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Technology, Transgression and the Female Cyborg in Alien: Resurrection (1997)

In recent years feminism has been responsible for significant developments within film theory. Perhaps most importantly has been the shift from dominant models of psychoanalysis, as an ageing film theory that as such relies largely on patriarchal paradigms, to other forms of theory more suited to the feminist approach. In an attempt to liberate the female body from such ‘biological determinism’ within contemporary Western patriarchal societies, feminist theorists have increasingly embraced technological or digital theory (Jenkins, 1999: 243). As Amelia Jones writes, ‘A great deal of the most cutting edge work on feminism and visual culture in recent years has focused on new technologies’ due to the fact that, despite having masculine tendencies, ‘they can provide tools for a feminist production and/or critique of visual culture’ (2010: 583).

A similar theoretical progression has been the utilisation of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notions of schizoanalysis and the body without organs (1984) within feminist explorations of the female body. Teresa Rizzo suggests that Deleuze and Guattari ‘understand the body from an ethological perspective’, (2004: 331) which is furthered by Anna Powell in her statement that Deleuze and Guattari approach the human body as a ‘machinic meld of body/mind/brain’ of which this ‘machinic assemblage is a multiplicity of forces in motion, not fixed components’ (2005: 213).

These approaches will be explored in regards to the fusion of feminism and technology in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997) within this article, which argues that the film liberates the female body from biological constraint through boundary transgression. The final film in the original Alien quadrilogy, Alien: Resurrection appears to be the most overtly feminist through the relationship between female cyborgs Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Call (Wynona Ryder), and their individual relationship with technology. Patricia Melzer writes that the characters are ‘a commentary on the culture’s anthropocentrism’ (2006: 141) and this article similarly proposes that the relationship between these two characters is a positive commentary upon contemporary approaches to feminism, deterring from traditional patriarchal theories surrounding the abject and monstrous nature of women and the reproductive body (see Creed, 1993). Additionally, the character of Ripley will not be discussed in relation to other films in the series due to the fact that within Alien: Resurrection, Ripley is a clone and therefore a new entity. The focus of this character study is instead a celebratory reading of feminism through the female cyborg and its relationship with technology.

The alliance between technology, particularly technological or digital theory, and culture is historically uneasy, negative and ignored. Henry Jenkins suggests that this relationship can be attributed to technophobia: ‘Technology is understood as inhuman or anti-human, as destroying more organic pre-technological cultures.’ (1999: 241). The complex implication of technology within contemporary Western society presents constantly decreasing boundaries between the organic and machine. In the modern world, technology is ‘within (medical technologies, processed foods), beside (telephones) and outside (satellites) the human body’ (Jenkins, 1999: 239).

Technology further transgresses bodily or physical boundaries in the way that ‘we inhabit it (the climate-controlled office space), or it inhabits us (a pacemaker)’ (Jenkins, 1999: 239). In this respect the figure of the female cyborg invokes in full the patriarchal technophobia highlighted above, as this is a female body literally inhabited by technology. The cyborg is defined by Donna Haraway as a ‘cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (2010: 587). The fact that Haraway refers to the creature as a social construction emphasises the further importance of gender in relation to this figure. Patricia Melzer furthers this argument in relation the female cyborgs within Alien: Resurrection, writing that:

Both Ripley and Call…differ from their male counterparts in their relationship to technology…Here, technology is not represented as body (as) armor, a comforting, clunking industrial machine, that, as Springer tells us, reassures patriarchal fears of boundary transgression… (2006: 130).

Jenkins extends this approach in relation to the feminist significance of the boundary transgression associated with the body of the female cyborg, stating that feminist critics have embraced:

digital media as enabling a breakdown of fixed social and sexual identities and a transformation of stable alignments of power…The metaphor of the cyborg as hybrid identity helps us to recognize that our gender identities are, at least, partially culturally manufactured, and, as such, gender may be reinvented, retooled, or reprogrammed. Some argue, for example, that going on-line enables a radical reconceptualization of the relationship between ourselves and our bodies, potentially liberating us from a long legacy of biological determinism (1999: 243).

