Are you afraid of the Other? A color-conscious reading of Alien

I am a white German man and I enjoy the movies of the Alien-Saga helluva lot. That’s problematic. It might not be for many people, it might not seem so for many people, it might be the unthinkable to many people. But when I watch the Alien movies and find myself thinking: “they’re way cool!” I observe myself wondering: “aren’t you just being a privileged prick?”

Instead of reviewing the remains of the filmic Alien-Saga today (there are still the two Alien vs. Predator instalments) I opt for the editorial-style discussion of issues of racism and color in the Alien movies. Since I haven’t reviewed the two vs. Predator movies yet, and since I think they’re kinda shitty and non-canonical, I will mostly ignore them in this discussion. But then again, I cannot really, cause there we encounter some interesting aspects of the whole issue. For more Alien-related posts, please click HERE to get to the Alien master index.

this looks cute, but our discussion won't be, via fanboy.com

Shall I ease our way into this discussion? The question alone should make clear where I am coming from (talking bout my position within larger human society here): I address somebody who is white, western, thinks of her_himself as colorblind and does not think every other thing should be examined in relation to the issue of racism. If you are a person like that, kudos for being so interested to getting this far, please stay with me. To everyone else: Apologies. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I wouldn’t have that default audience in mind when I start to write? A truly diverse and non-me kind of audience? It would, but I don’t. I started to write and I wanted to write the question of “easing into the discussion” just when I noticed what I’m doing. But I am doing it anyhow, this time around making visible though where my own personal starting point is positioned.

this is what an alien usually looks like, via thefilmstage.com

This wordy entrance provides me with a good starting point to go on about the “easing into” anyways, cause for the beginning, let’s not focus on the alien, nor on the human cast. Let us just look at the actions that inform, more as a subtext than really out in the open, the overall narrative of the Alien movies.
Human beings, originally from our beloved Earth colonize other planets. They have mining colonies, they have prison colonies (hey Fury!), they have colonies on planets where they need to install huge, gritty machines that need to convert the atmosphere to make it inhabitable for humans. Now, you might remember, somewhere in the back of your head, or really just right away: Human beings from planet Earth have quite the history with colonialism. And it ain’t a cute one. It is a history of racial oppression that was desperately in need of racist ideology to justify what was happening in the name of whatnot else. Colonizing space seems to be different at first glance for many people, cause it’s about the future and the explorer-spirit, yadda yadda, but ultimately it is colonialism. And we never see or hear about the colonial struggles that the Earthlings might fight (well, we see one, kinda…). This whole notion of colonialism is further reinforced by presenting us with one huge corporation in charge, Weyland-Yutani, very reminiscent of the various colonisation societies and companies that existed during the days of European and Japanese colonialism not too long ago.
A company is a company, and when we expect it to follow principles and values we usually mean human ones. While that might be helpful when addressing the people in charge of running or employed by companies, a company in itself is not a human being, and in a capitalist world order it has interests that have little to do with being human. That is where the whole corporate craziness from the Alien movies stem from: Humanity meets an alien life form, and the corporate plan is to domesticate it, dissect it, study it and ultimately market it. It is potential profit, that is why it’s interesting and even more so than any of the human staff are. And a lot of the vocabulary should already make it clear, there was a perverted little system called “slavery” that humankind once thought to be a pretty neat thing. It was all about domesticating people (of color, usually), of studying them (people of color, usually), tear them out of their environment (consistent of people of color, usually) and market them (to white people, usually). The Alien, even if we don’t touch upon the issue of looking at it as reminiscent of human or regard its color, is basically being treated and approached like an enslaved subject. My point here? Colonialism and slavery, two terrible things, closely intertwined with the issue of racism and color and we encounter them in the context of Alien, thus this whole discussion is totally worth having, based on that alone. Eased into it already? Good.

how about a different color-scheme?, via artasty.com

Cause the domestication and subjugation of the alien happens on the basis of the argument that it is hostile. And oh, it happens to be black. Granted, not human skin kind of black, but black, as in very visibly not white (ha, not just yet, we’ll get there!), and a kind of black that is reminiscent of human skin color.
Ok, clearly, the alien is not a human being. It reminds us – or at least me – of some sort of reptile/spider-like being that creeps around dark corners, has a body that is set up so very differently from the human form that this alone inserts a factor of insecurity (after all, what can it do? We wouldn’t know) and does not communicate with us in any other way than attacking us. The point I’m getting at, why not just say it now?, is that in light of the history of colonialism, slavery and racist ideas many white people considered people of color to be non-human, to have bodies that differ fundamentally from theirs, to be menacing and violent and ultimately fear-inducing, based alone on the appearance. Don’t go batshit-crazy here, cause I am in no effin way saying “oho, the Alien is like a person of color,” that is not, I repeat: NOT, the point. What I mean is: “aha, interesting, the alien fulfils a vision of fear and menace in white minds that’s been formerly (or still?) occupied by people of color in white mindsets.” And that, I argue, is a racist construction. It was then, it is now, and while white people and people of color do not belong to different races, human beings and the aliens very well do, making the word racism just as appropriate, though somewhat different in overall meaning.

