quarta-feira, 25 de abril de 2012

Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed

The science fiction horror film Alien (1979) is a complex representation of the monstrous-feminine in terms of the maternal figure as perceived within a patriarchal ideology. She is there in the text's scenarios of the primal scene of birth and death; she is there in her many guises as the treacherous mother, the oral sadistic mother, the mother as the primordial abyss; and she is there in the film's images of blood, of the all-devouring vagina, the toothed vagina, the vagina as Pandora's box; and finally she is there in the chameleon figure of the alien, the monster as fetish-object of and for the mother. But it is the archaic mother, the reproductive/generative mother, who haunts the mise-en-scene of the film's first section, with its emphasis on different representations of the primal scene.

According to Freud, every child either watches its parents in the act of sexual intercourse or has fantasies about that act - fantasies which relate to the problem of origins. Freud left open the question of the cause of the fantasy but suggested that it may initially be aroused by 'an observation of the sexual intercourse of animals'. (1) In his study of the Wolf-Man, Freud argued that the child did not initially observe his parents in the act of sexual intercourse but that he witnessed the copulation of animals whose behaviour he then displaced onto his parents. In situations where the child actually witnesses sexual intercourse between its parents, Freud argued that all children arrive at the same conclusion: 'They adopt what may be called a sadistic view of coition'. (2) If the child perceives the primal scene as a monstrous act -whether in reality or fantasy - it may fantasize animals or mythical creatures as taking part in the scenario. Possibly the many mythological stories in which humans copulate with animals and other creatures (Europa and Zeus, Leda and the Swan) are reworkings of the primal scene narrative. The Sphinx, with her lion's body and woman's face, is an interesting figure in this context. Freud suggested that the Riddle of the Sphinx was probably a distorted version of the great riddle that faces all children - Where do babies come from? An extreme form of the primal fantasy is that of 'observing parental intercourse while one is still an unborn baby in the womb'.(3)

One of the major concerns of the science fiction horror film (Alien, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Altered States) is the reworking of the primal scene in relation to the representation of other forms of copulation and procreation. Alien presents various representations of the primal scene. Behind each of these lurks the figure of the archaic mother, that is, the image of the mother in her generative function - the mother as the origin of all life. This archaic figure is somewhat different from the mother of the semiotic chora, as posed by Kristeva, (4) in that the latter is the pre-Oedipal mother who exists in relation to the family and the symbolic order. The concept of the parthenogenetic, archaic mother adds another dimension to the maternal figure and presents us with a new way of understanding how patriarchal ideology works to deny the 'difference' of woman in her cinematic representation.

The first birth scene occurs in Alien at the beginning, where the camera/spectator explores the inner space of the mother-ship whose life support system is a computer aptly named 'Mother'. This exploratory sequence of the inner body of the 'Mother' culminates with a long tracking shot down one of the corridors which leads to a womb-like chamber where the crew of seven are woken up from their protracted sleep by Mother's voice monitoring a call for help from a nearby planet. The seven astronauts emerge slowly from their sleep pods in what amounts to a re-birthing scene which is marked by a fresh, antiseptic atmosphere. In outer space, birth is a well controlled, clean, painless affair. There is no blood, trauma or terror. This scene could be interpreted as a primal fantasy in which the human subject is born fully developed - even copulation is redundant.

The second representation of the primal scene takes place when three of the crew enter the body of the unknown space-ship through a 'vaginal' opening: the ship is shaped like a horseshoe, its curved sides like two long legs spread apart at the entrance. They travel along a corridor which seems to be made of a combination of inorganic and organic material - as if the inner space of this ship were alive. Compared to the atmosphere of the Nostromo, however, this ship is dark, dank and mysterious. A ghostly light glimmers and the sounds of their movements echo throughout the caverns.
In the first chamber, the three explorers find a huge alien life- I'm in which appears to have been dead for a long time. Its bones are bent outward as if it exploded from the inside. One of the trio, Kane, is lowered down a shaft into the gigantic womb-like chamber in which rows of eggs are hatching. Kane approaches one of the eggs; as he touches it with his gloved hand it opens out, revealing a mass of pulsating flesh. Suddenly, the monstrous thing inside leaps up and attaches itself to Kane's helmet, its tail penetrating Kane's mouth in order to fertilize itself inside his stomach. Despite the warnings of Ripley, Kane is taken back on board the Nostromo where the alien rapidly completes its gestation process inside Kane.

