously not monumental in today’s standards, but in the 70’s, where extreme performance of gender was the norm in media, this dismissal of gender binary stereotypes for Ripley was notable. Other categories for characters played by women were the mother or the seductress. Of course, these are not representative of what defines womanhood in real life, but in media predominantly created by men, these were the usual binaries on show. Interestingly, the main conflicts driving Ripley’s story revolves around their refusal to fit neatly into the boxes of motherhood and seductress. 

The big bad titular villain of this franchise is the Alien – a creature whose purpose is to spread her spawn far and wide. To me, she is representative of a bastardised version of motherhood. The Alien is a monstrous exaggeration of traditionally female qualities from a restricted misogynistic perspective: she is a literal baby boomer whose purpose can be reduced down to that of her biology. The Alien forces a stage of motherhood onto her victims, incubation, as they become surrogates for her spawn. If we regard the Alien as a twisted representation of femininity then Ripley’s prolonged fight against this creature can represent their continued refusal to assimilate into this supposed binary. If we discuss Alien as separate from the series, Ripley wasn’t even a mother in the original film. The first mention of their daughter didn’t come until the second in the series, Aliens. Ripley was granted freedom from the expected gender roles of media and they actively fought against the impending threat of being reduced down to biology. 

The secondary villain of Alien is Ash (Ian Holm) an android who betrayed the crew of Nostromo in efforts to ensure the survival of the Alien for studying. Though Ash in them-self isn’t representative of any binary, their actions in one particular scene do contribute to a forced stereotype onto Ripley. During a fight scene between the two of them, Ash tries to suffocate Ripley with a pornographic magazine. The porno magazine represents the extreme view of women as sex objects, another binary perception that female characters of the time often fit into. The use of a pornographic magazine as a means of suffocation could be seen as heteronormative sexuality and performance being forced onto Ripley. They defeat Ash and thus, resist this definition of gender performance by others, successfully being free from this binary until the series’ eventual downfall. 

If Alien represents the success of Ripley over the traditional binary that constantly hunts them, then Alien Resurrection is the cruel defeat of our hero. In Alien Resurrection, Ripley – having died in the third installment of the series – is re-born in a lab. Here, their existence is controlled by scientists and their DNA is spliced with the very thing they refuted this whole series – the Alien. When the two are spliced, Ripley’s behaviour changes and they suddenly fit the misogynistic and exaggerated model of womanhood that’s been chasing them throughout the series. Ripley becomes overtly sexual, being framed in a more sensual way than we’ve ever seen before and their story arc is driving towards the revelation that they’re now mother to an alien-humanoid hybrid. This take on Ripley is the death of Ripley in more ways than one. In the context of filmmaking, it’s the death of the Ripley we all knew and loved and in the context of defeating the binary, it’s the forced assimilation of Ripley into an exaggerated perception they had fought against their whole life. 

The subtext I outlined in this article could easily be applied simply to the fight of women against patriarchal perception, however, I choose to take it one step further and see it as a fight against gender binary as a whole. Perhaps I’m simply projecting my desire to have more non-binary representatives in horror, but it’s my column so I’ll do as I please (ha!) To me, Ripley is my enby hero and their constant conflict with a creature that is a monstrous exaggeration of reproduction is a determination to not be defined by biology and live free from others perception of binary.