Some women identify with Ripley. Not me.
I’m with that baby-obsessed xenomorph all the way. The alien and I? We know what it’s like to worry about eggs.
Like sex in your twenties, deep space demands prophylactic measures: space suits, quarantine procedures, air locks. And different forms of protection can be more and less effective. Kane’s helmet turns out not to be much better than the pull-out method. He’s quickly penetrated and implanted, giving rise to the first film’s famous chest-busting sequence.
But this first, very scary pregnancy — so quickly carried to term — doesn’t characterize the franchise as a whole. Much of the Alien series traces the difficulty of making life, even if the movies aren’t always sympathetic to the act.
Because my years of peak fertility coincide with my career-building years, I know what it’s like to try to give forth life in a foreign landscape. I will spend my twenties pursuing an academic career with the energy and arrogance of someone whose faith in her body is absolute, certain that children will be available to me when I want them.
When I move from the lush east coast to Nevada’s high desert in my thirties, I learn that though the Great Basin is not barren, I might be.
This information brings me up short. I was never child-obsessed, but I assumed I would have babies, and the possibility that my husband and I might not makes the future suddenly strange. If this identity isn’t available to me, who will I be? The thought produces its own science fictional imagining as I spin out possible futures that would bring different kinds of meaning to our lives should there be no children.
Maybe we will go to San Francisco more, is one lame thought.
When I learn about my infertility, I also discover my PCOS diagnosis is something of a black box, not so much a disease as a cluster of symptoms.
I have “skinny PCOS,” which is an infertility humble-brag. While I don’t have the hirsutism, BMI, or acne of typical PCOS, I do share a similarly rocky ovarian landscape. The hormonal disorder is characterized high androgen levels, irregular or absent periods, and cysts on the ovaries. And the symptoms include a fun grab bag of physical and psychological symptoms including propensity for liver inflammation, uterine cancer, diabetes, anxiety and depression. And infertility. Those cysts are a bad problem for releasing the eggs necessary for making a baby.
Research for diseases primarily affecting women has always been underfunded. The year I begin trying for a second child, NIH lists funding for 2018 infertility research at $124 million. Following the spending chart down the alphabet to Inflammatory Bowel Disease shows $136 million in spending. While PCOS affects nearly twice as many people as IBD — approximately 5 million women — the painful digestive condition receives 45 million dollars more in funding.
And PCOS is only one of the many fertility disorders covered by the smaller dollar amount.
PCOS treatments range from contradictory to pharmaceutical (but inexplicable) to the utterly nonsensical. In my efforts to conceive I try a scammy fertility self-help group with lots of coaching tie-ins, progesterone cream, weight gain, vitamin D, relaxing more, reducing “masculine” exercise habits, diabetes drugs, and eating avocados.
Given that we’re apparently just speculating on cures, why not turn to science fiction to process a failing body?
One answer is that if it feels embarrassing to write about pregnancy, it’s even worse to write about it through the Alien movies. They are both clichés. Who really wants to read another birth story? And essays about Alien seem equally embarrassing. Writing motherhood and writing Alien are well-worn rites of passage, I fear. (It’s not unlike the baby or bridal shower, where suddenly a role clicks into place, and one finds herself holding up a gift of nipple cream for all to see.)
The story of motherhood is one we think we know all about. As Lili Loofborouw describes the “male glance,” when it comes to narratives by and about women we tend to diagnose, identify, and then move on.
Sarah Blackwood recognizes the same problem in the critical reception of books about motherhood, which tend to ignore differences in style and form. In her essay, “Is Motherhood a Genre?”, she argues that when we treat “motherhood as a discrete subject, we underline the extent to which people are allowed to opt out of knowing or caring about it.”
Writing as and about women is a bit like having a woman’s medical problem. When I ask the fertility doctor — a man in his 40s who has wooden letters spelling out the word “football” on his bookshelf, not a specific team, just “football” — about not having typical PCOS, he’s quick to reassure me that cysts make me a fit and hands me off to the nurse.
Women’s birth stuff is so obvious, it seems, that we can’t spend the time discussing it.
And maybe the Alien films aren’t a great way in. After all, they are so on the surface about birth and pregnancy that using the facehuggers and chestbusters to process one’s own experience of bodily invasion and the violence of birth can seem like belaboring the point.
One element difficult to believe is Ripley’s remarkable incuriosity about the aliens. Agreeing to go back into cold space in Aliens, Ripley asks, “You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study, not to bring back, but to wipe them out.” Burke gives his word, lying. But why is it so wild to do xenomorphic research? Why not know something about how reproduction works, even the freaky kind?
In Alien, we see the 130 eggs around the 32-minute mark. This seems like a lot of potential babies. But compared to humans, it’s nothing really. We’re born with literally millions of them, but that’s not how many chances we get. By the time we hit puberty, we’re down to 300,000, and we will only release around 300 or so to be fertilized, and that’s provided everything’s humming along nicely.
