Chapter Two : The Female of the Species is Deadlier Than The Male

Stephanie Barron

Dillon:  "Lady, you don't want to know me. I'm a murderer and rapist of women".
Ripley: "Then, I guess I must make you very nervous" (Alien3)

As stated in the introduction, in order to understand the social anxieties, we must first understand the individuals, this is despite Sobchack's claim that "science fiction is a genre which tends to be less concerned with individual psychology...than it is with public situations and social crisis" (Gethring 1988:229) [for full references etc see sources]. The unconscious as created by repressed thoughts is characterised by Freudian theory, which most effectively concerns itself with the infants mysteries of "conception and birth, sexual drives and the desire for forbidden objects, the Oedipal scenario and sexual difference" (Kuhn 1990:92)  hence the frequent use of Freudian psychoanalysis within gender studies. At this point it is necessary to look at the fundamental difficulties inherent in traditional Freudian psychoanalysis that has itself influenced feminist debate. Freud's concept of sexuality stems from the depiction of male and female as active, voyeuristic; and passive, narcissistic respectively.  

According to Easthope, scopophilia, the pleasure of looking

 "...divides into active and passive, active being the pleasure of looking at others, or voyeurism, passive being the pleasure of being looked at, or exhibitionism. Within the dominant culture these oppositions become mapped onto gender". (Easthope 1990:137) 
He therefore agrees with Mulvey's assumption that we are encoded into our roles by an  irremovable power of psychology. (1991)  If this distribution of psychological habit is 'mapped' onto gender, it must also be subsequently encoded into the patriarchal establishment.  The important philosophy concerned at this point is the Oedipus complex; this theory states that the infant male desires his mother, but fears castration from the father thus removes his desire in the knowledge that one day he will also hold the fathers (phallic) power and a woman of his own; the parallel theory of the castrated woman is equally relevant. To this, Lacan states that as a woman does not have a penis she is unfulfilled, inadequate, and castrated, thus the male is seen as whole.  In consequence the man represents natural order.  To this Susan Lurie argues in her article 'The Construction of the Castrated Woman in Psychoanalysis and Cinema' that man fears woman because they are not  castrated,  thus "physically...whole" (Creed 1994:6)  Both these lines of argument are considered by Creed in the issue of the vagina dentata.


In accordance with mythology, the vagina dentata, or toothed vagina, has been the cause of much male anxiety concerned with the castrating ability of the female body.  Whilst the horror genre is more readily accredited with narratives of the toothed vagina, specific sci-fi films that  cross into this genre do hold this as a main  discourse. Most notably this can be seen in the Alien trilogy, where fear of castration is rife and dismemberment during birth exposes a severe violation of the body.  In essence the idea of social interaction and  death which ultimately combines with the fear inherent in infants that the one maternal figure which you depend on for survival is also the force capable of destroying you. This is most succinctly illustrated in the scene from Alien where we see the character Kane engulfed by the alien. An x-ray shows that this alien, whilst feeding on Kane, is also supplying him with oxygen, thus simultaneously keeping him alive. However, in the film Barbarella the female protagonist is attacked by children, and dolls with razor sharp teeth that bite and tear at her clothing and her body. In the still on page 16 we see the image of her genital area being attacked.  Could it not be said that in accordance to Freudian theory this woman is virtually being castrated, and in a film as fetishistic as this, could this castration not be for the benefit of the masochistic male audience? 

Creed argues that because Freud failed to acknowledge the castrating woman, feminist theory has also ignored it. (1994)  With Lacan's work most critics view women's representation in films as "lack and absence" (Creed 1994:152)  Thus a castrated woman gives a renewal of power to the symbolic order, whilst a castrating one would only serve to unbalance the status quo.  One of the  most important iconographic images that symbolises castration fear is that of the mother alien in Aliens (1986) illustrated on page 19.  This archaic monster  is terrifying to man because she is a castrator typical of the horror genre of vampires and psychopaths. All deaths, except Kane's in Alien, occur in dimly lit, organic womb like areas with all engulfing teeth bearing down upon the helpless victim.  It is the epitome of the creature that devours in order to regenerate life, new life through death. 

