With Scarlett Johansson’s new sci-fi movie “Under the Skin” getting interesting reviews as of this writing, it seems there’s half-a-dozen different interpretations about what her female alien character represents. Some think that it’s a new role reversal in the cinematic female alien character that was long overdue after years of female aliens being more than a bit too capitulatory. Others think that it’s more ambiguous and her character is merely going by instinct while attempting to understand the male species.
However you choose to look at “Under the Skin”, it’s set off an interesting new path for the female alien in the movies. It also set off an interesting experimental passageway in improvisation since many of the scenes involved real people interacting with Johansson’s alien character. In that regard, it seemed to broach more open and honest conversations in a movie about gender understanding than any scriptwriter could have managed.
Has there ever been a female alien quite like Johansson’s nameless character? Most of the ones of the past seem painfully archaic now in comparison, and it could lead to more female alien movies that show more intelligence and independence.
How Did the Female Alien Start in the Movies?
Every female alien since the movie trope was invented has been made to look sexy with full intention of attracting a male demographic. In the 1950s already, the first female aliens on the big screen were made to look exotic and attractive, no matter if the male characters regretted that attraction later. And then there’s that strange preoccupation with female aliens with a skin color that represented one of the primary colors. While perhaps a sly nod to racism at the time, you have to wonder what both female and males thought of the green-skinned female alien becoming some kind of fantasy.
Even if TV’s “Star Trek” used their green-skinned female alien as a metaphor in not being blind to the color of one’s skin, it also created a fantasy for Captain Kirk that set the pattern for all the female alien movies for the next 30 to 40 years.
Female Aliens That Were Far From Ambiguous
Rather than take the idea that perhaps aliens are genderless, the movies had to make it clear that there was a definite female species that would eventually have a roll in the hay with the male lead of the film. With later movies and TV exploring the possible consequences of offspring after this happens, earlier movies never bothered with those situations in place of some kind of video game fantasy.
Some interesting twists finally emerged in 1990s after years of actresses having to pander to the usual alien stereotypes. “Alien: Resurrection” took the idea of having Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) resurrected as a half-human half-alien clone. Known as Ripley 8, she was one of the more interesting female alien characters based solely on the conflict of two different species in her blood. Only the Alien Queen herself managed to be the rare female alien that didn’t have to be an actress pandering to looking smoldering in order to get what she wanted.
“Avatar” finally brought a female alien that was more independent and not out to do some form of evil. Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) was a female alien to root for while showing mental and physical fortitude in fighting back against a more powerful force. While female aliens were looking more human in movies by the time “Avatar” released, “Avatar” brought back the alien with the colored skin as yet another “Trek”-like stance on race.
But where will “Under the Skin” take the female alien now with the idea that they may just be genderless?
A Female Alien Trying to Understand Both Genders
“Under the Skin” is unique because Johansson’s alien isn’t really female, giving those conversations between her and the random men an interesting twist. Can other movies manage to go this route to escape the old female alien stereotype that debases the potential for stronger female characters? Having a more ambiguous character also helps bring a more interesting examination of the dynamic between male and female characters, especially if the male finds out the truth.
We’ll have to see if Hollywood takes more of this on as cinematic sci-fi female characters with interesting new twists slowly start to manifest after years of being mired in simplified fantasy.