Monday, May 14, 2012

Primeval Mothers and Ripley, the Archetypal Mother Figures


A former colleague confessed on Facebook that a small bird harassed her after a hideous storm, forcing her to flee and duck inside her back door. The bird’s nest had been blown out of a nearby, broken tree so the bird redefined its territory from a branch to my friend’s entire backyard, expanding its maternal instincts accordingly and transforming a small bird into an avenging, protective Fury with feathers.

A convicted animal advocate, my friend found the nest and returned it to the tree, safe from many predators, including the two-legged kind. Mama-bird relaxed and ceased flying directly at my friend or her Pitbull, the backyard a pastoral haven once again.

My friend’s experience with that small bird is, on a much smaller scale, a testament to mothers, one told through the science fiction films Alien and its first sequel, Aliens. Both focus upon a single woman, who is nevertheless a Mother figure, fighting for her family, be they the crew aboard the deep-space mining ship, Nostromo, or a small, motherless child alone on a desolate planet, the sole survivor after hideous monsters destroy every other human and turn them into breeding grounds for more aliens.

The films develop suspense well, in part by manipulating eerie, hostile environments, shadowy realms where dust and dark confuse the humans and lead them to judge their situations poorly. They endure for a time, trapped inside cumbersome space suits or metallic, man-made dwellings that they cannot escape without extensive forethought. The life outside will not support them; they need oxygen delivered through tubes and air ducts while the aliens move easily inside and out without any other support or planning. The monstrous creatures even move through the life-giving air ducts with stealth and intelligence, undetected until they rise, two sets of razor-sharp teeth unleashed to destroy mere mortals.

Not only are the aliens perfect, killing machines, they are remorseless, driven by instinct alone, to thrive, even adapting to use the gut of man as a breeding ground, and like that tiny bird, they attack anything that approaches their nurseries, adhering to a cold code, a biological imperative to protect the next generations even if they must die for their queen and her young.

What Ripley learns through the course of two movies is that she has the right stuff to fight for her own next generation. She sees what others miss, the first to realize the signal from desolate places is not an SOS, but a warning to stay away. She refuses to let her judgment lapse and disregard the quarantine protocol because her first priority is to protect her home and family, in this case, the ship and its crew. When Ash ignores the quarantine protocol and admits the alien attached to her crew mate, Ripley pursues her suspicion about his motives until she learns the horrible truth: the android, Ash, has orders to protect the alien at all costs, even at the expense of the human race. Armed with this knowledge, Ripley begins a journey to destroy the alien and preserve the human race in spite of being overmatched by an android’s strength and the alien’s biological imperative to survive at all costs.

In the sequel, Aliens, Ripley returns to fight for much more than her ship and crew; she fights for a little girl, Newt, becoming the classic, archetypal mother, fiercely protective of her young just as the Alien Queen is. Ripley dares the elements, including fire, trusts few, and pushes her physical strength to its limits and beyond. She is the consummate Mother-figure, fighting to the death, if required, for the next generation.

In nature, the octopus is a paradigm for the archetypal mother. After mating, losing her mate, and laying eggs, the octopus-mother guards her young, never leaving to feed or meet its own needs. It follows a biological imperative to die for its young just as that little bird risked everything to push a human away from her young in the nest and just as Ripley takes up the cause against creatures better suited for survival in space than she is. The octopus, birds, and Ripleys value the next generation more than their own.

Whatever you may think of the Time magazine cover and article about Attachment Parenting or about Tiger Moms, you must surely recognize in them something primeval: an urge to protect and empower the next generation. You understand that these extreme models resemble the archetypal models: mothers who give their all, even their own lives, if necessary, so that their young may thrive.