One of the central aspects as to why it is ok to hunt and kill the aliens is that (besides them attacking and killing us) they are constantly dehumanized within the context of the movie. Dehumanizing the being you’re dealing with is the general modus operandi when it comes to white people enslaving and discriminating people of color, it is also firmly in place when it comes to killing animals for fur or skin or meat (but I won’t go there now).
However, there is a paradox inherent in the whole construction of the Alien narrative. If the alien only were an animal that we deem a menace but not really a worthy opponent, the movies would be far less interesting. Therefore, we’ve been introduced to fairly human reactions and interactions, with somewhat of a social system, instincts that lead to the protection of their children, and an intelligence that is en par with that of human beings. They need to remind us of ourselves, in order to make for a worthy opponent, and please don’t go “but their social system, that’s like ants!, or bees!”, cause we as human beings set their social systems in human context, use human vocabulary and thereby think of them as somewhat remotely human, before denying it again on other grounds.
We do a lot of the same with the aliens. Their curious and complicated mode of reproduction, including eggs and parasitic development, rapid growth and an interesting lack of sexual interaction between the queen and any other alien, it is there to remind us that they are not human, that their reproduction cycles do not consist of warmth and familiar gestures. Which kind of reminds me how white “scientists” displayed the genitalia of black women in Europe, cause they were deemed strange and only remotely human. Not to forget white western discourses about how people of color threaten to overpopulate the world, cause they have too much sex, with too many children and too little sense of responsibility (yeah, white people – not all, mind you – think that).
Another popular white discourse has been and still is in some corners of white minds the discourse on how people of color, especially black people are not rational beings but are being led by their instincts that are considered to be primal and void of civilization. Colonial discourses were grounded in that kind of shit, and here in Alien we encounter a being that is defined (even explicitly so) by what it does, and what it does is interpreted as following its own primal instincts, without conscience and without rational thinking. Ermh, similar much?

human/alien hybrid, via cyberpunkreview.com

And then, in Alien 4, Alien Resurrection, there it comes: the alien that is closer to humanity than ever before, cause it reeks of Ripley’s DNA, shows feelings, has eyes, a pink tongue, snarls, and is MOTHERFUCKING white. Umh, the less white you are the less human you are? Is that the message you wanted to send there, stupid producers/everyone else involved? While everyone was probably like “whoa, cool visuals!” (and white) it is really just a horrid subtext displayed there. Cause all of a sudden, even if we were somehow able to ignore all the issues I presented until now, and didn’t connect the color of the aliens and its representation with the issue of racism, all of a fucking sudden Alien Resurrection conveniently links the parts together for us, saying: look, we can think of them as human, and hey, the closer they are to real humans, the whiter they get! Beatings and shootings for everyone on the fucking film set, sez I, but only in the vile places of my personality.
Then there is even the mind-boggling issue of an interracial family (which is still up to this day, unfortunately, a whole issue in itself, cause of the reactions of white society) since Ripley and the aliens are now somehow related, and Mr. Whiterson McWhite aka new kinda alien clearly considers her to be his mother. Let us just briefly think about what happens in Alien Resurrection then: the kid of that interracial relationship that is born with white skin turns against his black mother (even killing her) and family and is ultimately rejected by his white mother (and her family) cause it is still related to the other race. Yes, you may hit your head hard and repeatedly now on the table, to make the pain go away. Not only is it an extremely racist message, but it is even an extremely racist message that doesn’t even try to say it’s not. Whoa, in a not good way, I say to that.

My Little Alien by Mari Kasurinen, via thejunction.de

Having talked a lot about the aliens themselves I still want to discuss the presence of people of color in Alien movies. We all know, Ellen Motherfucking Ripley kicks ass in all the right ways, but she is not a woman of color. Ok, some people are just not (curiously basically every other Hollywood hero though), and hey, at least it is not Erik Ripley, so, yay, female presence! So, how many people of color (who, let me remind you, account for the way larger part of humankind) do we find in the main casts of Alien movies? One in the original movie, he dies. None, really, in Aliens. One in Alien³, and yeah, he dies. And one in Alien Resurrection, wanna guess?, he dies. Yay, diversity…? Obviously, with only one character of color whose name we’re aware of none of the Alien movies pass the Bechdel test adjusted to color. L.A.M.E. In about every way conceivable. At least some Latin descent is hinted at, but let’s not even ask for an Asian presence, shall we? L.A.M.E. Let’s say it together next time!
Curiously, this is where I have to start discussing the Alien vs. Predator movies, cause the first of them, and yeah, just hold your breath and sit down, comes up with one human hero – and she is a black woman. Supposedly she is the new Ripley (without ever being seen in the other AvP movie, though) and that alone makes me even kind of forget how she still needs to be acknowledged by the Predator. As for AvP 2- Requiem, I only saw it once and thought it was abysmal. I don’t even remember – are there any human characters we’re supposed to care about (except for dumb college jocks and their ladies)?
The introduction of the Predators into the Alien Universe just reinforces what I stated earlier though: the aliens become prey, they are beings in themselves, but not respected. Their existence is only permissible to the extent that the Predators can enslave them, play with them, hunt them and kill them. The predators just take over the torch. They become the mightier colonizers and masters, their every racist whim is what is to structure the universe.