This representation of the primal scene recalls Freud's reference to an extreme primal scene fantasy where the subject imagines travelling back inside the womb to watch her/his parents having sexual intercourse, perhaps to watch her/himself being conceived. Here, three astronauts explore the gigantic, cavernous, malevolent womb of the mother. Two members of the group watch the enactment of the primal scene in which Kane is violated in an act of phallic penetration - by the father or phallic mother? Kane himself is guilty of the strongest transgression; he actually peers into the egg/womb in order to investigate its mysteries.
In so doing, he becomes a 'part' of the primal scene, taking up the place of the mother, the one who is penetrated, the one who bears the offspring of the union. The primal scene is represented as violent, monstrous (the union is between human and alien), and is mediated by the question of incestuous desire. All restagings of the primal scene raise the question of incest, as the beloved parent (usually the mother) is with a rival. The first birth scene, where the astronauts emerge from their sleep pods, could be viewed as a representation of incestuous desire par excellence: the father is completely absent; here, the mother is sole parent and sole life-support.

From this forbidden union, the monstrous creature is born. But man, not woman, is the 'mother' and Kane dies in agony as the alien gnaws its way through his stomach. The birth of the alien from Kane's stomach plays on what Freud described as a common misunderstanding that many children have about birth, that is, that the mother is somehow impregnated through the mouth - she may eat a special food - and the baby grows in her stomach from which it is also born. Here, we have a third version of the primal scene.

A further version of the primal scene - almost a convention (5) of the science fiction film - occurs when smaller craft or bodies are ejected from the mother-ship into outer space; although sometimes the ejected body remains attached to the mother-ship by a long lifeline or umbilical chord. This scene is presented in two separate ways: one when Kane's body, wrapped in a white shroud, is ejected from the mother-ship; and the second, when the small space capsule, in which Ripley is trying to escape from the alien, is expelled from the underbelly of the mother-ship. In the former, the 'mother's' body has become hostile; it contains the alien whose one purpose is to kill and devour all of Mother's children. In the latter birth scene the living infant is ejected from the malevolent body of the 'mother' to avoid destruction; in this scenario, the 'mother's' body explodes at the moment of giving birth.

Although the 'mother' as a figure does not appear in these sequences - nor indeed in the entire film - her presence forms a vast backdrop for the enactment of all the events. She is there in the images of birth, the representations of the primal scene, the womb-like imagery, the long winding tunnels leading to inner chambers, the rows of hatching eggs, the body of the mother-ship, the voice of the life-support system, and the birth of the alien. She is the generative mother, the pre-phallic mother, the being who exists prior to knowledge of the phallus.

In explaining the difficulty he had in uncovering the role of the mother in the early development of infants, Freud complained of the almost 'prehistoric' remoteness of this 'Minoan-Mycenaean' stage:

Everything in the sphere of this first attachment to the mother seemed to me so difficult to grasp in analysis - so grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify - that it was as if it had succumbed to an especially inexorable repression. (6)

Just as the Oedipus complex tends to hide the pre-Oedipal phase in Freudian theory, the figure of the father, in the Lacanian rewriting of Freud, obscures the mother-child relationship of the imaginary. In contrast to the maternal figure of the Lacanian imaginary, Kristeva posits another dimension to the mother - she is associated with the pre-verbal or the semiotic and as such tends to disrupt the symbolic order. (7)

I think it is possible to open up the mother-question still further and posit an even more archaic maternal figure, to go back to mythological narratives of the generative, parthenogenetic mother - that ancient archaic figure who gives birth to all living things. She exists in the mythology of all human cultures as the mother-goddess who alone created the heavens and earth. In China she was known as Nu Kwa, in Mexico as Coatlicue, in Greece as Gaia (literally meaning 'earth') and in Sumer as Nammu. In 'Moses and Monotheism', Freud attempted to account for the historical existence of the great mother-goddesses.