Delving into the film reveals gruesome facts. Director Ridley Scott says “the mechanism used to make the alien eggs open was so strong it could tear off a hand.” I don’t know how anyone measured this, but I believe it. The world of reproduction is full of fucked up details. Horrifyingly, after I get pregnant, my OB tells me about a process called external gut herniation during which the fetus’s gut is expelled from its body, rotates, and then gets pulled back in once the body is large enough to accommodate it.
This horror show is a normal part of a healthy pregnancy.
The films are also haunted by animal death. On one viewing, I watch with the behind-the-scenes feature turned on and learn that the insides of the eggs were created with cattle hearts and stomachs. Facehuggers are built from sheep intestine and the dead one removed from Kane’s face is made of shellfish, including oysters, and a sheep kidney.
Mise-en-scene by way of some mad, pervert gourmand. Even outside the frame of the story, the film registers the cost of making new life.
But the second film shows a different horror. In Aliens, Ripley graduates from caring for a cat to caring for a child, a connection emphasized by her similarly gentle cradling of feline Jonesy and human Newt. In Aliens, too, we see the source of all the human voyagers’ misery for the first time — the alien queen. It’s in the sequel, then, that the franchise becomes a barren person’s story.
If Alien shows a superabundance of eggs and displays the spectacular penetrability of all bodies, Aliens reminds us that making life is a struggle, a battle to be waged.
The film establishes so many chances at life: the multiplicity of sleep chambers opening to show strong, beautiful young bodies coming awake, the rows of leathery eggs, the many colonists sent to settle Exomoon LV-426. But as the minutes tick away, facehuggers explode in bullet fire, argonauts self-detonate, and the 167 colonists pare down to one who won’t survive the franchise into the sequel.
The film’s sensibility is that of an infertile person’s, ever tracking the dwindling possibility of life.
Sometimes lost prospects are as much a matter of financing as biology. Ripley is disgusted by Burke’s attempt to smuggle aliens back in vivo. But baby-faced Paul Reiser is not wrong that making life is a value proposition. Anyone who has wended her way through the reproductive industrial complex knows life has a price.
Unlike the regular OBGYN, the fertility specialist has a nice office. In the United States, only comparatively rich women have their plumbing worked on in this way. A single IVF cycle, for example, costs anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000. My significantly cheaper entry model of Chlomid, hormone patch, trigger shot therapy, and hormone suppositories, plus two office visits a month, ends up being somewhere just under $1000 each try. When you are paying the big bucks, they give you herbal tea and Milano cookies in the lobby.
Neither my husband or I are rich women, so the first time through the process we take money from my parents who are eager for babies. The second time we just rack up airline miles.
At a certain point, you will learn your price tag — how much is a new life worth to you? On one visit, I am invited to a clinic open house where gift certificates for treatment are raffled as door prizes.
With eggs that must find hosts to incubate, the queen has an elaborate ritual not unlike the science-experiment reproduction that marks we the infertile. When I have to travel for work, I have a conversation with the nurse about needing to suspend the “try” because we’re doing it “the natural way.” This is a laugh because, for us, the natural way includes at least four different prescriptions — two kinds of pills, one injection, and one patch — but I take her point.
At Aliens’ climax Ripley not only burns the queen’s eggs, but shoots her in the ovipositor, which seems like adding insult to injury, frankly. Part of what horrifies Ripley seems to be the massive potential of the queen’s ovarian system, the many possible eggs that could be hatched.
If I were the xenomorphic queen, I’d tell Ripley to relax — it’s not that easy. Then again, people with grenade launchers are rarely the listening kind.
Eventually, my husband and I will succeed. Once in May of 2015 and again in May of 2018. And, amazingly, our marriage survives my brutal mood swings, the high hopes and low disappointments that marks the silent car rides to and from the clinic, my complaint of the grievous unfairness that I am the one going through this when he wants children more. And I share the fury of the alien queen who is just trying to have a baby, goddammit.
But even when we emerge victorious from these periods of hormonal rages, self-administered trigger shots, and credit card bills, life remains fragile. Ensuring survival past implantation takes work. The facehugger pumps oxygen into its hosts body, nurturing it until the creature becomes viable.
I take the diabetes drug Metformin and go on a regimen of progesterone suppositories. They’re a little messy, the nurse warns. Early pregnancy with PCOS ends up being not just precarious, but abject. The nurse warns not to put the suppositories in “before love.” I think she’s gotta be kidding.
Reading about PCOS means encountering the casual cruelty of neutral scientific description; while learning that while “normal women” miscarry at a rate of 10 to 15%, “ PCOS women” miscarry at a rate of 30 to 50%. The term for this loss is “spontaneous miscarriage” which makes it sound more fun than it is, like a surprise party or an unexpected package.
Though I will destroy no industrial spacecraft to make life, the reproductive process is a costly one and I leave carnage behind. Riding Chlomid’s wave one bad night, I snap at my husband and firstborn child. He sweeps her from my arms, Ripley carrying Newt through the queen’s lair.
Our family of four won’t remember it, but I know what it’s like to be that kind of monster.