Marshae Jones is her name. She was pregnant; she was shot in the stomach; her fetus died. She is, in the latest round of body horrors inflicted by anti-abortion patriarchal white supremacist politics in America, being held responsible for the loss of her pregnancy, for the bullet that she didn’t fire that pierced her body. (Jones is Black, but you could have guessed that already, couldn’t you? We know from hard experience that these policies are always enacted first on the bodies of Black women.)
“The investigation showed that the only true victim in this was the unborn baby,’’ police Lieutenant Danny Reid told reporters. “It was the mother of the child who initiated and continued the fight which resulted in the death of her own unborn baby.” The fetus was “dependent on its mother to try to keep it from harm, and she shouldn’t seek out unnecessary physical altercations,” he added.
Jones was arrested, charged with manslaughter; the person who shot her was released after a grand jury failed to indict her. The violation of Jones’s body has been disappeared from the conversation. The bullet entering her, tearing flesh and organs and causing no doubt immense pain is immaterial. Her body only matters as vessel for her fetus, and she is responsible for any damage done to her that might also hurt the thing she hosts. Her feelings are not mentioned; the articles do not quote her. Only the policeman gets to speak, and a spokesperson from the Yellowhammer Fund, which supports abortion access in Alabama.
“Today, Marshae Jones is being charged with manslaughter for being pregnant and getting shot while engaging in an altercation with a person who had a gun. Tomorrow, it will be another black woman, maybe for having a drink while pregnant. And after that, another, for not obtaining adequate prenatal care,” said that spokesperson, Amanda Reyes.
Jones’s story would be headline news anyway, but it came in the wake of Alabama’s passage of a full abortion ban in May. The law aims to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade and its new anti-abortion majority, cemented with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh after a set of hearings that felt to many of us like slow torture, when Christine Blasey Ford came forward and testified about her experience of violent sexual assault at the hands of Kavanaugh as his private school buddies laughed in the background. The hearings had the pacing of a horror movie — you know the rending is coming, but from where and what direction and how much hell will you sit through and why do you do this to yourself, anyway?
The Handmaid’s Tale is the pop culture reference du jour for America’s current political trend, dubbed by many “the War on Women.” I can’t bear the thought of watching the thing, though — in a world of patriarchal violence, I choose to find my catharsis elsewhere. Similarly, I didn’t watch the Kavanaugh hearings, though like everyone else I absorbed via osmosis and social media the general shell-shocked feeling among abuse and assault survivors (i.e. most women and not a few men you know), and the occasional moments of commendable fierceness from the protesters fighting back.
But when prompted to look at the Alien movies in this context, in the wake of these abortion bans and the creeping dismantling of rights to our bodily autonomy, that was something different. As an undergraduate studying film and literature I once heard a professor say that she thought Alien was the only truly feminist movie she’d ever seen. It is about a woman versus an ever-multiplying monster, the monstrous-feminine, in the words of theorist Barbara Creed. The horror of the Alien is internal as well as external; it creates a unique revulsion not because of special effects but because of our deep-seated animal fear of something inside. The alien is fetal-looking, with its bulbous forehead and coiling body, reminding us that its ultimate horror is that it can be inside us yet separate from us, moving, having agency, able to burst out when we aren’t ready, causing damage we can’t yet see but can feel.
The Alien films are messy and bloody and dirty and visceral; the horror is not jump scares or blood and gore but the horror of your own body and the many ways it can betray you. The Alien movies, in other words, are about the monstrous reproductive. Pregnancy.
They are about volition and about capitalism too, of course. They are about capitalism’s death drive, about how workers — everyone — are ultimately expendable in the face of the drive for profits. In the first film, “crew expendable” is the leveling force that makes the mechanics on the bottom decks and the crew on the upper deck all equally vulnerable to the predations of the Alien and to the impassivity of their bosses. They wrangle over “shares” of their cargo while the nameless Company writes off their lives in pursuit of the Alien, presumably for its capabilities as a bioweapon for a war we never see, a war we have to assume nevertheless exists somewhere. We only get shreds of the world beyond the ship, of its existing class and gender hierarchies, more of the gaps filled in by the second and third films, and filled in, too often, with cliché. The original script had seven characters written as unisex, yet as Ridley Scott made casting choices he circled in on a woman to be Ripley, choosing Sigourney Weaver for a performance that could never have been iconic in the same way if played by a man.
