Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"We're Still Collating"

OK, I lied.  One more post about how women are portrayed in popular film.

What started me on this series about women scientists in popular film was the announcement a couple of weeks ago that this year was the 30th aniversary of the movie Alien.  This gave me pause--Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is now 60 years old, a year older than I am.  Wow.

In case you are unfamiliar with this film directed by Ridley Scott, I'll give a brief synopsis (spoiler alert).  When the space mining ship, Nostromo, lands on a planet to investigate a distress signal, an alien organism attaches itself to one of the crew members.  Later, the implanted embryo bursts from Kane's chest in one of the most memorable scenes in filmdom.  When the alien organism grows up, it proceeds to pick off the crew, one by one.  Ripley, the warrant officer, is the only one to survive. 

What's memorable about this film (for me) is that a female character in an action movie managed to save herself without the assistance of a man or a man sacrificing himself for her.

There are only a handful of films (from Hollywood) in which strong female characters survive, prevail, live happily ever after...etc., because of their skill, grit, and/or intelligence.  Alien is one of my favorite films for this reason.  

The Alien anniversary got me thinking about female scientists and how they are depicted in popular films.  My initial thought was to write about Hollywood's juvenile portrayal of women as window dressing, sex objects, victims that need saving, and other demeaning roles and use the character Ripley in Alien to discuss an exception. 

Ripley, however, is not a scientist.  Nonetheless, Ripley is clearly a skilled professional in a high-level position (second in command).  She is strong-willed, unafraid to challenge crew members who harass her, and to ultimately survive a disastrous mission through her own efforts. Ripley's character, though young, takes no crap from the male crew members. 

Ripley: "Ash. Any suggestions from you or Mother [computer]?"

Ash: "No, we're still collating."

Ripley: [laughing in disbelief] "You're what? You're still collating? I find that hard to believe."

Ash: "What would you like me to do?"

Ripley: "Just what you've been doing, Ash, nothing."

Director Ridley Scott, however, wanted to have the alien bite off Ripley's head in the end, but was vetoed by the film's producers.  Unfortunately, Scott did manage to insert a scene in which Ripley undresses, which reminds the audience that she may be a heroine, but she's still a sex object.  Guess even the director was intimidated by the idea of a strong woman overcoming a homicidal android and an alien monster on her own. 

The other female character, Lambert (Veronica Cartright--former child actress--e.g., who played the young girl in Hitchcock's Birds) is the more typical hysterical female depicted in action films.  Actually, she's the character who reflects and guides the audience's emotional reactions to the movie:

Lambert: "I can't see a goddamn thing."

Kane: "Quit griping. "

Lambert: "I like griping. "

[later during the search of the alien spaceship]

Lambert: "Why don't we get the hell out of here?"


Interestingly, the scientist role is occupied by an android--and a defective one at that--although the crew and the audience are led to believe that he's a human.  Ash, played by Ian Holm, is the classic stereotype of the "mad scientist".  He is emotionless and focused only on his job--to bring back a specimen of an alien organism, even if it means sacrificing the human crew.  Ash ultimately goes berserk and tries to kill Ripley, who has challenged him on several occasions and clearly suspects him of ulterior motives.

Ash is ultimately incapacitated, but makes a final, parting statement:

Ash: "You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you?  Perfect organism.  Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."

Lambert: [in a shocked tone] "You admire it."

Ash: "I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality."

Hmmm.  The evil, but malfunctioning, android reveals something about what scientists admire.  The audience's conscience (Lambert) expresses our disapproval.

Another interesting gender aspect of Alien is the underlying message about sex (alien implantation) and birth (chest-bursting alien) that the writers and director wanted to convey.  The fact that these graphic, non-consensual acts involve a man plays on male fears of rape, pregnancy, and childbirth.  I can imagine how these scenes must freak out adolescent males.

So, Alien contains a number of interesting themes related to our previous discussion of the depiction of female scientists in popular film.  Assigning the scientist role in this film to a cold, heartless, and ultimately demented and evil android takes the "mad scientist" theme to the extreme.  The fact that Ash is ultimately revealed as non-human feeds the audience's belief that scientists are not to be trusted.  No way am I going to turn my back on a scientist--he's probably crazy and wants to implant an alien egg inside me in order to smuggle it past Earth quarantine!!  Pitting the evil android scientist against the film's heroine, Ripley, was quite effective. 

There was the possibility that Ripley might have been turned into the "female assistant" stereotype had the ship's captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), survived.  He would have been the one to save Ripley, with whom he appeared to be having a personal relationship.  Unfortunately (for him), the alien got him early in the film.  In the original, unedited version (Alien-Director's Cut), Ripley finds Dallas who is being cocooned by the alien, but these scenes were cut.

Alien created a real female heroine, who went on to appear in several sequels and inspired a new genre of female action hero.  Reading the history of the making of Alien, however, it's clear that her role was almost changed into the typical stereotype or killed off. This all reflects Hollywood's simplistic and juvenile (male) depiction of women.  Even in the film Contact (one of the better depictions of the challenges women face in science), the female scientist is helped by numerous male characters, so that her achievements are not hers alone. 

As discussed in the previous post, how women are depicted in film influences society's perception of traditional roles.  Changing that perception will require a change in the way women scientists and other professionals are portrayed in popular film and on TV. 

In the 30 years since Alien, I've been waiting for another Ripley, preferably a scientist.

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