The fact that digital media enables the dissipation of fixed sexual identity also eradicates the power struggles associated with gender, allowing women freedom from the oppression of patriarchal society. The metaphorical cyborg highlights the cultural construction of gender and as a result questions patriarchal power relations as a similar cultural construct. However, as Jenkins states, this liberation is short lived due to the material connotations associated with the body of the cyborg, as cyborg identities ‘still require a physical transformation, a reconceptualization of what it means to live within our bodies and that cyborg feminism pulls us back to the material world’ (1999: 243).

Instead of reading this material representation of cyborg feminism as negative and connotative of women being pulled from metaphorical feminism into the cultural patriarchy of the real world, Haraway’s reference to the cyborg as a social reality must be taken into account:

I am making an argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality…By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated myths of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation (2010: 588).

Haraway fuses the imaginative and metaphorical notion of the cyborg with a material construction that is embedded in reality. In doing so, she highlights the strength of this transgressive power and its possibilities of historical transformation in her suggestion that this fusion results in the realisation that ‘we are cyborgs.’ It can therefore be argued that the power associated with the transgressive, hybrid figure of the female cyborg is harnessed within real women, real cyborgs that–through this hybridity–can embody feminism. As such, the ‘tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism’ can be challenged in the material world, and the feminist power associated with the cyborg and technology is transgressive to the extent that it can dissolve the barrier between the imaginary and social reality (Haraway, 2010: 588).

Haraway refers to the transgression of such boundaries as necessary in regards to feminism, writing that there is ‘pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and…responsibility in their construction’ (2010: 588). Boundary transgression as pleasure in regards to the female body therefore raises Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the body without organs. Anna Powell defines Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the term within this context, writing that:

Deleuze and Guattari re-map the fixed biological body as a dynamic force field of speeds and intensities ‘traversed by a powerful, non-organic vitality’ that includes the mind…This amoeba-like body is open to surrounding matter, which it incorporates. Its perpetual motion is mapped via its ‘poles, zones, thresholds and gradients’ (2005: 211).

The body without organs is an example of a machine with Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of schizoanalysis, which proposes that ‘Everything is a machine’, and therefore ‘Everything is production’ (1984: 4). In particular, they refer to ‘Desiring-machines’, which they define as ‘binary machines, obeying a binary law or set of rules governing associations: one machine is always coupled with another (1984: 5). Both Ripley and Call, through their technological alterations as ‘cloned and enhanced technobodies’, (Melzer, 2006: 105) are extreme machines. Ripley’s body is enhanced through her genetically inherited alien abilities, and thus is the amalgamation of two distinct organisms, two machines as site of production. Similarly Call is described as an auton and robot, and is therefore a literal machine within an organic exterior. Again she has two separate machines that are working together to reinforce her status as an extreme machine. The initial shot of Call depicts her repairing a machine and thus refers to her enhanced production; she is a machine operating on a machine.

Melzer states that Ripley and Call are therefore ‘aligned in a perverse kinship in their motherless existence, as well as in their resistance to it’ (2006: 126). This study would disagree with the latter part of Melzer’s statement, arguing instead that Ripley and Call resemble two approaches to contemporary feminism that are initially conflicting. Haraway writes that ‘cyborgs…are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are exceedingly unfaithful to their origins’ (2010: 589). This relates directly to Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the body without organs as capitalistic as they write that ‘Capital is indeed the body without organs of the capitalist, or rather of the capitalist being…Machines and agents cling so closely to capital that their very functioning appears to be miraculated by it’ (1984: 12). Both Ripley and Call are ultimately engineered by capitalism. Ripley is genetically cloned for the material benefit of an elite scientific division of the United States Military and Call has been built by cyborgs created for such power structures.

However, the fact that Haraway mentions that cyborgs can be unfaithful to their origins emphasises the humanism evident in both characters. Melzer refers to such male cyborgs as the titular character from James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), defined as cyborg through a corporeal body and possessing no emotion (2006: 130). It is the emotive capability of both Ripley and Call that ensures their transgressive female nature.

