Andy is a film scholar and obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analyzing the music biopic genre.
The cultural attitude towards gender has often been a contested hot topic within our society. Especially today with a more liberal zeitgeist applying less stigma towards ideas of trans, fluid, and non-binary genders. Although this progressive perspective is only just becoming more widespread, it is interesting to find early representations of subversive genders within mainstream media that is over 30 years old. The 1980s, in particular, was an interesting decade in terms of gender politics in Hollywood cinema. The dominant on-screen image consisted of hyper-masculine figures often portrayed by the hard-bodied muscular male stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. This dominant image essentially acted as a backlash to second-wave feminism castrating outdated masculine ideals. As well as this dominant image, changes in the representation of the female on-screen were also apparent as women became more "active" in cinema. The iconoclastic heroine that embodied this being Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) of the Alien franchise. On the whole, the franchise provides a goldmine of progressive feminist values as well as being pinnacle mainstream Hollywood films. However, this article will pay a particular analytical focus towards arguably the most progressive film in terms of gender ideology, Aliens.
Aliens provides two interesting and different representations of a more active female on-screen. Although Ripley is extremely important within the subversion of femininity on-screen, more attention has to paid to the other strong female presence within the film, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). She is the constructed gender image of the ‘in-between’, the ‘designer dyke’: essentially a hyper-masculine female. The physical representation of Vasquez is an extreme subversion of the passive 'to-be-looked-at' female of classical Hollywood, as with her jarhead haircut and rippling physique she is represented in a similar fashion to the hyper-masculine male stars of the 1980s. The first image the spectator sees of Vasquez is a mid-shot of her performing pull-ups. Just like the Schwarzenegger's and Stallone’s of the era, the muscular body dominates the focus of the shot. Her costume is arguably also similar to the image of the hyper-masculine male, as her red bandana could be read as a homage to John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) of First Blood.
Judith Halberstaim labels the character Vasquez as one of Hollywood’s ‘fantasy butches’. Halberstaim observes that; ‘Vasquez displays her butch iconicity in this film through an elaborate ritual of physical prowess, smart talk, and her ability to handle firearms.’ Interestingly, Halberstaim’s final point of firearms connoting masculinity is exaggerated within the representation of Vasquez. Without putting it crudely, Vasquez has the biggest gun of the bunch. A clear symbolic order of phallic symbolism is portrayed with the use of the outrageously huge prop of the "smart gun", as it represents the female Vasquez even more masculine than a battalion of hyper-masculine army “grunts”.
Furthermore, Vasquez’ positioning in terms of the symbolic order is similar to that of the active male voyuer. Laura Mulvey observes that: ‘[a]ctive and passive roles in film narrative are divided along sex lines.’ One example in which Vaquez is positioned among the active males is that she provides a subjective male gaze for the male viewer. The camera brushes up against her point of view as Ripley is wandering around the cabin in her underwear. She gazes at Ripley in a sexual manner as she reacts to the image by commenting “que bonita”, meaning “how beautiful”. One of Mulvey’s key theories is that classical Hollywood cinema is aimed at a presumed male spectator, who identifies with a male character's gaze. In this example for the male spectator to gratify with the gaze, they must identify with the gaze of a female character. Therefore the positioning, in this case, provides a subversion to the classical gaze, not a male heterosexual gaze, but in fact a lesbian gaze.
Although Vasquez is mostly represented in positive aspects by being the subverted active female, her “butch” identity does undergo some mockery by one of her fellow male soldiers. Hudson (Bill Paxton) mocks Vasquez by questioning her gender with the infamous remark; “has anyone ever mistaken you for a man”. Although Vaquez is essentially "one of the boys", her “butch” identity is still considered as “Other” amongst the male-dominated group of soldiers. This is due to the lesbian threat towards masculinity, and Vasquez’s goal to be powerful through her adopted machismo. The spectacle of her muscled arms and shoulders rather than her cleavage establishes her as the lesbian Other within the male gaze. According to Barbara Creed;
One does not need a specific kind of body to become-or to be seen as a lesbian. All female bodies represent the threat or potential- depending on how you see it- of lesbianism. Within homophobic cultural practices, the lesbian body is constructed as monstrous in relation to male fantasies.
Due to the fact that Vasquez is a powerful active female figure on-screen, and a large threat to the male gaze, she is inevitably punished. The antagonists of the films, the Xenomorphs, are represented as an anthropomorphic extreme of masculine identity. Not only are they terrifying, the aliens are tremendously strong, extremely volatile, and have phallic like statures; particularly with their long heads with penetrating tongues. Vasquez is caught within a fight and power struggle with this hyper-masculine figure and essentially ends up losing. Judith Halberstaim notes that; ‘[n]either pull-ups nor a moment of butch bonding with a male marine can pull her from the jaws of death, and this butch meets a gory untimely end.’
Creed, Barbara, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993)
Halberstaim, Judith, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998)
Mulvey, Laura (1978) ‘Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde’, in O’Pray, M.(ed) The British Avant-Garde Film, 1926-1995 (London: University of Luton Press, 1996)
© 2019 Andy Sciambarella