The second film adds colonialism to the mix: a space colony on the alien planet and the alien as native species fighting back (with considerably more luck than many humans had in the face of European colonization). It also adds entirely unnecessary hackish sexism and machismo from the Marines sent in to investigate the disappearance of all the space colonists. It’d be more clearly inspired by Joseph Conrad if the writing was better, but it’s not. And then the third film takes up the terrain of a prison planet full of “Double Y Chromosome” men who’ve created their own religious order that is thrown into chaos with the arrival of a woman. (And then, of course, the Alien. Yes, it’s a little on the nose.) And over and over again the villains of the films are not the Alien so much as the capitalists who in their own version of the planet-destroying consumption death drive want to preserve the Alien even at the risk of its out-of-control reproduction literally killing everyone in sight. The only sensible thing to do, as Ripley says in the much-memed line from Aliens, is to “Nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” But of course, no one listens to Ripley, even though she’s the only survivor of repeated fights with both the birth drive of the Alien and the death drive of capital.
That’s why they had to cast a woman; every woman knows bone-deep the experience of not being believed. Of it happening over and over even when you are so obviously the most experienced person in the room that all you can do is throw papers in the air and walk out. Of being blamed for whatever’s happened to you. “All of this bullshit that you think is so important, you can kiss all that goodbye,” Ripley says, and no one listens, and then they all get killed by fucking Aliens, because Ripley was, of course, right.
Watching Alien/s/3 in 2019 also evokes the slow horror of climate change and the utter inability to grapple with it, or worse, the blithe sentiment from some quarters that it is a thing that can be controlled. That Nature can simply be tamed, exploited, weaponized, extracted without blowback. Capitalism kind of deserves the Alien, frankly.
But the real subject of the films remains the body, the infestation, the cocoon, the turning of humanity into so much meat to be implanted into then destroyed. If horror movies are always about the line between body and meat, if abjection, as Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror, is about the reminder of what we “permanently thrust aside in order to live,” the first Alien movie is a classic of the genre because it came up with a totally new way to play on this border, this loss of self. Kristeva continues, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Alien disturbs because the pregnant person, the person who loses their self, effaced literally by the Facehugger then killed by violent chest-birth, is a man.
In Ireland before the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment — the one which gave the fetus the same rights as the gestator, the one which killed Savita Halappanavar and countless other people that were determined expendable by Catholic doctors and nurses because their fetuses must be saved — I went with canvassers in Donegal door-to-door and listened to them argue. The swing voters, naturally, were the most interesting. Committed Yes votes were quick, and easy, an exchange of solidarity and knowing smiles and sometimes righteous anger. Committed No voters — the anti-abortion activists — yelled things like “You should be ashamed of yourself!” and in one case came out to stalk around the neighborhood staring down the canvassers as they knocked doors and left literature.
But the swing voters, they weren’t tormented by the question of whether a fetus was a human baby or whether abortion was killing. Mostly, they seemed torn on whether to make abortion too easy. “They can just go to England,” one woman replied when the canvasser asked about the hard cases, rape or a fatal fetal abnormality. “Taking the boat” was an escape hatch for Ireland, for those who found themselves pregnant and those who wanted to enjoy the fantasy that abortions could be banned and moral probity upheld. At first it was illegal, then after Halappanavar’s death the right to leave the country in pursuit of an abortion was grudgingly granted. Those who opposed legalizing abortions knew they would happen anyway: they just worried that if abortion were easy, slutty behavior would have no natural brake. The key question around abortion is revealed: it is about women’s behavior.
It is a challenge for those of us who would write inclusively about abortion, who recognize that not only women gestate and give birth, to also acknowledge the fact that the people who oppose or even hem and haw about abortion do not think much about non-binary gender or even recognize transgender people’s right to exist. It is still for most of them a question of women and what women are allowed to do; that if women have the right to kill, they will use it willy-nilly whenever it suits them.
This is why it matters that the Alien movies revolve around no one listening to Ripley. The film might have been written originally with androgynous characters, and the Alien might not care about the gender of its gestators one bit — it has no intention of exiting through an existing orifice anyway. But it matters that the survivor, the fighter, the only one who manages to kill the Alien at the various stages of its life cycle, from full-grown to fetal to egg to monstrous mother and even the one implanted inside her own body, is a woman, just as it matters that the peak horror of the films is the Chestburster in the first film, and that it happens to a man. The Alien is “Kane’s son,” as Ash (the only one safe from infestation because he’s not biological at all) says.
