In horror and sci-fi films, female characters are too often the victim of the male gaze. Some might offer Ripley’s disrobing scene in Alien as a classic example. However, the mise-en-scene and cinematography of the scene disrupt the sexualizing possibility of the male gaze, and instead highlight the vulnerability of the human form.
The scene begins with Ripley, the sole human survivor from the now-destroyed Nostramo, entering a shuttle to begin her journey home. She thinks she has escaped the alien. She’s sweaty and undresses, peeling off layer upon layer of dull green and beige clothes – trying to distance herself from the horrors she just faced. The viewer sees her at her most vulnerable: in a tank top and ill-fitting underwear, both of which look dingy and yellowed. The mise-en-scene quite literally does not paint a pretty picture.
In the scene, the viewer gets a plethora of shots of Ripley’s body; some that seem more sexual than others, but no view is favored more than another. The emphasis is on Ripley’s humanity rather than her physical, feminine attributes. Likewise, there is nothing sensual about Ripley’s movements. She is simply preparing herself for the journey home. She thinks she is alone, so modesty is not necessary.
Lights flicker as Ripley bends down toward a control panel to prepare the shuttle for her journey to Earth – something is not right. As Ripley does this, she comes face-to-face with the alien that she just thought she escaped.
The viewer gets a close-up shot of Ripley’s bottom as she flees from the alien. However, the positioning of this shot weighs more on the uneasy side than sexualized. This shot is positioned from a canted, low-angle. The viewer’s suspicion that something is wrong is validated and this angle furthers such unease.
Instead the objectification of the female form found all too often in these genres, this scene offers a realistic portrayal of a woman shedding the horrific events that just happened to her, along with her clothes.
Consider an interview from 1984, in which Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) was asked about the infamous scene. She said:
[P]eople have said, ‘Aw, how could you demean yourself by doing a striptease?’ And I say, ‘Are you kidding? After five days of blood and guts, and fear, and sweat and urine, do you think Ripley wouldn’t take off her clothes?’ It never occurred to me for a second that people would think my strip exploitive. I think it’s kind of provocative – you’re almost seeing me through the Alien’s eyes. Suddenly I go from dark green animal to a pink and white animal.”
An “alien gaze,” rather than a male gaze is formed as the monster watches Ripley. Ripley may be close-to-naked in this scene, but it only is to highlight the vulnerability of the human form, increasing the viewer’s discomfort. The viewers are put into Ripley’s shoes – or rather her underwear. To the alien, all humans are prey, no matter their gender. Rather than being driven by sex like the male gaze, the alien gaze in Alien is just searching for some food. But luckily for Ripley, this food fights back.