It is likely that the mother-goddesses originated at the time of the curtailment of the matriarchy, as a compensation for the slight upon the mothers. The male deities appear first as sons beside the great mothers and only later clearly assume the features of father-figures. These male gods of polytheism reflect the conditions during the patriarchal age. (8)

Freud proposed that human society developed through stages from patriarchy to matriarchy and finally back to patriarchy. During the first, primitive people lived in small hordes, each one dominated by a jealous, powerful father who possessed all the females of the group. One day the sons, who had been banished to the outskirts of the group, overthrew the father - whose body they devoured - in order to secure his power and to take his women for themselves. Overcome by guilt, they later attempted to revoke the deed by setting up a totem as a substitute for the father and by renouncing the women whom they had liberated. The sons were forced to give up the women, whom they all wanted to possess, in order to preserve the group which otherwise would have been destroyed as the sons fought amongst themselves. In 'Totem and Taboo', Freud suggests that here 'the germ of the institution of matriarchy' (9) may have originated. Eventually, however, this new form of social organization, constructed upon the taboo against murder and incest, was replaced by the re-establishment of a patriarchal order. He pointed out that the sons had: 'thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex'. (10)

Freud's account of the origins of patriarchal civilization is generally regarded as mythical. Lévi-Strauss points out that it is 'a fair account not of the beginnings of civilization, but of its present state' in that it expresses 'in symbolic form an inveterate fantasy' - the desire to murder the father and possess the mother. (11) In her discussion of 'Totem and Taboo', Kristeva argues that a 'strange slippage' has taken place, in that although Freud points out that morality is founded on the taboos of murder and incest his argument concentrates on the first to the virtual exclusion of the latter. Yet, Kristeva argues, the 'woman - or mother -image haunts a large part of that book and keeps shaping its back-ground'. She poses the question:

Could the sacred be, whatever its variants, a two-sided formation? One aspect founded by murder and the social bond made up of a murderer's guilt-ridden atonement, with all the projective mechanisms and obsessive rituals that accompany it; and another aspect, like a lining, more secret and invisible, non-representable, oriented toward those uncertain spaces of unstable identity, toward the fragility - both threatening and fusional - of the archaic dyad, toward the non-separation of subject/object, on which language has no hold but one woven of fright and repulsion? (12)

From the above, it is clear that the figure of the mother in both the history of human sociality and in the history of the individual subject poses immense problems. Freud attempts to account for the existence of the mother-goddess figure by posing a matriarchal period in historical times while admitting that everything to do with the 'first attachment to the mother' is deeply repressed - 'grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify'. Nowhere does he attempt to specify the nature of this 'matriarchal period' and the implications of this for his own psycho-analytical theory, specifically his theory of the Oedipus complex which, as Lacan points out, 'can only appear in a patriarchal form in the institu-tion of the family'. (13) Kristeva criticizes Freud for failing to deal adequately with incest and the mother-question while using the same mystifying language to refer to the mother; the other aspect of the sacred is 'like a lining', 'secret and invisible', 'non-representable'.
In his re-reading of Freud, Lacan mystifies the figure of woman even further: the woman is not-all, there is always something with her which eludes discourse'. (14) Further, all three writers conflate the archaic mother with the mother of the dyadic and triadic relationship. They refer to her as a 'shadowy' figure (Freud); as 'non-representable' (Kristeva); as the 'abyss of the female organ from which all life comes forth' (Lacan) (15), then make no clear attempt to distinguish this aspect of the maternal imago from the protective/suffocating mother of the pre-Oedipal or the mother as object of sexual jealousy and desire as she is represented in the Oedipal configuration.