It’s a cliché at this point to say “if men could get pregnant” (and it leaves aside the trans men who do) but it is also true that the people who write anti-abortion laws seem to know absolutely nothing about the process over which they try to rule. Senator Clyde Chambliss in Alabama, as the abortion ban moved through the state legislature, said,“I’m not trained medically, so I don’t know all the proper medical terminology and timelines and that sort of thing, but from what I’ve read, what I’ve been told, there’s some period of time before you can know that a woman is pregnant. […] It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that.”
But the real truth at the heart of all of this is that pregnancy is violent. As Sophie Lewis writes, “We do not really want to see the violent side of care, the violent side of gestation. We are deeply attached to these processes: they’ve all we’ve got. They are the strangely undervalued and at the same time morally sacralised ‘contribution’ of a disproportionately feminised and racialised humanity to the history of the world.” Normal human gestation — whatever “normal” is — is, in the words of biologist Suzanne Sadedin (quoted by Lewis) “a site of considerable, species-exceptional violence.” The human placenta, unlike other species, “digests” its way into arteries, “rampages” through tissues, and fights the gestator’s body for control every step of the way. In her book Full Surrogacy Now, Lewis also points out that because of the unique nature of human pregnancy, “the gestating body does not necessarily distinguish between an embryo containing some of its own DNA and an embryo containing none.” This, which she considers a “kind of beauty,” is what makes surrogate birth possible; but it also is perhaps a deep understanding that underlies the horror of Alien.
In understanding the violence and the separation between the fetus and the pregnant body containing it, we can circle back around to Marshae Jones and to the people that Clyde Chambliss wants to prosecute for having abortions. It is important to the authors of these bills that women cannot kill. If we accept the fetus as subject that can do violence to us, a kind of mildly gentler Chestburster, we must accept that we may do violence to it in return. We must accept this precisely to differentiate Marshae Jones from someone who has an abortion, and to defend in either case their right to act.
In “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe argues “that the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” Mbembe does not take up the question of abortion, of killing that which is inside the body, but, he argues that this power — to decide who will live and who will die — revolves around the idea of a state of exception. Who can kill? Those invested with state power. Who cannot? Anyone else, particularly a racialized — or gendered — Other. If sex is — as Mbembe, following Bataille, notes — always about a loss of boundaries, including the boundary between life and death (particularly when reproductive — “you will have touched death along the way,” Maggie Nelson writes of giving birth — but also even in orgasm, “the little death,” loss of oneself) it creates the possibility of that state of exception. Those swing voters in Ireland, debating not if but when abortion was permissible; rape, incest, fatal condition, life of the gestator? Would they trust women to know when it is time to kill without the state’s involvement?
In rendering a class of people — those who can become pregnant — without the right to choose bodily autonomy they are also rendered something other than human. This is the horror of Kane’s body with the Facehugger attached, the thing that is keeping him alive but doing who knows what else to him, the rendering of one’s body simply a host for a parasite rather than an active, working gestator making a decision to put their body on the line (for pregnancy always puts one’s body on the line). It is the violation of involuntary pregnancy that makes the Alien movies work, and what makes the turn of Alien3, where Ripley is both pregnant with the Alien and fully conscious of that fact, so chilling.
The Company wants her alive as host; she wants to kill the thing inside her and seeks help from the only person who she trusts to understand — the Black man who leads the prisoners. Yet he is the one who reminds her that she has the power to kill, that if she stays alive she can defeat the Alien because she is pregnant with it. She becomes both monstrous mother and the seeker of an abortion that she winds up giving herself in the final scene, her bloody hands around its neck as they fall.
In Alabama, Marshae Jones is denied the ability to make that choice; her body not her own, the violence done to her transformed instead into violence she is doing to another. The slippage should remind us, as does Ripley’s plunge, that what preventing people from ridding themselves of involuntary pregnancies will do is leave many with only Ripley’s option — end your own life to end this intolerable intrusion. In pretending to halt the death of the fetus, the abortion ban decides who is expendable.
