Breaking Quarantine: Ripley and Reproductive Rights
Post by: Jessica with contribution from Kelly
This has been an idea that I have been ruminating about for the past few weeks and feel like there is something there to talk about. I know that the topics of the horrors of childbirth, the womb (both sterile and monstrous), male anxieties about reproduction, sex and abortion have been spoken about at length in regards to the Alien series. They are popular topics and with the sexual imagery seen throughout the series from the vagnial like Facehugger to the phallic Xenomorph, you can’t help but pick up on all these themes.
While these films emphasize the horrors of reproduction and the scientific involvement in creating life from the representation of the droid Ash and reproduction of the Xenomorph species throughout the series, I couldn’t help but also see the idea of reproductive rights. I could see them being completely disregarded in the Alien Universe and the horrific steps that have to be taken to keep from becoming impregnated by the Xenomorph/Company. This reminds me of the choices women have to make and do to their bodies to keep from becoming pregnant or what needs to be done to abort an unwanted pregnancy. How science has created both hormonally altering and intrusive instruments to prevent or eliminate pregnancy. Alien shows the horrors and trauma of childbirth but it also shows the struggle women have to face when it comes to contraceptive methods and what happens when they are compromised.
There are a few scenes in Alien that got me thinking about the struggles women face when it comes to our reproductive rights. The most prevalent in my mind is the “Breaking Quarantine” scene. In this scene, Kane has been attacked by the facehugger and has been brought back to the ship by Dallas and Lambert. They ask to be let into the main craft to get Kane to the medical bay, but Ripley refuses flatly. They do not know what is on Kane, or what they could be carrying on them after visiting an alien spacecraft, and the protocol is that they stay in quarantine for 24 hours. They argue with Ripley and tell her to disobey the protocol, yet she refuses again, for she, as a senior officer, must think about the rest of the crew and the safety of the ship. She is responsible and must act accordingly. However, her position is violated when Ash breaks the quarantine and lets them in. Also, remember, Ash disregarded Ripley’s message to him that the signal coming from the ship was a warning, not a distress call. After all her researching and adherence to protocol, her direct orders are disregarded and an unknown element is introduced to the environment. The ‘contraceptive’ barrier was not adhered to and thus the Nostromo become impregnated with something monstrous.
“Are you on the pill?” Is a common question women get asked when out in the dating world and sexually active. Women spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what form of contraceptive works for them, which in the end all tend to be invasive or physically altering in some kind of way. There are a variety of contraceptive options and each one comes with their own positives and negatives. Two of the most effective methods of birth control are the birth control pill and the Intrauterine Device (IUD). Choosing which one is right can be a very stressful process for a woman. While the pill is simple, it needs to be taken at the same time on a daily basis for it to be effective. As well, the pill has been known to cause weight gain, mood swings and depression for some. The other option is having a foreign object inserted into the uterus, the IUD. While this method allows for greater sexual freedom, to have the initial procedure done can be very uncomfortable and painful for women. I speak from my own experience. I hated how the pill impacted my mood and it worsened my depression. Seriously for one week out of the month everyone stayed clear of me so I decided to go another birth control route and try the IUD. I had known other’s who had it and said that to get it done was a minor uncomfortable procedure finished in 10 mins. I decided to get over my fears and try this method.
Welcome to three weeks of Jess’ Personal Hell. It was not an easy process - Pap test after Pap test, failed insertion tests, ultrasounds, taking cervical relaxers and a bunch of disappointment. Finally, after being sent to a special clinic with special tools, the procedure was done. My new method of birth control was in and while I was relieved, I was also mad. I was mad for myself and all women who have chosen not to have children or have more children. That in the age we live in these are just some of the methods we have to take to ensure our bodies are not violated by something unwanted. That daily there are women in the world having to alter their bodies to keep from having children or do not have the resources to even access any of these methods and so stressfully wait every month to breathe a sigh of relief when their cycle comes.
