Sexual interpretations of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) abound, but few tie the overt sexuality of the film to its professed objective, which is to be scary. Alien is a horror film (specifically, a slasher; Ridley Scott excitedly explained the film to his cast as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space). So then, why the sexual imagery and themes? Sex can be scary. Even when consensual and enjoyable, it can adopt an air of fear, anxiety, and discomfort. Scott’s brilliance with Alien and its sexually-charged themes lay in the way it transitions from our quaint hang-ups with sex to the terrifying violence inherent in the act of rape. Visual symbolism in the film initially reminds us of both male and female sexual anatomy, but transitions piecewise into the aggressive sexuality of the rapist. As the film proceeds, the male aspects of the sex begin to dominate until the unbridled Xenomorph literally rapes its final victim. These sexual characteristics serves to disturb the audience in two fashions: first by suggesting the anxiety and the scariness of the sexual organs and sex itself, and second by perverting sex into a primal violence and forcing the audience to experience it firsthand.
When discussing the elements of Alien, it is crucial to identify the various creative minds responsible for this iconic monster and villain, which is commonly referred to as the Xenomorph. Writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shosett initially conceived of the basic trajectory of the narrative, including the parasitic and sexual nature of the beast. For example, faced with the problem of how to get the alien on board in an interesting way, Shosett’s moment of Eureka came when he exclaimed to O’Bannon, “It should screw a member of the crew!” The two also played a key part in introducing the eventual director, Ridley Scott, to the man who would design the Xenomorph: Hans Rudolf (H.R.) Giger. Giger’s designs of the Xenomorph ranged through all four stages of its life cycle: Egg, Facehugger, Chestburster, and Adult. In each stage, we will detail and interpret the female sexuality, the male sexuality, and the relative proportions of each. Other sexual aspects of the film have decided sexual leanings and interpretations as well, but as this is the Great Villain Blogathon, most analysis will focus on the Xenomorph itself.
STAGE ONE: THE EGG.
Female Aspect: Vulviform opening, point of conception. Male Aspect: Ejaculation. More Female.
The first encounter any member of the crew has with the Xenomorph is in this earliest stage. While exploring the derelict ship, Kane comes upon a field of these eggs resting below a reactive mist. But visually and thematically, this egg was present from the opening title sequence of Alien. If you watch the shape of the arc as the camera pans from left to right over this “planet”, it is clear that we are being shown a gigantic egg shape, and not a circular planet shape:
Observe from about 0:12-1:10 (2X speed helps) and you will clearly see an egg as the secondary focus of the title sequence (and credit film critic Rob Ager for the insight). The arc of the feature we are seeing is oblong and egg-shaped, not the spherical shape of a planet.
For Alien, The Egg is where everything starts. On a basic conceptual level, the Egg establishes a common ground with our own human beginnings as an unfertilized ovum, and is similarly ripe with possibility. However, there are more specific human sexual characteristics associated with even this humble primordial stage.
The top of the egg has a crossed opening (above), which Giger initially designed as a single slit (concept art above). This was deemed too obscene and labial (Ridley Scott called it, “one great fanny”), and in particular some of the production team thought that it would alienate Catholic audiences. As a solution, Giger added the second slit to form a cross, positing, “the Catholics seem to like looking at [that]”. The result – a double-vulva which reminds of the most-iconic symbol of Christianity while at the same time being immensely biological and sexual, was far more heretical than Giger initially intended, but was paradoxically accepted as being “less obscene”. The egg is partially translucent, and inside we can see a creature spasm about, but Kane nonetheless investigates further. As we shall see later, the Xenomorph may symbolize the inherent fear of parenthood, and here despite recognizing the potential danger, Kane cannot ignore his curiosity. The folds and flaps all continue the visual theme of female external genitalia, but the ultimate conclusion of this stage of the life-cycle is an action of the male genitalia: like an ejaculation of semen, the Facehugger springs from the recesses of the egg and begins the act of impregnation.
In this first stage of the life cycle, the Xenomorph is dominated by its female sexual characteristics, but male characteristics are still present. As the initial point of conception for the Xenomorph, the egg draws clear parallels with our own biology, and the double-labia opening only reinforces this theme visually. Finally, though the context and the nature of the egg is all female, its teleological action is male: an eruption and forceful impregnation. Even at this early stage, we can see both female and male sexual characteristics which lend this truly alien creature an unnerving vein of humanity.
STAGE TWO: THE FACEHUGGER
Female Aspect: Embryo-laying, labial biology. Male Aspect: Impregnating proboscis. Equally Female and Male.
