Maternal desire is the main issue in the film Aliens; for the heroine, it is loss and the subsequent regaining of the object of maternal desire that is significant. The considerable length of time spent in stasis, loss of job and primarily the loss of her daughter contribute toRipley’s physical and emotional displacement. Her cat is the only thing familiar to her, and so fills in as object of this maternal desire in theopening scenes.
Ripley’s behaviour towards her cat introduces some of thematernal qualities the film seeks to present as essential; she comforts the cat in order to console herself, an act that Newt also exhibits towards her doll in a moment of uncertainty. This similarity strengthens the narrative’s premise that nurturing, protective, and even self-sacrificing behaviours are components of maternal desire essential to females. The narrative ultimately seeks to emphasise that maternal desire is a quality essential not only to females but also to humanity, and is integral to human survival.
The film contrasts this maternal desire with the’other’, a representation of sexuality focused on embodiment and monstrous reproduction. Together, these two discourses create a dichotomy of good and evil, with the female body as the site of their conflict. In constructing ‘good’ maternal desire as essential to humanity, the film offers a comparison with an opposing human trait, presented as potentially as destructive as the threat of the alien itself.
This is the ideologyr epresented by the Company, a profit-motivated, exploitative enterprise whose disregard for human life, and the values that maternal desire encompasses pose a comparable threat to human survival in this film. The female body is introduced in the opening sequence as Ripley, resting peacefully inside her autosleep chamber. It is a ’sleeping beauty’ image, complete with male salvagers/rescuers who must break down the barrier of the pod’s sealed entrance to discover her.
The autosleep chamber, an artificial womb-like structure within which life is supported, presents a continuing theme in the film: the nature of the relationship between living and artificial, especially the possibilities of interaction or fusion between human body and machine. Ripley’s living presence is positioned in contrast with the interests of the salvaging team; here the female body provokes resentment, because it stands in the way of economic profit: “…Looks like she’s alive. ” “Well, there goes our salvage, guys. ”
Already, the female body (and the values that it represents, which will become more defined through the course of the narrative) is juxtaposed against capitalist ideology of property and profit. The horror of bodily invasion is first conveyed through Ripley’s nightmare sequence, and then through repeated scenes of her waking up from the same dream. She is convinced to return to the planet because of her own need to exorcise the experiences that continue to haunt her. Although she has not been physically invaded, she is embodied emotionally by past trauma, and thus still feels threatened by the alien.
Her body is tortured by the guilt, fear and loss that possess her, and this psychological invasion is manifested in her nightmares. Anxiety about the female body specifically is demonstrated through the combat film discourse; even in a science fiction world, the marines’ representation is essentially stereotypical. The viewer’s first glimpse inside their ship is of a poster on a locker door showing a nude woman; the camera then pans to rack upon rack of guns, and a cargo bay stocked with weaponry. The female body as an agent of combat is a focus of anxiety for the marines; a factor that Ripley must overcome to be accepted.
There are females within the corps, but they seem to have conformed into the male stereotype as well, the most obvious being Vasquez: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man? ” “No, have you? ” This dialogue shows the play on gender insecurities, and is fitting because it is Hudson, to whom Vasquez retorts, who through his own weakness becomes the films main object of emasculation. He comes to embody the feminine stereotype of irrational hysteria and fear when faced with potential death, contrary to the expectations of his role as soldier.
The film rejects the application of stereotypical female traumatisation to female characters, perhaps in attempt to strengthen a degendering of maternal desire by weakening other gendered associations. When Ripley and the combat team first encounter Newt, she has reverted to a savage appearance: traumatisation has eliminated outward markings of gender and, like Ripley, the experience of trauma is evident on the body. A comparison can be made between Hudson’s hysterical reaction, and Newt’s resourceful self-sufficiency.
She even resists her rescuers, out of apprehension, and unwillingness to place herself in a vulnerable position. One could argue that females in the combat genre are not conforming to a masculine image, but rather to the only definition offered by the strongly stereotyped image of the marine. This hypothesis is contested by the amount of anxiety concerning the gendered body that is exhibited by the marines’ behaviour, their crude sexual banter (”There are some juicy colonist’s daughter’s we have to rescue from their virginity. ) and their refusal to acknowledgeRipley’s wisdom and capability until she demonstrates her initiative.