The more these critiques are considered, the further the deep connections between various psychoanalytical philosophies becomes apparent. Whilst the issue of woman as 'other' will be detailed in chapter three, it holds considerable connection to the phallic woman discussed here.   The  theory of masculinity states that the normal is universally deemed to be male, any deviation is against the status quo, thus in order to understand the gender differences, female has always been considered in relation to, and as subordinate to male.

 "At present in the dominant myth, the masculine ego is imagined as closing itself off completely, maintaining total defence. To be unified it must be masculine all the way through, and so the feminine will always appear as something other or different". (Easthope 1990:42)
In order not to be 'other' or 'different', women adopt the phallus to become an image of 'normality' which is essentially seen as 'masculinity'.  "The phallus is exhibited to men and woman as an  object of desire". (Easthope 1990:13) It can be suggested that a woman with phallus is less threatening than a castrating woman, as with a phallus she becomes more like a man, thus more in accordance with normality. "The phallic woman is created in response to the fetishists refusal to believe that woman does not possess a penis" (Creed 1994: 116)

Women are encouraged to conform to patriarchal  dominant ideology.  When they do not adhere to the expected conventions they are deemed 'alien', yet when they obtain the phallus they are labelled 'masculine''.

Within such an active genre, more contemporary female protagonists such as Ripley, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 (1991) or Rebecca from Tank Girl (1996) have been labelled as having a phallus in order for patriarchal order to accept these images as 'non-feminine'.    In Aliens the female marine Vasquez holds a  machine gun that is extended in front of her (see film still on page 19)  later Ripley loads herself with weapons  to combat the alien. In the final scene when she battles the alien mother, she does so within a   metal loading frame, thus she appears with armour and technical equipment usually given to 'the boys'. Indeed in the earlier moments of the film we see  the male paratroopers impressed that a 'woman' can  handle the machine. 

Further into the film the trapped marines face certain death until Ripley takes command  and rescues them by driving the armoured vehicle through the walls into the area. All these images comply with what Tasker states as 

".Cinematic images of women who  wield guns, and who take control of cars, computers and the other technologies that have symbolised both power and freedom within Hollywood's world, mobilise a symbolically transgressive iconography". (Tasker 1993:132) 
 In Tank Girl, the narrative may be more comical, but the visuals remain equally important. In one particular scene  the character Rebecca  straddles a canon  and says to the men, "Hello, now don't you feel inadequate?"  In an earlier scene she looks admiringly at the same canon and says "God. Look at the sheer size of it"

 Whilst this last image is a more direct reference to the penis, and specifically the  phallus, each incident mentioned connotes the issue of woman in a central action position and thus woman with power.   Yet the main problem with such Freudian theory is its limit to allow for individuality, and exceptions to the rule.  In response to the gun wielding Ripley in Aliens, Alien3 (1992) and Alien show her without a weapon,  fighting the alien aggression with female intelligence  In Terminator 2 Connor is seen  as aggressive, but only for survival, and only against an attacking (male) terminator.

James Kavanagh argues that this intensity of fear in Alien illustrated by the birth of the creature, from blooded mass to erect unfolding monster, is the reflection of a threatening psycho sexual  phallus. (Kuhn 1990)  Creed, however, questions the validity of the phallus, and how true it is to say that simply an embodiment of masculine traits are a sign of it. The castrating woman is one of the mythical vagina dentata, "which threatens to devour, to castrate via incorporation", (Creed 1994:157)  whilst the phallus, is a symbol of "violence, it doesn't threaten to castrate but rather to penetrate and spilt open, explode, tear apart" (1994:157) which in filmic examples can only genuinely be applied to aliens and to those protagonists who bear arms capable of ripping, tearing etc.