The maternal figure constructed within/by the writings of Freud, Lacan and Kristeva is inevitably the mother of the dyadic or triadic relationship - although the latter figure is more prominent. Even when she is represented as the mother of the imaginary, of the dyadic relationship, she is still constructed as the pre-Oedipal mother, that is, as a figure about to 'take up a place' in the symbolic - as a figure always in relation to the father, the representative of the phallus. Without her 'lack', he cannot signify its opposite - lack of a lack or presence. But if we posit a more archaic dimension to the mother - the mother as originating womb - we can at least begin to talk about the maternal figure as outside the patriarchal family constellation. In this context, the mother-goddess narratives can be read as primal-scene narratives in which the mother is the sole parent. She is also the subject, not the object, of narrativity.

For instance in the 'Spider Woman' myth of the North American Indians, there was only the Spider Woman, who spun the universe into existence and then created two daughters from whom all life flowed. She is also the Thought Woman or Wise Woman who knows the secrets of the universe. Within the Oedipus narrative, however, she becomes the Sphinx, who also knows the answers to the secret of life; but here her situation has been changed. She is no longer the subject of the narrative; she has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.
The Sphinx is an ambiguous figure; she knows the secret of life and is thereby linked to the mother-goddess but her name, which is derived from 'sphincter', suggests she is the mother of toilet training, the pre-Oedipal mother who must be repudiated by the son so that he can take up his proper place in the symbolic. It is interesting that Oedipus has always been seen to have committed two horrific crimes: patricide and incest. But his encounter with the Sphinx, which leads to her death, suggests he is also responsible for another horrific crime - that of matricide. For the Sphinx, like the Medusa, is a mother-goddess figure; they are both variants of the same mythological mother who gave birth to all life. Lévi-Strauss has argued that a major issue in the Oedipus myth is the problem of whether or not man is born from woman. This myth is also central to Alien:

Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem - born from one or born from two? - to the derivative problem: born from different or born from same? (16)

The Medusa, whose head, according to Freud, signifies the female genitals in their terrifying aspect, also represents the procreative function of woman. The blood which flows from her severed head gives birth to Pegasus and Chrysaor. Although Neptune is supposed to be the father, the nature of the birth once again suggests the parthenogenetic mother. In Alice Doesn't, Teresa de Lauretis argues that:

to say that narrative is the production of Oedipus is to say that each reader -male or female - is constrained and defined within the two positions of a sexual difference thus conceived: male-hero-human, on the side of the subject; and female-obstacle-boundary-space, on the other. (17)

If we apply her definition to narratives which deal specifically with the archaic mother - such as the Oedipus and Perseus myths - we can see that the 'obstacle' relates specifically to the question of origins and is an attempt to repudiate the idea of woman as the source of life, woman as sole parent, woman as archaic mother.

In his article, 'Fetishism in the Horror Film', Roger Dadoun also refers to this archaic maternal figure. He describes her as:

a maternal thing situated on this side of good and evil, on this side of all organized form, on this side of all events - a totalizing, oceanic mother, a 'mysterious and profound unity', arousing in the subject the anguish of fusion and of dissolution; the mother prior to the uncovering of the essential beance [gap], of the pas-de-phallus, the mother who is pure fantasm, in the sense that she is posed as an omnipresent and all-powerful totality, an absolute being, only in the intuition - she does not have a phallus - which deposes her ... (18)

If Dadoun places emphasis on her 'totalizing, oceanic' presence, I would stress her archaism in relation to her generative powers - the mother who gives birth all by herself, the original parent, the godhead of all fertility and the origin of procreation. What is most interesting about the mythological figure of woman as the source of all life (a role taken over by the male god of monotheistic religions) is that, within patriarchal signifying practices, particularly the horror film, she is reconstructed and represented as a negative figure, one associated with the dread of the generative mother seen only in the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to reabsorb what it once birthed. Kristeva also represents her in this negative light, and in this context it is interesting to note that Freud linked the womb to the unheimlich, the uncanny.
Freud also supported, and elaborated upon, Schelling's definition of the uncanny as 'something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light'. (19) In horror films such as Alien, we are given a representation of the female genitals and the womb as uncanny - horrific objects of dread and fascination. Unlike the mythological mother-narratives, here the archaic mother, like the Sphinx and the Medusa, is seen only in a negative light. But the central characteristic of the archaic mother is her total dedication to the generative, procreative principle. She is outside morality and the law. Ash's eulogy to the alien is a description of this mother: T admire its purity; a survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.'