Continuing the theme of a dual and primal sexuality, the Facehugger stage of the life cycle also shows decided male and female sexual characteristics rooted in aggression. This duality is most evident in the proboscis of the creature, which we see most clearly after it has already impregnated Kane and the crew are analyzing it (below). While we continue the basic dark fleshy and moist appearance of the labial folds, the proboscis itself is phallic in both form and function: it forcibly inserts into the victim’s mouth and begins the process of establishing the Chestburster embryo. This “homosexual oral rape”, as described by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, was an effective means for discomforting male viewers and would establish the themes of sexual force that would carry throughout the film.
The Facehugger has an additional element that mirrors human anatomy: a bi-lateral hand of eight fingers with a disturbingly human appearance. According to Giger, “Something human hands is always scary; fingers is the most important part”. Again, though the creature is foreign to us, there are dark shades of humanity present within it, magnifying its power to terrify. Unlike the Egg stage, this version of the Xenomorph is more balanced between is female and male characteristics, but the sexual aggression and forced impregnation are still paramount to its form and function.
Here, for the first time, we are really confronted with the parasitic aspect of the Xenomorph, and forced to consider Kane’s plight from our own vantage point, like cringing at a story about some poor person who wakes up with a cockroach fluttering in their left ear. The helplessness contributes to this horror, but the personal violation of one’s body by a parasite is what truly drives this very primal fear, which Giger explained at length in multiple interviews. As we shall see, this is merely the introduction of the theme of sexual aggression and dominance, as the Xenomorph transitions from mostly female in is sexual biology into mostly male, and its sexual violence becomes more and more savage.
STAGE THREE: THE CHESTBURSTER
Female Aspect: A bloody birth from the abdomen. Male Aspect: Overall phallic creature, Forced Penetration. More male.
The shortest stage of the life-cycle, and really a transition between the Facehugger and the adult Xenomorph, the Chestburster’s sanguine birth is iconic and once again exhibits both male and female sexual characteristics with a violent lean. On the surface-level, it is actually the most phallic of all the stages: It is almost literally a beige penis with teeth and limbs (see above). And though the head of the adult Xenomorph maintains its phallic nature, the rest of the creature is decidedly humanoid. The female sex is represented not in the Chestburster’s biology, but in the action of its birth. Hence, one can interpret the Chestburster as the inverse of the Egg: where the Egg was primarily female in form but male in action (ejaculation), the Chestburster is primarily male in form but female in action (giving birth). Though erupting from Kane’s chest in a spray of viscera and gore is violent and thrusting – the bloody emergence of the creature reminds of a more human version of birth. In interviews, John Hurt describes Kane’s death throes as “pangs of birth”, and the scene inspires a visceral reaction from women especially, likely taking advantage of fears associated with giving birth. Bathed in bodily fluids and emerging from a bosom shrieking, we again see a faint whisper of ourselves in this alien creature, and recoil at its violent perversion of our private parts and most intimate moments.
STAGE FOUR: THE ADULT
Female Aspect: Jaws drip with sexual secretions. Male Aspect: Double-phallic head, kills by forcibly penetrating victims. More Male.
After a quick growth spurt, the Xenomorph reaches its adult size (about 7-feet tall), as portrayed by Nigerian graphic designer Bolaji Badejo. The transition and spurt is accompanied by a shedding / molting of the skin, which holds particular thematic relevance considering an aspect of Giger’s artistic sensibilities. When Brett is looking for the cat Jonesy, he finds the discarded skin of the Chestburster laid out on the floor, like a discarded condom. Those familiar with the aesthetic sensibilities of H.R. Giger will recall that a couple of his pieces have included condoms prominently: The Spell II and Landscape XX (to be interpreted along with Landscape XVIII; Links are NSFW – Seriously). Analysis of these pieces and the inclusion of the condom is beyond the scope of this piece, but it should suffice to mention that Giger was deathly fearful of overpopulation and the potential dangers of unchecked reproduction. Thus, the molting of the Chestburster represents the removal of the condom, as the skin has a rubbery, latex-like appearance. This bares the full power, strength, and aggression of the penis, and releases its potential for impregnation and disease passage.
The phallic strength of the Xenomorph is now hyper-represented by the pharyngeal jaws: an extension of the already phallic head which is literally used to penetrate its victims to death. Additional thematic fears are introduced by loosing this unencumbered penis, which should be evident to anyone who has sweated a pregnancy scare or has silently crossed their fingers while waiting for an STD test. Yet, the true sexual force of the Xenomorph tears through the crew in a much blunter way. The kills we see on screen from the adult are all oppressively sexual and rapist in nature: Brett is penetrated to death by the phallus-within-a-phallus inner jaws, which still maintain a wisp of feminine sexuality as well as they drip with the sexual lubrication of vaginal secretions (vats of KY jelly were smeared on the beast to produce this effect). Here again we see the melding of both the male and female sexual characteristics, and though the male dominates the aggression, the damage, and the force, the presence of both signifies the potential messiness and fear associated with sex and sexuality in general.