In Alien the creature is deemed to be male, simply through the reading of its voyeuristic intentions as it watches Ripley undressing.  Yet in Aliens the main creature is a 'queen' thus  female. "The alien/other has phallic characteristics, but is generally coded female, both in its reproductive functions, its fatale implacable beauty and its amoral survival instincts" (Graham 1994: 202)  Her attack on the android Bishop at the end of the film tears him in two,  and her chase after Ripley  and Newt is done by tearing her abdomen away from the laying procedure. Thus in Creed's own words of 'penetration', ripping' etc, it can be accredited that the only real phallic woman present at that time is an alien, until Ripley attains weaponry power at which point she becomes the embodiment of a woman gaining the only power, (masculine power) that is capable of completing the narrative.   In  psychoanalytic terms, the phallus is deemed desired by all, "Masculinity is that which has the phallus and desires the feminine. Femininity lacks the phallus and so desires to have it in so far as it is represented by the masculine" (Easthope 1990:121)  Thus it is possible to suggest that  every female  protagonist   who bears arms, or takes control, is a woman seeking the phallus .

The  examination of reproduction is at the heart of sci-fi films, and is  used  as either a premise for fantasy sexual connotations, as in Barbarella (see film still on page 16) or as an exposure of  infant male fears as in Alien.

Some would argue that these advanced (predominantly male) aliens (in Alien) had found a way to remove females from social order altogether, others that they are an incarnation of male anxieties - birth through death, or female anxieties of impregnation without consent. Whilst Newton, Kavanagh and Kuhn see the exploration of the ship as an exploration of the womb. (1990) 

Creed and the psychologist Dr Raj Persaud suggest that it is an exploration of the oesophagus and rib cage, totally distinguishable against the vaginal entrance. This line of argument stands if we consider that (according to Freud) infants a) do not recognise the presence of the vagina, and b) believe that babies are born from the stomach. As such the first birth through Kane, gnawing and ripping his way through the chest  surly reinforces infant beliefs. In reference to Alien Persaud says, 

"If you look at the opening scene, the camera explores the mother ship and you hear atonal sounds which replicate the sounds you would hear in the uterus, quite amorphous vague sounds..."  (Trower, Empire September 1994: 68) 
Thus from an early moment in the film the essence of maternalism is present, and whilst  critics  say that Ripley emerges 'accidentally' as the heroine, it could be suggested that the indulgence in feminine allegiance with sounds and images only works to reinforce a central female figure. 


If a woman is seen as castrated, she has been tamed and is no threat to masculinity, yet this Freudian theory can be successfully challenged by Creed, who suggests that the predominance in horror films of exploring a violent psychopathic women is a reflection of male fears that a woman is actually a castrator, thus more powerful than the male. This holds ground within contemporary sci-fi, and indeed in some earlier sci-fi, if we consider the amount of alien monsters that were deemed female, despite the popularisation by Stephen Neale that any asexual monsters were labelled male. (Cook 1993) The Cat Women, Wasp Woman, Attack of the 50ft Woman, are all illustrations of female aggressiveness.  However, in these 1950s and 60s films, the hero was male, and narratively it became his task to defeat the castrating woman, thus simultaneously castrating her, turning her into a recognisable form and relieving the anxieties that she can castrate again.   The importance of contemporary sci-fi films is its dependence upon visualising psychological  fears,   and insisting the audience relies upon a female protagonist to defeat a female castrator,   thus the male become obsolete in the narrative.   The issue of dominant ideology becomes   foremost within this narrative, as the female protagonist becomes tamed, not through male aggression, but through dominant interpretation.    If the male cannot control the situation,  ideology can control the narrative outcome.  Hence in sci-fi the audience can see essentially two types of woman; one that  is heroic and masculine, thus essentially a woman who is trying to become a man, and thus not a castrating threat to males, " a comforting phantasy of sexual sameness" (Creed 1994:158),  and the castrating woman who is a  "terrifying phantasy of sexual difference" (Creed 1994:158), who must be destroyed.

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