This essay is part of a Public Books capsule by Eleanor Johnson on feminism and horror.
Who is more of a badass than Alien’s Ellen Ripley? Perhaps the icon of feminist horror, Ripley (played unforgettably by Sigourney Weaver) perfectly typifies the idea of a film’s “final girl,” who survives unthinkable physical danger as each of her friends gets picked off, one by one. She survives through a combination of physical fortitude, intelligence, bravery, resourcefulness, and creativity. Ripley was the only person onboard the Nostromo who protested when her alien-impregnated crewmate Kane was brought back on board; she wanted to follow quarantine protocols that, had they been followed, would have saved everyone, except Kane himself. Ripley was the one who had the idea to escape the Nostromo via lifeboats and detonate the Nostromo, blasting the alien to smithereens. When that failed, Ripley invented the idea of blasting a monster out through an airlock and into space. And she manages, like all final girls, not to get penetrated by the evil monster. It’s easy to read Alien as a feminist work of art. Because it is one.
But there’s another female icon in Alien and Aliens. Like Ripley, she’s a badass. She’s resourceful, strong, fearless, creative, also like Ripley. And she has two protruding, syrupy, razor-sharp sets of teeth, as well as a long, slimy external fallopian tube through which she delivers her progeny. I’m talking, of course, about the mother alien herself.
I want to view these films from the alien mother’s point of view, because doing so brings the film’s overall feminism into sharper relief. Moreover, her perspective gives the film more urgency and relevance to our contemporary moment in global consumer culture and ecological collapse.
Before taking the perspective of the mother alien, though, I want to make explicit some things that Alien and Aliens leave implicit, or at least understated.
First, there is one mother alien—presumably present in Alien, yet whom we don’t see until the sequel Aliens—that has laid all the eggs in the “derelict” spacecraft, which the away party from the Nostromo stumbles into when they land on planet LV-426. That mother alien features centrally when Ripley returns to LV-426. In Aliens, we see this mother alien lay eggs; out of the eggs hatch new, little aliens, which seem to survive only long enough to impregnate a host. The aliens that then hatch out of their human hosts all resemble the big alien mother. I think we are to assume they are all female, because, at least in the script of Alien (though not in the final film), one of the progeny aliens reinitiates the impregnation process anew.
So this is a species in which the females are dominant. Indeed, the smaller hatchling aliens—which we might be able to call males—exist only to insert protruding impregnation members into the bodies of hosts, to implant embryos there. Then they die. So, the alien species is parasitic, and parthenogenic.
Second, the prime mother alien (who, again, remains invisible in Alien, but appears at the end of Aliens in full force) seems to have at first inhabited a derelict spacecraft that had crashed onto LV-426. We don’t know if the mother alien and her species were piloting the crashed derelict, or if they invaded and colonized it once it landed. As the crew of the Nostromo explore the derelict, they seem to see bodies that are blown out from the inside—much in the way one of their own crew member’s body will be blown out shortly. So it seems that the aliens might have invaded the ship, destroyed the crew, and colonized the wreck. On the other hand, the physical architecture of the ship itself strongly resembles the bodily structure of the aliens: bony, sinewy, hot, wet, columnar, cervical. It’s tempting, then, to say that the derelict belonged to the aliens. A third possibility splits the difference: maybe a spacecraft crashed onto LV-426, which is the native home of the aliens, who invaded the ship and slowly took it over, and made the ship over in their image. This third possibility is justified toward the end of the second film, Aliens, when Ripley finds that organic, bony, sinewy, cervical matter is slowly engulfing the colony on LV-426 as well.
So, let’s go with that: the alien mother somehow slowly converts the ships and colonies she inhabits into organismal dwellings of her own creation. She builds new habitats in her own insect-like, bony, sinewy image. Let’s assume, then, that she is native to LV-426. So, we’ve got a parthenogenic, parasitic, indigenous species, living in an abandoned ship on a desolate world.
They are putting a stop to resource-driven colonialism. They are putting a stop to interplanetary capitalism. They are putting a stop to anthropocentrism.
The desolation of the world is important and marked. Indeed, the unfriendliness of LV-426’s atmosphere appears in Alien; the landing party has to wear helmets with breathing apparatuses and protective gear. LV-426 is hostile, stormy, loud, desolate, and cold. But in Aliens, we learn that, in the half century since Ripley initially landed on LV-426, an earth corporation has terraformed the planet, setting up massive reactors to convert the atmosphere to one humans can breathe. That same earth corporation has set up a colony of 60 to 70 families on LV-426. That same earth corporation, upon hearing Ripley’s report about the alien species and its physical properties, decides to send a search party from the LV-426 colony to go find the derelict and search out whatever life-forms are there—the idea is to bring back powerful military technology to earth, using the aliens as prototypes for weapons.
This military profit motive harks back to Alien, when we learned that the Nostromo had received orders from the corporation to land on LV-426 and bring back specimens of the alien species—with no regard for the lives of the Nostromo’s crew. So, in both Alien and Aliens, the military-industrial complex is the motivating force behind the horrific atrocities that come when the humans meet the aliens.
So now, let’s imagine the story from the mother alien’s viewpoint.
Alien: A ship lands on her home; she hears it. Seeing the lights of the away party quivering along in her parasitically infested ship, she retreats, hiding in a corner, hoping no one will destroy her egg hoard. To her surprise and delight, the species that comes in to investigate is susceptible to the kind of attack her egg larvae can mount: it’s a species with a warm body temperature and an open orifice the larva can implant in. So she stays hidden, watching as one of her eggs opens up and discloses an impregnator larva, which affixes itself to one of the invaders. Eventually, the invasive species leaves, and she resumes caring for her eggs.