Ripley and Call are representative of two approaches to feminism: Ripley as radical feminism and Call as liberal feminist. The difference between the two is highlighted by Keith Burgess-Jackson in his statement that ‘The radical, in short, questions what the liberal takes for granted. The radical (as the name implies) wishes to destroy inequality at its root. The liberal leaves the root intact while trimming-repeatedly-the undesirable stems, leaves and fruit’ (2002: 27). This is reflected in the conflicting natures of the two women. Ripley cannot understand in her pure state of radical feminism why Call is so morally conscious in her liberal feminism, as she puts the lives of humans before her own. An extension of this liberal feminist status within the film is in the fact that Call refuses to acknowledge her cyborg status; she is ashamed of her existence. Throughout the first half of the film the audience is unaware that she is a cyborg. Eventually she is wounded, because of her trusting nature and faith in humanity, and is forced to reveal her true identity. As Anne Cranny-Francis writes:

Call is a Second Generation robot, constructed and programmed by androids, an illegitimate offspring of technoscience. Ironically, she is programmed by machines (who strive to be like their creators) to be more human than humans around her…a simulacrum, a copy without an original, made not by humans but by a technoscience commenting on the human race… (1990: 226).

When Call confesses to her cyborg status, the sexist and derogatory references to her technological body from the male survivors reveals the negative affiliation of woman and technology. As a simulacrum Call is in a state of moral conflict. As she is programmed to be ‘more human than the humans around her’, she craves inclusion within the patriarchal society that she can never be a part of, due to the extreme feminism inherent in her cyborg status. Burgess-Jackson questions the equality that liberal feminists seek, recognising that by endorsing the application of ‘a single “neutral’ standard’ to both sexes in regards to psychology and behaviour, ‘Liberal feminism, pace Nussbaum, Baber and Landau, is simply liberalism applied to the issue of sexual difference’ (2002: 34). As such, Burgess-Jackson states that:

these individuals should refer to themselves as liberals (simpliciter) or as humanists, not as liberal feminists, even if their arguments have the effect of improving the lot of women. Their scholarly work…does nothing to advance the cause of women as women, which, I should think, is the sine qua non of feminism (2002: 34).

In craving equality in relation to humanity and therefore the patriarchal structures within it, it can be argued that through her representation as liberal feminist that Call is subscribing to the notion of sexual equality as opposed to feminism. This is especially suggested through the fact that this representation as liberal feminist has been forced upon her by her status as cyborg that she has been programmed with the moral code of humanism.

However, in her representation as a liberal feminist through her female cyborg body, Call is also acknowledged as a body without organs and therefore wields the transgressive power associated with this figure. This is emphasised within the scene in which Ripley persuades Call to connect to the main server, known as ‘Father’, and override instructions that have been set in place by Dr. Mason, (J. E. Freeman) who after shooting Call attempts to flee the ship, leaving the survivors at the mercy of the aliens. Initially, Call refuses to connect to the server, stating that she burnt her modem in a refusal of her cyborg identity. After persuasion from Ripley, Call reluctantly agrees. The fact that this scene occurs in a church, with a large cross looming over the pair, is relevant to Deleuze and Guattari’s statement that:

The body without organs is not God, quite the contrary. But the energy that sweeps through it is divine, when it attracts to itself the entire process of production and server as its miraculate, enchanted surface, inscribing it in each and every one of its disjunctions (1984: 14).

Thus in connecting to the mainframe, Call has become divine, pure and intense energy, and has therefore accomplished true boundary transgression in her cyborg status. The feminist implications of this connection with technology are evident when Call, flowing with transgressive energy in her fusion with the ship’s computer, responds to Dr. Mason’s attempted command to ‘Father’ to open the hatch that will allow him to escape on the Betty, a smaller craft. In her synthesised, electric voice, she states, ‘Father’s dead, asshole.’ This invokes one of the main proclamations of the VNS Matrix. Within this Cyberfeminist Manifesto, Julianne pierce, Josephine Starrs and Francesca da Rimini state that ‘we are the modern cunt…rupturing the symbolic from within, saboteurs of big daddy mainframe, the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix, the VNS matrix…go down on the altar of abjection’ (2010: 642). Christianity is a patriarchal construct, one abolished by the ultimately feminine power of intense energy. It is here that Call realises the power and potential of her cyborg body, though she is still morally conflicted and would choose to be human over her current status.