Clearly, it is difficult to separate out completely the figure of the archaic mother, as defined above, from other aspects of the maternal figure - the maternal authority of Kristeva's semiotic, the mother of Lacan's imaginary, the phallic woman, the castrated woman. While the different figures signify quite separate things about the monstrous-feminine, each one is also only part of the whole - a different aspect of the maternal figure. At times the horrific nature of the monstrous-feminine is totally dependent on the merging together of all aspects of the maternal figure into one - the horrifying image of woman as archaic mother, phallic woman and castrated body represented as a single figure.

The archaic mother - constructed as a negative force - is represented in her phantasmagoric aspects in many horror texts, particularly the science fiction horror film. We sec her as the gaping, cannibalistic bird's mouth in The Giant Claw, the terrifying spider of The Incredible Shrinking Man; the toothed vagina/womb of Jaws; and the fleshy, pulsating, womb of The Thing and the Poltergeist. What is common to all of these images of horror is the voracious maw, the mysterious black hole which signifies female genitalia as a monstrous sign which threatens to give birth to equally horrific offspring, as well as threatening to incorporate everything in its path. This is the generative archaic mother, constructed within patriarchal ideology as the primeval 'black hole'. This, of course, is also the hole which is opened up by the absence of the penis; the horrifying sight of the mother's genitals - proof that castration can occur.

However, in the texts cited above, the emphasis is not on castration; rather it is the gestating, all-devouring womb of the archaic mother which generates the horror. Nor are these images of the womb constructed in relation to the penis of the father. Unlike the female genitalia, the womb cannot be constructed as a 'lack' in relation to the penis. The womb is not the site of castration anxiety. Rather, the womb signifies 'fullness' or 'emptiness' but always it is its own point of reference. This is why we need to posit a more archaic dimension to the mother. For the concept of the archaic mother allows for a notion of the feminine which does not depend for its definition on a concept of the masculine. The term 'archaic mother' signifies woman as sexual difference. In contrast the maternal figure of the pre-Oedipal is always represented in relation to the penis - the phallic mother who later becomes the castrated mother. Significantly, there is an attempt in Alien to appropriate the procreative function of the mother, to represent a man giving birth, to deny the mother as signifier of sexual difference -but here birth can exist only as the other face of death.

The archaic mother is present in all horror films as the blackness of extinction - death. The desires and fears invoked by the image of the archaic mother, as a force that threatens to reincorporate what it once gave birth to, are always there in the horror text - all pervasive, all encompassing - because of the constant presence of death. The desire to return to the original oneness of things, to return to the mother/womb, is primarily a desire for non-differentiation. If, as Georges Bataille (20) argues, life signifies discontinuity and separateness, and death signifies continuity and non-differentiation, then the desire for and attraction of death suggests also a desire to return to the state of original oneness with the mother. As this desire to merge occurs after differentiation, that is after the subject has developed as a separate, autonomous self, then it is experienced as a form of psychic death. In this sense, the confrontation with death as represented in the horror film, gives rise to a terror of self-disintegration, of losing one's self or ego - often represented cinematically by a screen which becomes black, signifying the obliteration of self, the self of the protagonist in the film and the spectator in the cinema. This has important consequences for the positioning of the spectator in the cinema.

