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Commentary : How 'Aliens' Mirrors Feminine Fears

August 24, 1986|NANCY WEBBER | The writer is an artist, photographer and professor of art at Los Angeles Harbor College, where she teaches film appreciation. and

As a single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, I know the pressures and dangers of growing up female in America in the '80s, and the eternal vigilance and creativity required of the custodial parent. That's what "Aliens" is all about.

Strong heroines are few and far between in the movies (a male-dominated business), especially in the science-fiction and horror genres. That's why I consider it indeed wondrous and refreshing to see Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, first in "Alien" and now "Aliens." She brings to Outer Space all the technical expertise, intelligence and presence of mind, in crisis after crisis, that we know women have been capable of since Rosie the Riveter in the '40s.

It's also refreshing to see that Ripley's female colleagues changed in the years between the two movies. In contrast to the hysteria of Lambert of "Alien," we have the gutsy and tough Vasquez, who is in the front lines, though like her dark-haired, dark-skinned screen sisters (usually the "bad girls" in the Westerns), she too sacrifices herself in the line of duty. Only this time, it's not for the hero alone that she dies. Thank the goddesses!

In "Alien," Ripley's nurturing instincts were focused on the cat, which stretched the plot's credibility. Now Ripley (57 years later) is more believably motivated as the super single mom fighting off the terrifying dangers threatening us all--but particularly pre- and adolescent girls personified by Newt (the youngster Ripley finds on the "deserted" mining planet).

Ironically, Ripley emerges at precisely the time when the majority of single moms have the least power in real life. Ripley has the skill and knowledge that many single moms envy but are prohibited from obtaining. (How can they fight to protect their children if they're too busy trying to put bread on their tables?)

The support systems for these single mothers and their children are virtually nonexistent--in contrast to at least 100 other countries that, according to a recent ABC report on the woman's movement and its after-effects, provide child care facilities in the workplace as well as job guarantees after motherhood.

Which brings us to the nitty gritty of the horror genre per se: Who are these monsters?

In both "Alien" and "Aliens," what fears does the "She monster" represent for us: she, the powerful ferocious leader of the aliens forever overpopulating, laying the parasitic eggs requiring human hosts to survive, who comes to do battle with Ripley, as the destructive counterpart single mom? In the context of the threat to feminine youth, represented in "Aliens" by Newt, the planet seethes with horrors--fears for our pre- and adolescent daughters.

Both "Alien" films have three levels of monsters and/or villains that underline my concerns:

The creature, part oozing organic saliva or chemical acid, part prehistoric and high-tech mechanical, devil-shaped, complete with tail that evolves from egg to crab-like strangler to bursting bloody fetus with teeth.

The most horrific image embodies the fear of giving birth to monstrosities in our polluted world. In "Alien," only one alien's development is terrifyingly charted with its practical purpose to be used as the most effective combat weapon the company could imagine. In "Aliens," she and her brood are more layered in symbolism.

The company man. That's Ash, the android of the first film, and Burke, the self-centered yuppie of "Aliens."

The company itself--the most insidious villain, in its unseen (unfightable?), cold, calculating (The Crew Is Expendable) presence. The pervasive horror plaguing us is the denial of a peaceful unpressured time to grow and mature, as we first see Newt, a waif dodging and scurrying for her life. We are shown an earlier photograph of her as Rebecca, the "before," encountering the horrific dangers of the planet to be colonized, where she is a serene-looking child (life before junior high?).

More specifically, the threats are kidnapers, child molesters and also the sexism of our culture's advertising to place all emphasis on looks, the mindless obsession that adolescent girls are particularly prey to, of having to have the right look whether it be trendy, preppy or punk.

The more visual fear is that of the megabuck international drug industry. Ripley must rescue Newt from the sticky web. These webs suck the life out of its victims who slowly die, becoming hosts for more of the same cycle; like addiction, more is never enough and they mean business--Big Business.

Life mirrors this menace. Like Newt, my daughter is constantly exposed to the threat of the drug peddlers everywhere--at school, the beach, the malls, the concerts. The battle is a personal one fought by mother and child, not one to be solved militarily.

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