In contrast, Ripley is radical feminism. Unlike Call she makes no apologies for her hybridity and transgressive nature. She is an uber-woman, surpassing the limitations of a biologically female body within patriarchy. Her body is thus intense sexuality and strength, ultimately gender defined in its feminist celebration of power. Ripley therefore embodies Burgess-Jackson’s description of ‘radical feminism’ in that she ‘seeks to promote the cause of women as women’ (2002: 44). The fact that, unlike Call, Ripley has been genetically engineered from a separate living organism, refers to Deleuze and Guattari’s statement that ‘The productive synthesis, the production of production, is inherently connected in nature’ (1984: 5). Thus, with the distinction of the organic and machine inherent in the cyborg figure, Deleuze and Guattari’s reference to nature invokes the traditional association between woman and nature, which seems in opposition to the female cyborg’s affiliation with technology.

Sadie Plant highlights the connection between the two. In regards to nature, she writes that the relationship is a seemingly male construction when she states that women ‘are tied to the earth and too tangled up with all its messy cycles and flows’ (2010: 640). However, she goes on to comment upon the relationship between woman and technology, writing that ‘Cybernetics is feminism’ (2010: 641) and that ‘women are too artificial for man: a matter of glamour, a trick…she’s made up’ (2010: 640). Thus she concludes that the seemingly oppositional relationships between woman and nature and woman and artifice are actually the same, writing that ‘Matter is microprocessing: what else do molecules do with themselves?’ (Plant, 2010: 641). Technology is nature in an intense state and therefore doubly associated with female power, especially in consideration to the plurality of machines within the cyborg body.

This is highlighted by the tattoo on Ripley’s arm. Whilst it refers to her oppressed status in the film, as experiment ‘Number 8’, it must be noted that the marking resembles the sign for infinity. This could be considered a reference to the plurality assigned to the role of women in the film. Male characters within the film are one-dimensional, their aims clearly expressed as monetary or sexual. Other female characters are similarly represented as one dimensional through the fact that they cater to a patriarchal view of women. Most notably, the single female scientist (Marlene Bush) resembles masculinity through her silver, cropped hair and autonomous uniform. Obediently she carries out the orders from the men around her without voicing any objection. The only emotional response she emits is during the live experiment upon which several hosts are impregnated with the alien foetus. While the male scientists look eagerly on, her gaze flickers as she looks away.

Similarly Sabra (Kim Flowers) is the only biological woman aboard Call’s ship, the Betty. Sabra wears a skin-tight outfit that reveals her womanly curves. The Betty’s captain, Frank, (Michael Wincott) sexually appraises her body in two scenes. When the characters are initially introduced Frank makes a sexual reference to Sabra’s piloting skills, thus establishing her sexual difference. Whilst women can therefore acceptably maintain a material relationship with technology, the fusion of the organic with the artificial is not permitted. In his sexual, derogatory comment, Frank is subordinating Sabra’s status by separating her technological skills from her biological and sexual identity. Sabra both allows and enjoys this subordination; wearing only panties as she moans in pleasure, Sabra is later massaged by Frank, her body explored by the camera in a sexualised way.

Unlike the other female characters, neither Call nor Ripley is sexualised in regards to their flesh. Whilst Call rejects sexuality in her repudiation of her status as feminist, Ripley’s confidence and absolute contentment in her femininity relates directly to Luce Irigarary’s reference to sexual difference in her statement that ‘All Western discourse presents a certain isomorphism with the masculine sex…this morpho-logic does not correspond to the female sex: there is not ‘a’ sex’ (1989: 111). Irigaray argues that woman does have an independent sexuality, with not one sexual organ but ‘at least two of them…Indeed, she has many more. Her sexuality, always at least double, goes even further, it is plural’ (1989: 116). Elizabeth Grosz highlights the importance of this distinction, writing that sexual plurality ‘can be interpreted as a contestation of patriarchal representations at the level of cultural representation itself’ (1989: 116). This contestation is a feminist extension of Melzer’s previously mentioned statement that Ripley and Call are both a ‘commentary on the culture’s anthropocentrism’. The initially conflicting approaches to feminism, represented by the two women, are evident in the scene in which Call confronts Ripley for the first time with the aim of killing her to protect humanity from her dangerous hybridity.