It does appear, however, that by the inclusion of more than a single female marine the film is in part presenting a degendered representation of military capacity. Since Ripley’s ability to use weapons and machinery is celebrated as equal and her aptitude even superior, these aspects of the combat genre do not appear to be under critique – it may be that the adaptive ability of the female as agent of maternal desire is being privileged as essential, through Ripley’s triumph.
It is interesting that this maternal desire is not reserved only to females. This is because it is being conveyed as an essential human quality, imperative to survival. Hicks and Bishop both represent ‘maternal’ desire – a protective, nurturing instinct. In Bishop, this is apparent from his introductory speech to Ripley of android ethics (evidently essential, since it is in-built in his synthetic system). In Hicks, nurturing qualities are privileged in his compassion towards both Newt and Ripley: he is gentle with Newt, “Don’t touch that.
Dangerous, honey”, and in one scene lifts her onto the display table so she can be part of the adult interaction. With Ripley, gives her a locator bracelet, but the act is foregrounded as protective, or maternal rather than romantic: “It doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything. ” Thus it is significant that the only figures other than Ripley and Newt who survive the mission are those who also exhibit maternal qualities, implying that maternal desire is not uniquely essential to females.
The monstrous ‘other’ extreme of maternal desire is represented by the alien itself. While many of the aliens in the film are not attached to a gender, the “queen” alien is explicitly coded as female, and the ultimate adversary, because she is the agent of reproduction, propagating the threat. Victims are “cocooned” – an analogy to the spider, a symbol often associated with deadly femininity. The nest of the alien is an organic space formed by secreted resin, an area of the terraforming station which has become a part of the alien’s body.
As a hollow space of reproduction and gestation it is a horrific representation of the female body, conveying paranoia about the ability of the female body to engulf and absorb. This space positions reproduction as destructive, threatening and grotesque; the fear it evokes is well conveyed through the use of the combat genre. The team of marines pitted against a life-form that would surround and embody them, while in order to fight it they must penetrate within its depths.
Aliens allows the anxiety over monstrous maternal desire and ‘good’ (human) maternal desire to be resolved by narrowing this to a brutal, bodily conflict between the two opposing elements of maternal desire: the alien “queen” and Ripley, the conquering heroine. It is significant that the final battle occurs in the spaceship’s airlock canal, a location between the safety of the enclosed ship (another symbolic womb) and the deathly void of space. Ripley fuses with the loader, she embodies its artificial structure, and succeeds in crushing the alien and expelling it from the airlock.
In the act of opening the airlock she risks Newt’s life however, and it is Bishop who prevents the child from also being expelled. This risk taken by Ripley is perhaps reason for her triumph; she cannot destroy her opponent without risking the death of the object of her maternal desire which she must protect. The film privileges this representation of positive maternal desire as Ripley’s courage and strength of will to save Newtevenat cost to herself, arising from the essential bond of the surrogate mother-child, but extending this relationship to include non-selfish human compassion.
Aliens could be seen to centre on paranoia about the female body, but in many ways it is the ideology of the relentless maternal drive to ensure survival of the offspring which appears to be the main focus of both paranoia and celebration within the narrative. In the end scene, Ripley is once again in her undergarments, stripped of her heroic warrior appearance. Her maternal bond with Newt is foregrounded, and through the reinstatement of the non-threatening female body this film privileges ‘good’ maternal desire as an essential quality.
Now that the threat of monstrous maternal desire has been overcome, heroism and strength are shown to be relinquishable components of the maternal relationship. By presenting this message in such a way, the film implies that such a relinquishment is a favorable outcome, and that nurturing maternal desire is more essential than the instinctive drive to eliminate threat, because this aspect of maternal desire is closer to the monstrous ‘other’, and thus is privileged as essential for survival but still outweighed by the dominance of the former.