The Xenomorph kills Dallas off-screen, so we do not see the particulars of his death, but we do get to see Parker killed in mostly the same way that Brett was: a quick capture and headbite from the pharyngeal jaws. But the culmination of the alien’s sexual aggression is suggested in the death of Lambert, the proxy for the audience and final victim. Though she identifies the Xenomorph almost instantly, she is frozen in terror for nearly a full minute of screen time while Parker yells at her to move. Unlike previous attacks where the Xenomorph first grabs its victim in an embrace, here the raw presence of the creature serves to freeze its quarry. Finally, the tail of the creature sneaks up between the legs of Lambert, and the trajectory, the quick cut, and the off-screen scream posits a penetrating rape which is not symbolic but literal. Skeptics should consider that Ridley Scott himself describes the Xenomorph’s actions in accordance with this interpretation, “He approaches Veronica Cartwright [Lambert] with his tail and we get this sense of something really hideous because you hear her off camera” [emphasis added]. The Xenomorph’s sexual violence has reached a culmination; it has achieved pure sexual power and executed it with terrifying violence. The concept itself disturbs the audience and leaves them emotionally exhausted – and completely unprepared for the final surprise.
STAGE FIVE: DEATH
As Ripley is the only character to escape the Nostromo as it explodes, we believe that the Xenomorph has been destroyed. In fact, the original screenplay ends with Ripley escaping and Scott had to petition for this additional “fourth act” where the audience would get to experience Ripley and the Xenomorph in a final tryst. Ripley strips down to a small shirt and skinny underwear, revealing her femininity for the first time in the film. As she prepares for the deep sleep, she discovers the Xenomorph has stowed away in the escape shuttle. Here, two opposite forces meet: the pure sexual aggression of the creature beset against the vulnerability of Ripley. Critics of this sequence describe a nefarious male gaze and assert that this adds nothing to the film other than a chance to objectify our female hero in her undies, thereby negating any ground gained by the overall feminist narrative. But that is an incredibly lazy and surface-level observation. Ripley is not eyecandy for the audience – but for the Xenomorph! In fact, a longer version of this scene has the creature walk all the way to Ripley’s hiding place and consider her entire body in an overt sexual leer.
Unlike Lambert, Ripley is not frozen and slowly dons an astronaut suit, thereby dispensing with her nakedness and abating her sexual vulnerability by quite literally placing a barrier between her sexuality and the Xenomorph’s. She straps herself into the ship, and opens the airlock and hurls the creature into space – but it hangs on! Only a harpoon-gun is finally enough to force the alien from the ship, at which point it dangles at the end of the rope before being destroyed by the ship’s engines. Here the death of the Xenomorph is riddled with sexual undertones: it is a fetus being expelled from the safety of the ship, a forcible penetration by another phallic item (the harpoon) is required to finally eject it, and then it dangles, still attached to the ship via an umbilical cord – now it’s only means of continued survival. When the alien is finally conflagrated and destroyed, one can interpret its termination as an aborted pregnancy or a cleansed infection. Regardless, its sexual powers and the fear associated with them have been answered by a capable, confident woman who will not be dominated by its aggression.
A completely foreign monster inspires fear, as we have no way of knowing what it can or will do. But, a monster which contains a kernel of our own humanity is far worse: it suggests not only that the creature may deprive us of life (and violently at that), but that it may deprive our soul of its cleanliness by reflecting our basest and most primal desires in its atavistic quest. These shades of humanity exist throughout the life of the Xenomorph, and are a critical component of its ability to dominate our nightmares with its disturbing and familiar sexuality.
The Xenomorph is a fundamentally sexual horror villain that exists on a biological continuum between the female and the male. Each aspect of its life cycle is punctuated by sexual aggression and forced penetration of its victim – ultimately culminating in a literal unprotected rape. And yet, each aspect of the Xenomorph contains a kernel of humanity which allows it to ascend from a monster-of-the-week to a primordial representation of human terror and insecurity. Lurking in the dark recesses of the Nostromo, it is a primal representation of sexual insecurities, the perversion of the sexual act by abject violence, and in its final form may symbolize the terror of parenthood and/or the fear or sexual disease all at once. By ferociously hijacking a taboo subject and mimicking our own sexual biology to carry out its gender-blind serial rape of the Nostromo crew, the Xenomorph of Alien inspires a uniquely intimate horror.
(Note: this piece was conceived as part of The Great Villain Blogathon (2016). Please visit the following sites: Speakeasy, Silver Screenings, and Shadows and Satin for more entries into this great series, and be sure to interact with the talented bloggers by commenting, sharing, and discussing the posts that you enjoy!)