Aliens: Some years later, another group of the same species—what luck!—comes to her cavern to seek her out again. A few of her larvae attach to their faces, and—this time—she surreptitiously follows them out, all the way back to their settlement on LV-426. Once there, her offspring start hatching, having found a large supply of new hosts, and she sees that her armada of daughters can take over a veritable city of caverns and crawl spaces—exactly the kind of habitat they like. She continues laying eggs, growing larger all the time. She and her offspring manage to disrupt the terraforming, as well as any mining that the earth company had been doing on LV-426. The alien mother and her armada of daughters, that is, play the role of environmental conservationists.
To be clear, the environment native to LV-426 wasn’t worth conserving from a human standpoint. But it was the natural environment of that planet, and the humans had come to alter it entirely, so as to colonize the planet to facilitate the extraction of resources. To our anthropocentric eyes, it looks like the terraformers on the colony were helping the environment, by making it hospitable to humans. But actually, they were just causing massive, rapid climate change, as Anthropocene and post-Anthropocene humans are wont to do. And the alien species halted that process.
Sometime later again, after the mother alien and her daughters have taken over the settlement, yet another ship lands on LV-426. More of the invasive species stumble out. The alien mother and her now numerous daughters start picking them off, one by one, to use as hosts. They’re doing so to grow their species, to defend their habitat, and to defend the egg hoard. We root for Ripley, of course, because she looks like us.
But these wasplike, goblin-shark-mouthed, terrifying, parthenogenic “bitches”—as Ripley calls the mother alien—are simply protecting their own and their world. They are putting a stop to resource-driven colonialism. They are putting a stop to interplanetary capitalism. They are putting a stop to anthropocentrism.
From this vantage, the alien mother is not the monster, but is herself the final girl, fighting back against the horrific, murderous predator that is mass industry, and its singular manifestations, interspecies predation and extraterrestrial colonialism.
And from this vantage, Ash (the android from the first film) and Burke (the corporate stooge from the second film) are the bad guys, because they each represent the will of the patriarchal, colonizing, capitalistic organization back on earth that seeks to plunder LV-426 and turn its alien species into—let’s not forget this aspect—lab rats for military experimentation. Burke, in the second film, tries to use alien larvae to impregnate Ripley and Newt (the little girl survivor Ripley finds on LV-426). Had he succeeded, and had he gotten them back to earth through quarantine, his idea was that the military industrial complex should use the resulting alien babies as experimental organisms for weapons development. Those alien babies would have been tortured and killed in the service of human warcraft. Burke’s plan was to convert Ripley and Newt into vessels for alien impregnation, and then to bring alien offspring—also female—back to earth to experiment on. Burke represents a male-dominated, destructive, despoiling, misogynist, capitalist interest. He is the ultimate bad guy.
And in the first film, it is Ash, the android, who (at the behest of the Nostromo’s central computer) sought to bring back the aliens for the same reason. When we saw Ash ramming a rolled-up magazine down Ripley’s throat in Alien, he was trying to prep her for impregnation by opening her throat. So he, too, was planning to rape her and use her as a lab rat, so that the alien offspring could likewise be used as lab rats back on earth.
In a weird way, then, Ripley, Newt, and the insect-like aliens are all in the same boat: they are all trying to resist capitalistic violence. The ultimate monster in these films is the capitalist system that puts everyone—including not just the human settlers, or Ripley and Newt, but also the aliens themselves—in harm’s way.
Capitalism is the soulless parasite that keeps coming back, again and again, its appetite for violence and power never stinting, its thirst for new prey never slaked. Instead, its thirst for new prey is constantly increased by misogynistic men who seek to profit from their privileged position in the capitalist system. Alien and Aliens together create a parable about how an indigenous, habitat-conserving, matriarchal society might thwart the relentless aggression of military-industrial capital, and its anthropocentric relation to the natural world.
Alas, this radical reading of the aliens from their own side is tamped down at the end of Aliens, when Ripley finds herself face to face with the original mother alien.
Ripley is trying to protect Newt, her de facto daughter. The alien mother is laying eggs. She hisses at Ripley, to scare her away from the egg hoard. We see some of her offspring entering the room. Ripley shows the alien mother her flame thrower and indicates that she could torch the egg hoard. The mother and daughter aliens shriek in horror: they, like Ripley, fear for their young.
In an incredible moment of interspecies communication, the alien mother looks at Ripley, sees that she too is trying to protect her child, and so the alien mother signals to her daughters to back off, and she lets Ripley pass. There is a flickering moment of interspecies recognition, when the alien mother decides that she will not attack and dismember these two human females. Instead, she will let them go: nobody wants their babies to die. For a flickering moment, the monster becomes human.
But the film cannot tolerate that level of radicalism: as soon as she and Newt are almost out, Ripley sees an egg opening, and she decides to torch the entire nest. We see and hear the panicked agony of the mother alien, watching her larvae be destroyed. Ripley then opens fire with her automatic gun on the daughter aliens. And that is when the mother alien decides to take revenge on Ripley, to come after her and Newt.
The film thus scuttles the possibility of interspecies understanding; the mother alien becomes a horrifying predator again, and for the rest of the film. Because allowing her to be too recognizable, too relatable, that’s a bridge too far.
And this may be the Alien movies’ signature move: to model how patriarchal culture distracts people from capitalism’s parasitism by designating women—whether witches, prostitutes, midwives, priestesses, political activists, those who want to terminate pregnancies, or protective mothers—as the real threat to the status quo.