One of the most interesting structures operating in the screen-spectator relationship relates to the sight/site of the monstrous within the horror text. In contrast to the conventional viewing structures working within other variants of the classic text, the horror film does not constantly work to suture the spectator into the viewing processes. Instead, an unusual phenomenon arises whereby the suturing processes are momentarily undone while the horrific image on the screen challenges the viewer to run the risk of continuing to look. Here, I refer to those moments in the horror film when the spectator, unable to stand the images of horror unfolding before his/her eyes, is forced to look away, to not-look, to look anywhere but at the screen. Strategies of identification are temporarily broken, as the spectator is constructed in the place of horror, the place where the sight/site can no longer be endured, the place where pleasure in looking is transformed into pain and the spectator is punished for his/her voyeuristic desires.

Confronted by the sight of the monstrous, the viewing subject is put into crisis - boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threaten to disintegrate, collapse. The horror film puts the viewing subject's sense of unified self into crisis in those moments when the image on the screen becomes too threatening or horrific to watch, with the threat that the viewing subject will be drawn to the place 'where meaning collapses', the place of death. By not-looking, the spectator is able momentarily to withdraw identification from the image on the screen in order to reconstruct the boundary between self and screen and reconstitute the 'self which is threatened with disintegration. This process of reconstitution of the self is reaffirmed by the conventional ending of the horror narrative in which the monster is usually 'named' and destroyed. (21)

Alien collapses the image of the threatening archaic mother, signifying woman as 'difference', into the more recognized figure of the pre-Oedipal mother; this occurs in relation to two images of the monstrous-feminine: the oral-sadistic mother and the phallic mother. Kane's transgressive disturbance of the egg/womb initiates a trans¬formation of its latent aggressivity into an active, phallic enemy. The horror then played out can be read in relation to Kristeva's concept of the semiotic chora. Kristeva argues that the maternal body becomes the site of conflicting desires (the semiotic chora). These desires are constantly staged and restaged in the workings of the horror narrative where the subject is left alone, usually in a strange hostile place, and forced to confront an unnamcable terror, the monster. The monster represents both the subject's fears of being alone, of being separate from the mother, and the threat of annihilation - often through reincorporation. As oral-sadistic mother, the monster threatens to reabsorb the child she once nurtured. Thus, the monster is ambiguous; it both repels and attracts.

In Alien, each of the crew members comes face to face with the alien in a scene whose mise-en-scene is coded to suggest a monstrous, malevolent maternal figure. They watch with fascinated horror as the baby alien gnaws its way through Kane's stomach; Dallas, the captain, encounters the alien after he has crawled along the ship's enclosed, womb-like air ducts; and the other three members are cannibalized in a frenzy of blood in scenes which emphasize the alien's huge razor-sharp teeth, signifying the monstrous oral-sadistic mother. Apart from the scene of Kane's death, all the death sequences occur in dimly lit, enclosed, threatening spaces reminiscent of the giant hatchery where Kane first encounters the pulsating egg. In these death sequences the terror of being abandoned is matched only by the fear of reincorporation. This scenario, which enacts the conflicting desires at play in the semiotic chora, is staged within the body of the mother-ship, the vessel which the space-travellers initially trust, until 'Mother' herself is revealed as a treacherous figure programmed to sacrifice the lives of the crew in the interests of the Company.

The other face of the monstrous-feminine in Alien is the phallic mother. Freud argued that the male child could either accept the threat of castration, thus ending the Oedipus complex, or disavow it. The latter response requires the (male) child to mitigate his horror at the sight of the mother's genitals - proof that castration can occur - with a fetish object which substitutes for her missing penis. For him, she is still the phallic mother, the penis-woman. In 'Medusa's Head' Freud argued that the head with its hair of writhing snakes represented the terrifying genitals of the mother, but that this head also functioned as a fetish object. He also noted that a display of the female genitals makes a woman 'unapproachable and repels all sexual desires', referring to the section in Rabelais which relates 'how the Devil took flight when the woman showed him her vulva'. (22) Perseus's solution is to look only at a reflection, a mirror-image of her genitals. As with patriarchal ideology, his shield reflects an 'altered' representation, a vision robbed of its threatening aspects.
The full difference of the mother is denied; she is constructed as other, displayed before the gaze of the conquering male hero, then destroyed. The price paid is the destruction of sexual heterogeneity and repression of the maternal signifier. The fetishization of the mother's genitals could occur in those texts where the maternal figure is represented in her phantasmagoric aspects as the gaping, voracious vagina/womb. Do aspects of these images work to mitigate the horror by offering a substitute for the penis? However, it is possible that we could theorize fetishism differently by asking: Who is the fetish-object a fetish for? The male or female subject? In general, the fetishist is usually assumed to be male, although Freud did allow that female fetishism was a possibility. (23) The notion of female fetishism is much neglected although it is present in various patriarchal discourses. (24)

