Why Female Aliens are Always a Seductress
Space aliens have long been a fascination in entertainment. In movies, some of the greatest and most acclaimed works in cinema have involved contact with life forms beyond our solar system. While these species have fallen fairly rigidly on either side of a clearly defined line of good or bad, there is a pattern when it comes to giving the aliens a gender, or at least when they assume a gender we recognize.
It might be easier to begin this with a look at aliens in general. As noted in a previous article about what would happen if E.T. had been a Xenomorph, there are some common definitions of film aliens. Taking that one step further, when looking at movie creatures from outer space that are somewhat human in appearance, we tend to automatically think of them as male unless given obvious human female features. Think of the invaders in movies such as Signs, Predator, Fire in the Sky, The Arrival, and even little E.T. We think of them as male even though there is never any indication beyond our own gender-defining physical traits that is the case. These ‘male’ aliens are either attempting to destroy humankind by violence, infiltrate by disguise, or be friends (Other nasties, such as those in The Thing, The Faculty, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and more are beings that occupy human hosts and therefore rely on that to define their gender).
Now consider female aliens. We’ll start with the most famous and arguably best example, Sil, from the 1995 sci-fi horror film, Species. Portrayed as an adult by former fashion model Natasha Henstridge, Sil is actually a strand of alien DNA that scientists on Earth splice into human DNA, and based on instructions from the extra-terrestrial species who sent it, eventually produce a female. While lead scientist (Ben Kingsley) chose a female as the intended form because of the gender’s “docile and controllable traits”, Sil is anything but. Escaped from the laboratory, she is a terrifying predator that uses her body to seduce men to create offspring in order to repopulate the Earth with her own species. Unfortunately, that reproduction means killing the male.
This is a predominate characteristic of the Female Alien, that of a seductress (often preying on weak-willed men). The list of sexy female alien characters is long. Think of the three-breasted Martian (okay, a mutant rather than an alien per se) in Total Recall, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) who seduces Flash Gordon, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) the shapeshifting Kylothian in Men in Black II who takes the form of a lingerie model, Celeste (Kim Basinger) in My Stepmother was an Alien, The Female (Scarlett Johansson) in Under the Skin, The Borg Queen (Alice Krige) in Star Trek: First Contact, Martian Girl (Lisa Marie) in Mars Attacks, Marybeth Louise Hutchinson “the Alien Queen” (Laura Harris) in The Faculty, and Space Girl (Mathilda May) in Lifeforce to name but a very few. Not all are killers, but they share one thing in common. Sex.
Now sure, the trope has been flipped a few times, most notably with Johnny Depp in The Astronaut’s Wife, and there’s the bumbling male aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy, who come to our planet seeking sex with attractive women. Yet, for the most part, women as aliens are essentially, unsurprisingly, sexualized, their motivations more about individual seductions rather than outright conquering. Some of these films have garnered criticism, including Species, for portraying female sexuality negatively, violent, monstrous, and deadly, where the man must exterminate the woman to emerge as a hero.
The idea of aliens and sex is nothing new. A entire genre of film was created during the golden age of cinema when movie-goers watched monsters and aliens focus their attention on a particular woman, from King Kong to a host of atomic age movies where unconscious women were seen on posters draped in the arms of conquering beasts. The makers of Alien (1979) purposefully addressed this when designing their creatures, specifically the terrifying ‘facehugger‘, which literally raped the victim’s face, claiming it was payback for decades of violence, suggested or otherwise, against women in films¹. Women as seductresses is also nothing new, but the female, scantily-clad (or sometimes fully nude) alien predator in sci-fi is practically established law. But why?
The seductress archetype is millennia’s old, with appearances in the art and writing of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bible, Shakespeare and more. From the oldest known works to modern times, the femme fatale (literally: fatal woman) is one of the most persistent ideas surrounding women, seen in myriad examples throughout the ages. Enchanting, beautiful, empowered, manipulative, intelligent, and clever, the seductress is a survivor, luring men at will to meet her needs, whatever those might be. Most likely stemming from a time when the male-dominated authority to write produced all the written work, the female figure in fiction and history became a product of men fearful of the mysterious allure of women and their potential threat to man’s power. Portraying woman as they saw fit, the classic model of the woman as a temptress become a fixture in literature and theatre. This fear of women literally wooing a man to his weaknesses (and death) inspired the sirens, vampires, witches and succubi of many of the great masterworks in history. Women with strength, be it of mind or body, were evil. Naturally, that isn’t all bad though. This power can be seen as independence, self-empowerment, even a right.
Alien movies aren’t going to change. Sex sells. The image of a beautiful woman as a danger in this genre (and others) is firmly entrenched. The question is if filmmakers can challenge themselves to use it more creatively. Jonathan Glazer‘s Under the Skin, mentioned earlier, features a female alien seductress luring men to their deaths and yet feels very different from so many others. The creature, who literally wears the skin of a dead woman to be that woman, learns much about the species she and her other ‘invaders’ have ingratiated themselves among. While her fate is still stringently in line with the formula, there is much about the ending that shatters the precepts. It signals a dramatic shift in the role of female as alien seductress and even questions the morality of it. While that film may not have influence over the more marketable sexy females as alien killers in mainstream movies, it at least reveals how it can be done differently. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, while not technically an alien movie, also sees a female seductress in the form of artificial intelligence (alien in many ways) break the tropes even while playing into them. It’s time audiences demand more of these challenging films.