This scene is technically constructed around close-ups, which provides an intimacy between the characters. When Call informs Ripley that she is a sting, a construct that has been grown in a lab, she takes away Ripley’s feminism and induces that Ripley is worthless in her cyborg status. When Call discovers that the alien has been removed, the pity on her face is evident. In stating that she can only offer Ripley death as a release from her hybrid existence, Call is acknowledging complete patriarchal oppression; she is inferring that Ripley was grown for a specific monetary purpose and now that this has been fulfilled she is useless and only death will purify her abominable status as uber-feminine.

In response, Ripley takes Call’s blade and pushes her hand onto it. Call watches in disgust and horror as the metal begins to react to Ripley’s toxic blood. When Ripley replies, ‘What makes you think I would let you do that?’ she emphasises her status as radical feminist. Sitting up suddenly, Ripley whispers to Call that only she can stop the alien. Ripley’s heightened stance and predatory demeanour invokes the power associated with Burgess-Jackson’s reference to the radical feminist as acting upon inequality, whilst representing women as women. However the fact that Call convinces Ripley to act in her humanist determination to stop the alien refers to Burgess-Jackson’s comment that liberal feminists are focused upon sexual equality. While Ripley is solitary in her empowered, radical feminist status, and as such is the only one who can defeat the aliens, Call implores her to save the people on the ship despite the way these people have treated both women. Thus, when Ripley pulls Call’s face to hers in an uncomfortable embrace, this is representative of the two feminist approaches cooperating in order to combat a patriarchal threat and the monster it has created.

Thus, by the end of the film, both women have benefited from the strange relationship and, as such, each representation of feminism has evolved. For example, despite being accepted by the aliens as an equal, Ripley ultimately sides with the humans who have resurrected her as an experiment for commercial gain and incarcerated her, keeping her alive simply due to their scientific interests. This suggests that Call’s disgust at her own hybrid status has affected Ripley in some way, most notably in observing the monstrous hybrid creature, a machine genetically constructed to kill with no morals, birthed as a result of her genetic ‘gift’. Ripley’s transgressive status allows her to ultimately choose between her two genetic parents. Her affinity with the aliens is expressed in her emotional turmoil at watching her ‘baby’ die at her hands, coupled with her statement as she and Call look out over a picturesque Earth, ‘I’m a stranger here myself.’

Melzer thus acknowledges the insignificance of men within the bond between the two women (2006: 141). The depiction of Earth at the end of the film, through misty clouds and exotic aerial shots, suggests that both women are embarking upon a new world without gender. This is emphasised by the superimposition of both women over a shot of the rolling clouds. Call, initially afraid of her otherness and her female form in its negative affiliation with technology, has accepted to a certain extent herself and Ripley as ‘permanent partial identities’. Instead of death, which she initially wanted to inflict upon Ripley to release her from her partial identity, the two women gaze out at a new utopian world of possibility.

The above analysis suggests that Alien: Resurrection is a positive example of feminist liberation through the female body of the cyborg, which presents a celebratory reading of this figure in relation to two examples of female contemporary approaches to feminism. Though both of these approaches are flawed, the fusion of the characters of Call and Ripley within the film highlight the possibilities associated with a combined feminist effort to challenge the patriarchal order. Furthermore the female cyborg is implicit in this argument in relation to Haraway’s combination of the metaphorical, fictional cyborg and the socially constructed, material cyborg. Both approaches to this figure are necessary to highlight the power, transgression and hybridity of modern woman as feminist. To reiterate, Haraway states that the cyborg ‘is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation’. Alien Resurrection, through its supportive commentary upon modern approaches to feminism, provides an example of the fictional cyborg. In order to implement historical transformation through ‘our politics’, the feminist must surpass male technophobia and wield the power of technology to accept that she is the socially constructed figure of the cyborg. As the VNS Matrix Cyberfeminist Manifesto states, ‘we are the future cunt’ (2010, 642).


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About Rebecca Booth

Rebecca has a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. In addition to her role as Managing Editor at Diabolique Magazine, she co-hosts the international horror podcast United Nations of Horror, as well as X-Files X-Philes and The Twin Peaks Log. She has contributed to several popular culture websites such as Wicked Horror, Den of Geek, and Big Comic Page, and has contributed essays to following publications: Unsung Horrors (We Belong Dead, 2016), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017), and the forthcoming A Filthy Workshop of Creation: Sin & Subversion in Hammer's Gothic Horrors (Electric Dreamhouse Press, 2018).

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