In The Interpretation of Dreams, (25) Freud discusses the way in which the doubling of a penis-symbol indicates an attempt to stave off castration anxieties. Juliet Mitchell refers to doubling as a sign of a female castration complex: 'We can see the significance of this for women, as dreams of repeated number of children - "little ones" - are given the same import.' (26) In this context, female fetishism represents an attempt by the female subject to continue to 'have' the phallus, to take up a 'positive' place in relation to the symbolic.

Female fetishism is clearly represented within many horror texts - as instances of patriarchal signifying practices - but only in relation to male fears and anxieties about women and the question: What do women want? (The Birds, Cat People, Alien, The Thing.) Women as yet do not speak their own 'fetishistic' desires within the popular cinema - if, indeed, women have such desires. The notion of female fetishism is represented in Alien in the figure of the monster. The creature is the mother's phallus, attributed to the maternal figure by a phallocentric ideology terrified at the thought that women might desire to have the phallus.-The monster as fetish object is not there to meet the desires of the male fetishist, but rather to signify the monstrousness of woman's desire to have the phallus.

In Alien, the monstrous creature is constructed as the phallus of the negative mother. The image of the archaic mother - threatening because it signifies woman as difference rather than constructed as opposition is, once again, collapsed into the figure of the pre-Oedipal mother. By relocating the figure of woman within an Oedipal scenario, her image can be recuperated and controlled. The womb, even if represented negatively, is a greater threat than the mother's phallus. As phallic-mother, woman is again represented as monstrous. What is horrific is her desire to cling to her offspring in order to continue to 'have the phallus'. Her monstrous desire is concretized in the figure of the alien; the creature whose deadly mission is represented as the same as that of the archaic mother - to reincorporate and destroy all life.

If we consider Alien in the light of a theory of female fetishism, then the chameleon nature of the alien begins to make sense. Its changing appearance represents a form of doubling or multiplication of the phallus, pointing to the mother's desire to stave off her castration. The alien is the mother's phallus, a fact which is made perfectly clear in the birth scene where the infant alien rises from Kane's stomach and holds itself erect, glaring angrily around the room, before screeching off into the depths of the ship. But the alien is more than a phallus; it is also coded as a toothed vagina, the monstrous-feminine as the cannibalistic mother. A large part of the ideological project of Alien is the representation of the maternal fetish object as an 'alien' or foreign shape. This is why the body of the heroine becomes so important at the end of the film.

Much has been written about the final scene, in which Ripley/ Sigourney Weaver undresses before the camera, on the grounds that its voyeurism undermines her role as successful heroine. A great deal has also been written about the cat. Why does she rescue the cat and thereby risk her life, and the lives of Parker and Lambert, when she has previously been so careful about quarantine regulations? Again, satisfactory answers to these questions are provided by a phallocentric concept of female fetishism. Compared to the horrific sight of the alien as fetish object of the monstrous-feminine, Ripley's body is pleasurable and reassuring to look at.
She signifies the 'acceptable' form and shape of woman. In a sense the monstrousness of woman, represented by Mother as betrayer (the computer/life-support system) and Mother as the uncontrollable, generative, cannibalistic mother (the alien), is controlled through the display of woman as reassuring and pleasurable sign. The image of the cat functions in the same way; it signifies an acceptable, and in this context a reassuring, fetish object for the 'normal' woman. Thus, Ripley holds the cat to her, stroking it as if it were her 'baby', her 'little one'. Finally, Ripley enters her sleep pod, assuming a virginal repose. The nightmare is over and we are returned to the opening sequence of the film where birth was a pristine affair. The final sequence works, not only to dispose of the alien, but also to repress the nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine within the text's patriarchal discourses.

