"It has mommy issues. And sex issues. It has a thing for strong women (who it also likes to ogle in their undies). It’s a hot mess -- a Freudian fever dream, with its crabby and post-coital atmosphere, its rebirthing imagery, its queasily gynecological production design, its night-sweat of male anxiety. A 'particularly horrifying confusion of the sexual-gyneacological with the gastro-intestinal,' wrote James Kavenagh ('Son of a Bitch: Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien') of the famous John Hurt birth scene, in which 'a razor toothed phallic monster gnaws its way through his stomach into the light -- a kind of science fiction phallus dentatus.' Is Scott’s alien a boy or a girl? A 'phallus dentatus' one minute, Kavenagh endows it with 'vaginal teeth' a few pages later."
It's an interesting question to explore -- and one that definitely crossed my mind during the hours of research for that "Alien" franchise reading list. Certainly some of the fascination is due to "Alien"'s popularity and impact -- and the fact that it's the rare mass entertainment made with intelligence, craft, and understatement. Still, that doesn't completely explain the glut of academic essays on the subject, or why a lot of them, as Shone notes, are completely contradictory: the alien is a penis metaphor to one critic, a vagina metaphor to another; Ripley is a feminist critique of action movies to one scholar, an objectified object of misogynistic urges to another. How can they both be right?
They can, in a sense, if Scott is correct. When he says the movie has absolutely no message, what he really means it has every message. Scott's no dummy. He didn't make the movie message-less, he simply didn't let thematic coherence get in the way of a really good visual. And he clearly embraced the idea of contradictory imagery, which not only disorients and unsettles the viewer (what's creepier than a creature that looks like both male and female genitalia?) but leaves things open for multiple interpretations. On, obviously, an enormous scale.
Read more of "Woman: The Other Alien in 'Alien.'"