Sanaa Lathan as Alexa Woods, via moviesmeter.com

On a final note I should maybe explain why I can bitch about how racist Alien movies are and still like them. Part of it is probably nostalgia, I watched and loved the Alien movies long before I ever contemplated racism and white privilege. Another part is white privilege, I guess I am white enough to not be confronted with the negative end of racist action every other moment, so that I can ignore many implications, even though I am aware that they are there. And then there is of course that part of me that hopes that some of the story and imagery is really not just that bad, tells us something about the human condition that transcends the mere medium of film
Oh and, why should be critical with something mean you have to dislike it? Hm, what do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Are you afraid of the Other? A color-conscious reading of Alien

  1. Interesting theories, without a doubt, but i would contest one or two. Namely the “newborn” in alien 4 and the aliens skin tone. I will admit that the choice of not white could be racial, but in nature white is a poor camoflage choice unless you live in snowy areas. Black is a pro-stealth coloration, and would naturally develop for a craeture like the alien who relies on stealth. (by the way I too am white just to establish my possible bias/mindset) but with the human alien hybrid in aliens 4 could also represent more the shift of exo-skeleton to skin rather than black to white. However it does show all the points you mentioned at least on some level. The cast color approach is an unusual one for me though, specifically the point of all the black dudes dying. Mostly because over the course of the films, 90% of the entire human cast gets killed off regardless of age color etc. (hicks and newt are pretty much killed off in the opening scene of alien 3) but there are some tones you may have missed as well. The whole basis for the franchise was that the alien was the result of interstellar rape; most colonial people thought african american men were prone to rape, and not to be trusted around women. And theres also ripley’s genocidal attitude towards the aliens. Sure, MAYBE their threat to society in the literal, non analysed sense is enough to make them worth wiping out, but it goes so far as to suggest that the alien isnt even imporfant to an ecosystem and needs to be killed at all costs. That one can be taken to apply to any number of predators that man kind hunted in crusader mind sets.
    Hope you comment back, this is all very intriguing to discuss!

    1. Hey thank you for your comment! Lovely to see your interest in the isssue.
      I see where you are coming from with the argument that black is more of a stealth color, but I’d say that the idea to go for a stealth color was probably less concsious and it was more about a menacing color – and sad as it is, there are still too many white people in this world who think of the color black as menacing. Pop-culture shoves it down our throats every day. What bugs me most about the shift to the “white” Alien is the timing and depiction of it. Never before has an alien in the series been introduced like that and portrayed as a proto-human version of an alien (although you could of course make an argument for the maternal behaviour of the alien queen in Aliens, but that is more about the maternal instinct than about being human, I’d say). The “white” alien is explicitly humanized and while I don’t think that it was a conscious decision whatsoever I think that for a white director it did not seem problematic that this contains a very problematic statement about skin tones and what it takes to be human. I appreciate that you try to argue with phenomena found in nature, but for that the whole action in alien 4 unfolds too arbitrarily – the one “albino” alien is perchance also the only one ever born similarly to how human babies are born, mind you, AFTER the queen gave birth reptile-style to black aliens all along? Makes no sense whatsoever. If she inherited Ripley’s reproductive organs then from the very start please…
      And while of course 90% of the cast gets killed off, why does it always have to be the white people to survive? It’s such a common trope in film and television that it has become the butt of endless jokes. Prime example on TV right now is “The Walking Dead” where every time a new black male character appears on the scene you can be certain that the other black male character has to die within a few epsiodes. Totally ridiculous. Plus, Alien vs. Predator illustrates that it does not always have to be that way.

      Your point about rape, colonialism and genocide I don’t really get – especially the rape part. Could you explain that further.
      But I like your pointing our the genocidal motive – the wiping out of the aliens at all cost because they representa threat to human society is of course very evocative of the horrible genocide that has happened on our planet in the course of colonialism. It’s an eerie resemblance and I think again an unconscious one, because it seems to me that many white people do not realize what images and associations they evoke when denying the terrible history of colonialism.

      Anyways, loved your input, hope to read from you soon again!

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