Kristeva's theory of abjection, if viewed as description rather than prescription, provides a productive hypothesis for an analysis of the monstrous-feminine in the horror and the SF horror film. (27) If we posit a more archaic dimension to the mother, we can see how this figure, as well as Kristeva's maternal authority of the semiotic, are both constructed as figures of abjection within the signifying practices of the horror film. We can see its ideological project as an attempt to shore up the symbolic order by constructing the feminine as an imaginary 'other' which must be repressed and controlled in order to secure and protect the social order. Thus, the horror film stages and re-stages a constant repudiation of the maternal figure.
I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

1. Sigmund Freud, 'From the History of an Infantile Neurosis' in Case Histories II, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 9, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981.
2. Sigmund Freud, 'On the Sexual Theories of Children' in On Sexuality, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 7, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981, p. 198.
3. Sigmund Freud, 'The Paths to the Formation of Symptoms' in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 1, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981, p. 417.
4. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press 1982, p. 14.
5. Daniel Dervin argues that this structure does deserve the status of a convention. For a discussion of the primal scene fantasy in science fiction cinema, see 'Primal Conditions and Conventions: the Genre of Science Fiction' in this volume.
6. Sigmund Freud, 'Female Sexuality' in On Sexuality, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 7, p. 373.
7. For a discussion of the relation between 'the semiotic' and the Lacanian 'Imaginary', see Jane Gallop, Feminism and Psychoanalysis: the Daughter's Seduction, London: MacMillan 1983, pp. 124-5.
8. Sigmund Freud, 'Moses and Monotheism', The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London: Hogarth Press 1958, vol. 23, p. 83.
9. Sigmund Freud, 'Totem and Taboo' in The Origins of Religion, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 13, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985, p. 206.
10. Ibid., p. 205.
11. Lévi-Strauss, quoted in Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, New York: Walker & Company 1962, p. 200.
12. Kristeva, pp. 57-8.
13. Jacques Lacan, in Anthony Wilden, ed., The Language of the Self, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1970, p. 126.
14. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire XX, p. 34, translated by Stephen Heath, 'Difference', Screen, vol. 19, no. 3, 1978, p. 59.
15. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire II, translated in Heath, p. 54.
16. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. C. Jacobson and B.G. Schoepf, New York: Doubleday 1976, p. 212.
17. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1984, p. 121.
18. Roger Dadoun, 'Fetishism in the Horror Film', Enclitic, vol. 1, no. 2, 1977, pp. 55-6.
19. Sigmund Freud, 'The "Uncanny" ', The Standard Edition, vol. 17, p. 245.
20. Bataille, Death and Sensuality.
21. For a discussion of the relationship between the female spectator, structures of looking and the horror film, see Linda Williams, 'When the Woman Looks' in Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, eds, Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, Los Angeles, CA: American Film Institute 1984.
22. Sigmund Freud,'Medusa's Head', The Standard Edition, vol. 18, p. 105.
23. Sigmund Freud, 'An Outline of Psychoanalysis', The Standard Edition, vol. 23, p. 202.
24. Mary Kelly, 'Woman-Desire-Image', Desire, London: ICA 1984.
25. Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 4, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1982.
26. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974, p. 84.
27. For an analysis of the horror film as a 'return of the repressed', see Robin Wood's articles, 'Return of the Repressed', Film Comment, July-August 1978; and 'Neglected Nightmares', Film Comment, March-April 1980.

In: Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Edited by Annete Kuhn. London Verso, 1990, p. 128-141.

See also in Urania:








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