I barely have space to touch on the idea of the border — between life and death, as Kristeva writes, but also the border between one’s own body and the fetus inside, and the bigger, broader borders of nations which are so present in today’s politics, in Trumplandia and elsewhere. Because the issue of the nation and the border is always also a question of reproduction; white nationalism is fundamentally obsessed with the natality of white women and the fertility — conceived as monstrous — of nonwhite women. Aliens makes this evident with the white colonists pitted against the colony of Aliens and the its introduction of the Alien Queen (then inside Ripley’s body in Alien3).
Colonies, Mbembe notes, “are inhabited by ‘savages.’[…] In the eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension.” They are those whom it is acceptable to kill (nuke it from orbit). In Alien3 the Alien invades not just a colony but a prison colony, its inhabitants pushed outside the border of society. As Ripley shouts in exasperation, noting that to the Company, her crew was expendable, the Marines were expendable, “What makes you think they’re going to care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass end of space?”
In all three of these films the people who Western fiction expects to be heroes die first; the captain, the Marines, the leaders. The last ones alive are the women, the child, the Black men. They survive by snatching back the right to kill that they’ve been denied. As does the Alien, surviving by turning its enemies’ bodies into hosts. The survivor and the monster she faces, both mothers who murder, who reject the right of the Company to draw borders around them or to dictate the terms of their rescue.
At the Women’s March after Trump’s election, long before Kavanaugh and the abortion ban wave, Lewis writes, Janelle Monae warned that those who “have birthed this nation… can unbirth it if we choose.” This is precisely what Clyde Chambliss and his compatriots fear. In the pursuit of the continuation of the nation, they make Marshae Jones and so many others expendable. She has no right to kill nor even a right to assert herself. Black women in the face of white supremacy have, as Mariame Kaba points out, “no selves to defend.” That loss of self is the root of all horror.
And so we return to Alien. To the beginning and the end of the film, where the ship’s passengers sleep in immaculate sleeping pods, watched over by a ship’s computer called Mother. Even the computer, we have learned, cannot be trusted — it locked Ripley out in order to convey instructions that “crew expendable,” yet Ripley has managed to destroy the Alien. She must now trust in the inanimate mother that she will be rescued, having done all she can. She is safe in the moment, but she is never safe from the world where she will remain expendable until the Alien queen implants itself in her, the moment that makes both the Alien and the capitalist unwilling to kill her, invested in her continued existence as holy vessel for the next generation.
Her only escape is to plunge into the fire, and even then she will be resurrected for yet another movie. The monster always returns, and therefore so must she.
The charges against Marshae Jones were dropped after a massive outcry. But the laws that enabled such charges remain on the books; the battle won, but the war (an awkward metaphor but the one we seem stuck with) ongoing. So must we continue to fight even after they seem to have won. What shape that fight will take we don’t yet know, but it will be messy, and our ability to win it will rest on our ability to embrace that mess and come out stronger on the other end.
This article originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #4: This Was Your Life!, published by Beehive Books, 2019.
- Robinson, Carol “Alabama woman loses unborn child after being shot, gets arrested; shooter goes free,” AL.com, June 27, 2019 https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2019/06/woman-indicted-in-shooting-death-of-her-unborn-child-charges-against-shooter-dismissed.html
- “Alabama passes bill banning abortion” BBC, May 15, 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-48275795
- Creed, Barbara, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1993.
- O’Bannon, Dan, Alien, early draft, from http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/alien_early.html; Valenquen, “Casting Ripley,” Strange Shapes, December 15, 2016 https://alienseries.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/casting-ripley/
- Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, 1982
- Specia, Megan, “How Savita Halappanavar’s Death Spurred Ireland’s Abortion Rights Campaign,” New York Times, May 27, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/world/europe/savita-halappanavar-ireland-abortion.html
- Cauterucci, Christina, “Ignorance is Blessed,” Slate.com, May 15, 2019 https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/05/alabama-abortion-law-republican-ignorance-female-reproduction.html
- Lewis, Sophie, “Gestators of All Genders Unite,” Versobooks.com, March 6, 2018, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3654-gestators-of-all-genders-unite; Lewis, Sophie, “Cyborg Uterine Geography,” Dialogues in Human Geography, Vol 8, Issue 3, 2018, pp. 303–304; Lewis, Sophie, Full Surrogacy Now, Verso, pp. 127–140
- Mbembe, Achille, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15(1) 11–40; Nelson, Maggie, The Argonauts, Graywolf Press, 2015
- Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now, 124; Kaba, Mariame, “No Selves to Defend,” No Selves to Defend, https://noselves2defend.wordpress.com/