When I watched the “Breaking Quarantine” scene, I could not help but become affected by it. It made me think about the constant struggle women deal with to maintain agency over their bodies and protect themselves. From the moment a young woman has her first cycle, she is expected to immediately figure out what contraceptive method works right for her. While the founding of the pill was an amazing achievement and allowed for more sexual freedom and control for women, it added another burden: the expectation that a woman is solely responsible to ensure that she does not get pregnant. In the past, it was expected that men should have a condom with them. However, it has been proven time and time again, that expecting men to be prepared only leads to disaster, so now women keep condoms with them. Not only to practice sex safe but to ensure that they are not left with a 9-month parting gift. If the “quarantine” is broken, she will have to be the one to take on the burden to make things right. This is exactly what happened to Ripley, and she had to endure the emotional, mental, and physical impact to eliminate the alien threat.
What this leads to is a decision made by the crew to “abort” the Alien. The plan is to use fire to force the alien into an isolated area and open the hatch the send the Alien out into space. Unfortunately, on the Nostromo, the crew is unable to enact this plan as they are killed one by one by the Alien. It is only until Ripley is in the escape pod that she discovers the creature had snuck its way on with her. She enacts the same plan, and she is successful in aborting the Alien into the vacuum of space. However, not without leaving on Ripley some deeply emotional and mental trauma, which we see in later films in the series. This is similar to what the act of abortion can do to a woman. Not only does it take an extreme physical toll on the body, but many women also have to deal with the mental and emotional challenges that come with making that decision.
While I have had my experiences with birth control and a few pregnancy scares in my lifetime, I have not been in the position to have had an abortion. However, I have known women, who did not want or were not ready for children, who have been in that position. To speak to this experience, I have asked Kelly to share her own thoughts:
“Often in horror films, a woman's reproductive system is seen as the creator of darkness and inhuman creatures - it’s seen as monstrous (see my review on Xtro). These women, often, are forcefully impregnated with the evil spawn and have to endure the torturous gestation and birthing process. They also often die. The babies are either aliens, demon spawn, mutants and more. They are monstrous beings created through another monstrous being - a woman. However, rarely do we ever think about the women involved with these pregnancies; we don’t think about their emotions and thoughts. It isn’t as titillating. As someone who has become pregnant without the desire to breed, we can truly think of these babies as horrifying. We are not the monsters, they are. Women who don’t desire to have children are seen as Other - not maternal, wasting their womanhood and lives if they do not conceive. Their lives couldn’t possibly be as fulfilling if they don’t create life. Knowing there is an unwanted life growing inside of you makes you feel sick. It’s a foreign object, a parasite. The feeling that you would do anything to rid yourself of it is strong and women have harmed themselves greatly to abort a pregnancy. They have even died. It is incomprehensible unless it happens to you. The fear felt is indescribable and all you can think is “get this thing out!”
Having the thoughts of a human baby being a parasite brings upon another point - how absolutely monstrous of us to even have those thoughts! There is currently still a stigma surrounding abortion and women are still seen as terrible people because they have them. Despite us trying to remain control over our lives and have bodily autonomy, we constantly have to fight against being seen as monstrous. We fight as Ripley has always done, and she has gone through hell and back again. However, when we have to privilege and ability to choose, it’s hugely empowering. In Alien 3, we see Ripley end her own life as she refuses to have the alien removed from her body which would inevitably cause her death, and harm others. She takes this powerful leap of freedom, finally being able to take control of her life, even if it ends it. “
Alien is a fascinating and terrifying film. It covers a wide variety of themes that are continued to be discussed even 40 years after its initial release. This is because these topics are still relevant. Male anxieties about fear, isolation, greed, reproduction, the horrors of birth, rape, abortion, classism, sexism, repressed sexuality, and hopefully now reproductive rights. As a woman who has chosen not to have children, this topic is very important to me. I see that moment of Ripley’s decision on the quarantine as her moment of choosing a method of contraception to protect herself and the ship. Her methods were questioned and her decisions violated. And because of that, she takes on the responsibility to deal with the situation, despite it not being a fault of her own. She exemplifies the burden that all women must face in our daily lives when it comes to our reproductive rights and what we must do to ensure and protect those rights. What we have to do to protect ourselves.